Was Martin Luther an Anti-Semite?

Michael Brown,

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, focus will return to the leader of that movement, Martin Luther. What kind of man was he, really? More specifically, what kind of Christian was he?

At a recent conference of R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries, panelists Stephen Nichols and W. Robert Godfrey discussed “whether Martin Luther was guilty of anti-Semitism,” and there is good reason to raise this question.

As Nichols rightly points out, in 1523, Luther reached out with kindness and humility to the Jewish people, denouncing how the Church had treated them up to now with the hope that many would become Christians. Twenty years later, when that did not happen, and when Luther, now old and sick, had been exposed to some blasphemous, anti-Jesus writings penned by Jews in past generations, he wrote his infamous document Concerning the Jews and Their Lies.

In this mini-book, he told the German princes how to deal with “this damned, rejected race of Jews.”

First, their synagogues should be set on fire…Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed….Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds…Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more…Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely for­ bidden to the Jews….Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury [charging interest on loans]….Seventhly, let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses…We ought to drive the rascally lazy bones out of our system….Therefore away with them….

To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden-the Jews.

Yes, all this came from the pen of Martin Luther. (Brace yourself. There’s more to come.)

Of this despicable document, Nichols said that “Luther unleashes his rhetoric against the Jews and is very forceful in his rhetoric.” Very forceful? I’d call that a gross understatement.

antisemite_small Was Martin Luther an Anti-Semite? Opinion

Nichols continues:

Now we need to say that he was an equal opportunity offender. It wasn’t just—that rhetoric was not just reserved—for the Jews, he used the same rhetoric for the Papists, for the Anabaptists, for the nominal Christians, that he used for the Jews. But he was wrong. He spoke harshly, and I think he abused his influence that he had in speaking harshly. And so, we need to say that Luther was wrong in that. But this isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism, that’s really a 20th-century phenomenon.

Once again, I must take exception to these words, which minimize the horror of what Luther wrote.

Tragically, Adolph Hitler thought that Luther was a genius who figured out how dangerous the Jewish people were. And the date that many historians mark as the beginning of the Holocaust, Nov. 9, 1938, was the day that Hitler put Luther’s advice into practice, setting on fire and vandalizing Jewish synagogues, shops, and homes.

In that light, I cannot agree with Nichols in saying, “I think he abused his influence that he had in speaking harshly.” That, again, is a gross understatement, regardless of how ugly Luther’s rhetoric was towards other groups and regardless of how coarse the rhetoric of the day might have been. For a Christian leader, such writings must be renounced in the strongest possible terms, even with tears and wails.

Robert Godfrey, the other Ligonier panelist, commented:

Just to add one more thing . . . the one little that should be added is Luther, all his life, longed that Jews should be converted and join the church. Hitler never wanted Jews to join the Nazi party. That’s the difference between anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish. Luther wasn’t opposed to the Jews because of their blood. He was opposed to the Jews because of their religion. And he wanted them to join the Christian church. If you’re really anti-Semitic, you’re against Jews because of their blood and there’s nothing Jews can do about that. There’s not change they can make to make a difference. You’re absolutely right, Luther’s language should not be defended by us because it’s violent against the Jews. It was not against an ethnic people, as you said, but against a religion that he reacted so sharply.

Is Godfrey right? Yes and no. On the one hand, the real issue was the  Jewish religion (specifically, from Luther’s point of view, Jewish unbelief in Jesus) as opposed to being Jewish in and of itself. On the other hand, there was a fine line between the two, as historian Eric W. Gritsch pointed out in his book, Martin Luther’s Antisemitism: Against His Better Judgment.

He writes,

There is even a hint of racism in Luther when he commented on the unsubstantiated rumor that Jews killed Christian children. This crime “still shines forth from their eyes and their skin. We are at fault in not slaying them [the Jews].” Such a declaration cannot be limited to a specific historical context. It is timeless and means “death to the Jews,” whether it is uttered by Luther or Adolf Hitler. Moreover, Luther himself was willing to kill “a blaspheming Jew”: “I would slap his face and, if I could, fling him to the ground and, in my anger, pierce him with my sword.”

So wrote Martin Luther. And I find little comfort in the fact that he wrote about others, like the peasants, in similarly dreadful terms: “On the obstinate, hardened, blinded peasants, let no one have mercy, but let everyone, as he is able, hew, stab, slay, lay about him as though among mad dogs, . . . . so that peace and safety may be maintained… etc.”

Returning to Luther and the Jews, quotes like this make it difficult to separate his theological Jew-hatred from his ethnic Jew-hatred:

A Jew or a Jewish heart is as hard as stone and iron and cannot be moved by any means. . . . In sum, they are the devil’s children damned to hell . . . . We cannot even convert the majority of Christians and have to be satisfied with a small number; it is therefore even less possible to convert these children of the devil! Although there are many who derive the crazy notion from the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans that all Jews must be converted, this is not so. St. Paul meant something quite different.

As a non-Catholic, Jewish believer in Jesus, I am indebted to Luther’s positive contributions and recognize the hellacious battle he fought with corrupt traditions. But I appeal to followers and admirers of Luther today: Please do not minimize the horror of what he wrote (against the Jews and others). Please don’t downplay all this as an example of Luther having “feet of clay” (in the words of Nichols).

There is a lot of blood on those clay feet – including Jewish blood.

Let’s own it with sadness and grief. To do otherwise is to be less than honest with the memory of Martin Luther.

  • DrArtaud

    I’m not sure what Easter would be like without someone taking more shots at Christianty, but the Evangelical movement of modern Christians sprang from Luther and others, I find fewer to be stronger allies for modern Jews than Evangelicals and some other Christians, and I fail to see why pointing out the delusional beliefs of an old man that died hundreds of years ago helps anything.

    Rather than discuss Luther, perhaps we can touch on anti-Christian beliefs and practices of modern Jews. I’ve posted the following before, it is current practices and violence, forever hidden in the cacophony of anti-Semitism allegations made often without a shred of evidence other than the victim, or recipient, was Jewish.

    While anti-Semitism most certainly exists in Europe and in the U.S., anti-Christian events happen around the world; including by Jews in Israel; and it seldom, if ever, is reported on.

    Israeli President Helps Reopen Church Burned by Jewish Extremists

    Senior Catholic Cleric: ‘If Jews Want Respect, They Must Respect Others’

    The “price tag” vandalism this week of the monastery at Latrun, in which the culprits sprayed the building’s facade with the words “Jesus is a monkey” and set the front door alight, prompted a fierce statement of condemnation signed by Catholic church leaders here

    Burning of Christian churches in Israel justified, far-Right Jewish leader says

    The leader of a far-Right Israeli group has risked arrest by apparently voicing support for arson attacks on Christian churches amid an official crackdown on Jewish extremism.

    Benzi Gopstein, the outspoken head of Lehava – which has drawn notoriety for its violent assaults on Jewish-Arab assimilation – made the remarks at a panel discussion for Jewish yeshiva students when asked by a fellow panelist if he believed burning down churches in Israel was justified.

    He later tried to evade accusations of inciting his followers to fire-raise, saying it was the government’s responsibility to carry out what he presented as a religious teaching of the 12th century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides.

    “Did the Rambam [Maimonides] rule to destroy [idol worship] or not? Idol worship must be destroyed. It’s simply yes – what’s the question?” Mr Gopstein told the panel.

    Use of Synagogues by Christian Groups RABBI ELLIOT DORFF This paper was adopted by the CJLS on March 21, 1990 with eighteen votes in favor, none opposed, and one abstaining (18-0-1).

    All of these arguments would hold even more strongly if Jews were thinking of renting synagogue facilities to Muslims, for Islam’s commitment to monotheism is even less questionable than Christianity’s is. This responsum specifically does not, however, address the rental of facilities to Hindus and others who may be more plausibly considered idolaters.

    So, some Jewish extremists think Christians worship Idols, and a more mainstream rabbi believes Christians engage in polytheism. You can learn something new everyday. And their actions range from arson and vandalism, denial of Christians being able to use synagogue facilities despite the author saying that Christian churches have been very accommodating to upstart Jewish endeavors, and some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel actually spitting on Christian clergy.

    Christians in Jerusalem Want Jews to Stop Spitting on Them

    The term anti-Semitism is overused, and by such increasingly degrades its significance. A man wearing clothing signifying he’s Jewish that is beaten up and mugged is not, necessarily, a victim of anti-Semitism. He may be a victim of circumstances. And likewise if they make fun of his Jewish faith, they may be doing so to exacerbate the humiliation of their victim, not necessarily because they harbor ill will towards Jews and had set-out to victimize Jews only.

    Many people are unaware of the efforts of American Jews to bring muslim refugees to the U.S., and to offer muslims sanctuary in synagogues against Trumps executive orders and immigration policies.

    How Trump’s policies and rhetoric are forging alliances between U.S. Jews and Muslims

    To many Jews, Trump’s targeting of migrants from predominantly Muslim countries evokes painful memories of Jews who were forced to identify themselves with yellow stars before their extermination at the hands of Nazis — and of the countries that turned them away when they tried to flee.

    Pittsburgh Jews Welcome Syrians As Trump Warns Of Danger

    Jewish refugee resettlement agency: Let’s bring Rohingya Muslims to Pittsburgh (to increase diversity!)

    Yet under obama, the U.S. Govt refused to help Syrian Christians and obsessed about muslim refugees. Where were concerns then (including Jewish concerns that have recently risen up to defend muslims) about that religious exclusion?

    No room in America for Christian refugees

    Though an article recently claimed that hatred of Jews in Europe has never gone away, it likewise appears that hatred or disrespect of Christians by Jews is actively taught. Ranging from arson, vandalism, spitting on clergy, and misunderstanding of Christians belief in God and Jesus, this does not promote a wholesome relationship with Christians, even though Christians, in their devotion to the Bible, often have a strong positive view of Judaism. I would like to see improvements in Judeo-Christian relations and understanding. I found the following article and was surprised by its closing paragraph.

    What does ‘Judeo-Christian’ mean? By Dennis prager

    The uniqueness of America

    The battle over whether America remains Judeo-Christian or becomes secular like Europe is what this, the Second American Civil War, is about.

    Let’s keep America from becoming secular by a willingness of Jews to respect Christians, and Christians by a willingness to respect Jews. And by both acknowledging the need of religion to stay in the forefront of American life. Perhaps this is why Europe plods forward in anti-Semitism but the same concerns are taken seriously here.

    Lastly, for Holocaust deniers, see the following. But be advised, there are terribly explicit photos there. Jews, Christians, and other groups were subjected to this, this must never be allowed to happen again.

    World War II: The Holocaust