Christian Humanism and the Representation of Judaism: Johannes Reuchlin and the Discovery of Hebrew

By Price, David H. | Arthuriana, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Christian Humanism and the Representation of Judaism: Johannes Reuchlin and the Discovery of Hebrew


Price, David H., Arthuriana


Over the course of his career, Johannes Reuchlin, the founder of Christian Hebrew studies, portrayed Jews, Judaism, and the potential contributions of Jewish theology and scholarship to Christianity in increasingly empathetic ways. His representation evolved from being rooted in the goal of appropriating Jewish Kabbalah and even Christianizing the Hebrew language to a willingness to acknowledge godliness and piety, in addition to biblical learning, in the medieval Jewish tradition. (DHP)

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Although he devoted most of his life to a successful legal career,1 in his spare time Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) helped introduce the humanist movement to the Holy Roman Empire, a role reflected in a recently coined epithet for him-'Deutschlands erster Humanist.'2 While specialists recognize him as one of Germany's first experts in classical Greek, Reuchlin is, of course, most widely known as the founder of Hebrew and Jewish studies among Christians. The philosopher-historian Gershom Scholem aptly described him as 'the first scholar of Judaism, its language and its world . . . the man who, nearly five centuries ago, brought to life the discipline of Jewish studies in Europe.'3

Reuchlin's new point of departure for Christian theology unleashed a furious, decade-long debate among professors, clerics, and rulers from most parts of Europe.4 The controversy pertained in roughly equal measure to two separate phenomena-the scholastic-humanist conflict over methodology and the intense efforts to expel Jews from European lands. The issues of humanism and Judaism converged when Reuchlin wrote a legal opinion in 1510 against an ambitious campaign that threatened to destroy all Jewish books in the Holy Roman Empire.5 Ultimately, his defense of Jewish books and their owners was an important factor in the defeat of that pogrom, the only effort ever undertaken to end the practice of Judaism everywhere in the empire. Another result of his defense, however, was that he became the defendant in a fiercely contested heresy trial, prosecuted with broad support by Jacob Hoogstraeten, papal inquisitor of the province of Teutonia, over the charge that one of his books expressed some forty-three propositions that were 'impermissibly favorable to Jews.'6 This controversy, which ran its legal course from 1511 until 1520, had important consequences for German humanism, the initial reception of Martin Luther's movement, and the status and survival of Judaism in the empire.

The question of Reuchlin's representation of Judaism and Jews, the ultimate issue in his trials, has always been raised in studies of his defense against the book pogrom and his own prosecution.7 In some ways, however, the larger historical question is how does the Christian scholarly study of Judaism impact representation. Did immersion in Jewish studies foster the development of new Christian perspectives on contemporary Judaism and Jews?8 Therefore, in this essay I would like to focus on his Hebrew scholarship-the actual foundation of Hebrew Christian humanism-with the goal of ascertaining how his philological research portrayed Jews and Judaism and what roles he perceived for Jewish theology and scholarship within his Christian world. The two most significant works by Reuchlin are Rudiments of the Hebrew Language of 1506 and Art of the Kabbalah of 1517, the former being the first Hebrew grammar and lexicon written for Christian instruction and the latter being the foundation of Christian Kabbalah. I'll also mention two other contributions, a fledgling Kabbalistic effort of 1494, The Miracle-Making Word, and a remarkable book from the last few years of his life, Accents and Orthography of Hebrew (1518).

While Reuchlin always viewed his scholarship as a challenge to the practices of Christian theology, until the outbreak of the book controversy he did not conceive of his research as a threat to the anti-Jewish campaigns sweeping across the Holy Roman Empire. …

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