After the Expulsion from Spain and the forced conversions in Portugal, many Jews and New Christians, seeking an explanation for the twin disasters, saw in them signs of the approaching messianic era – that is, the necessary “birth pangs.” They could point to a series of events that appeared to be further signs- the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks in 1453; Ottoman expansion into both Europe and North Africa; the breakup of western Christendom with the Reformation; and, in a different vein, European expansion to the new world and the “discovery” of previously unknown territories.

Messianic hopes and speculations spawned messianic myths, among both Jews and Christians. Jews recalled the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes, whose members, in popular memory, were believed to reside in a very distant land, from which they would be summoned forth to unite with the rest of the Jewish people in the messianic era. Among Christians, a somewhat similar myth had spread since the twelfth century—the myth of the kingdom of Prester John. According to this legend there existed somewhere in the world (according to some versions in India, or in Ethiopia) an ancient Christian kingdom. This myth was revived during the European expansion, when reports of newly discovered lands and peoples reached Europe. It is against this background that we can view the extraordinary careers of David Reuveni (or Reubeni, ca. 1490s-1535?) and Solomon Molkho (ca. 1500-1532).

David Reuveni, whose actual origins are obscure, appeared in Cairo in the 1520s, introducing himself as “a chief of staff of the army” of a kingdom of 300,000 Jews ruled by his brother Joseph. These Jews, he claimed, were “sons of Reuben, Gad, and Menasseh [three of the lost tribes],” living “near the river Sambation.” After traveling in the Middle East, Reuveni reached Venice in 1523. There he contacted prominent figures among the Venetian elite, arousing considerable interest. In 1524, he went to Rome, where he contacted Daniel da Pisa, an influential Jewish banker. Da Pisa arranged for David Reuveni to meet Cardinal Egidio de Viterbo, a prominent Christian Hebraist. Eventually, Reuveni was granted an audience with the Pope Clement VII. At the audience, Reuveni proposed a joint expedition of his own Jewish army and European Christian armies to capture the Holy Land from the Ottoman Turks. Under the sway of prevailing currents of thought and Reuveni’s powerful personality, the pope granted Reuveni a letter of introduction to the king of Portugal.

In Portugual, Reuveni met with King João III in 1525. The news of “the King of the Jews” stirred excitement in the converso community, whose members had been living outwardly as Catholics since the forced conversion in 1497. One young New Christian, Diogo Pires, a secretary to the royal council, became a fervent follower of David Reuveni. When Reuveni – whose political objectives required maintaining a safe distance from the conversos – refused Diogo Pires’s request to circumcise him, the distinguished young converso performed the surgery himself and adopted the name Solomon Molkho, a name with messianic overtones.

Both David Reuveni, who was dangerously stirring up converso feeling, and Solomon Molkho, whose reversion to Judaism rendered him a heretic, were forced to leave Portugal, and the two men embarked for a while on separate paths. Molkho traveled to Italy and Salonica, where he studied Kabbalah and even produced a kabbalistic work, The Book of Splendor (1529). Reuveni found his way to Avignon, where he was arrested and imprisoned, but released in 1529 on orders of King Francis I.

By 1530, both Solomon Molkho and David Reuveni were in the Italian states, each pursuing his own ambitious plans. Remarkably, Molkho succeeded in obtaining an audience with the pope, despite the fact that, as a baptized Jew, he was technically a heretic. (The pope offered him a letter of protection, stipulating that he “shall not be molested by anyone under whatever authority.”)

Reuveni, meanwhile, had been encountering difficulties among the Jews of Rome, some of whom viewed his intrigues as dangerous to the well-being of the community – as they surely were, given the complex political and religious realities of Rome in the early Reformation period. Still hoping to realize his military scheme, in 1532 Reuveni, who had been joined again by Molkho, sought to gain the ear of the Habsburg emperor Charles V. Despite a warning from the undisputed leader of the Jews of the Holy Roman Empire, the Alsatian Jew Josel of Rosheim, the two messianic adventurers met with the emperor. Reuveni’s aim was still to create a Christian-Jewish alliance against the Turks. The two men, however, had by now aroused serious opposition in various quarters. Both were imprisoned and tried by the Inquisition in Mantua. Molkho was burned at the stake there in 1532. Reuveni was sent to a Spanish prison and was apparently tried by Inquisition in Llerena, where he died some time after 1535.