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Did the False Jewish Messiah Sabbatai Sevi Inspire John Milton’s ‘Paradise Regained’?

The new book ‘Fictions of Conversion’ explores how religious transformation influenced early modern England

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The news of a Jewish enthusiast claiming the title of messiah and reports of his massive following throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa found an avid audience in an England that had been pondering the fate of the Jews in relation to its own status as chosen nation for more than half a century. Reports came in a variety of forms, from letters exchanged between mercantile trading partners to extended narratives such as that of Paul Rycaut, who initially published his account anonymously as part of John Evelyn’s The History of the Three Late Imposters (1669). Rycaut marveled how

Millions of People were possessed, when Sabatai Sevi first appear’d at Smyrna, and published himself to the Jewes for their Messiah, relating the greatness of their approaching Kingdome, the strong hand whereby God was about to deliver them from Bondage, and gather them from all partes of the World.

Michael McKeon has illustrated in the journal of the Association for Jewish Studies how widely the news of the Sabbatian movement circulated in late 1665 and 1666, finding its way into official English newspapers, private correspondences, and popular rumors. 1666 was also the annus mirabilis that witnessed so many apparently apocalyptic events, from the London Fire to the reappearance of the plague to the intensities of the second Anglo-Dutch War. In his poem commemorating this year of wonders, even the writer most directly associated with Restoration poetics, John Dryden, could not help making mention of the Jewish enthusiast: “The wily Dutch, who, like fallen angels, feared/ This new Messiah’s coming, there did wait,/ And round the verge their braving vessels steered,/ To tempt his courage with so fair a bait.”

While there is no explicit evidence of John Milton having heard of the Sabbatian movement, it is difficult to imagine that he would not have encountered news about these extraordinary events that so fascinated his countrymen. We may even speculate about two specific connections. First, Milton’s longtime friend and correspondent Henry Oldenberg, who had by this time become the secretary to the Royal Society, was so intrigued by the news of Sabbatai Sevi that he wrote several letters to Baruch Spinoza inquiring about the meaning of these events. Second, Edward Phillips, Milton’s nephew, pupil, and biographer, became John Evelyn’s son’s tutor some time after October 1663 and remained in that position until February 1665. Milton is also believed to have had his own direct contacts with Evelyn. Whether these contacts were before or after Evelyn’s publication of his account of Sabbatai Sevi, or before or after Milton began the planning and composition of his late poem Paradise Regained is a matter of speculation. It remains a tantalizing possibility, however, that the two spoke in some detail about this contemporary instance of a failed Jewish messianism.

I have argued elsewhere that Milton’s writings should be viewed in the context of his perception of himself and of his fellow countrymen as occupying historical and religious positions parallel to those of the Jews in the wake of the destruction of the Temple, as rabbinic Judaism began to emerge. The extremes of Jewish and English messianism become identified with one another around the time that Milton is planning and composing Paradise Regained. The Sabbatian movement thus became a cipher for different tensions characteristic of the Christian discourses of enthusiasm, messianism, and conversion. On the one hand, we find ongoing and explicit analogies between Sabbatai Sevi and the Quakers, not only in England but throughout Europe. The criticism of the Quakers implied by such a comparison is unmistakable. On the other hand, there are reports that stress the political and militaristic aspects of Sabbatai’s followers, reports that strongly resonate with the memory of Thomas Venner’s abortive Fifth Monarchy uprising only five years earlier. One letter describes how the Turkish Bashaw

resolved to march on with his Forces [against the Israelites], and coming within sight of the City, discovered an Innumerable multitude of people getting out of their Tent, whereupon the Turks gave Fire and shot against them, but after a little fighting, a pannick fear took them, and terror seized on them and made them cry out, Who can fight these people, seeing our Arrows return back upon our selves!!

As seemingly incompatible as these two views are—the Sabbatians as Quakers and the Sabbatians as advocates of military action like Venner’s Fifth Monarchists—they both reflect the anxieties felt by entrenched, normative Christianity in the face of various enthusiastic movements agitating for dramatic change, individually and collectively. These were movements of rapid, often violent, transformation over which they had little control. Evelyn draws the connection quite explicitly in his address to his reader, where he wishes that “our modern Enthusiasts, and other prodigious Sects amongst us, who Dreame of the like Carnal Expectations, and a Temporal Monarchy, might seriously weigh how nearly their Characters approach the Style and Design of these Deluded Wretches, least they fall into the same Condemnation, and the Snare of the Devil.”

Christian reactions to Sabbatai Sevi were part of a debate that was conducted between established intellectuals and clergymen, on the one hand, and those who challenged their status on the other. Since many of the enthusiasts of the time, including Sabbatai Sevi, also challenged secular authorities, this was a confrontation with obvious political, as well as purely religious, implications. The Jewish Messiah from Smyrna thereby played a role in both the religious and political discourse in Europe of that period, offering a discursive site in which the fraught relationship between historical reality and religious authenticity could be interrogated. Rycaut positions himself in sympathy with the Jewish intelligentsia, the rabbis and elders in the community, who understand the extent of the threat the Sabbatians pose to the survival of the Jewish community. Alongside the critique of popular beliefs among both Christians and Jews, there runs throughout Rycaut’s text a sense of solidarity between the Christian elite (political, religious, and intellectual) and that part of the Jewish elite that opposed Sabbatai Sevi. The parallels between the Christian and Jewish enthusiastic movements were believed to be so strong that Rycaut even suggests that the Sabbatian movement was itself produced by Christian millenarian, proselytizing fervor. (Gershom Scholem’s magisterial 1973 account of the Sabbatian movement, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, takes strong issue with this claim.)

According to the Predictions of several Christian Writers, especially of such who Comment on the Apocalyps, or Revelations, this Year of 1666 was to prove a Year of Wonders, of strange Revolutions in the World, and particularly of Blessing to the Jewes, either in respect of their Conversion to the Christian Faith, or of their Restoration to their Temporal Kingdome:  This Opinion was so dilated, and fixt in the Countreys of the Reformed Religion, and in the Heads of Phanatical Enthusiasts, who Dreamed of a Fift Monarchy, the downfall of the Pope, and Antichrist, and the Greatness of the Jewes: In so much, that this subtile People judged this Year the time to stir, and to fit their Motion according to the season of the Modern Prophesies; whereupon strange Reports flew from place to place …

Rycaut’s targets, though unnamed here, are clear; they include the likes of Serrarius, John Dury, Jan Comenius, and other radical millenarians, as well as sectarians like the Quakers. The Sabbatian movement inevitably became enfolded within these extensive English discussions of Jewish restoration and conversion that were such defining elements of the discourse of Jews and Judaism in the 17th century.

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Did the False Jewish Messiah Sabbatai Sevi Inspire John Milton’s ‘Paradise Regained’?

The new book ‘Fictions of Conversion’ explores how religious transformation influenced early modern England