Erasmus on Judaism and Islam

The Dutch monk Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) is considered one of the greatest philosophers in Europe. He was a renowned scholar and was entrusted with the education of Charles V, the future German Emperor, King of Spain and Sicily, and Lord of the Low Countries. There are numerous respectable institutions named after him, like the University in Rotterdam, and he is hailed for his supposed ‘cosmopolitism’ and ‘tolerance’ in an age of religious conflict. Looking closer at his writings, there appears another Erasmus, which is neither multicultural nor tolerant.

Contra Johannes Reuchlin

Was Erasmus really an ardent defender of religious freedom and civil rights for all? In the beginning of the 16th century the dissident theologian Johannes Reuchlin was the light bearer advocating equal civil rights for Jews. Erasmus was not in favour of this: “I am no Reuchlinist… never have supported him, he would not even have wanted that” (Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republiek 1477 – 1806, p.50).

It has been suggested by the Erasmus Center for Early Modern Studies that Erasmus’ aversion of Jews was caused by personal disputes against people he disliked: “Several anti-Jewish statements of Erasmus are known. Invariably, these are aimed at specific persons whom he disliked in particular. There is absolutely no evidence of any systematic or political-ideological hatred of the Jews — which we might, then, anachronistically term anti-semitism.”

Is that true? Erasmus traveled throughout most of Western Europe during his lifetime (Italy, France, England, Germany and the Low Countries). However, he did not visit Spain because “it was crawling with Jews” — to put it in its own words, and he declined many invitations for this reason. On the other hand, he hailed France, because “it was not infected by Jews and marranos [i.e., crypto-Jews who pretended to be Christian].” Erasmus in other words disliked Judaism and even the presence of Jews was to be avoided.

The Culture of Critique

The most interesting parts of Erasmus’ writings on Jews are the numerous references to crypto-Judaism and Jewish undermining of Christian morality. Erasmus was dismissive of Jewish religion and practices, stressing its obscuring nature: “I see the Jews as a people filled with the wordy fabrications that cover everything with a mist: Talmud, Kabbalah, Tetragrammaton, gates of light — nothing but words.” He dismissed Judaism as a higher form of morality—a common posture of Jews, especially since the Enlightment. In fact, Jews were people “for whom religion consists of rituals and observations of corporeal things.”

Erasmus was suspicious about the conversion of Jews to Christianity. This was the major issue of the Inquisition: Did Jews who professed to be Christian actually retain their Jewish identity? Erasmus did not believe that these “converts’ had lost their Jewish identity. He describes the famous Jewish convert Joseph Pfefferkorn as a crypto-Jew: “If you cut him open, 600 Jews will jump out.” That also explains his reference to Jews in Spain, although they were officially expelled since 1492, and his dislike of crypto-Jewish marranos. He made his attitude clear: “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.”

The Great Turk

In 1529 Sultan Suleyman, also called the Great Turk, captured Budapest and was bound to conquer Europe. The fear for the Turks engulfed Europe and it also grasped Erasmus, who wrote a book called Considerations for a War against the Turks. In this book he describes the Turks as “a bunch of barbarians from a dark source whom God has sent us like He once send the frogs to scourge Egypt.”  Erasmus saw the Turks as an ordeal for European Christianity. He thought that Christians should renew their faith to make them prepared for the Turkish onslaught. In a way he was a visionary, because the decisive victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571 was attributed to the praying of the rosary all over Europe.

Just as the case with Judaism, Erasmus despised Islam and not only on religious grounds: “What to say about them who prefer the malefic and criminal human Mohammed over Christ?” Celibate himself, Erasmus was even quite frank about the Muslim way of conquest and the way to counter it in his book The Virtue of Marriage: “Still, the warm advocates of virginity are no opponents to the war against the Turks, who are a majority due to their big families. If their vision is right, they should be making children to deliver soldiers for war, unless they think that cannons, artillery and ships don’t need manpower.”


Erasmus was a celebrated scholar during his lifetime and he travelled most of Western Europe to spread his ideas. In his time he was a man of the world, but he was no multiculturalist or cosmopolitan. He saw Christianity as the core of European civilization and Judaism and Islam as a threat to the dominance of European Christianity. He was a peaceful man, but advocated war against the Turks. He was a man of wisdom, but rejected Jewish teaching.

Although he was in favour of the Greco-Roman Renaissance (the appreciation of sources of antiquity), he fervently opposed the Hebrew Renaissance in order to thwart resurgence of Judaism. He saw Judaism and Islam as alien and incompatible with European Christianity. The difference between Judaism and Islam is that Muslim Turks were foreign invaders, while the Jews were the enemy from within, opposing and criticising Christianity.

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