Erasmus of Rotterdam°

views updated


ERASMUS OF ROTTERDAM° (Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus ; 1469–1536), European humanist, theologian, and writer. Netherlands-born Erasmus lived and worked in all major countries of Europe and wrote only in Latin.

Erasmus' view of Judaism as a religion was fully determined by traditions of the New Testament (especially by the epistles ascribed to Paul) and of the Early Church (in the first place, Jerome, to a lesser extent, Augustine). An original aspect of this position is that he regularly used the words Judaismus, Judaeus, etc., to stigmatize bad Christians, "for whom religion consists of rituals and observations of corporeal things" (a letter of December 1504). In another writing, he says, "Judaism I call not Jewish impiety, but prescriptions about external things, such as food, fasting, clothes, which to a certain degree resemble the rituals of the Jews" (Declarationes ad censuras Lutetiae, 1532). In fact, the majority of Erasmus' anti-Mosaic attacks are directed against this "new Judaism."

As far as the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) is concerned, it is only natural that a Christian humanist professing "the philosophy of Christ" placed the New Testament higher than the Old. But on many occasions he insisted on the importance for Christians of the Old Testament in its entirety and, even more significantly, on the complete inadmissibility of contrasting the two Testaments.

As a humanist (in the strict and specific sense of the word) Erasmus highly appreciated Hebrew and demanded thorough knowledge of the original language of the Bible. "Who does not master all three holy tongues [i.e., Hebrew, Greek, and Latin], is not a theologian, but a violator of the holy Theology" (Adagiae, 1515). But Erasmus' own knowledge of Hebrew was rudimentary and he was completely dependent on other scholars' commentaries and upon their direct, personal help (in his New Testament commentaries and paraphrases of Psalms). Hence numerous mistakes, "anti-philological" interpretations (discrediting Erasmus' general method), and even a kind of irritation against "ambiguities" of Hebrew can be found in his writings.

Erasmus' attitude toward Jewry of his day should be evaluated against a background of the universal hatred of Jews, intolerance, and missionary zeal in the 15th and 16th centuries, especially in Germany. This sinister background is often apparent, much more in private correspondence than in writings intended for print. In some of the latter we find remarks that are comparatively moderate and reasonable. Thus, Erasmus thinks that the number of Jews, their force, and influence are insignificant, and, consequently, they are of no danger to Christianity; that forced conversion of Jews is absolutely inadmissible, and even that Christian missionary activity among Jews is perhaps useless; that the expulsion of Jews from Spain should be condemned, and that the Marranos should be treated mercifully, etc. Such remarks spring organically from the deepest principles of Erasmus' understanding of the world and must be considered as really "erasmian." But the "erasmian spirit," expressing itself in a well-known line from a letter (January 30, 1523 (4)), "I have a temperament such that I could love even a Jew, if only he were well-mannered and friendly, and did not mouth blasphemy on Christ in my presence," was far from always being uppermost. In fact, he never met a real Jew all his life, never sought out such a meeting, and never wrote anything especially devoted to Jews or Judaism. He was, in fact, indifferent to the living "remnant of Israel"; the flesh-and-blood Jew was simply not within his field of vision. This indifference, in a time of catastrophic sharpening of religious and national fanaticism, could have been an initial step toward true tolerance. Erasmus' position could be qualified as asemitism; suggesting that he was an antisemite seems to be as un-historical as claiming he was sympathetic toward Jews.


G. Kisch, Erasmus' Stellung zu Juden and Judentum (1969)[Kisch considers Erasmus a rabid antisemite, equal to Luther]; S. Markish, Erasmus and the Jews, with an Afterword by Arthur A. Cohen (1986); G.B. Winkler, "Erasmus und die Juden," in: Festschrift Franz Loidl zum 65 Geburstag (1970), 381–392; C. Augustijn, "Erasmus und die Juden," in: Nederlands Archief voor Kerkengeschiedenis, 60:1 (1980), 22–38.

[Shimon Markish]