As a promising, talented young man, he became one of King Joao Ill’s secretaries and an official in the Portuguese court of appeals. Diogo Pires might have remained a fairly obscure servant of the crown had it not been for an event that electrified the Portuguese Marrano community in 1525 — the arrival of a mysterious Jewish ambassador, David Reuveni, who sought Christian allies for a war to wrest Jerusalem from the Turks.
Alarmed by the messianic enthusiasm that his visit aroused among local conversos. Reuveni was not disposed to encourage their open reversion to Judaism. Young Diogo nevertheless unhesitatingly circumcised himself, claiming that he did so by God’s command in the first of his many visions. He changed his name and, as Solomon Molkho, took the precaution of fleeing to Italy.
There he may have pursued Hebrew and religious studies before journeying east to Salonika, one of the great centers of Jewish mysticism, where he perfected his knowledge of the Kabbalah, began to view himself as the promised Messiah, and attracted many followers, including Joseph Caro.
A collection of Molkho’s sermonson messianic themes (Sefer ha-Mefo'ar as it later became known) was published at Salonika in 1529; legend has it that Molkho also visited the Holy Land, spending time with the kabbalists of Safed and with Reuveni in Jerusalem. It was in Italy, however, that Molkho believed his struggle for redemption had to be won. He reappeared there in 1529, preaching to large congregations and winning new followers. When some farsighted Jew's treated him as a poster, he decided to “fulfill” a Talmudic doctrine about the Messiah by adopting the guise of a beggar and sitting among diseased, crippled folk near the papal palace “at the gate of Rome ” (1530). Molkho even gained a protector in the head of the Church. Pope Clement VII, to whom he predicted separate calamities that indeed took place: Rome’s inundation by the Tiber River (October 8. 1530) and an earthquake in his native Portugal (January 26, 1531).
Toward the end of 1530. Molkho appealed for help to the Jews of Venice, where he made an enemy of the pope’s Jewish physician, Dr. Jacob Mantino, who followed him back to Rome and there denounced him as a mischievous relapsed Catholic to the Inquisition. Thanks to Pope Clement VII, however, Molkho had an amazing escape: while he was spirited away and granted shelter in the Vatican, a condemned criminal resembling him was made his substitute on the inquisitional pyre (1531). This may have led Molkho to suppose that he bore a charmed life, despite the intrigues of his various opponents. Joining forces with Reuveni in northern Italy (1532), he planned a dramatic approach to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. At Regensburg (Ratisbon) in Bavaria, the Imperial Diet was considering measures to halt the Ottoman advance into central Europe; the two Jewish envoys suddenly appeared there, flying their banner and offering to raise an army of Jews and conversos for joint action against the Turks.
With Lutheranism spreading to the north and Islam to the east, however, Charles V had no time for the perilous schemes of a foreign adventurer or Marram false messiah. Arrested and dapped in irons, they were sent Tor trial to Mantua, where Molkho — condemned a second time for judaizing chose to die a martyr at the stake in December 1532.
Tales of another miraculous rescue continued to circulate years after Molkho’s death, sustaining disciples from Portugal to Poland and making this new kabbalistie “saint” a forerunner of the 17th- century heresiarch, Shabbctai Tzevi. Biographical data from the correspondence that he left were incorporated in standard Jewish martyrologies.
His dramatic career also inspired a number of modern literary works, such as the play by Edmond Fleg, Le juij du pape (1925) and Aharon Avraham Kabak’s Shelomo Molkho (1928-1929), a three-volume historical novel in Hebrew.