In the usual course of the study of history people hear a great deal about the movers and shakers who bring about momentous change. What we seldom hear about however, are the people who work in the background, helping to make the movers and shakers. The people without whose contribution, great events might have unfolded differently.
In the midst of a wave of anti-Semitism, a converted Jew named Johann Pfefferkorn and the Dominican inquisitors managed to extract from Emperor Maximilian an order to burn all Hebrew works except the Old Testament, particularity the Talmud and the Kabbala. The accusation was that because the Jews denied Christ their works and writings were contrary to the truth, full of errors and blasphemies. Fortunately, before the edict could be carried out, the Emperor had second thoughts and consulted the greatest Hebrew scholar of the age - Reuchlin.
In February of 1455 Johann Reuchlin was born into a working class family, but his talent for singing brought him to the attention of the Margrave of Baden who brought him into his household as a companion for his son. It was in this new environment that Johann discovered another talent - languages. An avid learner, once given the chance, he achieved his Masters at the age of 22 and began to teach both Latin and Greek. He wrote the first Latin dictionary published in Germany and a Greek grammar in 1479. Hebrew however, was his dearest love. He ferreted out the rules of Israel's ancient language by study of Hebrew texts and conversing with every rabbi who appeared within his range. His authority became widely recognized.
Reuchlin urged the Emperor to preserve Jewish writings as an aid to study, and as examples of errors against which champions of faith might defend. To destroy the books would give ammunition to the church's enemies, he said. Convinced the emperor revoked the order.
Furious, the Dominicans tried to prove Reuchlin was a heretic. In truth, he might well have been one, for his ecclesiastical writings appear to espouse salvation through cabalistic practices rather than relying totally on Christ's atoning blood. But since the Dominicans main target was anything written by Jewish teachers that wasn't scripture, for focused their attack on his supporting of writings written by the "killers of Christ.". Reuchlin was ordered to appear before the Inquisition, tried and convicted in one breath, and his writings were ordered to be burnt.
Scholars sympathetic to Johann and his ideals appealed to Leo X. The Pope referred the matter to the Bishop of Spires, whose tribunal heard the issue. The tribunal declared Reuchlin not guilty. It was a great victory for freedom of learning.
The Dominicans however, were not known for giving up easily. They persuaded the monestaries at Cologne, Erfurt, Louvain, Mainz and Paris to condemn Reuchlin's writings. With their new-found scholastic support, they once again made their case before Leo X. As is often the case, Leo found himself in the middle of a dilemma. Should he win the applause of the scholars by protecting the Jewish books, or placate the clerics by destroying them?
In the tradition of politicians everywhere he appointed a commission. The commission backed Reuchlin. Still reluctant to create enemies Leo decided to suspend judgment which, in itself, was a victory for Reuchlin. As a result not only were the Talmud and Kabal saved from destruction throughout realm, but Reuchlin's Greek and Hebrew dictionaries survived as well; the same dictionaries that Luther would later use to create his German translation of the New testament and selected Old Testament passages.
In 1517 Luther posted his 95 theses. "Thanks be to God," said the weary Reuchlin. "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."
As trying as his experience might have been, it is important to note that Johann did not suffer to no purpose. Reuchlin's ordeal preserved not just the Talmud and Kabbala but many other Jewish writings that have helped us to understand the world and culture in which Jesus walked and taught. His victory was also a victory for academic freedom and scholarly investigation.
Johann Reuchlin was found innocent of all charges by the tribunal of the Bishop of Spires on April 24, 1514 — 493 years ago this week.
Other events that happened this week - April 22-28
April 22, 1864 - The motto "In God We Trust," conceived during the Civil War, first appears on American coinage.
April 23, 1538 - John Calvin and William Farel are banished from Geneva. The day before, Easter Sunday, both had refused to administer communion, saying the city was too full of vice to partake. Three years later, Calvin returned to the city to stay.
April 25, 1214 - Louis IX, king of France, is born. Leader of the Seventh and Eighth Crusades (he died on the latter), he was known for his humility; he wore hair shirts and visited hospitals—where he emptied the bedpans. So great was his devotion to his Christian duty he was made a saint in 1297, twenty-seven years after his death.
April 26, 1992 - Worshipers celebrate the first Russian Orthodox Easter in Moscow in 74 years.
April 27, 1667 - Blind, bitter, and poor, Puritan poet John Milton sells for ten pounds the copyright for Paradise Lost—a book that would influence English thought and language nearly as much as the King James Version and the plays of Shakespeare. Paradise Lost is about Adam and Eve--the same story you find in the first pages of Genesis, expanded by Milton into a long, detailed, narrative poem.
April 28, 1789 - In the South Pacific, a band of hedonistic sailors stage the famous mutiny on the Bounty. The mutineers then sailed to uninhabited Pitcairn Island, where they soon fell into drinking and fighting. Only one man and several women (taken earlier as slaves) and children survived. The man, Alexander Smith, discovered the ship's neglected Bible, repented, and transformed the community. The Bible is still on display in a Pitcairn church.