"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]