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The Anti-Semitism of Erasmus

During the fall of 1517 Erasmus learned of a new book published in Cologne by the inquisitor Johann Pfefferkorn, who was both the chief adversary of Johann Reuchlin, the humanist Hebrew scholar, and a fanatic opponent of Jewish learning. The book contained a slighting reference to Erasmus, though without mentioning his name; Erasmus had it translated from German into Latin and sent to his friend John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, an admirer of Reuchlin.[32] Letters from this period (November 1517) to German humanist friends, none of which he later published, are replete with vicious attacks on Pfefferkorn as a converted Jew: “He had no other motive in getting himself dipped in the font than to be able to deliver more dangerous attacks on Christianity, and by mixing with us to infect the entire folk with his Jewish poison”; “what could these circumcised wretches hope for more, or Satan their leader, than to see the unity of simple Christians rent in twain” by the Reuchlin affair; and “if only the only saying were not true, that a bad Jew makes a worse Christian.” [33] It has been noted that Erasmus’s correspondence contains no previous outburst of this kind. Nonetheless, the notion that a bad Jew makes a worse Christian is evident elsewhere, as in his disdain for the New Christians, Spaniards whose ancestors (like the parents of Juan Luis Vives) had converted from Judaism. In his arguments for peace between France and the Low Countries, Erasmus liked to point out that France was the only Christian country not “infected” by heretics or schismatics, nor by “Jews” and “half-Jewish marranos” (an insulting term for New Christians). Even in supporting Reuchlin for trying to see to it that “the Jews should not suffer more than is just [ne quid praeter aequum patiantur],” Erasmus takes it for granted that no Christian will have a good word for Jews: “If it is Christian to detest the Jews, on this count we are all good Christians, and to spare.” [34]

In an essay published in 1969 Swiss historian Guido Kisch opened a scholarly debate on anti-Semitism in Erasmus, finding in passages like those just quoted a “deep-rooted and boundless hatred of Jews” that aligned Erasmus with decidedly anti-Jewish writers of the time rather than with more tolerant Christian authors like Reuchlin. The issue is complicated by Erasmus’s persistent references to the “religion of ceremonies” that he so opposes as “Jewish,” or as a new form of Judaism. One explanation is that “Judaism” for Erasmus meant not the living religion, of which sixteenth-century Christians were wholly ignorant, but the self-righteous punctiliousness of the ancient Pharisees, denounced by Jesus in the Gospels. Seizing on this ambiguity, a defender of Erasmus has argued that even remarks that seem directed against Jews are in fact expressions of a religious “anti-Mosaïsm” that has nothing to do with actual Jews. But another scholar discounts the theological context and takes passages dealing with the “religion of ceremonies” as evidence that Erasmus’s hatred of Jews had become an “obsession.” Historian Heiko A. Oberman strikes a proper balance but one that is hardly favorable to Erasmus: Erasmus indeed hated Jews, and his thought was also permeated by a “virulent theological anti-Judaism” that was consistent with contemporary Christian fears of actual Judaism, even if it targeted Christian legalism rather than Jews.[35]

Scholars have been reluctant to recognize Erasmus’s hatred of the Jews because it seems so inconsistent with his earnest efforts to forestall or at least mitigate the increasingly violent intra-Christian polemics of the early Reformation era. But the apostle of concord was also a great hater of the evil designs he saw lurking beneath the self-professed good intentions of mendicant friars, princes, and popes. This readiness to believe the worst of certain kinds of people provides a context in which the fantasies of a Christian anti-Semitism seem, alas, perfectly natural. Erasmus’s comments about Pfefferkorn make it clear that in his mind “Jews” in some general sense were, through Pfefferkorn, conspiring to sow dissension among Christians, possibly even to subject Christians to the tyranny of “Jewish” ceremonies. To be sure, Erasmus’s denunciation of Jews was more global than his denunciation of hypocritical friars and princes and popes; in this one case he never (to my knowledge) qualified his remarks by saying that he was only speaking about evil Jews, not the good ones. Still, anti-Semitism may be counted as not the least but certainly the saddest example of Erasmus’s tendency to acquiesce in thinking of certain groups as sources of evil, then to give credence to “informed” reports of their devilish plots.


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