Samuel Ibn Tibbon (c.1150 - d.)

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About Samuel Ibn Tibbon

Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon was the son of Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon, “the father of translators,” who emigrated to Provence from Granada. Samuel was born in Lunel around 1160 and was educated in accordance with the curriculum in Islamic Spain—Hebrew, the Bible and rabbinic literature, Arabic, philosophy, and medicine—and rounded out his studies with the literary arts. He traveled during his lifetime, not only within Provence (Arles, Béziers, Marseilles), but also to Iberia (Toledo and Barcelona) and Egypt (Alexandria), searching for manuscripts of the works that he translated or consulted. Samuel was followed in the profession of translation by his son Moses ibn Tibbon and his disciple and son-in-law Jacob Anatoli. He moved to Marseilles around 1211 and died there in 1232.

1. Translations

Above all, Samuel ibn Tibbon is known for his translation, in 1204, of Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed(Ar. Dalālat al-Ḥāʾirīn; Heb. More Nevukhim), which he did at the request of some scholars in Lunel. In 1213 he prepared a new, revised edition to which he added a glossary, Perush ha-Millot ha-Zarot (Explanation of Strange Terms), which emphasized the difficulty of philosophical language (ed. Y. Even-Shemuel, 1987). Considering the effect of the Guide in the Jewish world, it is not surprising that the translator was held in high regard. It was doubtless the most influential text of medieval Jewish philosophy, generating passionate currents pro and con. Samuel also contributed to the process of creating a Hebrew philosophical language, begun by his father, that made it possible to construct a library of philosophical works in Hebrew. While working on his translation of the Guide, Ibn Tibbon wrote a letter to Maimonides regarding some questions that the text posed. His letter has not been preserved, but we have Maimonides’s answer, which was written in Arabic and translated by Ibn Tibbon into Hebrew (I. Sonne, in Tarbiṣ 10, 1939, 135–154, 309–332). It is an important document in many respects, especially because its recommendation of certain authors and works defined the reading list of the medieval Jewish philosophers and translators who came after Maimonides.

Ibn Tibbon’s translation of the Guide was the object of severe criticism, most notably by Judah al-Ḥarīzī, who in his own translation of the work provided, instead of Ibn Tibbon’s “Arabicized” Hebrew, a text that was more faithful to Biblical Hebrew. Between a Hebrew that could be understood and an elegant and correct Hebrew, it was Samuel ibn Tibbon’s pragmatism that finally won out, and his translation became the one preferred by Jewish readers. Christians, who had a Latin translation based on Judah al Ḥarizi’s translation, thought differently. Samuel’s esteem for Maimonides is reflected in the fact that he also translated his Commentary on the Mishna Avot (ed. M. Rabinowitz, 1961), along with the Eight Chapters (ed. with Eng. trans. J. Gorfinkle, 1912), the Epistle on Resurrection (ed. J. Finkel, 1939), the “Letter on Translation” mentioned above, and the Epistle to Yemen (ed. A. Halkin, English trans. B. Cohen, 1952).

Samuel ibn Tibbon also translated scientific works written by non-Jewish authors. In the field of medicine he translated ʿAlī ibn Riḍwān’s commentary on Galen’s Ars Parva (Heb. Perush Melakha Qeṭanna), Aristotle’s Meteorology (in 1210, ed. and trans. R. Fontaine, 1995) and Averroes’s Three Treatises on Conjunction (two by Averroes and one by Averroes’s son ʿAbd Allāh, ed. and trans. J. Hercz, 1869). The last work appeared along with Samuel’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. His translation was the first Hebrew version of a work by Averroes and served as a basis for the Latin translation (De animae beatitudine). Since these translations circulated independently among Jewish thinkers like Levi ben Gershon, Samuel ibn Tibbon can be credited with introducing Aristotelianism into the European Jewish communities.

In addition to these translations, other writings were incorporated mainly into Samuel ibn Tibbon’s glossary, such as the works of al-Fārābī, al-Briṭūjī, and Avicenna, which dealt with logic, astronomy, and meteorology. Ibn Tibbon faced a difficult task in translating these texts. He produced very literal and strongly Arabicized renderings. In order to establish a reliable edition, he consulted several manuscripts as well as commentaries on the works he translated, as indicated in the prologue to his translation of Aristotle’s Meteorology. He also consulted Arabic dictionaries and earlier translations, such as those of his father, in order to construct a scientific terminology on the base of what already existed. For the Bible, he used Saʿadya Gaon’s translation.

Samuel defended literal translation against the critics of his method. However, his literalness and the novelty of a philosophical lexicon in Hebrew made the texts difficult to understand. For this reason he added the Perush Millot ha-Zarot, the first great philosophical glossary in Hebrew, which went further in explaining “strange” terms from the Guide and circulated as an independent work.

2. Philosophical Exegesis

Samuel ibn Tibbon’s contribution as a translator has traditionally overshadowed his importance as a creator. Today, it is thought that he began a school of philosophical exegesis in Provence that was continued by several Provençal and Italian authors. Ibn Tibbon’s originality with respect to the exegesis of European Jewry rested on his philosophical interpretation of biblical passages, following Maimonides’s method. His two main works were his Commentary on Ecclesiastes and a text entitled Maʾamar Yiqqavu ha-Mayim, which owes its title to Genesis 1:9 (“let the waters be gathered”). He also intended to write commentaries on Proverbs and Genesis, but these were never completed.

The Commentary on Ecclesiastes (ed. and trans. James Robinson, Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2000) is a quite long work which includes a preface and a verse-by-verse commentary. Samuel includes discussions of a philosophical and scientific nature on topics related to logic, astronomy, meteorology, generation and corruption, celestial influence on the sublunar world, and the soul and its faculties. The purpose of the work is to refute arguments against immortality.

The Maʾamar Yiqqavu ha-Mayim (ed. M. Bisliches, 1837) discusses a question belonging to the field of physics: Earth is heavier than water and therefore must be completely submerged in it; however, we can see that many parts of the earth emerge from the water. The work consists of a series of sections in which biblical passages are analyzed from a philosophical standpoint.

The prologues that Samuel ibn Tibbon wrote for his translations can also be considered original works, as, for example, the preface to the translation of Maimonides’s Commentary on Avot, where Ibn Tibbon interprets Jeremiah 9:22–23 very differently from Maimonides in the Guide 3:54. His letters to Maimonides and a short treatise entitled Reason for the Table and Shewbread, a brief work on the sacrificial ritual that starts off from a statement in the Guide 3:45, can also be considered original works.

Samuel ibn Tibbon's translations and exegetical works are among the earliest sources for the transmission of Greco-Arab science and philosophy into Europe north of the Pyrenees and contributed definitively to the cultural flowering of Provençal Jewry. His work was also influential in Italy, Spain, and Byzantium in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries.

Lola Ferre

Bibliography

Eisen, Robert. The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Fraenkel, Carlos. "From Maimonides to Samuel Ibn Tibbon: From the Dalālat al-Hā'irīn to the Moreh ha-Nevukhim" (Ph.D. diss., Freie University, Berlin, 2000; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2007 ) [Hebrew].

Robinson, James T. “Samuel Ibn Tibbon,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2003), http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/tibbon/.

Steinschneider, Moritz. Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelaters und die Juden als Dolmetscher (Berlin: Kommissionsverlag des Bibliographischen Bureaus, 1893; repr. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1956).

Cite this page

Lola Ferre. "Ibn Tibbon, Samuel ben Judah." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online, 2013. <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/ibn-tibbon-samuel-ben-judah-COM_0011210>

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