The uncomfortable question of Martin Luther’s place in the development of modern anti-Semitism is raised by Luther’s status as a national cultural icon after German unification (1871) and by the fact that the Third Reich (1933–1945) perpetrated what is arguably the most violently racist state policy known to human history thus far. Luther contributed to the symbiosis of religious and secular prejudices. The reception of Luther’s anti-Jewish discourse illustrates the gradual diffusion of religious hostility into a society where churches slid from a central position to the margins of social influence. This can only be understood against the backdrop of a long chronology of religious thinking. The long chronology shows that Luther was more a conduit than a catalyst of European anti-Jewish polemic and feeling.
Stephen G. Burnett
Christian Hebraism was a facet of Renaissance humanism. Biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools sought to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in its original language, and to borrow and adapt ideas and literary forms from post-biblical Hebrew texts to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. While some medieval Christian scholars such as Nicholas of Lyra and Raymond Martin made extensive use of Hebrew in their works, not until the early 16th century were a significant number of Christians able to learn Hebrew and use it to study the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish texts. The desire of biblical humanists to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the curiosity of Christian Kabbalists searching for ancient wisdom, and a slowly growing number of Jewish tutors and Christians who were able to provide Hebrew instruction all contributed to the growth of this movement. Jewish printers pioneered the techniques of mass-producing Hebrew books to feed this new market. Christian printers would use these same techniques to print grammars, dictionaries, and other books needed for instructing Christians. The growing conviction of Martin Luther and his followers that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority (sola scriptura) provided the most compelling reason for large numbers of Christians to learn Hebrew. The most active and innovative Protestant Hebraists during Luther’s lifetime were members of the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis,” including Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, Conrad Pellican, and above all Sebastian Münster.
Martin Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues were early adopters of the new Hebrew learning. He first learned Hebrew using Johannes Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar, and put his knowledge to practical use when lecturing on the Old Testament and translating the Bible into German. His colleagues, above all Philip Melanchthon and Matthaeus Aurogallus, helped Luther translate and revise his translation from 1521 until his death in 1546. Luther characterized his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Bible as “Grammatica Theologica,” employing Hebrew philology to interpret the text, but also wherever possible making it “rhyme” with the New Testament. Toward the end of his life, Luther became increasingly concerned that Münster and other Hebraists were too quick to accept Jewish interpretations of many Old Testament passages, particularly verses that traditionally had been understood to be messianic prophecies. In On the Last Words of David (1543) Luther offered a model of how he interpreted the Old Testament, while sharply criticizing Christian Hebraists who followed Jewish interpretation too closely.
Martin Luther was engaged with the topic “Jews and Judaism” all his life, from his earliest works until his last. The main context for his preoccupation with this topic was interpretation of Holy Scripture, particularly in his many and ample lectures on books of the Old Testament, starting with the “Dictata supra Psalterium,” his first lecture on the Psalms (1513‒1515), down to his “Lecture on the Book of Genesis” (1535‒1545). In addition, he wrote several treatises on the question of how Christian society should relate to the Jews living in its midst, most important, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” (1523) and “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543). These writings were, however, to a large extent also exegetical works. Altogether Luther’s attitude toward the Jews and Judaism is characterized simultaneously by continuity and by radical change: (1) continuity is obvious in his theological statements on Judaism which were based on a certain hermeneutics of the Old Testament centered in the Messiahship of Jesus Christ; and (2) change in his demands regarding the treatment of contemporary Jews which in earlier years followed his conception of the Two Kingdoms whereas in later times he came back to the traditional ideal of corpus Christianum. This change led to contradictory receptions of his statements on the topic in the course of history. All this is reflected in the research on the subject since the beginning of modern historical scholarship.