Martin Luther and the Jews – questions and answers by Bernd Buchner

Relief of the “Jewish sow” at the City Church of St. Mary in Wittenberg
(Photo: epd-bild/Norbert Neetz)

Martin Luther already dealt with the Jews before the Reformation. On August 5th, 1514, he made his first statements about them in a letter. Luther's perception of the Jews was subject to transformations, but his negative basic attitude never substantially changed. He even went as far as to demand that synagogues be burned down and the “impenitent” Jews be expelled. What were the Reformer's motivations, and what were the consequences of his hatred towards the Jews? Here are the most important questions and answers.

What were Luther's reservations against the Jews?

For Martin Luther, Judaism was a false religion that had been made superfluous by Christianity. According to the church historian Volker Leppin, this was a broad consensus during the 16th century, as well as the notion that Jesus' death on the cross had been the Jews' fault. Luther criticised both the Jews and the followers of the pope as adherents to the doctrine of obtaining righteousness through achievements. He argued that people can not be redeemed through their own good works, but only through the grace of God.

What were the Reformer's most important writings about the Jews?

Luther repeatedly covered the issue of the Jews, in conversations as well as in letters and treatises. In the letter from August 1514 he supported the humanist Johannes Reuchlin, who objected against the burning of Jewish writings. In 1523, the Reformer published the treatise “That Jesus Christ was born a Jew”. In 1538 followed the pamphlet “Against the Sabbathians”, and in 1543 his notorious treatise “On the Jews and their lies”. Even four days before his death in 1546, Luther still preached in Eisleben under the headline “Warning against the Jews”.

Was there a development of Luther's attitudes towards the Jews?

In 1523, the Reformer still uttered the expectation that the Jews might become “many good Christians”. In view of the rediscovery of the Bible he assumed that the Jews now also had to acknowledge the Messiah. When this hope remained unfulfilled, Luther's attitude transformed into pure resentment. The Luther biographer Heinz Schilling says that, during his later years, the Reformer prosecuted the Jews with “hatred, offensive abuse and violent annihilation fantasies.”

What were his fundamental claims?

Luther wanted to deprive the Jews of their economical rights and to deny them the practice of their religion. Time and again he strove to move the Protestant authorities towards expelling the Jews. In 1543 he wrote that Synagogues and Jewish houses and schools “should be set on fire, and that which does not want to burn should be covered with earth, so that not a single human being will see a stone or cinder, for ever and ever.” But the infamous “Lies” treatise – which, to a large extent, consists of an exegesis of the Old Testament -, ends with the sentence “Christ, our Lord, may mercifully proselytise them.”

Did Luther have any personal contact with Jews?

Hardly. There are no indications for him ever having visited a synagogue. The Reformer conversed with Josel von Rosheim, the head representative of the Jews in the empire, only by letter, although he called him “my good friend”. In 1537 he wrote him hat he had once been sympathetic towards the Jews, until they had abused his benevolence. In Wittenberg, Luther was once visited by a group of Rabbis. One of them allegedly insulted Jesus during this visit. During the table talks, Luther repeatedly mentioned this incident.

What is the Reformer's general attitude towards tolerance for dissenters?

Tolerance in the modern sense is alien to Luther and his contemporaries. Hans Schilling calls the inability to enter a dialogue with dissenters the “dark side of Luther's prophetic self-assurance”. The Reformer utters abusive insults not only against the Jews but also against the pope and the Turks. His appeals against peasants or “enthusiasts”, radical Protestants, are everything but a sign of understanding and tolerance.

Was Luther an anti-Semite?

No. The Reformer belongs to the tradition of Christian anti-Judaism, which must be distinguished from modern anti-Semitism. The term “anti-Semitism” was coined in the 19th century and is connected to the false theory that the Jews constitute a “race”. For Luther, faith was always the core issue. Even if he says that the Jewish blood has become “watery and wild”, categories of race are completely alien to him. However, he continues to call baptised Jews not Christians, but Jews.

How does contemporary research debate Luther's hatred towards the Jews?

The Reformer's hostility against the Jews is considered to be a heavy burden on the movement of the Reformation. During the time of the National Socialists, radical anti-Semites from both the state and the church loved to refer to Luther. But a direct connection between his anti-Judaism and the holocaust is rejected today by most theologians and historians. However, they emphasise the importance of the task of dealing with Luther's legacy and not sweeping this “dark” aspect of Reformation history under the carpet.