Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Anti-Semitism

by J van Rooyen

In the early days of the Reformation, Luther was quite friendly towards Jewish people. He was hopeful that they would support him and accept Jesus as the Messiah when he broke from the Catholic Church and its heresies. However, when the Jewish people rejected his approaches as well as his movement, Luther turned very anti-Semitic. He made very harsh anti-Semitic statements, especially toward the end of his life.

Adolf Hitler often quoted Martin Luther to justify some of his actions in Germany toward the Jewish people. The book Our Hands are Stained by Blood by Dr. Michael Brown traces the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and quotes the anti-Semitic statements of Martin Luther.

One of the best books to research Luther’s anti-Semitism is Volume 34 of The Works of Luther. His most offensive anti-Semitic statements are found in the treatise The Jews and their Lies.  Luther’s views and actions suffered from a severe lack of internal consistency.  On the one hand we find an excellent essay, “Against the Antinomians” which is full of the truth of the importance of the Law, specifically the Ten Commandments to believers.  On the other hand, he wrote ‘Against the Sabbatarians’ (i.e. those who keep the Sabbath). In that paper he talks of how to prove to the Jews that they are no longer God’s chosen people. He also states that several of the prophecies of Jeremiah and other prophets never came to pass and never will since God is finished with the Jews.

Early in his career, Martin Luther hoped that the Jews would  join him in his protests against the Catholic Church, and convert to his brand of Christianity. During this period, Luther wrote in his pamphlet, That Jesus was born a Jew:

Our fools and jackasses, ou.r priests, bishops, sophists and monks have treated the Jews in such a manner, that if one wished to become a true Christian he might better become a Jew.

Less than two decades later, after his outreach to the Jewish community failed to garner converts to Christianity PROTESTANTISM? , Luther turned against the Jews with fury, advocating the community’s destruction.

I shall give you my sincere advice [about what to do with the Jews] – to set fire to their synagogues or schools – that their houses also be razed and destroyed… instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn… - that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them – that their rabbis be forbidden to teach, henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb – that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews – that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them. But if we are afraid that they might harm us… then eject them forever from the country.

This quote is from Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, advising German rulers on the treatment of Jews.

Another source on Luther’s anti-Semitism is Jeremy Cohen, Traditional Prejudice and Religious Reform: The Theological and Historical foundations of Luther’s anti-Judaism, pages 81-102.

A selection from Luther’s positive and negative writings about the Jews is also found in Jacob Marcus, ed., the Jews in the Medieval World, pages 166-169:

I would threaten to cut their tongues out from their throats if they refuse to accept the Christian proof that God is a trinity, not a plain unity.

Martin Luther; cited in Maire Syrkin, ed., Hayim Greenberg Anthology, page 114.)

Some four hundred years later, Adolf Hitler claimed,

‘He, [Luther] saw the Jew as we are only beginning to see him today.’

Friedrich Heer, God's First Love, page 286

Luther’s life was a mixed blessing, He went against those of the reform movement who preached the good news and baptised the believers by letting them be executed because they baptised people who had already been ‘baptised’ as children! These ‘heretics’.were termed ‘second-time baptisers’ and were therefore persecuted and executed by Luther. The last sermon he gave was severely anti-Jewish. Four days later he was dead.

Messianic Jewish believer Dr Stephen Yulish writes:

‘Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism is a huge stumbling block for my Jewish brothers and sisters. Being a former history professor who lectured about anti-Semitism, I know a great deal about Martin Luther. Jews say to me, ‘you want me to believe that that anti-Semite is in heaven but my grandparents are in hell?’

Luther’s seminal work in his area was Von den Juden and Jren Luegen‘About the Jews and their Lies’ published in 1543.

Some excerpts:

Know Christian, that next to the devil thou hast no enemy more cruel, more venomous and violent that a true Jew…

…They are thirsty bloodhounds and murderers of all Christendom’ – ‘they were a heavy burden, like a plague, pestilence, pure misfortune in our country.’

They want to rule the world.’

‘They are arch criminals, killers of Christ and all Christendom.’

‘They were often burned to death upon the accusation that they had poisoned water and wells, stolen children and torn and hacked them apart, in order to cool their temper secretly with Christian blood.’

One cannot effectively witness to Jewish people, especially educated Jews, without having to deal with this. Will Martin Luther be in the resurrection of the righteous?  Only God knows. Did he beg Him for forgiveness for these sins before he died?

Can believers still sin after they are saved? Yes, obviously. Should they sin? Obviously not! Do they need to ask God for forgiveness? Yes! Did Martin Luther influence Adolf Hitler? Yes! This great man of the Protestant Reformation was seduced by Satan to spread his lies. This should humble all of us and keep us on our knees in prayer.’

For further information on this topic see Our Hands are Stained with Blood: The tragic story of the ‘Church’ and the Jewish People by Michael Brown Ph.D.  Also: Lucy Davidowicz’s excellent book Jewish Wisdom, pp 469-471, also contains information about Luther’s anti-Semitism.

In 1984 in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth, the World Lutheran Federation issued the following statement:

We cannot accept or condone the violent verbal attacks that the reformer [Luther] made against the Jews. The sins of Luther’s anti-Jewish remarks and the violence of his attacks on the Jews must be acknowledged with deep distress, and all occasion for similar sin in the present of the future must be removed from our churches… Lutherans of today refuse to be bound by all of Luther’s utterances against the Jews.’