Peter Beer (1758-1838)

engraving_Peter_BeerPeter Beer was a teacher, textbook writer, and historian from the Bohemian town Nový Bydžov (Neubidschow). Beer belonged to the first cohort of Habsburg Jews to enroll in a teachers’ seminar in the 1780s and thereafter held teaching positions in the state supervised German-Jewish schools in different parts of the Habsburg Monarchy; from 1811 on he was the teacher of (religious) ethics in the prestigious school in Prague. Besides his teaching activities, Beer wrote numerous textbooks on Jewish religion and Jewish history; in the latter he focused especially on the biblical and post-biblical era.

Beer had already published a modern textbook on biblical history with the title Toldot Israel in 1796. The biography of Josephus by his Bohemian fellow-Jew Dr Lessing from 1802 seemingly inspired Beer to continue his historiographic enterprise. Already in 1805, Beer confidently refuted the traditional assumption that Sefer Yosippon (‘Book of Yosippon’) was the Hebrew version of Josephus’s Greek writings by historical-critical analysis, in a review of Jüdisch-deutsche Monatschrift, the journal in which Lessing’s Josephus biography was published. In 1808, Beer published Geschichte der Juden von ihrer Rückkehr aus der babylonischen Gefangenschaft bis zur Zerstörung des Zweyten Tempels, nach Josephus Flavius (History of the Jews from their return from Babylonian exile to the destruction of the Second Temple, according to Josephus Flavius); the historiographical narrative is preceded by a slightly re-written version of Dr Lessing’s Josephus biography.

Slight adaptations aside, Beer faithfully followed Josephus’s narrative of Jewish history until the destruction of the Second Temple. Beer’s understanding of Jewish history after the destruction of the Temple corresponded with (his interpretation of) Josephus’s reorientation after his surrender to the Romans. According to Beer, diaspora Jews were supposed to adopt the cultures of their host countries, to faithfully serve their rulers, and to disseminate the fame of the Jewish nation through excellence in (secular) scholarship. Beer thus launched Josephus as a counter-model for Jewish life in the diaspora, a model of cultural assimilation.

[Beer, Peter], ‘Recension der Jüdisch-deutschen Monathschrift’, Annalen der Literatur und Kunst in den österreichischen Staaten 4.2 (1805): 120-8, 185-8.
Beer, Peter, Geschichte der Juden von ihrer Rückkehr aus der babylonischen Gefangenschaft bis zur Zerstörung des zweyten Tempels; nach Josephus Flavius. Vienna, 1808.

Hecht, L., Ein jüdischer Aufklärer in Böhmen: Der Pädagoge und Reformer Peter Beer (1758-1838). Cologne, 2008: 211-38.
Hecht, L. ‘Re-evaluation of the Jewish Pantheon: Josephus Flavius and Jewish Historical Writings in Bohemia’, in: Jewish Studies in the 21st Century: Prague – Europe – World, ed. Marcela Zoufalá. Wiesbaden, 2014: 95-111.

JRA entry contributed by Louise Hecht