This Day in Jewish History

1624: Christian Theologian Burned at Stake for Pursuing Judaism

Portuguese church official Antonio Homem was arrested in 1619, after the discovery of a secret synagogue he had established.

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On May 5, 1624, Antonio Homem – a Christian theologian and church official – was burned at the stake as a Judaizer during an auto-da-fé in Lisbon.

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In 1564, Antonio Homem was born in Coimbra, the inland city in north-central Portugal that had the country’s oldest university. Both his parents were descendants of New Christians (Jewish converts to Christianity) and, in the hope that Antonio would not go through life under a cloud of suspicion, he was educated at Jesuit institutions.

Homem entered a religious order and studied at the University of Coimbra, receiving his doctorate in 1592. In 1614, he was appointed a professor of canon law there, and he also was a canon at the city’s cathedral, as well as a confessor.

In February 1611, Homem was arrested by the Portuguese Inquisition, and subject to interrogation on suspicion he was pursuing a secret Jewish life. The charges were dropped, on the basis of his theological publications, but from then on he was kept under surveillance.

On December 18, 1619, Homem was again arrested, after the discovery in Coimbra of a secret synagogue he had established. He was sent to Lisbon for questioning, the transcript of which has survived. It includes, for example, the text of a sermon he gave on Yom Kippur of 1619, during which he told his fellow secret Jews that the main difference between Judaism and Christianity is in the Jews’ Sabbath observance and in their non-worship of images.

He also declared that, when one is living under conditions of persecution, it is sufficient to have the mitzvot (Jewish commandments) in mind, even if one is not able to carry them out.

Additionally, according to the informant who reported on the synagogue to the Inquisition, Homem exhorted his fellow congregants to “live in the law of Moses,” referring to certain authorities of the Old Testament; at certain passages the people performed guayas – a lamentation similar in meaning to “oy.” He also was said to have “blown in a horn and made a low sound several times that day.”

Homem was convicted, although apparently he did not confess, and was sentenced to death – a punishment that was carried out more than five years later. In the wake of his trial, however, 131 other people were arrested and tried on charges of membership in the Jewish “cult.” These included four other canons from Coimbra Cathedral, 52 nuns and a variety of students and teachers from the University of Coimbra.

At the auto-da-fé – the public religious ceremony that preceded the execution – Friar Antonio de Sousa spoke about the perfidity of Judaism, noting that “the many Jews in all ranks that are daily discovered allow us to presume the worst about the generality” of that people.

Homem and the other condemned prisoners were then turned over to the authority of “civil justice,” and marched to the place of execution, at Terreiro do Trigo. He was garroted (strangled) and then burned.

After Homem’s death, his home was destroyed, and in its place a pillar was erected bearing the inscription “Praeceptor infelix” – Latin for “Unfortunate teacher.”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen