Monday, April 23

Reuchlin and the Reformation

Johann Reuchlin was one of the great scholastic precursors to the Reformation. He was a linguist who wrote the first Latin dictionary to be published in Germany and a standard Greek grammar. But Hebrew was his dearest love. He ferreted out the rules of Israel's ancient language by study of Hebrew texts and conversed with every rabbi who appeared within his range. His authority became widely recognized.

Alas, his reputation was nearly the cause of his ruin. A converted Jew and a Dominican inquisitor obtained from Emperor Maximilian an order to burn all Hebrew works except the Old Testament, charging they were full of errors and blasphemies. Before the edict could be carried out, the Emperor had second thoughts and consulted the greatest Hebraist of the age: Reuchlin.

Reuchlin urged preservation of the Jewish books as aides to study, and as examples of errors against which champions of faith joust. To destroy the books would give ammunition to church enemies. The emperor revoked his order.

The Dominicans were furious. Selecting passages from Reuchlin's writings, they tried to prove him a heretic. The inquisition summoned him and ordered his writings burnt. Sympathetic scholars appealed to Leo X. The Pope referred the matter to the Bishop of Spires, whose tribunal heard the issue. On this day in 1514, the tribunal declared Reuchlin not guilty.

But the Dominicans were not so easily deterred. They instigated the faculties at Cologne, Erfurt, Louvain, Mainz and Paris to condemn Reuchlin's writings. Thus armed, they approached Leo X once again. Leo demurred. He appointed yet another commission. It backed Reuchlin. Still Leo hesitated. At last he decided to suspend all judgment. This in itself was a victory for Reuchlin. The cause of the embattled scholar became the cause of the innovators. Reuchlin's nephew, Philip Melancthon, rejoiced as did the renowned Greek scholar, Desiderius Erasmus.

In 1517 Luther posted his 95 Theses. "Thanks be to God," said the weary Reuchlin when he heard the news. "At last they have found a man who will give them so much to do that they will be compelled to let my old age end in peace."

Thanks to Reuchlin, a host of essential Hebrew texts were preserved. His studies formed the basis for most of the better translations of the Old Testament--including Luther’s. And his influence assured Melancthon a position among the learned and a vital place in the Reformation.

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