- From Judaism to Calvinism: The Life and Writings of Immanuel Tremellius (c.1510-1580)
Immanuel Tremellius' unpredictable career may be fairly described as "rocambolesque." Born around 1510 into the "tolerated" Jewish community of Ferrara, a relative oasis under the Este dukes, he ended up—metonymically speaking, in the form of his Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Protestant answer to the Catholic Vulgate—on the London escritoires of poets Sir Philip Sidney, John Donne, and John Milton, and on the bookshelves of Mayflower Elders William Brewster and William Bradford in the far-flung Plymouth Colony. Hard information on his origins is difficult to come by. We do not know whether Tremellius' parents were poor or wealthy, Italian Jews from Rome or further South, Ashkenazim from northern Europe, or Sephardic Jews from Provence, Spain, or Portugal; we do not know his Hebrew patronymic (although in any case the Jewish archives in Ferrara, where such leads might have been pursued, were destroyed by the Fascists). Tremellius seems to have received an excellent early education in Hebrew and rabbinical studies—at the local yeshivah? at the feet of David Ruderman's Abraham ben Mordecai Farissol?—and eventually in the other ancient languages.
An apostate from Judaism in his twenties, Tremellius' legend would have him converted to Christianity by no less a figure than Alessandro Farnese, the future pope Paul III, protagonist of the Counter Reformation and convener of the Council of Trent, or, alternatively, in the circle of the less than orthodox English cardinal Reginald Pole (at one juncture a plausible candidate for the [End Page 180] papacy, towards the end of his life summoned—in vain—to give an account of his stewardship before the Roman Inquisition). It is not surprising, however, that prominent intellectuals such as these, even within the Roman church, might pay court to a brilliantly learned Jew. Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Hebrews were still there in their midst. A Jewish humanist was all the more sought after in sola Scriptura Reformist intellectual circles, among whose watchwords were veritas Hebraica and politeia biblica (see the antimonarchical Jewish Commonwealth [respublica Israelis] of Martin Bucer, who played host to Tremellius when the latter first arrived in Strasbourg).
Biographers of Tremellius have sometimes posited two conversions: from Judaism to Catholicism and from Catholicism to Calvinism, but two baptisms seem uneconomical and anachronistic. Most of Tremellius' intellectual companions—men like the Augustinian prior of San Frediano in Lucca, theologian Peter Martyr Vermigli (see the 2009 Brill Companion), a disciple of converso reformer Juan de Valdés, preacher Girolamo Zanchi, and Latinist Paolo Lacizi, with whom Tremellius fled Italy for Bucer's Strasbourg in 1542, when Paul III resuscitated the Roman Inquisition—were after all Catholic priests and monks (as Luther and Bucer of course had been before them, while Tremellius' exact contemporary Calvin too had first been destined for the Roman priesthood). Tremellius appears to have been a sincere and lasting convert, a religious Jew who, in an age of spiritual ferment and enthusiasm, a new age of martyrs, embraced his adopted confession with the same dedication and fervor as he had his old. Certainly his conversion was not simply a ticket to social acceptance and assimilation. (Jewish conversion never was.)
Sixteenth-century Christian Europe was contested among three major players: the Papacy, aided and abetted (though far from docilely) by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain; the Lutherans; and the congregations of the Reformed churches (for whom "Calvinists" is the convenient shorthand). The formula of the Peace of Augsburg, cuius regio, eius religio, was a pragmatic principle in this polarized world both before and after its epigrammatic enunciation, resulting in reversals of fortune that often overtook men like Tremellius who depended on patronage. In England alone, Henry VIII, conciliatory towards Rome, was succeeded by the more radical adolescent reformer, Edward VI, who was succeeded by his Catholic half-sister Bloody Mary, who was succeeded in her turn by Protestant-raised...