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  • Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522): A Theological Biography by Franz Posset
  • Jason Roberts

Jason Roberts, Johann Reuchlin, Franz Posset, Early Modern theology, late Medieval theology, Medieval magic, early modern magic, Christian mysticism, mysticism, Christian Kabbalah, Kabbalah

franz posset. Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522): A Theological Biography. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. Pp. xxv + 917.

Franz Posset's Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522): A Theological Biography is a monumental achievement. In just shy of nine hundred pages, the author proposes to correct certain long-standing misconceptions and misrepresentations concerning the great transalpine humanist, Johannes Reuchlin of Pforzheim. Posset makes these corrections in his introduction: Reuchlin was a devout and orthodox Catholic and not a proto-Protestant forerunner of Luther. Reuchlin was not an anti-Semite. Rather, he was an early model for positive Jewish Christian relations—even a sort of morning star of Catholic [End Page 406] ecumenism of the kind reflected in Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) i.e., the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, of October 28, 1965. Separate from but central to those claims, the author also argues that Reuchlin was not merely a humanist grammarian, but rather a philological theologian—a lay theologian. The majority of his theology, the author argues, Reuchlin left behind in two major works (De Verbo Mirifico and De Arte Cabalistica), which have all too often been overlooked in Lutheran-sympathetic historiographies written up to this point.

Posset argues persuasively, and there are many features of his opus that make it a welcome addition to the available scholarship on the Pforzheim humanist, and indispensible for anyone working on Reuchlin, the Reuchlin affair, or—no doubt to the author's chagrin—sixteenth-century magic (but more on that in a moment). The most immediate recommendation for this "theological biography" is its timeliness. Prior to its publication, the most recent Reuchlin biographies were that of Ludwig Geyer from 1871 and Max Brod's Johannes Reuchlin und sein Kampf (1965). The intervening years have seen several sources come to light. Perhaps most notably—and certainly most recently—are the four volumes of the critical edition of Reuchlin's correspondence and the new volumes of his complete works (Sämtliche Werke, Berliner Ausgaben). Many of these sources were unavailable or unknown to previous scholars, and Posset makes thorough use of them, filling in historical gaps, arguing against older hypotheses, and even correcting previous scholars' assertions where new evidence supports it.

Another laudable feature of Posset's work is his translation of all of the German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew quotations he uses. The result is an encyclopedic account of the man and his life in a single language, rather than being spread among the five in which Reuchlin himself operated. By sifting all the available data, Posset has meticulously (and affectionately, one senses) brought together a treasure trove of details and insights about Reuchlin's life, his thoughts, his worldly as well as private affairs, and most significantly, his innovative "lay" theology.

Scholars will no doubt delight in the generous lists Posset has compiled in answer to the whos, whats, wheres, and whens of Reuchlin's life. The details of his education, his acquaintances, his expenses, his travels—even his taste in wine and his singing voice (!)—are a testament to Posset's labor, but also to the means by which the author brings his subject to life. Even more impressive (and appreciated) is the careful, detailed textual analysis of each of Reuchlin's major works as well as some pertaining to him written by others, both supporters and detractors. Moreover, and perhaps most impressively, Posset has combed Reuchlin's texts extensively for both his attributed and [End Page 407] unattributed sources. In this way, he not only tracks the evolution of Reuchlin's theology—his "Catholic Cabala"—from his De Verbo Mirifico (1494) to his De Arte Cabalistica (1517), but also provides insight into the dates of acquisition of some of the books in Reuchlin's library, as well as identifies sources to which Reuchlin must have had access, but which are not known from his surviving library or the historical record of his life.

In the course of his...


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