Thursday, November 24, 2016

Luther Wanted to Drown Jews Seeking Baptism?

Over on the Christian Forums discussion boards, a Luther quote about the Jews came up:

"If I had to baptise a Jew, I would take him to the bridge of the Elbe, hang a stone round his neck and push him over with the words `I baptise thee in the name of Abraham” – Martin Luther 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 290. [36] Grisar, “Luther”, Vol. V. pg. 413."

This is a popular anti-Luther quote used by Roman Catholics, atheists, secularists, cultists, and virtually anyone with an ax to grind against Luther. This quote has a long history with usage increasing post-World War II. In the age of the Internet, it has the characteristics of a viral Facebook post or YouTube clip. Upon a surface reading of this quote snippet, one pictures a Jewish convert approaching Luther for baptism, and Luther brimming with murderous anti-Jewish hatred. Is this the case? Was Luther advocating drowning Jews that were being baptized into the Christian faith? Well see below the quote is not something Luther wrote but rather exists as an anecdote with such a sparse context, that even if he did say it, there's not enough information for an exact interpretation.

Documentation
The quote in the form above is probably being pulled from the Roman Catholic webpage, "Luther Exposing the Myth" (the references are similar and the "[36]" is a clear indicator this webpage was utilized). I've reviewed this webpage here. Some years back I contacted the author and was told he would take a look at my reviews and get back to me. He never did.

The documentation provided first refers to "Martin Luther 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 290." This old book had sunk into obscurity until it was revived by the Roman Catholic publisher Tan Books in 1987. This particular quote is not on page 290 (nor did I locate its use anywhere in the book). Luther, Exposing the Myth does use this reference but attaches it to another quote.  The second bit of documentation ("Luther", Vol. V. pg. 413is verbatim from Luther, Exposing the Myth and attached to this quote.  Luther, Exposing the Myth may have taken the quote from  Peter F. Wiener's Martin Luther, Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor (1945). Wiener states,
Of course, Luther proposed in detail how his followers should treat the “damned Jews.” “Never ought a Christian to eat or drink with a Jew”. “On being asked whether it would be right to box the ears of a Jew, Luther replied `Certainly. I for one would smack him on the jaw. Were I able, I would knock him down and stab him in my anger. It is lawful, according to both the human and the divine law, to kill a robber; then it is even more permissible to slay a blasphemer.'” Not a very Christian attitude; but worse is still to come. If I had to baptise a Jew, I would take him to the bridge of the Elbe, hang a stone round his neck and push him over with the words `I baptise thee in the name of Abraham'” (Detailed references given in Grisar, “Luther”, vol. v, p. 413)
Wiener points to Hartmann Grisar, a Roman Catholic historian writing during the period of destructive criticism and hostility towards Luther. After noting Luther's disappointment that Jews were not converting to Christianity after the outbreak of the Reformation,  Grisar states on pages 412 - 413:
The fact is, however, that no increase in the number of conversions took place. This disappointing experience, the sight of the growing insolence of the Jews, their pride and usury, not to speak of personal motives, such as certain attempts he suspected them to have made on his life at the instigation of the Papists, brought about a complete change in Luther s opinions in the course of a few years. As early as 1531 or 1532, when a Hebrew baptised at Wittenberg had brought discredit upon him by relapsing into Judaism, he gave vent to the angry threat, that, should he find another pious Jew to baptise he would take him to the bridge over the Elbe, hang a stone round his neck and push him over with the words: I baptise thee in the name of Abraham; for "those scoundrels," so he adds, " scoff at us all and at our religion.
Cordatus, " Tagebuch," p. 196. Schlaginhaufen, "Aufzeichn.," p. 131. In both the passage begins: "Should I again baptise a Jew," thus pointing to an unfortunate experience of Luther's own, which is related more in detail in Schlaginhaufen's report. In the corresponding passage in "Colloq.," ed., Bindseil, 1, p. 460, we read further: " sicut fecit ille, qui hie Wittebergae baptizabatur."
Grisar mentions a historical setting and provides documentation to the primary sources. The words "Cordatus," "Tagebuch," "Schlaginhaufen," "Colloq.," and "Bindseil," are clues that the primary source for the quote is Luther's  Tischreden, in English known as the Table Talk. Luther didn't write the Table Talk. It is a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends and students, published after his death. Since the statements contained therein are purported to have been made by Luther, they should serve more as corroborating second-hand testimony to something Luther is certain to have written.

Grisar first refers to "Cordatus, "'Tagebuch,' p. 196." Conrad Cordatus was one of the earliest to take notes on Luther's incidental statements. Of his notes, he didn't always hear and record the comments himself. He is said to have taken Luther's comments from other sources. He later revised his Table Talk notes, making stylistic changes, thus his notes are as LW says, "a step further from what was actually said at the table" (LW 54:170). Because of this, Luther's Works (English edition) includes only a small sampling of those statements compiled by Cordatus (found in WA TR 2, 1950-3416).  Here is page 196 from Tagebuch Über Dr. Martin Luther, Geführt Von Dr. Conrad Cordatus (1885). The text reads:

"Schlaginhaufen, Aufzeichn.," refers to According to the records (nach den Aufzeichnungen ) of  John Schlaginhaufen. Schlaginhaufen was responsible for the entries 1232 to 1889 in WA, TR 2. His entries date from 1531 to 1532. LW states, "Nothing more is known about him until he appears in November, 1531, as one of the young men who lived in Luther’s home and ate at his table"(LW 54:125). Here is page 131 of Tischreden Luthers aus den jahren 1531 und 1532 Nach Den Aufzeichnungen von Johann Schlaginhaufen (1888):


 The last reference is to "'Colloq.,' ed., Bindseil, 1, p. 460." This refers to to D. Martini Lutheri Colloquia published by Henrico Ernesto Bindseil in 1848.  Here is page 460. The text reads,



This text from Bindseil can also be found in WA TR 2, 566 (entry 2634b). The Cordatus entry can be found on the same page (entry 2634a). Both of these entries appear in the Cordatus collection in WA.

As to the historical setting mentioned by Grisar ("As early as 1531 or 1532, when a Hebrew baptised at Wittenberg had brought discredit upon him by relapsing into Judaism"), Grisar says the information comes from "an unfortunate experience of Luther's own, which is related more in detail in Schlaginhaufen's report." This report does say something like,  "those villains of our religion laugh at us, as did the one who was baptized here at Wittenberg." Other than this, no documentation is provided. I've yet to find any credible information documenting or expounding on the details of this event.

For reasons mentioned above, the translators of LW chose not to include either of these entries. However, an English translation of (what appears to be) the German text did appear in 1848 by William Hazlitt: The Table Talk Or Familiar Discourse of Martin Luther, p.165.  Hazlitt's  translation is unique in three ways. First, the entry is probably mis-dated as 1541 (it is more likely from 1531-1532). Second Hazlitt rearranged the sentences in the statement, placing the leading controversial statement towards the end. Third, he added a concluding sentence not found in the primary contexts cited above.


Context
In 1541, Doctor Menius asked Doctor Luther, in what manner a Jew should be baptized? The Doctor replied: You must fill a large tub with water, and, having divested the Jew of his clothes, cover him with a while garment. He must then sit down in the tub, and you must baptize him quite under the water. The ancients, when they were baptized, were attired in white, whence the first Sunday after Easter, which was peculiarly consecrated to this ceremony, was called dominica in albis. This garb was rendered the more suitable, from the circumstance that it was, as now, the custom to bury people in a white shroud; and baptism, you know, is an emblem of our death. I have no doubt that when Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, he was attired in a white robe. If a Jew, not converted at heart, were to ask baptism at my hands, I would take him on to the bridge, tie a stone round his neck, and hurl him into the river; for these wretches are wont to make a jest of our religion. Yet, after all, water and the Divine Word being the essence of baptism, a Jew, or any other, would be none the less validly baptized, that his own feelings and intentions were not the result of faith [William Hazlitt: The Table Talk Or Familiar Discourse of Martin Luther, p.165].
The original sources cited above demonstrate that this English text has been edited into a different order. The text should read this way, the added sentence is in red lettering:
[Martin Luther said:] If a Jew, not converted at heart, were to ask baptism at my hands, I would take him on to the bridge, tie a stone round his neck, and hurl him into the river [Elbe]; for these wretches are wont to make a jest of our religion [as did the one who was baptized here at Wittenberg].  Doctor Menius asked Doctor Luther, in what manner a Jew should be baptized? The Doctor replied: You must fill a large tub with water, and, having divested the Jew of his clothes, cover him with a while garment. He must then sit down in the tub, and you must baptize him quite under the water. The ancients, when they were baptized, were attired in white, whence the first Sunday after Easter, which was peculiarly consecrated to this ceremony, was called dominica in albis. This garb was rendered the more suitable, from the circumstance that it was, as now, the custom to bury people in a white shroud; and baptism, you know, is an emblem of our death. I have no doubt that when Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, he was attired in a white robe. [Yet, after all, water and the Divine Word being the essence of baptism, a Jew, or any other, would be none the less validly baptized, that his own feelings and intentions were not the result of faith].
I've yet to find the Table Talk entry the last sentence was taken from. It is strikingly similar to a statement from Luther's Large Catechism:
For even though a Jew should to-day come dishonestly and with evil purpose, and we should baptize him in all good faith, we must say that his baptism is nevertheless genuine. For here is the water together with the Word of God. even though he does not receive it as he should, just as those who unworthily go to the Sacrament receive the true Sacrament even though they do not believe.
Conclusion    
I began this entry by saying that upon a surface reading of this quote snippet, one pictures a Jewish convert approaching Luther for baptism, and Luther brimming with murderous anti-Jewish hatred. Luther though,  had nothing against Jews as “Jews.” He had something against their religion because he believed it denied and blasphemed Christ. In the same Table Talk collection, an utterance verifies that Luther had no problem baptizing converted Jews:
“A Jew came to me at Wittenberg, and said: He was desirous to be baptized, and made a Christian, but that he would first go to Rome to see the chief head of Christendom. From this intention, myself, Philip Melancthon, and other divines, labored to dissuade him, fearing lest, when he witnessed the offences and knaveries at Rome, he might be scared from Christendom. But the Jew went to Rome, and when he had sufficiently seen the abominations acted there, he returned to us again, desiring to be baptized, and said: Now I will willingly worship the God of the Christians for he is a patient God. If he can endure such wickedness and vallany as is done at Rome, he can suffer and endure all the vices and knaveries of the world” (Hazlitt, p. 353).
While this story also appears to have some odd additions placed by Hazlitt, notably the words "Wittenberg" and "Philip Melancthon" making this popular late Middle Ages story personal (contrast Hazlitt's rendering with WA TR 3, 3479 and LW 54:208-209), the sentiment from this alleged 1536 Table Talk gives the impression that Luther had no issue with Jews converting to Christianity and seeking baptism. The Table Talk material is highly rhetorical, and easily misconstrued when over-literalized. While some may see the quote under scrutiny exemplifying Luther's antisemitism, perhaps the quote would be better viewed as hostile hyperbole or bitter sarcasm. Certainly Luther wrote hostile rhetoric towards enemies of the Gospel, and certainly his rhetoric heated up in his later years towards the Jews. However, this quote contradicts his actual written statements about Jews converting to Christianity.

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2007. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.

3 comments:

L P Cruz said...

Some Lutherans scholars have warned that TableTalk is not always a reliable source for Luther's quotes. These were noted down by Luther's students and they are not that reliable in other words it has to be used with some care or with a grain of salt.

Most of the time when I read a Luther quote which disparages him it is mostly taken from TableTalk.

LPC

Contarini said...

I think your case that Luther is talking about an allegedly insincere Jew is a valid one--but at the same time, he is clearly expressing a typically paranoid late medieval fear of "false converts" (well, it was a well-grounded fear, but it was grounded in the brutality of late medieval Christians toward Jews rather than in the wickedness of Jews).

I find it interesting that Luther is quoted in the Table Talk as cribbing a story from Boccaccio and presenting it as his own experience. . . . . It further inclines me to think that Luther's account of his own journey to Rome may depend on the same venerable medieval trope rather than on real personal experience.

James Swan said...

I find it interesting that Luther is quoted in the Table Talk as cribbing a story from Boccaccio and presenting it as his own experience.

Upon revising this blog entry I came across this old comment that I never responded to. In my revision I took some time to look into Luther "cribbing a story from Boccaccio and presenting it as his own experience." A basic problem here is that the comment is a Table Talk comment, so whether or not Luther did this isn't certain.

But: the actual "cribbing" appears to be the result of William Hazlitt's English rendering of this Table talk statement. If you compare Hazlitt's rendering with WA TR 3, 3479 and LW 54:208-209, you'll note he appears to have added "at Wittenberg" and also, "myself, Philip Melancthon, and other divines..." Note how LW 54 translates this utterance:

No. 3479: A Jew Is Baptized After Seeing Rome
Between October 27 and December 4, 1536

Then he [Martin Luther] told the story of a certain Jew who wished to embrace the Christian faith. The Jew confessed to the priest who was catechizing him that he would like to see Rome and observe the head of Christendom before he was baptized. The priest tried hard to counteract this plan for fear that an inspection of the scandalous conditions in Rome might dissuade the Jew [from being baptized]. But the Jew went to Rome, and after he had witnessed enough to cause his hair to stand on end he returned to the priest and requested baptism, saying, “Now I am glad to worship the God of the Christians, for he is sufficiently longsuffering. If he can endure such knavery in Rome he can easily endure all the wickedness in the world. For our God is angry enough to punish us, his people, in various ways.” [LW 54:208-209].

LW also adds this footnote after "told the story"- "This story was current in the late Middle Ages and appears, e.g., in Boccacio’s Decameron, first day, story 2."

I've been discovering a lot of anomalies in Hazlitt's text.