Friday, May 10, 2013

Luther’s Alleged Anti-Semitism

"They have sunk deep into corruption...God will remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins... Even if they rear children, I will bereave them of every one... Give them wombs that miscarry and breasts that are dry... Even if they bear children I will slay their cherished offspring."
No, these aren't the words of Luther, these are excerpts from Hosea chapter 9.

I just finished reading a fascinating short article by Ronald F. Marshall, Luther’s Alleged Anti-Semitism. This is volatile topic for obvious reasons. I distinctly remember the first time I discovered Luther's treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies. The statements from Luther against the Jews are shocking, particularly in our post-Holocaust society. Recently at a friend's house, he shared with me a private photo collection of Jews being liberated from a concentration camp, pictures taken by one of his relatives who was part of the liberating force. The pictures were horrifying (and yes, I exhorted him to contact a Jewish Holocaust museum, or some such authority). Yes, I know logically that Luther was not Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor (as a popular book asserts). Reading Luther's later writings against the Jews though, one can't help avoiding the emotional connection.     

That being said, this article from Marshall attempts to place Luther's writings in a Biblical framework, building off the thesis that Luther wasn't against Jewish people (which is antisemitism), but rather Judaism. This is probably one of the only articles I've ever read that seeks to justify Luther's comments by appealing to the Scriptures as the backdrop by which to interpret Luther's statements.  The author states,
Even in the Old Testament, quite apart from Luther’s treatise, God tries to scare the Jews straight. Again and again he punishes them mercilessly, especially through invading military powers under the leadership of Cyrus (Isa 44:28) and Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 39:3). In Hosea, God specifically says of the disobedient Jews—quite abhorrently—that their children should be killed, their families become infertile, and that they should be driven from their homes and made to wander among the nations (Hos 9:7–17). It is important to note the similarities between this passage and Hitler’s playbook. This helps one see the horrible truth about the ghastly nature of the Bible. Attacking Luther’s alleged anti-Semitism in the name of some fabricated and exclusively loving Bible is to tangle oneself up in theological chicanery. The message of the Bible is tough, and one has to settle for that or throw it out. All sophisticated, urbane efforts to clean up the Bible fail by the death of a thousand qualifications.
Frankly, I'm not sure exactly how I feel about this approach. The author insists that Luther "favored punishments [for the Jews] first to witness to the Holy Scriptures, for Jesus himself rebuked the Jews (AE 47: 277). Second, he intended these punishments to scare the Jews straight so that they might receive God’s blessings (AE 47: 267)." It's certainly one thing for the Scriptures to do this, quite another for a society to act on it.  The strength of this article is placing Luther's comments in his theological and Biblical framework, a framework Luther was fluent in. The weakness, as I see it, is that the church and state were connected in such a way during the sixteenth-century that a theologian with political powers could have acted on Luther's suggestions. In God's providence, Luther's harsh statements were not acted on, which shows at least that Protestant princes simply did not put in to practice whatever came from his pen. All in all, the article is food for thought and a significant contribution to the study of this issue.


  “Most of Luther’s proposals [in On The Jews and Their Lies] are paralleled in the other anti-Jewish literature of the period, but the specific formulation which follows may be attributed to him. Fortunately… most of the authorities proved unwilling to carry out his recommendations, whether out of horror at their inhumanity or out of self-interest (since Jews played an important role in the economy).”[LW 47:267 (fn. 173)]

“Already upon its first appearance in the year 1543, Luther’s treatise caused widespread dismay, not only among contemporary Jews but also in Protestant circles. Melanchthon and Osiander are known to have been unhappy with its severity. Henry Bullinger, in correspondence with Martin Bucer, remarked that Luther’s views reminded him of those of the Inquisitors. And a subsequent document prepared by the churches of Zurich declared (speaking specifically of the treatise Vom Schem Hamphoras , published later in 1543), that “if it had been written by a swineherd, rather than by a celebrated shepherd of souls, it might have some—but very little—justification.” [LW 47:123]

“Nobody took Luther's programme seriously, and the new mandate of John Frederick in 1543, though severe, was on other lines. Three years later, as we shall see, Jews were still living unmolested in the Mansfeld area.”[Gordon Rupp, Martin Luther and the Jews (London: The Council of Christians and Jews, 1972), 18. ]

“As we follow Luther through the years, we find a signal instance of how we become like what we hate. We see a growing obstinacy, a hardening of heart, a withering of compassion, a proneness to contemptuous abuse—the very things he thought were the marks of judgment on the Jews.”[Gordon Rupp, Martin Luther and the Jews (London: The Council of Christians and Jews, 1972), 22]

“The question of Protestant acceptance or rejection of Luther's writings on the Jews is focused on his late, hate-filled polemics. Oberman has pointed out that Luther's close associate, Philipp Melanchthon, ‘was just as unhappy over the harsh writings on the Jews of the late Luther as were some of the leading city reformers.’ The Nuremberg Reformer and disciple of Luther, Osiander... wrote an anonymous apology for Luther's polemics. And Luther's lifelong colleague Justus Jonas used his role as Latin translator of Luther's writings against the Jews to do ‘his utmost to offset Luther's exasperated disenchantment with the mission to the Jews and in the process manages to draw an entirely novel and positive picture of them.’ This selective rejection of Luther is evident in the refusal of evangelical political authorities to follow through on Luther's recommendations. Because Luther was such an authority figure for Lutherans, it is striking that in 1611 when the Lutheran city of Hamburg asked the theological faculties of Jena and Frankfurt an der Oder whether the Jews fleeing from Portugal should have the right to remain in the city, both faculties answered in the affirmative. The Jena opinion self-consciously chose Luther's early, tolerant opinions over his later, intolerant ones. More important for future developments was the fact that Luther's portrayals and recommendations were not incorporated into the Lutheran confessional writings and Lutheran devotional literature. ‘For the decades after Luther's death all the evidence seems to support Lewin's thesis that Luther's late works on the Jews failed to achieve their intended effect.’”[Carter Lindberg, “Tainted Greatness: Luther’s Attitudes Toward Judaism and Their Historical Reception,” in Nancy A Harrowitz (ed.), Tainted Greatness: Antisemitism and Cultural Heroes (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 23]

“The reaction of contemporaries to Luther's anti-Jewish writings indicates fairly clearly that his readers saw a significant difference between the early and the later treatises. That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew appears to have been received with favor among Protestants, Jews, and Jewish converts (Marranos). Some Marranos in the Netherlands may even have translated the work into Spanish and sent copies to their brethren in Spain. The treatise may have even reached Palestine. It may also have encouraged several South Germans to work for the amelioration of the treatment of the Jews. On the other hand, it may have lent some support to the Catholic charge, aired, for instance, at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, that the Protestants had learned their doctrine from the Jews. The later tracts met with more criticism. Catholics, not surprisingly, were sharply critical. For instance, at the 1545 Diet of Worms several Catholic deputies reportedly characterized On the Ineffable Name as a "hateful book, as cruel as if it had been written in blood," and argued that it incited the rabble to violence.”[Mark U Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 134]

“Protestant reaction was mixed. Melanchthon sent a copy of On the Jews and Their Lies to Landgrave Philipp of Hesse with the mild recommendation that the book contained "much useful teaching." When he sent a copy of On the Ineffable Name, however, he failed to add a similar recommendation. It is hard to say whether this indicates disapproval; generally speaking, Melanchthon was uncomfortable with the violent tone of many of the writings of the older Luther. Andreas Osiander of Nuremberg appears to have been critical of the work, although unwilling to confront Luther with his objections. Luther's Zurich opponents, the authors of the 1545 True Confession, branded Luther's On the Ineffable Name as "swinish" and "filthy," and remarked that had it been written by a swineherd and not by a famous shepherd of souls, there might have been some although little excuse for it.”[Mark U Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 135]


PeaceByJesus said...

I recently made use of your compilation, "Popes against the Jews" series in countering the Catholic charge of Luther being a big Jew hater. Thank God for you.

Brigitte said...

There are a lot of aspects to this and I have occupied myself with this particular subject. At the moment, there seems to be the question: should we condemn Luther for his pamphlet or not?

For one thing, it is kind of too late for that. But as for myself, I have to say, when I first read the pamphlet under consideration, I was very much shocked and I don't care to reread it. Nor have many others cared to reread it, so that it has not really been something anyone has taken to heart. I think we can honestly say that. When Hitler supposedly dragged Luther out to support his insane policies, I don't think he was hitting a live nerve. Hitler's propaganda was one of a kind and we should always bear this in mind. Luther's thinking and writing on this is not really something that has been resonating with people, imbibed or accepted. For me, the Luther of that pamphlet is not Luther the pastor on whom I have learned to rely.

And YET, it is right, Luther had pastoral concern even in writing this nasty bit. Pastoral concern is present for one for the Jewish population who he had hoped would embrace the scriptures, the prophecies of the Messiah, now that they had been brought back into the light, embrace their Messiah, the Lord Jesus, the Savior of mankind. But instead, Luther faced the Rabbis who questioned the use of Old Testament passages and turned things on their heads just to get Jesus out of there, tantamount to a rejection of their very own kin and the Lord of Life, all over again.

The agitations and the scripture twisting Luther saw and heard when debating Rabbis, undermined the entire gospel and the Christian faith, altogether. This is very serious and Luther cannot stand for that. We will skip over what Jewish converts to Lutheranism said to malign other Jewish practices and activities, including the sacrifice of Christian children, etc. In the Middle Ages much unscientific misinformation had legs and traveled.

The pastoral concern there naturally connects to the concern for the poor and weak, whom Luther is always eager to educate, elevate, free in their thinking, strengthen and help in all sorts of ways. To confuse the weak was like Jesus saying the millstone should be put around their necks. It is really a matter of similar importance. We may shudder at Jesus' millstone, too.

I will skip over the matter of money lending and economic oppression of poor Christians farmers with sanction of the emperor. Here the concern is for livelihoods, but Luther's concern was for that, also. His whole struggle with the Roman church began with the indulgence sale, which robbed the poor "Christians" (they were often so poorly taught, one could hardly call them "Christians") of their hard-earned money for the sake of a false confidence in the works of purchasing these "church"-sanctioned instruments of forgiveness. Luther's passion is always for the souls and livelihoods of these poor people, such as in his town and parish, as well as their elevation through education and scriptural teaching. Anyhow, some of the Jews of his day, fell into the same category of undermining faith and extracting blood money from the poorest.

Another issue, at the time was whether people of different faiths should live together in the same towns. Spain had already expelled all its Jewish population with great unfairness and loss of lives. The English allowed no Jews on their soil. The King forbade them to come to the island and I read in G.K. Chesterton the other day, that he himself applauds this as a very good move by the King, supremely protective of his citizens. So we have here some parallels. Luther does not stand alone, nor is he the first one to talk about it or make not very nice suggestions about how to deal with the problem.

Brigitte said...

I did listen to a radio documentary, on CBC radio while driving, that explained at length the circumstances of expulsion of the Jews from Spain. This expulsion may seem more humane than killing and other nasty measures, but it, in fact, resulted in so much disaster, distress and loss of life through so much cruelty and avarice, it is beyond anyone's conscience.

In the same vein that the Spanish expulsion is unconscionable, I also find Luther's suggestions unconscionable. And yet, the writer of the article under question has a point and he is bold to make it: we need some tough speech here and there and not make such a big conscience matter out of it all the time.

How many options did the Reformation have for dealing with the problem finding itself threatened from all sides, Pope, Emperor, and Rabbis? Luther sometimes engaged in the "encouraging of the fists", in that he urged the secular government to do something about problems rather than to just sit around. Anything to do with public order and punishment or warfare was the domain of the government not the church. So, sometimes he would engage in big speeches, especially if asked his opinion to mediate, to get the princes or the emperor to do something; something, anything--for the sake of peace and order. This had gone awry before when the peasant war turned out too bloody. On the other hand the government needed some encouragement to get going on the problem with the Turk at the doors of Vienna. Luther dissects the Islamic teachings on various matters and concludes that it would be a disaster to have to live under the Turk. Let's fight them off, at all costs. But have the secular government do it. He spell it out quite clearly.

Sometimes, one thinks that our current situation demands stronger voices on such issues as Islamic expansion, radicalism, persecution of Christians.

How do we feel about the millions of people who are presently being deprived of rights, liberty, house and home and life, church buildings, raped and pillaged, threatened and bombed. I am not joking. We have videos of Christian girls being raped on Egypt's streets.

Of course, the average Muslim neighbor in our town, may very well not be like this. I don't know. I recently worked for a Muslim business owner. It did not go well. I did not agree with the pracitices and I did not get paid after I quit. I don't want to stereotype, and this is just my one expericen, and I don't have Muslims in my neighborhood living in a small town. However, the Muslim community in our nearby city also has engaged in dissimulation. And the Mullah's that our CBC reporters just travelled to Mauritania to interview regarding the Benghazi involvement of Canadian radicalized youth, were also clearly lying. My step-mother once went to a local mosque for a fashion-show (believe it or not) and found out that the whole gathering, after some little show, turned into a mocking of Christianity. There was an acting out of people sitting in pews and singing, and the whole thing was mocked. Incredible really. Similarly, the Middle Ages worried about what was going on with the Jews who stuck to their own communities and owned the wells for their ritual bathing.

Anyhow, the matter is complex. And how do we protect our peaceful communities and the strengthen the weaker segments of it? Not by pogroms anyhow. Never, please. Not of Jews, not of Muslims, not of Christians.

Brigitte said...

The other matter that I've been thinking about is what really motivated Hitler. We really, truly must look toward the neo-paganism of a cultural Protestantism and Humanism that has completely emptied itself of any faith in Christ. He may mention him or squeeze him in here and there but not as Savior from sin and not as historic. The cultural Darwinism also allowed for some brutality and eugenics to achieve racial purity and ends, which are repulsive to us now but held great sway at the time. The people of great spirit needed to rid society of lower elements and races, Jews included. It has nothing to to with Christianity. It has nothing to do with Luther. It has all to do with an outgrowth from humanism and Darwinism, may the moderns like it or not. They have not been owning this. I am thinking, all the more we hear about Luther being somehow the cause for this. This is very wrong and very bad and needs correcting.

Recently, I wrote something about Voltaire and his reasoning for slavery. Again it was a racial thing even with Voltaire. He may have changed his mind but nevertheless. All the great writers and spirits are experimenting with our minds and society. Oh, let's try this or that idea to re-educate the world and the state and our "spirit"... So, alright, let's try the old Paganism. We see what happened. Many a great thinker thought the violence of the French Revolution was justified. -- Eh? We should look at these thinkers also, and what influence they had instead of rummaging in medieval chests for old pamphlets nobody cared for. There was a current and modern and humanist anti-Semitism which needs to have more light shed on it.

James Swan said...

Great comments on a difficult topic. some brief comments in return:

should we condemn Luther for his pamphlet or not?

If I understand this question, I would answer no. I have no problem condemning the pamphlet, but I don't think Luther's work in total is to be condemned. I argue this at greater length in my Luther and the Jews paper (on my sidebar).

When Hitler supposedly dragged Luther out to support his insane policies, I don't think he was hitting a live nerve

I don't recall if I've ever actually come across exactly what Hitler used of Luther's, or to what extent.

Anyhow, the matter is complex

Bringing it into the realm of Islam (as you have) is actually a fair analogy. The question to be considered, as I see it, is as follows: what if an important and influential minister with strong ties to the government wrote the same sort of book that Luther did, but rather wrote it about Muslims living in North America? In Canada, of course, he'd get locked up for hate speech. But, here in the United States, I would denounce such a writing myself, even if the minister's other writings were stellar.

Yes, I see Luther's pastoral concern in OTJATL, but, he was also convinced it was almost the end of the world, and I think this provoked him towards sharp mercy. In other words, his pastoral concerns were being fed by his apocalyptic expectation, and the way he expressed his pastoral heart was a step over the line.

Brigitte said...

Yes, some good points and question. I don't know what else to say about all that right now. How should the free world respond to forced Islamization here and there and radicalization here and there? One statistic is that Muslims who have emigrated to the West leave their faith in greater number than any others. So it seems, when coming to America and Canada you tend to part the waters, either you tend to drift away because it is difficult to be a real Muslims here, or else you get deeper and more strongly into it and more strongly opposed to western "laxness and immorality". We have big chemical companies where I live and my lady neighbor works in a large concern that currently has hundreds of Saudi Arabians in training to run a plant back home. She says, they don't even speak to her or look at her. I said that's because you are an uncovered woman. There is probably a very unflattering word for that, for which I won't search, at this point.

Luther said, that when everything becomes about clothing, and I am more holy than you because I wear this hat or that hat or this color or that color, etc. then the devil has left his stench behind. It is easy to judge. We are no longer talking true morals, nor law and gospel. Anyhow, sharia law and all such things are stuff that Muslims who have moved here in large numbers don't want to live under either.

So much rambling from me, just now.

Churchmouse said...

Jim, I don't know if you read Eric Metaxas' biography of Bonhoeffer, but he includes a piece on Luther's alleged anti-Semitism, stating that the younger Luther defended the Jews. The older Luther, who was suffering from a host of sicknesses, including Meniere's disease (of which I am all too familiar with), which "... results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus. He also suffered mood swings and depression." Metaxas also points out that in his last decade he, also, suffered from "...gallstones, kidney stones, arthritis, abscesses on his legs, and uremic poisoning." Metaxas goes on to state that what led Luther to write his diatribe "On the Jews and Their Lies" was " 1528 when, after a large meal of kosher food, he suffered a shattering attack of diarrhea. He concluded that the Jews had tried to poison him. By that time he was making enemies everywhere."

One other thing that I must point out is that, since Catholics love to cite Luther as an anti-Semite, I wonder why they don't pick on John Chrysostom, who rivals the older Luther with his "Homilies Against the Jews." Double-standards abound, my friend.

James Swan said...


Great to hear from you!

I don't buy the Luther was old and sick defense, and the 1528 kosher food story defense doesn't even fit in the timeline. I would say it wasn't till sometime in the mid 1530's that Luther really began to have anger towards the Jews.