Johannes Pfefferkorn is an Ass

By Jove!  What a stir an idiot can make in this world.  Doubtless, Gentle Reader, you have heard of the ruckus this stubborn fool, Johannes Pffefferkorn, has instigated, but if not, I shall present the facts so that you can render a judgment.  

Pfefferkorn (peppercorn) was born a Jew but now inflicts misfortune on his people.  He was convicted of burglary in Cologne and imprisoned in 1504.  The next year, he converted to Christianity.  Some say this was to be set free, but my sources say that he was already free.

Pfefferkorn became assistant to Jacob van Hoogstraaten, the prior of the Dominicans, those most zealous Inquisitors.  Van Hoogstraaten must have rejoiced to land a prize fish, for now he had a Jew to testify to the crimes of the Jews. 

The Dominicans published Pfefferkorn’s slanderous pamphlets, in which he attempted to prove that Jewish religious writings were hostile to Christianity.  Immediately all true Hebrew scholars recognized Pfefferkorn as all pepper and no meat; that is, that he had little understanding of Hebrew writings and could not discuss them with any intelligence.

Jewish moneylenders

Pfefferkorn demanded that the Jews cease lending money at interest, work for their living and attend Christian sermons.  He demanded that the Talmud and all Jewish writings be destroyed.  With each succeeding pamphlet, he grew more venomous, until he advocated taking Jewish children from their parents and expelling all Jews from Christian lands. 


The Dominicans convinced Kunigunde, sister of Emperor Maximillian, to plead for Pfefferkorn.  She went before the Emperor and begged him on her knees to order the Jews to deliver their books to Pfefferkorn for destruction.  (Some suggested a Dominican ruse, for as the authorized instruments of the Inquisition, the Dominicans can also rule books acceptable and return them to the Jews, for a price.)

The Jews appealed to the Emperor.  They asked for a commission to investigate Pfefferkorn’s claims.  The Emperor then asked for opinions from several universities and individuals, including the Hebrew scholar, Johann Reuchlin.  Though two universities ruled against the Jewish books, Reuchlin stood in favor of the Jews and gave a scholarly and brilliant answer.

Reuchlin divided Jewish literature into six classes, exclusive of the Bible.  (1) poetry, fable and satire; (2) commentaries; (3) sermons, songs and prayers; (4) philosophy and science; (5) the Talmud, and (6) Kabbala.

“In the first class,” said Reuchlin, “are to be found books which deny or criticize the Christian religion.”  But he knew of only two, a pamphlet by Lipman and the life of Jesus.  The Rabbis prohibit Jews to possess or read these books under threat of severe penalties. 

Reuchlin said that the second class contained nothing harmful to Christianity, but was of great value in interpreting the Scriptures.  Christian scholars cannot fully understand the Bible because of their ignorance of Hebrew, for the best understanding of Scripture comes from knowledge of the original language.  Reuchlin compared the scholar who says that he does not need a Hebrew commentary, because he has many Christian ones, to a person wearing a light garment in cold weather.

The Jews, Reuchlin observed, have received from emperors and popes the privilege of unmolested worship and, so, should keep the third class, and the fourth class is equal to books in Latin, Greek, or German.

“But of the Talmud,” Reuchlin said, “I must own that it is to me a sealed book, and it is evident that those who pass judgment upon it have as little knowledge of it as I.  They have no idea of its nature or history.  Nevertheless, they talk as if they understood it clearly.  I can only compare such people to those who criticise algebra while they are totally ignorant of the rudiments of arithmetic.”

Reuchlin praised the Kabbala, reporting that Pope Sixtus VI studied it and found so much in support of Christianity that he translated Kabbalistic books into Latin.

Alluding to Pfefferkorn, though not by name, Reuchlin said, “What use is advice given by people who abandon Judaism through jealousy, animosity, fear of persecution. . .Such individuals bear the name of Christians, but in heart they are not Christians.  I know of some whose faith in both religions, Christianity and Judaism, is weak, and who, if their schemes were brought to naught, would become disciples of Mohammedanism.

“The Jews have been citizens of German lands for three centuries and should be protected by the law.  It would be ridiculous to adjudge them heretics, for they were not born Christians, but have been Jews from a time antecedent to the birth of Christianity.”

Reuchlin argued so powerfully that the emperor suspended his edict and returned the Jews’ books.  However, it is said the Pfefferkorn rages like a rabid dog against the Jews and against Reuchlin, sharpening his pens to needles and dipping them in poison, as he prepares yet another pamphlet.  So I doubt that this ends the matter.

Simon of Trent ritual sacrifice--1493

I, Capito, wish we would deal more kindly with the Jews.  For is that not what we are enjoined by our Christ to do?  Even if they should make themselves our enemies–though I very much doubt that Jews sacrifice Christian babies in their rites or even poison wells–are we not to love our enemies?

As a scholar, I am appalled at the destruction of any book, particularly an ancient one in the original language, and especially one which contains the history and root of our Christian faith.  Which makes me think that I shall study Hebrew.

If Pepperpill leaves me any books.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great research!

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