“The circumcision of 1619 is the best known incident in the life of Johannes Buxtorfl. While Buxtorf is clearly an exceptional figure and had unusual opportunities to work closely with Jews, his attendance at the circumcision and its consequences illustrate both the possibilities and limitations of Jewish-Christian relations during this period in Germany and Switzerland.” (Stephen G. Burnett)
BUXTORF, or Buxtorff, JOHANNES (1564-1629), German Hebrew and Rabbinic scholar, was born at Kamen in Westphalia on the 25th of December 1564. The original form of the name was Bockstrop, or Boxtrop, from which was derived the family crest, which bore the figure of a goat (Ger. Bock, he-goat). [Wikipedia]
After the death of his father, who was minister of Kamen, Buxtorf studied at Marburg and the newly-founded university of Herborn, at the latter of which C. Olevian (1536-1587) and J.P. Piscator (1546-1625) had been appointed professors of theology. At a later date Piscator received the assistance of Buxtorf in the preparation of his Latin translation of the Old Testament, published at Herborn in 1602-1603. From Herborn Buxtorf went to Heidelberg, and thence to Basel, attracted by the reputation of J.J. Grynaeus and J.G. Hospinian (1515-1575).
After a short residence at Basel he studied successively under H.B. Bullinger (1504-1575) at Zürich and Th. Beza at Geneva. On his return to Basel, Grynaeus, desirous that the services of so promising a scholar should be secured to the university, procured him a situation as tutor in the family of Leo Curio, son of Coelius Secundus Curio, well-known for his sufferings on account of the Reformed faith. At the instance of Grynaeus, Buxtorf undertook the duties of the Hebrew chair in the university, and discharged them for two years with such ability that at the end of that time he was unanimously appointed to the vacant office.
From this date (1591) to his death in 1629 he remained in Basel, and devoted himself with remarkable zeal to the study of Hebrew and rabbinic literature. He received into his house many learned Jews, that he might discuss his difficulties with them, and he was frequently consulted by Jews themselves on matters relating to their ceremonial law. He seems to have well deserved the title which was conferred upon him of “Master of the Rabbins.”
His partiality for Jewish society brought him, indeed, on one occasion [the circumcision on June 2 1919] into trouble with the authorities of the city, the laws against the Jews being very strict. Nevertheless, on the whole, his relations with the city of Basel were friendly. He remained firmly attached to the university which first recognized his merits, and declined two invitations from Leiden and Saumur successively. His correspondence with the most distinguished scholars of the day was very extensive; the library of the university of Basel contains a rich collection of letters, which are valuable for a literary history of the time.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the life and work of Johannes Buxtorf, one of the first Christians in modern times to try to listen and learn from the Jewish people, understand their literature, and make friends with them. Help us to listen and learn from another without prejudice, and accept others as you accept us. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Burnett, Stephen G., “Johannes Buxtorf I and the Circumcision Incident of 1619” (1989). Faculty Publications, Classics and Religious Studies Department. Paper 124. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/classicsfacpub/124
From Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies: Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629) and Hebrew Learning in the Seventeenth Century (Studies in the History of Christian Thought) Hardcover – August, 1997
The wife of Abraham Braunschweig, a Jewish printer living in Basel, gave birth to a son. Abraham planned to have the boy circumcised and wished to invite several other Jews who lived in the area to witness the ceremony. He and Buxtorf approached Georg Martin Glaser, the city official responsible for Jewish affairs to seek his permission both to conduct the rite and to invite other Jewish guests from outside the city. Glaser agreed to both requests. The circumcision took place on June 2, 1619 and was attended by Buxtorf, the younger Ludwig Konig, Johann Kessler Sr. (who directed the printing presses for Konig) and his son Johann, as well as Heinrich a Diest, one of Buxtorfs students, in addition to the Jewish guests.
Official reaction to the circumcision was both swift and harsh. One of the city’s pastors submitted a written complaint to the city council on June 5. The council ordered that the Jews be arrested and decided to investigate the entire incident. After the first of two preliminary hearings Braunschweig’s wife and infant son were ordered to be expelled from the city.
Buxtorf feared the result of the council’s deliberations. He wrote to Waser that he had become an object of hatred for all, not only because he had witnessed the circumcision, but because he had sponsored the publication of a Jewish book. He fully expected that the three Jewish correctors would be expelled from the city and that the rabbinical Bible edition, which was nearly completed, would have to be abandoned. There were even those who felt that Buxtorf himself should be expelled from the city.
During the city council meeting of June 16 the official accusation was read to the defendants and, after hearing the testimony of the Christian defendants, the council delivered its verdict. Buxtorf, L. Konig the younger, and both Kess]ers were rebuked for having attended the circumcision, because their presence had not only strengthened the Jews in their unbelief (vis-a-vis Christianity) but had angered “many honorable people, both of spiritual and secular standing.”
Glaser was charged with exceeding his authority by allowing the circumcision to take place and by allowing other Jews to witness it. Buxtorf’s only defence was that he had sought permission for what had transpired. The council then passed sentence, fining both him and the younger Konig 100 Reichstaler each for their participation in the incident. The Kesslers were ordered to spend two days and nights in jail. Geiser was also jailed until the council could decide his case.
……Buxtorf was no less convinced than the council that Judaism was a false religion. He told Kaspar Waser that he had attended the circumcision in order to testify to his Christian faith. Either at the time of the circumcision or subsequently he had told the Jews that they were “spiritually blind” and needed a “circumcision of the heart.” He had tried also to make clear to them the grace of God through the Christian gospel. Buxtorf thought that the practice of circumcision was evidence of the Jew’s spiritual blindness, since it indicated that they still considered themselves to be God’s chosen people. They had failed to see that the Messiah had come and gone, that God’s blessing now rested on the Church, and his wrath had been poured out upon the Jews.
Nonetheless, by attending as Jewish ceremony Buxtorf did not think that he was condoning unbelief. His conscience was clear on the matter. Buxtorf’s reaction to the treatment he had received from the council and from his fellow citizens was predictable. “What an honor, what a reward for my tremendous labors!”
He was angry enough to consider leaving the city entirely to accept a professorship at Heidelberg. Buxtorf did not discuss the injustice done to Abraham Braunschweig or the other Jewish guests at the circumcision, but judging from the arrangements he made with Glaser he saw nothing wrong with Abraham’s wish to have his son circumcised. Although he disagreed with the religious significance assigned to it by Jews, he thought that so long as the ceremony was permitted by the city authorities he had no quarrel with it.
Buxtorf’s presence at the circumcision, in contrast to the council’s vindictive denunciation of it, is indicative of his correct and perhaps friendly relations with the Jews with whom he worked. According to Tossanus, Buxtorf would periodically invite Jews to eat in his home in order to discuss his questions about Jewish beliefs and practices. That these conversations. took place at all reflects the trust which Buxtorf’s Jewish aquaintances had in him as a person. One even spoke with Buxtorf about a Jewish convert who had returned to Judaism, an extremely sensitive topic. Had he been rabidly anti-Jewish they would hardly have eaten with him, much less discussed their religion. Even seen against this background of trust, however, Abraham Braunschweig’s invitation must have been an unusual gesture of friendship.
Buxtorf’s theological argument with Braunschweig is one of the two recorded instances when he ever discussed Christianity with a Jew.