Conrad Pellicanus - Encyclopedia

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CONRAD PELLICANUS (1478-1556), German theologian, was born at Ruffach in Alsace, on the 8th of January 1478. His German name, Kiirsner, was changed to Pellicanus by his mother's brother Jodocus Gallus, an ecclesiastic connected with the university of Heidelberg, who supported his nephew for sixteen months at the university in 1491-1492. On returning to Ruffach, he taught gratis in the Minorite convent school that he might borrow books from the library, and in his sixteenth year resolved to become a friar. This step helped his studies, for he was sent to Tubingen in 1496 and became a favourite pupil of the guardian of the Minorite convent there, Paulus Scriptoris, a man of considerable general learning. There seems to have been at that time in south-west Germany a considerable amount of sturdy independent thought among the Franciscans; Pellicanus himself became a Protestant very gradually, and without any such revulsion of feeling as marked Luther's conversion. At Tubingen the future "apostate in three languages" was able to begin the study of Hebrew. He had no teacher and no grammar; but Paulus Scriptoris carried him a huge codex of the prophets on his own shoulders all the way from Mainz. He learned the letters from the transcription of a few verses in the Star of the Messiah of Petrus Niger, and, with a subsequent hint or two from Reuchlin, who also lent him the grammar of Moses Kimhi, made his way through the Bible for himself with the help of Jerome's Latin. He got on so well that he was not only a useful helper to Reuchlin but anticipated the manuals of the great Hebraist by composing in 1501 the first Hebrew grammar in the European tongue. It was printed in 1503, and afterwards included in Reysch's Margarita philosophica. Hebrew remained a favourite study to the last. Pellican's autobiography describes the gradual multiplication of accessible books on the subjects, and he not only studied but translated a vast mass of rabbinical and Talmudic texts, his interest in Jewish literature being mainly philological. The chief fruit of these studies is the vast commentary on the Bible (Zurich, 7 vols., 1532-1539), which shows a remarkably sound judgment on questions of the text, and a sense for historical as opposed to typological exegesis.

Pellicanus became priest in 1501 and continued to serve his order at Ruffach, Pforzheim, and Basel till 1526. At Basel he did much laborious work for Froben's editions, and came to the conclusion that the Church taught many doctrines of which the early doctors of Christendom knew. nothing. He spoke his views frankly, but he disliked polemic; he found also more toleration than might have been expected, even after he became active in circulating Luther's books. Thus, supported by the civic authorities, he remained guardian of the convent of his order at Basel from 1519 till 1524, and even when he had to give up his post, remained in the monastery for two years, professing theology in the university. At length, when the position was becoming quite untenable, he received through Zwingli a call to Zurich as professor of Greek and Hebrew, and formally throwing off his monk's habit, entered on a new life. Here he remained till his death on the 6th of April 1556.

Pellicanus's scholarship, though not brilliant, was really extensive; his sound sense, and his singularly pure and devoted character gave him a great influence. He was remarkably free from the pedantry of the time, as is shown by his views about the use of the German vernacular as a vehicle of culture (Citron. 135, 36). As a theologian his natural affinities were with Zwingli, with whom he shared the advantage of having grown up to the views of the Reformation, by the natural progress of his studies and religious life. Thus he never lost his sympathy with humanism and with its great German representative, Erasmus.

Pellicanus's Latin autobiography (Chronicon C.P.R.) is one of the most interesting documents of the period. It was first published by Riggenbach in 1877, and in this volume the other sources for his life are registered. See also Emil Silberstein, Conrad Pellicanus; ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Studiums der hebr. Sprache (Berlin, 1900).

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