From the fourteenth century onwards, the Italian proponents of the movement we have come to call Renaissance Humanism boldly sought to uncover the textual, artistic, and material remains of antiquity: to renew the use of the Latin language by imitating the elegance of ancient Roman rhetoric; to explore the ancient sources of wisdom; and thereby to renew Christian life and learning. The invention of the printing press in the 1450’s was critical to the spread of Humanist learning. So, too, was the arrival of Byzantine Greek and Iberian Jewish refugees, following the catastrophes of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, at the very time when Humanists were turning to the Greek and Hebrew source texts of Christianity.
Like his contemporary, Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1466-1536), the German jurist Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) was a pioneering figure of Renaissance Humanism, and both men served as vital links in the transmission across the Alps of Humanist ideals and practices. From the early sixteenth century onwards, colleges and universities from Alcalá de Henares in Spain to Krakow in Poland and from Leuven in the Low Countries to Luther’s Erfurt and Wittenberg formally incorporated Greek and Hebrew alongside Latin into their curricula. (It was Reuchlin who hellenized, in typical Humanist fashion, his great-nephew and student Philipp Schwarzerd’s name to Melanchthon, just as the young Augustinian Martin Luder changed his name to Luther after the Greek word for freedom, eleutheria). Where Erasmus was engrossed in studying the Scriptures in Greek, Reuchlin also devoted himself to Hebrew. If both men looked to St Jerome as the ideal Christian scholar, Erasmus was happy to admit that it was Reuchlin who truly possessed the ‘trilingual erudition’ that had enabled the Church Father, a thousand years earlier, to produce his epochal Latin translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek.
While on diplomatic missions to Italy, Reuchlin visited the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. There he met such leading figures of the Italian Renaissance as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a devotee of esoteric Jewish traditions known as Kabbalah, which he believed contained hidden evidence for the truth of Christianity. Reuchlin would go on to dedicate much of his scholarly life to Christian readings of Kabbalistic literature. He sought out Jewish teachers to study Hebrew in earnest—among them Jacob Jechiel Loans, a physician to the Holy Roman Emperor—and built a collection of Hebrew manuscripts. By the early sixteenth century, Reuchlin was probably the most accomplished Christian Hebrew scholar outside Italy. His groundbreaking Rudiments of Hebrew (1506), a Latin Hebrew grammar and dictionary, was one of the most important tools by which Christian scholars of the time acquired the linguistic skills necessary to read the Old Testament in its original language.
Humanistic scholarship, however, had unforeseen consequences. Knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew sources of the texts of Sacred Scripture could be a very dangerous thing, as Erasmus discovered when his own new Latin translation of the New Testament from the Greek (1516) departed from the Latin Vulgate in ways that directly challenged Church doctrine. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, the Church’s attitude towards Jews and Judaism was implicated too. Trusting the Hebrew Biblical text meant trusting the Jewish tradition through which it had been transmitted throughout the Christian era and engaging with the library of Rabbinic exegesis that explained it.
Soon after he published his Rudiments of Hebrew, Reuchlin became caught up in what would become known as the “Battle of the Books,” or the Reuchlin Affair. The Inquisitor Jacob van Hoogstraaten, the Flemish prior of the Cologne Dominicans, together with a Jewish convert to Christianity, Johannes Pfefferkorn, sought to outlaw, confiscate, and destroy all post-Biblical Jewish books throughout Christendom. Reuchlin drew upon his legal, theological, and Hebrew expertise to argue against the persecution both of Jews and their books and he became their chief defendant. Drawing upon Augustine and Aquinas, Reuchlin argued “the Jews are our book-bearers, our copyists and librarians, who safeguard those books from which we take the witness of our faith.” Hebrew learning, the Hebrew Bible, and its custodians and transmitters, the Jews themselves, were indispensable to Christianity. In turn, Reuchlin’s champions mocked his detractors in a collection titled The Letters of Obscure Men, which Anthony Grafton has called the first work of academic satire. In 1520, against the backdrop of nascent attempts to resist Luther’s work, the Pope condemned Reuchlin, but by that time Humanist ideals and Hebrew studies had taken root across Europe.
While he never joined Luther’s movement, historians have long seen Reuchlin as a harbinger of the Protestant Reformation, the beginnings of which coincide with the Reuchlin Affair. Luther himself learned Hebrew from Reuchlin’s Rudiments. Further, long before the noxious anti-Judaism of his later years, Luther shared Reuchlin’s arguments in favor of the toleration of Jews. Like Luther, many of Reuchlin’s students and adherents became early Reformers. And the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew learning that Christian Humanists championed became prerequisites for the kind of direct, unmediated access to sacred Scripture that would be a pillar of Protestantism.
David H. Price, Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books (2011)
Thomas Kaufmann, Luther’s Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism (2017)