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The Developing Anti-Semitism of Martin Luther: A Clash of Theologies or Wounded Pride?

Updated on May 17, 2012

The brilliance of Martin Luther was hardly relegated to one area, but it may be said that in the study of theology, Luther’s intellect most brightly shined, and in this study, the idea of justification by faith was his most precious gem. Unsurprisingly, Luther’s vehement support of a theology opposed to works-based salvation put him into conflict with numerous other religious traditions of the day, namely, Roman Catholicism and Judaism. While it can be argued that overall, Luther reserved his most venomous attacks for the Catholic church, it is his attacks against the Jews of his day which have gained him the most ill-repute. Charges of anti-Semitism are commonly leveled against Luther today, and not for bad reason, as we shall see.

But it was not always this way with Luther. Years prior to his treatise On the Jews and their Lies, Luther was one of the greatest defenders of the Jewish people, and though he railed against their theology, he nevertheless saw great benefit in the pursuit of positive Jewish/Christian relations. The question then, that has been posed by so many before, is this: What changed? Why did a man so concerned with a Christlike, relational outreach to those most reviled within society ultimately argue for not only their expulsion, but for the destruction of their schools and synagogues? Can one lay the blame on Luther’s own theology? His exegesis of Scripture? Or perhaps simpler reasons are to be pursued? Did Luther’s failing health parallel his increasing vehemence towards the Jews? Or was it simply years of disappointingly low conversions to Christianity from those within Judaism?

Born into a climate in which Jews were not looked upon favorably, it could be said that young Luther was a product of his environment. The Jews of Germany in 16th century, and indeed much of Europe, were generally looked upon as a conniving, deceitful people who had not only refused the Messiah, but had ensured his crucifixion as well. Conspiracies abounded relating to the Jews of the Luther’s day. They held Gentiles under their financial sway through usury, they murdered Christians, and they abducted children to drink their blood in perverted Passover rites. As Mark Edwards states:

Only on rare occasions did Luther encounter Jews; he never lived in close proximity to them, but he inherited a tradition, both theological and popular, of hostility toward them. He lived within a larger community, Western Christendom, which saw Jews as a rejected people guilty of the murder of Christ, and capable of murdering Christian children for their own evil purposes. And he lived within a local community that had expelled Jews some ninety years earlier.[1]

[1] Mark Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 121.

Hence, Luther’s earliest opinion on the Jewish people was expectantly dismal, though nowhere near as volatile as what history would eventually see penned by his hand. To young Luther, the Jews were, as Betsy Amaru relates:

Similar to the dust, they were "dry in spirit," vain creatures chained to the dead letter of the synagogue. Carnal as cattle, spiritually as unresponsive as the horse and mule, they were incapable of comprehending the true meaning of Scripture. Moreover, blindness and false pride prevented them from understanding the nature of their fate. Homeless, helpless, scattered over all the lands, this hardened people remained as so much chaff in the wind, so rejected by God that they were not even worthy of purification by divine chastisement.[1]

Granted, much of what Luther had expressed here, minus his demeaning adjectives, was consistent with his theological views of Jews overall. For the entirety of his life, Luther held the following theological opinions on the Jewish people:

1. God's Wrath has fallen on his disobedient people and only God can take it away.

2. Humanly speaking, the Jews are unconvertible and they cannot be saved by human action.

3. Because they reproach God and blaspheme against Christ their faith is an actively anti-Christian religion.

4. But these things are true not only of the Jews, but of all human beings who set themselves against God, so that unbelieving Jews and Christians are comprehended within one solidarity of guilt.[2]

[1] Betsy Halpern Amaru, “Martin Luther and Jewish Mirrors,” Jewish Social Studies 46, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 95-103. Academic Search Premier,EBSCOhost (accessed April 28, 2012), 95.

[2] Gordon Rupp,Martin Luther and the Jews(London: The Council of Christians and Jews, 1972), 9.

It is interesting to note that while Luther’s theology of the Jews remained consistent throughout his career, his relational attitudes changed considerably. As Luther studied the writings of Paul in greater earnest, he saw that the Jews, just as the Gentiles, were a lost people in need of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. And as his hostility towards the Catholic church increased, it may very well be that Luther saw an unlikely ally in the Jewish people, a people with whom a kinship knit through mutual oppression could be woven.

Luther then, sided with the Jews over the Catholics, and went so far as to defend them against the charge that were responsible for the death of the Son of God: “T’was our great sins and misdeeds gross, nailed Jesus, God’s true Son to the cross, [not] the band of Jews; ours is the shame.” Furthermore, not long before his famous 95 theses, Luther accused the Catholic church, not the Jews, in committing the greatest blasphemies against the Eucharist. [1] In 1523 Luther published his work, “Jesus Christ was born a Jew,” in hopes that he would not only combat the then prevalent claim that he had denied the virgin birth of Christ, but that it would also prove to the Jews that the Old Testament did indeed prophesy the coming of Jesus, and so see an influx of Jewish converts to the Christian faith. Within Luther’s work, the Jews were spoken of warmly and defended against many of the claims of the day. More so, they were practically elevated to a position of greater nearness to Christ due to their genealogy:

When we are inclined to boast of our position we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood, the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are, as St. Paulsays in Romans 9. God has also demonstrated this by his acts, for to no nation among the Gentiles has he granted so high an honor as he has to the Jews. For from among the Gentiles there have been raised up no patriarchs, no apostles, no prophets, indeed, very few genuine Christians either. And although the gospel has been proclaimed to all the world, yet He committed the Holy Scriptures, that is, the law and the prophets, to no nation except the Jews, as Paul says in Romans 3 and Psalm 147 , ‘He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; nor revealed his ordinances to them.[2]

[1] David Singer G. “Baptism or Expulsion: Martin Luther and the Jews of Germany.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 401-408. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost.

[2] Martin Luther, “Luther’s Works” 45:200

Luther laid much of the blame for the Jewish disinterest in Christianity at the doorstep of the papacy, claiming that had he been raised a Jew in the same climate, he too would have no interest in what the church had to say. With the same vitriol he would level against the Jews years later, Luther attacked the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, and urged Christians everywhere to embrace their Jewish brethren:

We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.[1]

Clearly at this point Luther had great optimism regarding the Jewish people. It was the Catholic church, not true Christianity, which was to be blamed for their previous apathy. When the body of Christ was revealed for who they really were, and who they were meant to be, how could any Jew not accept the Messiah spoken of in their own scriptures? It can be safely said that at this point, Luther was convinced that through the power of both his argumentation and the prodding of the Holy Spirit, Europe would see a substantial increase in Jewish respondents to the Gospel message.

[1] Ibid. 45:229.

Luther’s spirit of missional charity, however, devolved into something quite less amiable with the passage of years. In 1526, just three years after he had written “Jesus Christ was born a Jew,” Luther showed the first inklings a change of heart concerning his Jewish friends in his commentary on Psalm 109. According to Betsy Amaru, “Luther recreates the old picture of the Jews: the criminal past; the threat to the Christian present; the permanent rejection by God, and the lost future. Gone is the portrait of the glorious spiritual heritage.”[1] Events approximately one decade later would see a further deconstruction of Luther’s once positive opinion of the Jews.

Apparently Luther had held the opinion that were the Jewish people to be exposed to the Christological interpretation of messianic prophecies within the Old Testament, they would have little recourse but to admit defeat in the face of such truths. A meeting with three educated rabbis sometime around 1535 however, which centered around Jeremiah 23:6, dismayed Luther greatly. Despite what Luther considered to be an extremely obvious interpretation, these men denied the presence of Christ within this passage:

I myself have discussed this with the Jews, indeed with the most learned of them, who knew the Bible so well that there wasn’t a letter in it that they did not understand. I held up this text to them, and they could not think of anything to refute me. Finally they said that they believed their Talmud; this is their exegesis, and it says nothing about Christ. They had to follow this interpretation. Thus they do not stick to the text but seek to escape it. For if they held to this text alone, they would be vanquished.[2]

[1] Betsy Halpern Amaru, “Martin Luther and Jewish Mirrors,” 98.

[2] “Luther’s Works,” 47: 191.

Despite Luther’s attempt at conversion, these Jewish men were largely unaffected. In fact, communication between the two parties was, from the rabbi’s perspective, not an opportunity for debate. Rather, they required safe passage through Saxony, and hence they requested a letter from Luther guaranteeing this. Luther granted their wish, only to

find later that not only had his words been ineffective in their conversion, but that they had “spoken contemptuously of Christ as the Thola, or crucified bandit, to Aurogallus, to whom they had shown the letter!”[1] Luther most certainly took this as a personal affront. With his limited contact with Jews, it is quite possible that in those rare moments when he could discuss biblical matter with them, Luther saw a divine hand bringing them together, and saw great hope in those discussions which God had given him. When the fruits of this conversation resulted in nothing more than blasphemy, it is safe to assume that Luther would have been livid.

For Luther the Jews were doing anything but improving. What was worse, encouraged by their misreading of his own words, they had become more daring, defaming and cursing Jesus of Nazareth and regarding Christians as their ‘worst enemies,’ so much so that ‘if you could, you would [now] rob [all Christians] of what they are and what they have.’ However, the decision not to speak for the Jews in Saxony hinged on the analysis that they were appealing to religious tolerance while irreligiously rejecting their own God…the Father of Jesus Christ.[2]

[1] James Mackinnon,Luther and the ReformationVol. IV, (New York: Russell & Russell inc. 1962), 196].

[2] Heiko Oberman,Luther: Man Between God and the Devil(New York: Image Books, 1989), 293-294.

In 1538, in his letter Against the Sabbatarians, Luther launched his first substantial attack against Jews, responding to reports that Jews were seeing successful conversions from Christians. Word had reached Luther that in Bohemia and Moravia Christians were being convinced by Jews to be circumcised, to follow Mosaic law, and to disregard Christ as the awaited Messiah. Luther’s response, though passionate, nevertheless practiced restraint, and relied heavily upon Scripture to demonstrate the validity of Christ as Messiah and futility in continuing in the Law. Luther concludes with the words of a man who has effectively given up all hope:

If you are unable to convert the Jews, then consider that you are no better than all the prophets, who were always slain and persecuted by this base people who glory solely in the boast that they are Abraham’s seed, though they surely know that there have always been many desperate, lost souls also among them, so that they might well recognize that it requires more to be a child of God than just to be the seed of Abraham… Because God for fifteen hundred years has failed to do this with the Jews but lets them live on and on in exile without any word or prophecy to them regarding it, it is evident that he has forsaken them, that they can no longer be God’s people, and that the true Lord, the Messiah, must have come fifteen hundred years ago.[1]

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 47:96.

"On the Jews and their Lies."
"On the Jews and their Lies."

With the distribution of his treatise, “On the Jews and their Lies,” Luther attacked both the religion and personhood of the Jewish people with a scathing, sarcastic tone that revealed more than a little bitterness. Had it merely remained as such, a verbal attack on Judaism, there would be little to raise concern over. After all, Luther was no stranger to such verbal attacks, as numerous previous writings could attest to. In fact, Luther used Christ himself as a justification for such polemics:

Was he [Christ] abusive when he called the Jews an adulterous and perverse generation, an offspring of vipers, hypocrites, and children of the Devil?… The truth, which one is conscious of possessing, cannot be patient against its obstinate and intractable enemies.[1]

[1] Martin Luther as cited by Eric Gritsch, “The Unrefined Reformer” Christian History, 39 (vol. XII, No. 3), 36.

Unfortunately, Luther went one step further in his treatise. Instead of merely offering yet another vitriolic diatribe, Luther concluded his work with a series of recommendations, “an extensive program which, if implemented, would have resulted in the expulsion and destruction of the German Jewish communities.”[1] In seven steps which are eerily prescient of aGermany centuries to come, Luther offers his solution to “the Jewish problem:”

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them… Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed… Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them…Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews… Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping… Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam.[2]

[1] Betsy Amaru, 99.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 47:268.

Luther then, not only returned to his initial view of the Jews, but joined with others in the common and outlandish criticisms against them:

We lodge them, we let them eat and drink with us. We do not kidnap their children and pierce them through; we do not poison their wells; we do not thirst for their blood. How, then, do we incur such terrible anger, envy, and hatred on the part of such great and holy children of God?[1]

What happened to Luther’s defense of the Jews? Where now were his “brothers of the Lord?” Did Luther simply lose all patience? For one who’d been so possessed of optimism for his Jewish neighbors, it was surely a blow Luther’s ego to realize that he could be no more effective than the Catholic church in the conversion of Jews. Luther’s own words regarding a specific event offer a clue as to the precise moment when Luther’s patience reached its end, the event in which safe passage throughSaxony was requested:

But later, I found out that they called Christ…a hanged highwayman. Therefore I do not wish to have anything more to do with any Jew. As St. Paul says, they are consigned to wrath; the more one tries to help them the baser and more stubborn they become. Leave them to their own devices.[2]

[1] Ibid.,47:266.

[2] Ibid., 47:190.

Martin "Cranky Pants" Luther
Martin "Cranky Pants" Luther

The reasons proposed by scholars over the years for Luther’s change of heart are many, and truth be told, there is probably a grain of truth within all of them. As a punitive supersessionist, Luther’s own theology dictated that as a people who had rejected God’s own messiah, the gifts promised to the Jews throughout Scripture were now forfeit. Hence, Luther’s theology in this area left room for both relational outreach to Jews as well as strong condemnation. After all, they were, according to Luther’s belief, under the wrath of God, and no amount of discussion could change that fact. As Luther said:

To be sure, I am not a Jew, but I really do not like to contemplate God's awful wrath toward this people. It sends a shudder of fear through body and soul…What will the eternal wrath of God in hell be like toward false Christians and all unbelievers?[1]

Luther saw the 1500 years between Christ and his present era as evidence of the abandonment of the Jews by God, and furthermore, as good reason to join with God in such abandonment: “Why, even today they cannot refrain from their nonsensical, insane boasting that they are God's people, although they have been cast out, dispersed, and utterly rejected for almost fifteen hundred years.”[2] As James McNutt points out, in this reasoning Luther employed a double standard by failing to admit that humans everywhere, whether Christians, Jews, or others, were suffering, and that in this suffering, God was still working:

Luther no longer let God be God. Instead, he got caught up in the answers he himself so stubbornly had warned against. Apparently for Luther one can now know the hidden God with regard to his plans for the Jews: God had rejected them and is in favor of their rejection in the world he created![3]

[1] Ibid., 47:139.

[2] Ibid., 47:79.

[3] McNutt, James E. “Luther and the Jews revisited: Reflections on a thought let slip,” 44.

Author Betsy Amaru suggests that for Luther, the Jews were merely a sort of scapegoat for larger issues upon which Luther needed to attach blame. In a way, Luther’s own failures were realized through his inability to reach the Jews, and therefore, they received the full thrust of an anger stemming from numerous, unrelated causes:

Jewish resistance to conversion, similar to the Jew himself, was simply a symbol. The Jew and his intractability mirrored the reformer's growing concern over the effectiveness of his mission from the viewpoint of the peasant revolt, the growing Sabbatarian movement, and his failure to unite Christendom even within his own country.[1]

Of course, one cannot ignore Luther’s numerous physical ailments as a potential aggravator in his communications with religious enemies, more so in his increasingly volatile tone towards the end of his life. While medical issues are hardly a valid excuse for Luther’s claim that “[Christians] are at fault in not slaying them (Jews)”, it is nevertheless something to consider. As someone already prone to extreme irascibility, the increased pain of existing conditions coupled with the onset of new maladies would certainly have contributed to Luther’s growing antagonism. And his were no simple inconveniences. According to the US National Library of Medicine, Luther suffered from a list of maladies which included:

“varicose ulcers, angina pectoris with anxiety, obesity, hypertension arterialis, Ménière's disease with vertigo, tinnitus and fainting fits, gastralgia, constipation with anal ulcers and hemorrhoids with bleeding urolithiasis, arthritis urica, Roemheld's syndrome, and cataract in one eye. Mentally he had a manic-depressive cast of personality, and a tendency to emotional lability.”[2]

[1] Betsy Halpern Amaru, “Martin Luther and Jewish Mirrors,” 99.

[2] OH Iverson, “Martin Luther's somatic diseases. A short life-history 450 years after his death,” (accessed April 30, 2012).

Protestant Propaganda
Protestant Propaganda

Author Heiko Oberman, however, rejects the idea that Luther’s physical ailments may serve as a valid excuse for his vehemence, citing his equally volatile language of youth.

In the total historical context, …Luther’s scatology-permeated language has to be taken seriously as an expression of the painful battle fought body and soul against the Adversary, who threatens both flesh and spirit.[1]

Whatever the case, It is certain that all can agree on one point: Luther’s maladies did not make him any more agreeable.

[1] Heiko Oberman,108-109.

There is certainly a personal element to Luther’s attacks on the Jews. In his earliest defense of them, one gets the impression that Jewish outreach was no mere hobby for Luther, rather, an attempt at extending grace towards a people whom he did indeed once love deeply. Any insult against Christ then, would cut ever the deeper from someone previously considered a friend, and could easily be construed as a personal attack. Luther may have felt that due to his staunch defense of the Jews in face of a majority opposition, a greater respect would be due him and his religion than the Jews may have extended towards the Catholic church, for instance. When Luther received rumors of blasphemies against Christ and of the proselytizing of Christians by the adherents of Judaism, it may very well have been that Luther was deeply offended, and so acted in accordance with his wounded emotional state. The fact that Luther went far beyond mere theological and biblical disagreement with the Jews, that he slung any and all mud he could at them, made him appear less as a mere religious opponent, and more as a jaded lover. In Luther’s words, the Jews were liars and bloodhounds, a murderous and revengeful people, stupid fools who were miserable, blind and senseless.

Despite Luther’s hateful tone, he was not in the modern sense an anti-Semite. For Luther, the issue was not a racial or biological one, rather it was a religious, spiritual, and theological one. In fact, Luther spent a fair amount of words within his anti-Jewish treatise, “On the Jews and their Lies,” condemning those Jews who elevated themselves over others by means of genealogy. For Luther, one of the greatest arrogances one could commit would be to view one’s own lineage as satisfactory in the gaining of salvation. The saving grace of Christ alone was the means to one’s eternal security, hence Jewish claims to an atoning ancestral tradition were deeply offensive to Luther. Luther could certainly be labeled anti-Jewish, however, given his disturbingly severe recommendations on how the state should react to the Jewish people, as well as his excessive use of demeaning and insulting language.

Sadly, one of the greatest theological minds of history left behind a substantial amount of work that could easily be labeled “venomous.” For Luther, the rejection of Christ by God’s chosen people was an unthinkable injustice, but one that he once believed could be remedied with dialogue, discourse, and a charitable Christian spirit. When these proved less than effective, Luther emphasized discourse, and hoped that by zealous guidance through the Scriptures, the Jews of his day would see their eyes opened to the truth of Christ. However, Luther saw very little success in all endeavors aimed at converting the Jewish people. For a man who was so singularly convinced of the truth of his own position, this was surely a frustrating matter. Add to that the strong Jewish connection to not only the Bible but the Christian faith as well, and the deaf ear given to Luther by the Jews was met with bitterness and anger.

At the end of the day, there is no one reason for Luther’s descent into his hatred of the Jews. Every potential culprit presented in this paper is a possibility, and in fact, they had all likely contributed to Luther’s attacks. His own theology left ample room for the condemnation of the Jews, and his own wounded pride in seeing his proselytizing efforts go unrewarded surely stung. Add to this a host of physical and mental maladies, plus the personal nature inherent in the defense of Jesus Christ, and it is apparent, to an extent at least, why Luther took the road he did. But as alluded to before, is it not theology, nor physical ailments that drive a man to rally for the expulsion of an entire religious group from one’s country. It is something far closer to the heart that would drive a man such as Luther, who was ultimately very concerned with issues of the heart, to spew such polemics at the same Jews he once defended. It may just be, that at the heart of it all, Luther was deeply and personally offended by the apathy of his Jewish brethren, and reacted in a way as to inflict even more damage upon them.


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