Set against the backdrop of Europe in turmoil, Thomas Kaufmann illustrates the vexed and sometimes shocking story of Martin Luther’s increasingly venomous attitudes towards the Jews over the course of his lifetime. The following extract looks at Luther’s early position on the Jews in both his writing and lectures.
The topic ‘Luther and the Jews’ involves considering the important question of continuities between his earliest pronouncements, the programmatic text That Jesus Christ was born a Jew (1523), and his later texts, in particular Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1543), which are extraordinarily polemical and hostile to the Jews. It is incontrovertible that the recommendations Luther makes regarding the Jews in the two texts named above differ fundamentally: If at first he advocated unconditional toleration of Jews within Christian society, later he advocated the expulsion of the Jews from the Christian countries of Europe, although this practical change in approach does not necessarily indicate a fundamental alteration of his theological position. Explaining this change will involve offering a complex of interrelated answers.
As far as theological continuities in his view of the Jews are concerned, Luther’s earliest comments are revealing, though it is important to take note of which statements Luther delivered from the pulpit or the university lectern to a Wittenberg audience and which occur in texts he wrote for a reading public spread over the whole German-speaking world, not to mention a readership educated in Latin. From the summer of 1520—in other words at the start of the phase of his life marked by the conclusion of his trial as a heretic in Rome and the promulgation of the Papal Bull Exurge Domine (15.6.1520) threatening him with excommunication—his writings clearly support a gentle, kind, and accommodating attitude towards the Jews. In this period in particular he was acutely aware of the sins and shortcomings of Christendom.
Luther’s earliest statements on this topic come from the context of the Reuchlin controversy. The Saxon court preacher and secretary Georg Spalatin had asked him via Johannes Lang, Luther’s friend and fellow member of his order, for a comment on this dispute and on the issue of whether the Hebrew scholar, Johannes Reuchlin, was, as the Cologne theologians accused him of being, a heretic. Luther’s verdict is undated but must belong to the period of his first lecture on the Psalms (1513/14), the Dictata super psalterium. He did not attempt to conceal his sympathy for Reuchlin and his position, decisively rejecting the suspicion of heresy. In response to the bigoted zeal of the Cologne theologians directed at ‘driving out Beelzebub’, in other words at making it impossible for the Jews to blaspheme, Luther pointed out that the blasphemies that issued from Christendom were a hundred times worse. All Biblical prophets, he wrote, had foretold ‘that the Jews will vilify and blaspheme against God and their King Jesus’ (maledicturos et blasphematuros). But the Scriptures had to be fulfilled; to prevent the blasphemies of the Jews was the same as claiming that the Bible was telling lies:
[F]or through the wrath of God they [the Jews] are condemned to being incapable of improvement, as the Preacher says (Ecclesiastes 1, 15), and any attempt at improving those who are incapable of improvement only makes them worse and never better.
From 1518 onwards Luther in various published writings had identified a closer connection between himself and Reuchlin and occasionally compared his own fate with his, although in the summer of 1521 he made a comment that dispelled any doubt that he considered the ‘Jewish books’ Reuchlin had tried to defend to be utterly base; he even confessed that he had been ashamed ‘that so much has been made of these worthless things [. . .] in the name of Christianity’. Luther’s firm theological convictions regarding the Jews, namely that they were the objects of God’s wrath, were corrupt, blasphemers of Christ, and followed worthless rabbinical interpretations that confirmed them in their errors, did not prevent him from making a stand in support of the great Hebrew scholar and advocate of Jewish rights.
In his first lecture on the Psalms Luther repeatedly returned to the topic of the Jews. They spurned Christ as mediator, he said, knowing nothing of God’s mercy and grace, and were trapped in the logic of their own notion of justice, in other words set on the idea that they could be justified in God’s sight by their own works. Their obduracy prevented them from understanding anything of the foretelling of Christ in the Old Testament. Their hopes for a Messiah and their complete devotion to the Law, in which they appeared to love God, were ‘of the flesh’, for they hoped only for temporal riches and their own good standing. The Talmud, he continued, had diverted them from a correct understanding of the Bible and confirmed them in the arrogant and mistaken claim to be the children of Abraham. They were an exemplar of God’s wrath, guilty of Christ’s death and thus dishonoured among all nations. The overall picture of Judaism painted by Luther in this lecture was strongly negative, though the lecture was not disseminated at that time.
Featured image credit: Martin Luther Pray Church of Our Lady by sharonang. Public domain via Pixabay.