Iacobi Chii Palaeologi opera quae supersunt omnia

A Preliminary Exploration Carried out by

Martin Rothkegel (Elstal) in Cooperation with Mihály Balázs (Szeged)

The religious thought of the radical Unitarian Jacobus Palaeologus, executed for heresy in Rome in 1585, is as fascinating as repulsive. The boldness and self-confidence which the Greek-Italian runaway friar displayed in his deconstruction of the traditional Christian dogma, combined with an irritating elusiveness concerning his own biography and intentions, make the reader wonder what may have been the author’s true agenda. While virtually all preserved texts originated after 1561 when Palaeologus lived as an exile in Bohemia, Poland, Transylvania, and Moravia, Palaeologus may have received seminal impulses in contexts in which he lived before he fled to Bohemia: in Italy and in the Levant.

Maybe it was Palaeologus’s intention to forge a theology custom-tailored for the Portuguese Marranos who wavered between Christianity and Judaism? Palaeologus studied in Ferrara in the 1540s and early 1550s when the city was at the center of the Marrano reconversion movement, and it seems that he was temporarily patronized by Gracia Mendes and Josef Nasi. Maybe Palaeologus’s radical reasoning was triggered by experiences with converts to, and reconverts from, Islam when he was a popular preacher in Constantinople and on the island of Chios until 1560? In effect, Palaeologus reduced the Christian religion to those elements which it has in common with Islam ‒ and which can also be professed and practiced, as Palaeologus claimed, by persons who simultaneously observe the Jewish religious Law.

While working as a post doc researcher in Prague in 2001-2005, I was introduced to Palaeologus’s extensive oeuvre by the Byzantine scholar, Růžena Dostálová (1924-2014).  She kindly made available to me a collection of materials that she had gathered during five decades of research, including reproductions of manuscript sources and secondary literature. During a conference hosted by the Transylvanian Unitarian Church in Cluj-Kolozsvár in 2010, I had the opportunity the take digital photographs of all manuscript Palaeologus texts preserved among the holdings of the historical Unitarian library. Funding granted by the Gerda Henkel Foundation allowed me to collect a large number of additional relevant sources from Italian, Austrian, Hungarian, Greek and Swiss archives and libraries. In 2012, the eminent Italian historian, Massimo Firpo, generously consigned to me his extensive collection of typewritten transcriptions of most of Palaeologus’s known writings. As a result, a comprehensive collection of primary sources (in reproductions and transcriptions) by and on Palaeologus and of relevant secondary literature is presently located at the Theologische Hochschule Elstal.

In cooperation with the renowned Hungarian literary historian, Mihály Balázs, professor emeritus at the University of Szeged, I am exploring the possibility of producing an edition of Palaeologus’s writings. It is not always a pleasure to deal with Palaeologus’s prose and the way he presents his arguments: the texts are often inelegant, tirelessly repetitive, sometimes seemingly shallow ‒ but time and again astonishing in their complete disrespect for the traditional Christian dogma. I uploaded preliminary versions of some shorter pieces, chiefly based on Firpo’s transcriptions, on academia.edu.


Iacobus Palaeologus De baptismo (1573). E codice in Bibliotheca Collegii Unitariorum Claudiopolitani asservato MSU 1669, pp. 683-689, descripsit MASSIMO FIRPO, cum codice denuo contulit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL

Half a century ago, Massimo Firpo transcribed most of Jacobus Palaeologus's unpublished works located in the Library of the Romanian Academy of Sciences in Cluj-Napoca. Firpo's typewritten transcriptions are currently being digitized and compared with digital images of the original manuscripts. As a first sample of this work in progress, a project carried out at the Theologische Hochschule Elstal, we present the short treatise On Baptism. This preliminary version is without notes and commentaries. The text has not undergone final editing and probably still contains some typos or editorial mistakes.


Iacobi Palaeologi Dissolutio de sacramentis. E codice in Bibliotheca Collegii Unitariorum Claudiopolitani asservato MSU 1669, pp. 665-683, descripsit MASSIMO FIRPO, cum codice denuo contulit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL


Iacobus Palaeologus De christi cognomine. Primum ediderunt JULIUSZ DOMAŃSKI et LECH SZCZUCKI, cum codice (MSU 1669, pp. 729-741) denuo contulit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL

This preliminary version may contain some typos and needs further editing and footnoting. The text was scanned from the edition published by DOMAŃSKI and SZCZUCKI (1973) and subsequently compared with photos of the manuscript. The marginal notes had not been rendered in the 1973 edition. DOMAŃSKI and SZCZUCKI emended Palaeologus’s Greek quotations from the Septuagint according to the printed LXX editions. I found most of their emendations unnecessary. In other cases I agreed with their suggestions or even added new hypothetical emendations (like in the first line of the text). In the final version I will add footnotes which clarify the relation between Palaeologus’s LXX quotations and the printed editions that were available in his time.

Why does Palaeologus bring all these OT quotations in Greek? Quoting the Greek text instead of a Latin version does not really add to the plausibility of his (brilliant, but dogmatically abominable) exploration of the way the word משיח is used in the Bible. Palaeologus gives the explanation himself: he did not have the Hebrew text at hand when he composed the treatise, but the Greek, Palaeologus claims, is equivalent to the Hebrew (et Graece quidem, postquam et aliis careamus libris et haec cum Hebraeis conveniant). I wonder whether Palaeologus’s Hebrew would have been good enough for carrying out this (brilliant, but abominable) analysis on the basis of the Masoretic text. But Palaeologus’s remark that he uses the Greek as a substitute for the Hebrew suggests that he actually would have preferred to work with the Hebrew text.

En iam habes, benevole lector, tractatum quem composuit Iacobus Palaeologus contra omnia fere, quae ecclesia Christiana docet de Christi nomine, dignitate et officio.


Iacobus Palaeologus De discrimine veteris et novi testamenti (1572). E codice in Bibliotheca Collegii Unitariorum Claudiopolitani asservato MSU 1669, pp. 579-606, descripsit MASSIMO FIRPO, cum codice denuo contulit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL

“De discrimine” was written by Palaeologus in Cracow in June 1572 after his return from a visit to Transylvania, and it probably refers to discussions among the Transylvanian Antitrinitarians in which Palaeologus had been involved.

For understanding this text, two preliminary remarks are helpful: The text is the refutation of a non-identified work, seemingly by a Protestant or by a moderate Antitrinitarian. This unknown work defended the traditional Christian views that the Old Covenant was superseded by the New Testament, that the Mosaic Law was abrogated by Christ, and that Christians are the new people of God instead of the Jews who were disowned by God. It seems that Palaeologus quotes some passages from the unknown work, which is indicated in the manuscript by indented lines (I tried to imitate this in the transcription).

The second remark: Forget everything you have heard about Christianity. Palaeologus would probably have claimed to be a Christian in some sense, but seen from a Christian perspective he was rather championing a kind of “Abrahamism”. This “Abrahamism” exists in a more sophisticated form, i.e., Judaism, and in a radically simplified form for gentiles. The latter was introduced after the death of Jesus in the time of the apostles. Due to some undesirable historical developments, this simplified variety of Judaism developed into two more or less distorted religions, Christianity and Islam. Islam is actually closer to the original “new testament” religion than Christianity, which is utterly spoiled by its polytheistic dogma (that’s what Palaeologus thinks about the Trinity), by idolatry, and by superstition.   

Palaeologus was convinced that the Jewish people never ceased to be the People of the Covenant, and that the Jewish religion and the observation of the Mosaic Law must continue to the end of time. Jesus, like other kings, priests, and prophets of Israel before him, was an “anointed” messenger of God (a “christ”, but one of many “christs”). He was divinely appointed to call the Jews to order in a situation when many Jews fell short of observing the Law in due manner, and to become the king of the Jews.

When most Jews rejected Jesus as their king, God decided to admit gentiles to the Covenant without circumcision. Until this point of time, the only way for gentiles to salvation (eternal life) had been a full conversion to Judaism. In other word, what is called the New Testament is a simplified and reduced form of Judaism for the gentiles. “Testament” is just a synonym for “people”. Hence, there are indeed two “testaments”, two Peoples of the Covenant, an older one and a younger or “new”. The cause of salvation is the same in both varieties of the true religion, i.e., the promises made to Abraham. The death and resurrection of Jesus did not add anything new to this promise nor to salvation, but only had the effect or consequence that the promises made by God to Abraham became available for uncircumcised gentiles.


Iacobus Palaeologus De peccato originis (1573) E codice in Bibliotheca Collegii Unitariorum Claudiopolitani asservato MSU 1669, pp. 718-720, edidit LECH SZCZUCKI (1972), denuo cum codice contulit necnon alterum ibidem asservatum, MSU 474, pp. 231-234, adhibuit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL

Palaeologus does not invest much paper into rejecting the anthropological concept of humankind’s inbred evil, a doctrine so central to the Christian tradition: neither sin nor grace means much for him. Equally amazing is both, Palaeologus’s boldness in reinterpreting central Scripture passages, and his apparent lack of comprehension of the existential religious concerns of his contemporaries: it is difficult to imagine that a 16th century Christian who was anxiously pursuing “blessed assurance” of eternal salvation would have been satisfied by Palaeologus’s minimalistic message.


Iacobi Palaeologi Epistola de rebus Constantinopoli et Chii cum eo actis. Iuxta exemplar typis impressum in Bibliotheca Strahoviensi asservatum edidit necnon adnotatiunculus aliquot adornavit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL

Palaeologus mentions at the beginning of the text that he had sent another travel report to Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna. This sounds credible, although this “official” dispatch is not extant anymore. The text preserved in the printed booklet appears to be a more private version, probably written to one of the sponsors of the journey.

Palaeologus lived on credit during most of his life in exile, and he continued to dream of a career as a diplomat for the Austrian Habsburgs. In this letter about a private journey to Constantinople and Chios, he boasted of the high esteem that he allegedly enjoyed in the Levant, recommended himself for a diplomatic mission, and explained why he returned from Chios without money. It seems that Palaeologus had promised to sell certain real estate on Chios in order to settle his debts by the revenues. One may wonder whether it can be true that a former mendicant friar, condemned to death in 1561, still had property on the island more than seven years after the Turkish occupation.

The text indicates that the unknown recipient was a partisan of the Habsburgs who detested the French-Ottoman alliance, supported the Habsburg aspiration for the Polish throne against Henri de Valois in 1573, and sympathized with Palaeologus’s radical religious ideas. One could think of Andreas Dudith, but this can be excluded: Palaeologus translates the Greek passages of the text into Latin for the convenience of the recipient, which would not make much sense in the case of Dudith whose Greek was excellent.

During his journey to Chios and Constantinople, Palaeologus tried to make his religious ideas known to Muslim interlocutors wherever he could. He proudly reports that his new interpretation of Christian doctrine made a favorable impression on Muslims. On Chios the sheikh of a dervish order and several other notables were deeply impressed. Palaeologus boasted: had he had more time in Constantinople, he would have arranged for a meeting with the chief müfti of the Empire and would have preached to him the Christian doctrine like the Apostle Paul preached to the Athenians – to wit: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you” (Acts 17:23).

While this wish would not come true, Palaeologus found attentive interlocutors among a group of renegades gathered around Adam Neuser (c.1530-1576). Among other things, they had a discussion on a Turkish-Latin bilingual book, written by an old translator of the Sultan who once had been a Christian. Palaeologus read the book within one day. When Neuser asked Palaeologus whether this reading had persuaded him to turn Muslim, Palaeologus commented that most of the book was just moral philosophy based on Greek philosophy, framed by some Islamic religious formulas in the beginning and at the end, and that such a book was hardly the best way to convert a reader to Islam. In a recent study of some newly discovered letters written by Neuser in Constantinople, Martin Mulsow convincingly identified the book mentioned by Palaeologus as the Kitâb tesviyetü t-teveccüh ila l-Hakk (“Guide to Conversion”), a conversion treatise addressing Latin Christian readers, written by Murad ibn Abdullah the well-known chief dragoman of Hungarian origin.


Iacobus Palaeologus An omnes ab uno Adamo descenderint (1573) E codicibus in Bibliotheca Collegii Unitariorum Claudiopolitani asservatis MSU 1669, pp. 720-721, et MSU 474, pp. 249-251, ediderunt RŮŽENA DOSTÁLOVÁ (1969) et LECH SZCZUCKI (1972), cum codicibus denuo contulit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL

In a footnote to his “Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve”, Stephen Greenblatt included a vague reference to the eccentric 16th century thinker Jacobus Palaeologus. According to Greenblatt, a century before La Peyrère  “the Greek-born Dominican friar Jacob Palaeologus had been beheaded in Rome for suggesting that all humans might not have descended from Adam and Eve and for proposing that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all offer legitimate routes to salvation.” Indeed there is a short text on the question An omnes ab uno Adamo descenderint written by Jacobus Palaeologus in Transylvania in 1573, in which the Greek-Italian ex-Dominican suggested that the diverse nations go back to a plurality of ancestors. The text is preserved in two manuscript copies penned by Unitarian theologians in Transylvania, one in 1579, the other in 1593. It was published twice, the first time in 1969 by Růžena Dostálová and a second time, with some distorting mistakes, by Lech Szczucki in 1972.

In Palaeologus’s perception only Genesis 1 speaks of humankind in general, whereas the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3, and the subsequent fates of their descendants in the following chapters of Genesis, deal only with the origin of what Palaeologus called the Abrahamic nation (Abrahamica gens). The populations of other parts of the world must have had other ancestors.

Like Isaac La Peyrère in the following century, Palaeologus started his consideration with the simple question whence Cain had his wife. The simple answer would be that not all descendants of Adam are expressly mentioned in the biblical text, but only those who are relevant for the genealogy of Abraham and therefore relevant for the history of salvation. This standard explanation is rejected by Palaeologus as insufficient by a peculiar exegesis of the “sons of God” marrying the “daughters of humans” mentioned in Genesis 6. In the exegetical traditions, filii Dei (the Masoretic text reads בני האלהים) was explained either as angels; or as “the godly” which would be the descendants of the righteous Seth, whereas the “daughters of men” were the descendants of wicked Cain. Palaeologus, who denied the existence of angels, explained that “sons of God” must be descendants of Adam who is called “son of God” in the genealogy of Christ in Luke 3. But if the “sons of God” are the descendants of Adam, whose descendants were the “daughters of humans”?  

Palaeologus argues further that all nations mentioned in Genesis as Noah’s descendants lived in the Levant. They cannot have been the only surviving humans after the Deluge. If up to the time of Christ nobody had dared to sail around the British Isles, one can exclude that the descendants of Noah were able to sail across the ocean to America. Hence, the nations living in America must have had a separate origin.

It seems that Palaeologus had in mind Saint Augustine’s discussion in the City of God, book 16, whether there possibly exist human beings of monstrous stature in remote countries, or antipodes on the other side of the globe. Augustine examined the various reports on monstrous humans found in Greek and Roman literature, and came to the result: “Either these things which have been told of some races have no existence at all; or if they do exist, they are not human; or if they are human, they must be descended from Adam” (XVI 8). As to the antipodes, Augustine admitted the possibility that the earth is a spherical globe, but excluded the existence of human beings living upside down on the other side, for “it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man” (XVI 9).


Iacobus Palaeologus De matrimonio (ca. 1573) E codice in Bibliotheca Collegii Unitariorum Claudiopolitani asservato MSU 474, pp. 207-221, descripsit MASSIMO FIRPO, cum codice denuo contulit necnon Graeca supplevit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL

It is interesting to observe that Palaeologus, otherwise driven by a destructive, iconoclastic zeal against traditional doctrine, defended a rather conservative position on marriage and divorce.

Palaeologus’s exegesis of the biblical phrase “becoming one flesh” (Gen 2:24) is remarkable: Palaeologus argues that being of the same “flesh” means kinship in several biblical passages, hence “becoming one flesh” in Gen 2:24 is to be understood as a legal term denoting the transition of the wife to the family of the spouse. I guess Palaeologus did not know Rashi’s simple explanation, “the child is created by the two of them, thus their flesh becomes one,” so he had to find a more sophisticated interpretation in order to get rid of the traditional Christian spiritual connotations of marriage as a sacrament.

Palaeologus rejects the (alleged) Protestant practice of divorcing Catholic spouses: according to the Greek-Italian heretic, Papists are Christians as well as Evangelicals, even though both of them uphold erroneous doctrines. Thus there is no obstacle against marrying them. Divorcing a spouse who does not share one’s own way to heaven is as absurd as divorcing a wife because she does not accompany the husband on his business trips or in times of war. 

This text is a digitized, revised and enlarged version of a typewritten transcription produced by Massimo Firpo in the early 1970s. The eminent Italian scholar did an excellent philological work. He copied the text from a manuscript penned by Unitarian bishop György Enyedi (1555-1597), whose hand is not always easy to read. In general, editing Palaeologus's texts is sometimes difficult because of Palaeologus's inelegant style and irregular syntax. The Greek passages inserted into the Latin text are almost entirely taken from, or based on, the New Testament.


Iacobi Palaeologi Dissolutio de iusticia (1573) E codice in Bibliotheca Collegii Unitariorum Claudiopolitani asservato MSU 1669, pp. 621-626, descripsit MASSIMO FIRPO, cum codice denuo contulit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL

Students of the New Testament will find striking parallels between the “New Perspective on Paul” and Jacobus Palaeologus’s interpretation of Paulinic texts and concepts. According to Palaeologus, the promise of salvation is limited to the descendants of Abraham who are inside the Covenant. Before Jesus, gentiles could join the Covenant only by being circumcised and fully converting to Judaism. Since the death of Jesus, however, Gentiles can join the People of the Covenant by confessing faith in Jesus as the Messiah (or rather: by acknowledging Jesus as one of the “anointed” messengers of God) without circumcision. In the apostolic writings (the New Testament), the death of Jesus is sometimes compared with a sacrifice because it replaces the offering owed by a proselyte upon conversion. The “imputed justice” means no more than becoming eligible for the promises made by God to the descendants of Abraham. Individual salvation, however, must be achieved by obedience to the Law. Physical descendants of Abraham and those gentiles who join the People of Israel by circumcision must observe the whole law, those gentiles who were “adopted” into the People of Israel by faith alone (without full conversion) have the privilege of being exempt from the obligation to observe the ritual commandments.


Libri deperditi Iacobi Palaeologi Pro Serveto contra Calvinum fragmenta edidit, praefatus est et notis criticis instruxit MARTIN ROTHKEGEL (Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Segretaria di Stato, Germania 104, 134r-143v)

Stanislaus Kot berichtete 1953 von der Existenz des Exzerpts einer verlorenen Schrift des Palaeologus Pro Serveto contra Calvinum oder In Ioannis Calvini librum de orthodoxa fide (1575),  einer Gegenschrift gegen Calvins Defensio Orthodoxae fidei de sacra Trinitate contra prodigiosos errores Michaelis Serveti (1554).  Das Exzerpt hatte Kot im Vatikanischen Archiv unter den Berichten des Giovanni Francesco Bonomini, 1581/82 Nuntius in Wien, an Tolomeo Gallio (Kardinal Como) entdeckt. Bei diesem Exzerpt handelt es sich um den einzigen erhaltenen Überrest einer größeren Zahl von handschriftlichen Werken des Palaeologus, die im Zusammenhang mit der Verhaftung des Palaeologus im Dezember 1581 konfisziert worden waren und deren Umfang den der in Klausenburg (vier Bände)  und Bern (ein Band) erhaltenen Handschriften mit Palaeologus-Texten wahrscheinlich um ein Mehrfaches übertraf. Die 1581 konfiszierten Werke des Palaeologus wurden 1585 zusammen mit seiner Leiche auf dem Campo de’ Fiori in Rom verbrannt.

Glauben, Denken, Handeln