This Day in Jewish History

1532: A False Messiah Burns at the Stake

Raised as a Catholic son of conversos, Solomon Molcho decided he was the Jewish Messiah, and opted to die for his beliefs rather than recant.

AP

On December 13, 1532, the false messiah Solomon Molcho was burned at the stake in Mantua, Italy. As a Catholic-raised son of converso Jews who returned on his own to Judaism, and then allied himself with a Jewish adventurer from the East who tried to enlist the help of European monarchs in his military intrigues, it was perhaps inevitable that Molkho would end up accused of heresy and pay the ultimate price.

Molkho was born Diogo Pires, in Lisbon, Portugal, circa 1500. He was raised as a Christian by Marrano parents. As an adult, he attained a high position in the royal government as a recoding secretary to the high appellate court. In 1525, Molcho met David Reuveni, who had been sent by Pope Clement VII to Lisbon with a letter of introduction to King John III. Reuveni, a man of mysterious origins who claimed to have ancestry leading back to ancient Israel had arrived in Rome atop a white horse, seeking European alliances to fight the Muslims.

In Portugal, Reuveni was received not only by the king but by many conversos, who saw in him the Messiah. Diogo Pires was one of them. He decided to return to Judaism, and asked Reuveni to help him be circumcised. When Reuveni warned him he would be risking the wrath of the Inquisition, Pires went ahead and circumcised himself. Then he set off for the Orient, first to Salonika, then to Syria and the Holy Land. He studied, and then began to teach, kabbalah. By now, he had changed his name to Solomon Molcho, and he began to preach the coming of the Messianic age in 1540. In 1529, his disciples in Salonika prevailed upon him to publish a volume of his sermons, which came to be called “Sefer Hamefoar.”

After two of his visions came to pass – a flood in Rome in 1520, and an earthquake in Portugal the following year – Molcho began to imagine that he himself was the Messiah. In a missive to his followers, Molcho described how the Christian world would “fall into the hands of its enemies. The people of Israel will reveal its power. God will have mercy upon His servants ... I will take vengeance and pay to each his desserts."

Linking up with David Reuveni, Molcho paid a call on Charles V in Ratisbon (today, Regensburg, Germany), hoping the Holy Roman Emperor would provide them with arms to fight the Turks. Instead, the emperor had the two men arrested and then turned them over to the Inquisition in Mantua. After a trial for heresy, Molcho was offered the opportunity to repent and to return to Christianity. He refused, preferring to die a martyr’s death at the stake. (Reuveni ended his days in prison, where he may have been poisoned.) Eight years later, in 1540, he still had followers who awaited his return to usher in the era of redemption.