Luther and the Jews

I guess everybody has heard of Martin Luther, the 16th German Christian reformer who may be credited with starting the Protestant Reformation and loosing the Roman Catholic Church’s hegemony in Europe. Better-informed folks will know that Luther made an important translation of the Bible into the German language and perhaps something about Luther’s theology, including the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, and his Theology of the Cross. One can read in Luther’s Table Talk and other writings that Luther was an earthy man who said what he thought without sugar-coating it. Most of Luther’s writing is argumentative, regularly trashing the Papists, the Anabaptists and others. What is particularly troubling is some of Luther’s writing about Jews.

What Luther Wrote

The best-known tract on the subject is entitled Ãœber die Juden und Ihre Lügen (On the Jews and their Lies). There are copies of this on the Web that one can read for themselves, and I won’t summarize it except to say that it talks about harassment of Jews including burning of their homes and destruction of their places of worship. Until recently, a companion work to On the Jews and their Lies was not available in English. This work, Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ) appears in the appendix to Gerhard Falk’s excellent book: The Jew in Christian Theology: Martin Luther’s Anti-Jewish Vom Schem Hamporas, Previously Unpublished in English, and Other Milestones in Church Doctrine Concerning Judaism.

It is important to note that On the Jews and Vom Schem were both written in response to alleged Jewish statements cited by Salvagus Porchetus de Salvaticus, a 14 century Cartesian monk in Victoria adversus impios Hebraeos. Luther was not simply out to bash the Jews in these works but to refute their “lies” and to defend Christ. These alleged statements were pretty offensive and Luther was obviously quite angry about them. Attacking the views of others was what Luther did best.

Works by Luther concerning the Jews

  • That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew
  • Neue Vorrede auf den Propheten Hesekiel (New preface concerning the prophet Ezekiel)
  • Ãœber die Juden und Ihre Lügen (On the Jews and their Lies) (1542)
  • Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ) (1543)
  • On the Last Word of David (1543)

What Luther didn’t write

There are some anti-Christian propagandists who have misrepresented Luther’s writing in order to discredit Christianity in general. In particular they cite a question posed to Luther about what to do if a Jew presented himself for baptism. The answer they quote is “I would take him on to the bridge, tie a stone around his neck, and hurl him into the river.” In truth, Luther’s answer is: “You must fill a large tub with water, and, having divested the Jew of his clothes, cover him with a white garment. He must then sit down in the tub, and you must baptize him quite under water. The ancients, when they were baptized, were attired in white, whence the first Sunday after Easter, which is peculiarly consecrated to this ceremony, was called dominica in albis. … If a Jew, not converted at heart, were to ask baptism at my hands, I would take him on to the bridge, tie a stone around his neck, and hurl him into the river”. [Luther’s Table Talk, #356] None of this was something Luther wrote, but something that was remembered from his conversation and published by others after his death. I read it as obvious hyperbole.

What Can we Make of this?

As I said at the top, Luther was an earthy man–a Medieval man. We need to at least try to understand the worldview Luther inherited. He was a member of an anti-Semitic culture. Luther did not invent anti-Semitism. Wittenberg was not a modern pluralist city–it was a Christian city, except for Jews. Luther thought that it was only right that the whole world name Christ as Lord and the Jews were stubborn. Luther’s response to the Jews was not a response to a race, but to a people who rejected Christ and simply would not convert to Christianity. In some sense, Luther’s railing against the Jews was to him like a mule-driver cursing and beating his stubborn animal. What Luther failed to do was to follow his own teaching about Bearing False Witness (Small Catechism).

What Came of what Luther Wrote

Whether Luther’s anti-Semitic writing was an inspiration for or just a legitimizing cover taken by the Nazi party in Germany, Luther was a significant part of the Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda. Luther’s thought had great stature in Germany during the third Reich–he was a national hero. I can think of no more powerful example of the consequences of sin, than what followed in the wake of Luther’s angry outbursts against his neighbor in the 16th century. Today the opponents of Christianity use Luther’s anti-Semitism as an attack on the legitimacy of Protestantism and Christianity as a whole, while modern neo-Nazis cleave to Luther’s work as proof that anti-Semitism is both true and Christian.

A Modern Lutheran Response

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has written an statement to the Jewish community. It’s on the ELCA website. I strongly urge folks to read it. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod also has a statement on the subject. According to the LCMS “we personally and individually adopt Luther’s final attitude toward the Jewish people, as evidenced in his last sermon: ‘We want to treat them with Christian love and to pray for them, so that they might become converted and would receive the Lord’ (Luther’s Works, Weimar edition, Vol. 51, p. 195).”

My Response

I’m bothered a lot by what Luther said. I find some very deep and valuable insights into Christianity in Luther’s writings and it’s tough when the same guy is so disgustingly nasty towards some other people.

Some things have been said by others to mitigate what Luther did. Falk says: “Every age and every society rests upon the culture base of all that preceded it. It would therefore be both unjust and impossible to believe that Luther should have had anything but anti-Jewish attitudes, since as a Christian he and all of Christianity of his day and all preceding him had always been taught the two principal tenets of Christian belief, the two pillars upon which Christianity had always rested: Love for all mankind and hatred for the Jews” (p 64). I have some sympathy for what Falk says, but I also believe that a Christian is called to transcend his culture, and in the case of the Jews Luther did not.

Another approach to Luther is to try to make some balance of good to contradict the bad. The citation from Luther’s last sermon above is an example. The LCMS FAQ on Luther’s statements says: “In light of the many positive and caring statements concerning the Jews made by Luther throughout his lifetime, it would not be fair (in my opinion), on the basis of these few regrettable (and uncharacteristic) negative statements, to characterize the reformer as “a rabid anti-Semite.” I think this just sugar coats the nasty pill. Others have said that Luther’s vitriol towards the Jews was a product of his ill health in his last years, but this doesn’t seem to be well-supported.

My best understanding of the issue can be stated in these points:

  1. Christianity, since at least the beginning of the 4th century was anti-Jewish. Luther did not invent this.
  2. Luther desired the Jews to convert to Christianity. Falk makes a distinction between those who are anti-Jewish and those who are anti-Semitic–the former want Jews to convert; the latter want them dead. Luther fits the first group.
  3. Luther trashed all his opponents both Catholic and Jewish. While his insults hurled against the Jews were perhaps more vulgar, they were of the same kind as those directed towards others.
  4. Luther’s worst tirades against the Jews were responses to alleged insults from the Jews against Christ.
  5. Luther’s basic error was failing to see the Jew as a neighbor. Christianity had systematically segregated and discriminated against Jews and had turned them into a people who were “other” and “cursed by God”. Luther’s flaw was the same as American racist Christians before the Civil Rights movement made such views unpopular.

This just goes to prove what the Bible teaches–the universality of sin even among the Church. It warns us that we have to strongly oppose those modern religious leaders who demonize other segments of society (liberals, homosexuals, Arabs, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, those on welfare, etc.).

(Mat 25:40 KJV) And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

(1 John 3:15 KJV) Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.

“We should fear and love God, and so we should not tell lies about our neighbor, nor betray, slander, or defame him, but should apologize for him, speak well of him, and interpret charitably all that he does.” Martin Luther.


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