The dark side of the doctrine of justification – church historian Kaufmann calls anti-Semitism “a genuine legacy of Luther”

Interview with the church historian Thomas Kaufmann from Göttingen

Burning synagogue in the night from November 9th to 10th, 1938
(Photo: epd-bild/Keystone)

Exactly 500 years ago, on August 5th, 1514, Martin Luther made his first statements in a letter about the Jews. In a conversation with the Evangelical Press Service (epd), Thomas Kaufmann, church historian from Göttingen, explains that Luther's attitude towards God's chosen people has always been negative. The Reformer's well-documented hatred towards the Jews – he promoted expulsions and wanted to see synagogues burn – continues to be a burden for the Evangelical church until today. Kaufmann, author of the book “Luther's Jews”, which will be published soon, explains the background and the consequences of this fatal relations.

epd: Professor Kaufmann, what kind of ideas did Martin Luther harbour about the Jews during the years immediately before the Reformation?

Thomas Kaufmann: His perception of the Jews is already extremely negative when he first mentions them, for example in the first Lecture on the Psalms. Luther follows the perspective of the Apostle Paul and perceives the Jews as the ultimate representatives of hostility towards God. He continues to adhere to this idea until the end of his life. He is totally influenced by the concept that the Jews believed in righteousness through achievements, in contradiction to righteousness through faith, as promoted by the Letter to the Romans.

Luther's treatise “That Jesus Christ was born a Jew” from 1523 is considered a positive turn. It mentions that Jews might be proselytised, and does not follow the perception of the “impenitent Jew”.

Kaufmann: Indeed, at that time Luther considers the option of numerous conversions. The fundamental idea of the treatise is that the Jews should finally find the way back to the faith of their fathers. Christ has been promised to the Jews in the Old Testament; due to the Reformation and the new discovery of the Gospel they can discover this message anew.

What Luther writes is, of course, also influenced by a massive criticism of the papal church which, in his opinion, had failed in bringing the Gospel to the Jews. In terms of Jewish policies, the treatise from 1523 is an extraordinary document, because for the first time a peaceful coexistence of Jews and Christians is promoted without fundamental restrictions. Basically, the early period of the Reformation is characterised by an openness that stems from the experience of an apocalyptic transformation, and gradually gets lost during the following decades.

Is Luther's perception of the Jews the dark side of his doctrine of justification?

Kaufmann: Indeed, that's what I would call it. The motif of hostility towards the Jews due to their alleged belief in righteousness through achievements is continued throughout. However, in order to contextualise the facts in a manner that is historically appropriate, one must always bear in mind that, for Luther, the papal church or the “Turks” were also representatives of the belief in righteousness through achievements, in just the same way. The Jews were merely a special case of this broad religious misunderstanding of people wanting to be justified before God through of their own deeds.

How strongly was Luther's attitude towards the Jews influenced by personal encounters?

Kaufmann: This is quite difficult to tell. In my book “Luther's Jews”, which will be published in autumn, I try to weigh all information with regards to Luther's personal experiences. There has been at least one marked encounter, which he recalled time and again. Two or three Rabbis visited him in Wittenberg, at around 1525. With them, he talked about Isaiah 7 and the literal or allegoric virginity of Mary, a conversation that went terribly awry.

At the end, the Reformer presents the Rabbis with a pass, connected with the blessing “in the name of Jesus”, whereupon one of them allegedly said to him: “What is all your ado about this hanged man?” For Luther, this was a blasphemy. Also, there are a couple of indications that Luther has been afraid of a Jewish poisoner, who was said to have once been announced to him by letter. His fears of such an attack were fundamental; they appear to have been pathologically relevant, and they were very real to him. Especially since Jews were permanently accused of being poisoners. Luther certainly contributed to these prejudices, which were notorious during his time.

In 1543 there followed the treatise "On the Jews and their lies”. Is its radical approach also a consequence of the failed conversion of the Jews?

Kaufmann: This document is based on a couple of experiences. On the one hand, the expectations of Jews being converted to Christianity were not fulfilled. One must seriously assess whether Luther's disappointment is due to his personal impatience, or whether there exist reasons for the aggravation that are genuinely based on the theology of the Reformation. On the other hand, the situation has fundamentally changed two decades after the beginnings of the Reformation. The responsibility for Jewish policies was now in the hands of the Protestants, the Reformed authorities. Thus, the argument that the papal church had failed at dealing with the Jews was not valid any more.

What kind of theological fundamental approach does the Reformer promote in this treatise?

Kaufmann: It is often overlooked that it contains a war that is waged on two fronts – against the Jews, as well as against a Christian interpretation of the Hebraic scriptures, which, in Luther's opinion, does not adequately interpret the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. The most prominent background is constituted by the conflict with Professor Sebastian Münster from Basle, the most eminent scholar of Hebraic writings of his time.

The dialogue to which Luther alludes at the beginning and the end of his treatise is very likely an essay by Münster, which has not yet been identified. This is a context one must bear in mind. More than three quarters of “On the Jews and their lies” are an exegesis of verses from the Old Testament, which Luther interprets and extensively explains from a Messianic perspective. This is his primary concern in his treatise.

Luther mentions the burning of synagogues and the demolishing of houses. How much does this reflect that he is a child of his time?

Kaufmann: The measures of Jewish policies inspired by him are ambivalent. On the one hand he promotes that the best solution would be to expel the Jews. Jewish displacements, which happened in France, Spain or England as well, were an overall European phenomenon during Luther's time. Therefore there was a strong presence of Jews in the empire – a “historically grown” issue, which we today would call a problem of migration politics. This is the historical background one must have in mind.

To demolish houses and to burn synagogues is what one might call the worse solution, in case of authorities not being open towards expulsions. With regards to the especially fatal example of the burning of synagogues I have searched for a long time and did not find a single contemporary of Luther who suggested the same thing. This is therefore a genuine legacy of Luther. And this is why it is so depressing that, on November 9th, 1938, the so-called “Night of Broken Glass” was staged with reference to Luther. The idea of burning was modelled after acts of punishment from the Old Testament and was grotesque in view of the fire safety situation in the 16th century – it could only be put into practice in 20th century conditions. During Luther's time, whole cities or at least districts would have burned down together with the synagogues.

The expulsion of the Jews from Luther's home town Eisleben one year after his death seems to be directly related to the Reformer himself.

Kaufmann: Only several days before his death he preached in favour of expelling the Jews from the earldom of Mansfeld, a step that was finally taken in 1547. In my view this was indeed a direct consequence of what Luther had preached.