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date: 28 April 2017

Martin Luther, Jews, and Judaism

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Judaism, Old Testament hermeneutics, Messiah, two kingdoms, corpus Christianum, Jews

Luther’s Theological Statements on Judaism

In his theological judgements on Judaism, Martin Luther built on the traditional view inherited from New Testament writings and from the Ancient as well as from the Medieval Church. Accordingly, there was one continuous and purposeful history of the people of God which comprised—after the first generations of human beings and the patriarchs—the history of the Jews down to the appearance of Christ as described in the Old Testament, on the one hand, and the history of the Christian Church until the Second Coming of Christ as attested to in the New Testament, on the other. The focus which made these two parts one was Jesus Christ who had been announced from the outset again and again as the Messiah of the Jews, their forefathers, and the first humans, and who had then actually arrived to open up the second phase. Hence, it was a matter of theological logic that the Jewish people once Christ had come would follow him as their own long expected Messiah and become the vanguard of the Christian Church. Adherence to the Old Testament without acceptance of the Gospel, remaining Jewish instead of becoming Christian was an impossible possibility on the very basis of the Old Testament itself. Insisting on such an impossible possibility could only be regarded as an expression of sinful stubbornness which would forfeit salvation.

Luther’s Hermeneutics of the Old Testament

This inherited conception was amalgamated with and modified by Luther’s specific theological concerns. In his hermeneutics of the Old Testament, Luther not only joined in with the traditional Christological interpretation of this book. He also combined this view with his insistence that the Bible had to be interpreted according to the literal, historical sense, rather than allegorically, as he had done himself in his early years and which, in fact, he did not always avoid later on. Thus, the conviction that the Christ-centeredness of the Old Testament was self-evident and that its rejection by the Jews was an intellectual and, moreover, a moral failure rooted in sinful stubbornness gained additional pungency. Luther’s insistence on the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament was all the more emphatic as he was confronted with a lively and intellectually demanding exegetical tradition on the Jewish side, the fruits of which were taken up by Christian, not least Protestant Hebraists whose contributions Luther read and used for his own exegetical work (especially Sebastian Münster). Obviously, he feared that Christian readers of the Old Testament might be in danger of being led astray by such Jewish or “Judaizing” influences. Whereas Erasmus of Rotterdam reacted to this challenge by advising the Church to give less weight to the Old Testament, Luther instead entered into the battle for the Old Testament as a fundamental and indispensable basis of the Church’s preaching and teaching. It belonged not only to the Jews but also to the Christians. Moreover, insofar as post Christum natum only the Christians understood this book correctly, now it was only a Christian book. In order to bring the Old Testament to life as such, Luther, together with a team of colleagues, invested enormous efforts into the German translation of the Old Testament and its continuous revision.

With regard to its content, the Old Testament, like the New, comprises both God’s demand and God’s message of grace, “law” and “gospel.” For Christians, the two are not equally relevant. The law of the Old Testament is the order of life once given by God through Moses to the Jews, a body of ethical and ritual rules designed to govern the life of the Jewish people. To other peoples, they were and are irrelevant; these had and have their own law. In the case of the Germans, for example, they had their “Sachsenspiegel.”1 However, a part of the Jewish laws, the Ten Commandments, contains a kernel which is not specific to the Jewish people, namely the “natural” ethical law which God has placed into the hearts of all human beings and which therefore is binding for all humankind. At the same time, the law has still another aspect, indeed its most important one, namely, its “theological function,” which plays a fundamental role in justification (see the section on “Justification”).

Deliberations on the “law,” its different aspects and uses, are pivotal to Luther’s doctrine of justification and can be found throughout his works. What is at the center of his writings on the right treatment of contemporary Jewry, however, is not the “law,” but the “gospel” in the Old Testament, the message of God’s grace in the history of the first humans, the patriarchs, and the people of Israel. The reason lies in the fact that those writings concentrate on the question of Christology (see the section on “Christology”). For the Messiah, in Greek the “Christ,” is the aim of the Old Testament’s message of God’s grace as he is the center of the whole of Holy Scriptures,2 its “central point” from which all else in this book is “drawn.”3 In fact, Christ is present in the Old Testament in a twofold way, as subject and as object: as the one who speaks in it4 and, in the unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, acts in the history told therein,5 and as the one whose coming has been abundantly foretold in it, explicitly and implicitly, by the prophets, by Moses and David, directly by God as in the promises made to Adam (Gen. 3:15) and Abraham (Gen. 22:18), and in many other sentences which only hint at a messianic fulfilment that later historical events openly confirmed. Since in Luther’s eyes this presence of Christ in the Old Testament was clearly evident, the references to such prophesies of and allusions to Christ came not as arguments of faith, but as proofs, based on intertextual biblical connections or on the correspondence of biblical statements and history, particularly the history of the Jews after the time of Christ, which supposedly showed that their rejection of their messiah Christ had resulted in misery. As in the medieval debates between Christians and Jews, both sides had tried to refute the others’ opinion by way of exegetical-historical proofs and counterproofs, so also Luther’s writings on the proper treatment of the Jews abundantly listed such proofs. For “Scripture and history agree so perfectly with one another that the Jews have nothing they can say to the contrary.”6


In Luther’s view the contradictory readings of the Old Testament mirrored a fundamental difference in the understanding of the relationship between God and human beings, of men’s justification before God. This diagnosis of contradictory conceptions on justification between Judaism and Christianity stood at the beginning of his statements on the Jewish religion, in the first lecture on the Psalms,7 and was upheld throughout his life. Luther summarized the Jewish position in the critical formula that the Jews wanted to be justified before God by “their own justice” (iustitia sua),8 “their own works” (operibus suis),9 whereas in fact all human beings could be justified by God’s grace alone, which would be received in faith alone. Their claim was an expression of arrogance, even a form of idolatry. For truly to acknowledge God as one’s God (“let Him be [one’s] God”) meant to trust in no one and in nothing else but him which excluded any trust in one’s own works, if only in connection with grace.10 Such false pretension was rooted in a false understanding of the law. The Jews failed to see that the God-given function (usus) the law had besides—and before—regulating the life of society (usus politicus) was to lead human beings to the recognition of their sin and the need for God’s grace (usus theologicus). Thus, the law, instituted long after the promises of grace in the history of the first human beings and the patriarchs, was meant to lead the Jews to trust in God’s mercy. Instead they used it as a means to trust in their own achievements and thereby commit idolatry.


However strongly Luther rejected the false conception of justification that he diagnosed in Judaism, this argument later moved into second place in favor of the point of contention that had from time immemorial been at the center of Christian‒Jewish strife: Christology. In fact, Luther emphasized that the Jews’ wrong trust in their good works was simply the reverse side of their rejection of Christ.11 Thus, at times he interpreted the traditional anti-Jewish accusation that the Jews had killed Christ as meaning that they had not done so with their hands, only with their will and words; however, through their work-oriented and not Christ-oriented attitude they crucified him until this very day—as did many Christians through their faithless lives.12 Particularly in Luther’s writings about how to deal with the Jews of his own time, Christology dominated the theological argumentation, while the doctrine of justification played only a marginal role or even none at all. It was the connection between the Jews and Christ which served as an argument in their favor in the treatise “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” from 1523, and it was the Jewish rejection of Christ which served as the main reason for Luther’s destructive anti-Jewish demands in his writings from 1543 (see the section on “Luther’s Demands Regarding the Treatment of Contemporary Jews”). The solus Christus was the bedrock of his argumentation, and the antagonism over this point was fundamental in a way in which the opposition on justification, in spite of all its weight, was not.

The starting point to which Luther returned again and again was the argument that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah who had been promised to the Jewish people throughout their pre-Christian history. Christ’s primary mission for the Jewish people was expressed not least by the fact that he was one of them ethnically, by his “blood,” as Luther underlined particularly in “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” Consequently, the apostles were exclusively Jewish and so were the members of the first Christian congregation—for all of whom it was perfectly clear where they would find enlightenment about the significance of Jesus, namely in their own holy Scripture. Yet in spite of this primary mission of the Messiah Jesus to the Jews, he had not been sent for them exclusively. The salvation he brought was meant also for the “aliens,” the non-Jews. This was not so only because the majority of the Jews rejected their Messiah, but it had been God’s plan from the beginning as was clear from the first promise of Christ, the “first gospel message” (Gen. 3:15), given long before the people of Israel came into being immediately after the Fall, which was meant for the whole of humanity affected by this catastrophe. Later prophesies also spoke of the Messiah’s reign over all humankind, not just the Jews. Thus, Jesus came in order to erect the kingdom of God in all the world.

Luther underscored not only that the Christ-Messiah Jesus, though sent in the first place to the Jews, brought salvation for all humankind but also argued that the life, words, and deeds of this man showed how the reign of the Messiah was to be carried through until his Second Coming: as a “spiritual kingdom,” a “government over our consciences with the Gospel” “in faith.”13 Thus, the false expectation that the Messiah would bring a “bodily kingdom” and would reign with political power as the kings of Israel had done was refuted. By holding fast not only to a messiah still to come but also to a political vision of his kingdom, the Jews rejected God’s decision to let the Messiah come in a way other than as a worldly ruler, namely in humility and suffering.14

Although Luther was convinced throughout his life that Christ’s messiahship could be proven from the Old Testament with undeniable certainty, he never expected that many Jews would give way to this evidence. Even in “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” he found it probable that only “some” of them would. The majority would hold fast to their stubborn denial of the evident truth; remaining “uncorrectable” according to Ecclesiastes 1:15, they would thus lose salvation.15 Only in his “Lecture on Romans” (1515/1516) and in a few related passages did Luther depart from this view and conclude from Romans 11:25‒27 that according to Paul the Jews would be saved in their entirety.16 In accordance with the solus Christus which ruled his theology, it went without saying that their final salvation would be brought about by Jesus Christ through faith in him—Christ’s last great act of mercy to complete his salvific work.17 Such statements, however, were rare in Luther’s thinking and restricted to a few years in his life; more typically he presupposed that the Jews would stick to their opposition to Christ. Yet he was not particularly concerned about this prospect. In the treatise “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” he was explicitly disinterested in the question of how many Jews would remain “stiff-necked” against Christ—after all, in Christianity there were many who were “not . . . good Christians either.”18

However, a few years later his indifference was heavily tested. In a conversation with Jews around 1525 to 1526, probably the only one he ever had, he experienced that they found his Christological proofs far from convincing. He could live with that. What was worse, they called Jesus Christ a “hanged man” (thola), which was a hefty abuse. As numerous recapitulations in conversations as well as in writing throughout his further life show, this episode shocked Luther deeply and influenced his attitude toward the Jews. In the end, in his writing “On the Jews and Their Lies” in 1543, the alleged gross insults of the Jews against the Messiah Christ together with his Virgin Mother and the Trinity were put forward as the main reason for the anti-Jewish measures Luther required from the political authorities (see the section on “Luther’s Demands Regarding the Treatment of Contemporary Jews”).19 Whatever else may lie behind this accusation, it shows once more that Christological antagonism is the fundamental stumbling block in Luther’s view of Judaism.


Luther’s hermeneutical and Christological perspectives came together in his integration of Judaism into ecclesiology. His universalistic Christology entailed an equally universalistic ecclesiological approach. The kingdom of the redeemer of all humankind Jesus Christ could not be bound to any local, temporal, political, or ethnic boundaries. Luther stated that the latter notion excluded the Jewish claim to be the people of God in an ethnic sense. To be more precise, it excluded their claim to be such post Christum natum. For before the coming of Christ, the Jewish people had indeed played a special role in salvation history as an ethnic unity. After Adam and his pious offspring, after Noah and his sons, and after the patriarchs, God made the people which came from the patriarchs “His chosen people.”20 He blessed and accompanied this people along their way, entrusted them with a land, with the Law and the Prophets, and, most important, with the promise of the Messiah.

Luther made a strong case for this ethnic character of the chosen Jewish people. In “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” he emphasized the “blood relation” of this people down to Jesus and the apostles, nay, even to the Jews of his own time, and he conceded that the non-Jews were excluded from this prerogative.21 In his “Lecture on Romans,” he had underlined that the ethnic people of Israel had been a “carnal” people as well as the people of God’s “promise and election.”22 At the same time, he left no doubt that the ethnic dimension was not a sufficient basis for the fulfilment of God’s promises. Being the chosen people ethnically aimed at this people’s spiritual response. Such response meant a life based on the acknowledgement to have been chosen by grace alone and on trust alone in this grace23—the correlation of grace and faith which according to Luther made up the positive relation between God and human beings from creation until doomsday. However, the more strongly he put forward the connection between the election and the ethnic character of the chosen people on the basis of biblical evidence, the more Luther had to come to terms with a problem, which he found in both the Old and the New Testaments: not all who belonged to the chosen people and had received God’s gifts and promises responded to the grace of God in their lives, and indeed, the majority did not. Putting their trust in other gods or in their own strength instead of the true God who had elected them, they committed idolatry. A split within the chosen people occurred between those who responded to God adequately and those who did not. The latter ceased to be God’s people in the true sense. As the Old Testament (particularly the preaching of the prophets) shows, such splits had occurred throughout the history of Israel, and at times the true chosen people had shrunk to a tiny “remnant.”24

According to Luther, the crucial point was that with Jesus Christ this history of differentiation between the ethnic and the true people of God came to a close. One reason was that the majority of the Jews rejected Christ. Since thereby they rejected not only a prophet, as their forefathers had done many times, but their Messiah, this failure had consequences for their status. Faith, which had up to then characterized the true chosen people within the ethnic people as a whole was detached from the ethnic fundament and made the sole basis for belonging to the people of God, which from that point forward was a purely spiritual unit: “Because they would not have him [the Messiah],” he made “henceforth a spiritual Israel,” where nobody can boast any more of his “fleshly birth” as the Jews do.25 The terms “Israel” and “Jews,” which for the history before Christ had been used synonymously by Luther, for the time post Christum natum were separated, “Israel” designating those who had accepted the Messiah and “Jews” those who had not. The second and more important reason for the new, purely spiritual constitution of the people of God was the fact that the Messiah-Christ had come as the savior of all humankind, the non-Jewish no less than the Jews. Through baptism and faith, the former were joined to those Jews who opened up to their Messiah, both comprising the one spiritual Israel, the Church.26

At this point, Luther asks himself the question whether God, by making the Church the new, spiritual Israel, simply passed over the fact that he had once given his promises to Israel on an ethnic basis. Against this possible objection, he pointed to the fact that not all Jews had rejected Christ. Thus, the “spiritual Israel” did not consist only of former “pagans.” In those Jews who accepted Christ, ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel became one once more as had been the case with the truly faithful Jews before Christ. They, namely the group of the apostles and the first Christian community as well as those later Jews who against the majority of their people joined their Messiah Christ, were the hinge which connects the purely spiritual Israel with the ethnic Israel.27 Yet they were a part of the greater people of God which comprises human beings from all peoples, “Jews and Greeks.”28 Very rarely, in fact only in those passages from his “Lecture on Romans” and related sentences previously mentioned (see the section on “Christology”), Luther went beyond these statements. In the letter of Paul to the Romans, he found a hint that salvation in the end would not be restricted to those individual Jews who had opened up to their Messiah but would comprise the whole Jewish people as an ethnic unity.29 However, this would become reality in no other way than for those who had come along earlier individually, namely through Christ in faith. In this way God would confirm that he did not regret his promise to his chosen people in its former shape.30

Luther’s Demands Regarding the Treatment of Contemporary Jews

In Luther’s exegetical works biblical Jews often blurred with the Jews of his own time. This is not astonishing because of the ecclesiological continuity into which they were placed by him and, indeed, by the theological tradition he took up. However, contemporary Jews were not simply a theoretical theological entity, but neighbors Christians had to deal with in practical life. The framework of their common life had changed radically when from the 4th century onward Christianity became the religion of the political powers, when empires and kingdoms were intimately connected with the Christian Church and understood themselves as Christian, in the Latin term, as corpus Christianum. One implication of this idea was the adherence of all to the true faith, which excluded heresy as well as paganism. The question was how to deal with the Jews who did not share the true Christian faith, either. The answer which became fundamental for the politics followed in Western Christianity was formulated by Augustine:31 Jews should, as the only group who lacked the true faith, be allowed to live in Christian lands, since they according to God’s own decision had to fulfill a special role. For although they did not believe in their Messiah Christ and had even crucified him, they rendered an important service to Christianity by holding fast to the prophesies that evidently announced this Messiah. Thus, they against their own will were witnesses to Jesus Christ who, dispersed as they were across the world, thus made their witness of Christ available everywhere. From this it follows that the Jews because of their Christological witness had to be allowed to live among Christians, but because of their stubborn refusal to accept this witness for themselves they could not have equal rights with them.

Popes and bishops, emperors and other rulers generally adhered to this line, although the extent of rights actually granted or denied to the Jews varied greatly. After the First Crusade (1096‒1099), their situation worsened considerably. Pogroms erupted, Jews were expelled and murdered, and their rights increasingly diminished. In the Late Middle Ages, tales of alleged Jewish atrocities like poisoning public wells, abusing the consecrated wafer, and the ritual sacrifice of Christian children aggravated the situation. The concentration of Jews involved in moneylending, as a result of their prohibition from other professions, led to ceaseless accusations of usury. Gradually Jews were expelled from the countries of Western Europe, so that by the end of the 15th century, England, France, Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal were all countries without Jews. In the Holy Roman Empire, Martin Luther’s wider political context, there were still Jews. However, they had also been driven out from many of its cities or territories, among them Luther’s Saxony; in others, they suffered the same fate in the early decades of the 16th century. The legal stipulations that officially secured their right of residence in Christian lands were thus practically obsolete. Public opinion, including that of clerics, theologians, and other intellectuals like the humanists, largely approved. The ideal of a corpus Christianum in which the Jews were an alien element and thus at most to be reluctantly tolerated, but if possible disposed of, was a matter of course.

“That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew”

Within this ideological and sociopolitical framework, the treatise in which Luther for the first time took a position regarding the treatment of the Jews came as a revolutionary call (1523). This was already apparent in its title: “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” The Jews came into the picture not as those who had crucified Christ, but as human beings who belonged to the same people as he and were his “blood relatives.”32 Even more sensational were the demands Luther put forward in this treatise: The Jews should be admitted freely to all professions that were then open only to Christians. Moreover, they should be allowed to live without restrictions among the Christian majority, an arrangement which according to another writing from Luther’s pen also included intermarriage.33 Their exclusion from society was strongly criticized, usury attributed to their preclusion from normal trades, and the claims of atrocities were rejected as slanderous fairy tales. It is important to notice that Luther wrote all that without lessening the religious antagonism of which he was convinced throughout his life. That Jesus Christ was the Messiah of the Jews and that this was evident from their own Holy Scripture if they read it with unbiased eyes was not taken back in the least.

However, in “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” Luther diagnosed mitigating circumstances for the negative bias with which the Jews read the promises of the Messiah. The treatment they suffered from the papal Church made it impossible for them to develop a positive attitude to the Christian message. It presented Christianity in such a repulsive way that “if I had been a Jew I . . . I would rather have become a hog than a Christian.”34 Yet the Gospel, which was being rediscovered in the course of the Reformation, would lead to a different behavior toward the Jews and thus to a more credible presentation of the Christian faith. As a consequence, there would be a chance that some Jews would convert.

These sentences give the impression that Luther simply proposed a different, more promising strategy for converting the Jews. What makes it difficult, however, to reduce his arguments to this motivation is the low missionary result he expected from the new, evangelical treatment of the Jews. The prevailing terms with which he described this result is that “some” Jews “might” come along.35 In fact, throughout his lifetime Luther was not an active proponent of mission to the Jews and did not set much hope on it. In “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” he explicitly stated that the prospective of only some Jews possibly converting and others not did not disturb him at all; after all the adherents of the religious majority were “not all good Christians either” (see the section on “Christology”). In other words, just as it had to be accepted that within the Church there were good and bad Christians, so also one had to live with the fact that in society there were adherents of the true, Christian religion and people who to their own detriment contradicted the true faith. The attempts of former times to dissolve this opposition through social pressure and thus uphold a religiously homogeneous corpus Christianum were rejected.

What came to bear in “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” was Luther’s so-called conception of the “Two Kingdoms” or rather the “Two Regiments of God.” Not accidentally, his programmatic presentation of this conception, the treatise “On Secular Authority and to What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” saw the light during the same weeks in which “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” was written. In “On Secular Authority,” Luther pointed out that political pressure in matters of faith was strictly illegitimate because God alone could rule over the soul through his Word, and that political authorities must not interfere against wrong religious teaching in their territories, but had to leave that to the ecclesial authorities whose means would be the divine Word only.36 These sentences implied the fundamental compatibility of a societal coexistence on the basis of equal rights, on the one hand, and abiding religious antagonism, on the other. In other words, they meant nothing less than the questioning of the ideal of a religiously homogeneous corpus Christianum. In “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” Luther drew the consequences for the specific case of the Jews. Obviously, he was himself not certain about the long-term consequences of this daring proposal. Thus, he closed his treatise with the announcement that he would after some time “see what [he had] accomplished.”37

Luther’s readers immediately saw the revolutionary character of his treatise. Jewish circles registered his social and religious criticism in their favor with astonishment and agitation. Luther’s Catholic opponents added alleged pro-Jewish tendencies to the list of his fundamental errors and even accused him of encouraging Jewish anti-Christian blasphemies. However, in those territories and cities which adopted the Reformation, the political and social potential of Luther’s treatise was nowhere put into practice, apart from the fact that memorial places where allegedly abused wafers and ritually murdered children were commemorated came to an end in Protestant territories.

“On the Jews and Their Lies”

Instead Luther himself dramatically revoked his pro-Jewish demands of 1523. He did so twenty years later in his writing “On the Jews and Their Lies.” This long treatise for the most part again and with growing exasperation “proves” the evident witness of the Old Testament for the Messiah Christ and the stubbornness of the Jews who continue to refuse the evident. The aim of these proofs is not to convince them, which Luther thinks would be useless,38 but to arm Christians who might be in danger of being “lured away” by their arguments.39 Two further writings from the same year, “Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi” and “On the last Words of David,”40 served the same purpose, the former also accusing the Jews of using the Tetragrammaton for magic practices. In these treatises, Luther’s arguments more than once turned defamatory, including allusions to the once rejected atrocity tales and his adoption of a vulgar tone and imagery. This is the case especially in “Vom Schem Hamphoras,” the dirtiest treatise he ever wrote, in which the degrading medieval motif of the Jewish pig was used as the embodiment of Jewish exegesis, cult, and morals.

Although the exegetical passages make up the bulk of “On the Jews and Their Lies,” what is specific to this treatise and accounts for its notorious fame is its last section: Luther’s advice to the Protestant secular authorities in whose territories there were still Jews regarding how to deal with them. Here, contrary to his demands of 1523, he told them to liberate their Christian subjects from the Jews who lived among them. The authorities should do so either by following certain “counsels,” which would make Jewish religious life completely impossible and Jewish social life very nearly so: they should burn the synagogues and solid houses of the Jews, destroy their religious books, and prohibit them from religious teaching, public worship, and the naming of God’s name before Christian ears. The authorities should also deny them safe-conduct, forbid them from financial transactions, confiscate their property, and force them to do heavy physical labor.41 Or, Luther’s preferred solution, they should rid their territories of the Jews by following the example of so many other European countries and driving them out altogether.42 Then one would finally “be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews.”43

The main reason Luther gave for his radical advice was Jewish “lies,” blasphemies. This crime, he claimed, was new to him. Whereas he had always been aware that the Jews did not believe in Christ, he had only recently learned that they regularly pronounced blasphemies against Christ, his Mother, and the Trinity—a reference especially to his reading of the converts Antonius Margaritha (c. 1490‒1542) and Paulus of Burgos (c. 1351‒1435). Blasphemy, he argued, changed the situation. Whereas wrong faith was the personal problem of the believer, blasphemy involved the whole society in which he lived. This was clear from the Old Testament, which required merciless intervention in the case of blasphemy because otherwise it would bring the whole country to ruin (Deut. 13:13‒19; Ex. 32:25‒28).44 From Luther’s diagnosis, his demands followed. The aim could not be to make Jews into Christians. Luther stuck to his principle that no one should be forced into faith, for which reason he did not prescribe that Jews be forced to attend Christian sermons, as had not uncommonly been done in the Middle Ages, and as was also required by some of Luther’s contemporaries, including, on the Protestant side, Martin Bucer. The aim was rather to prevent Jews from blasphemy among the Christians. Therefore all places and means of publicly practicing their religion should be taken away from them. For “we Christians must not tolerate that they practice this in their public synagogues, in their books, and in their behavior, openly under our noses, and within our hearing, in our own country, houses, and regimes. If we do, we together with the Jews and on their account will lose God the Father and his dear Son, who purchased us at such cost with his holy blood, and we will be eternally lost, which God forbid!”45 However, even such radical measures would not solve the dilemma of the Christians. Even if the Jews were deprived of all opportunities publicly to blaspheme against Christ, they would, being Jews and rejecting Christ, continue to do so in their hearts. Since Christians were aware of that, the secret Jewish blasphemy in their midst would still be public. To tolerate it would make Christians “participants in the sins of others” (1.Tim. 5:22). In line with this perspective, Luther recommended as the only real solution the expulsion of the Jews to regions where there were no Christians: “Let them think of their fatherland. . . . That is the most natural and best course of action which will safeguard the interests of both parties.”46

With these arguments, Luther had returned to the ideal of corpus Christianum, of the religiously homogeneous Christian territory. What is reflected in his return to the model once dismissed is the changed situation of the Reformation. Whereas in the early 1520s the Reformation had been a movement of small groups gradually organizing themselves, by now it was firmly institutionalized in ecclesial communities. The more this development had progressed, the more it had been fitted into the traditional framework inherited from the Middle Ages, the framework of the Christian society upheld jointly by the ecclesial and political authorities within the boundaries of right doctrine and religious practice, only now in a Protestant version and on the smaller scale of individual territories within the empire. Luther himself played a key role in this process of institutionalization. Thus, his demand from 1523 to allow unlimited societal participation to a group which questioned Christianity religiously in such a principal way as the Jews was now impossible. Even their presence at the fringe of society, as provided by traditional legal arrangements, was excluded. Thoroughgoing realization of a Christian society seemed possible only by following the radical course of those powers outside of and within the empire, which had expelled the Jews altogether. It is significant that as the biblical base for this program Luther adopted Old Testament prescriptions mercilessly to fight against false religion. The return to the ideal of corpus Christianum was supported by reference to the theocratic model of ancient Israel.

In spite of the urgency of his anti-Jewish plea in 1543, which led him to repeat the demand for expulsion of the Jews even at the end of his last sermon in 1546,47 Luther did not consider this political view to be a necessary element of the program of the Reformation. He accepted that there were fellow Reformers whose thoughts rather continued along his line of 1523 (Urbanus Rhegius, Johannes Brenz, and Andreas Osiander). Whereas the treatise “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” was a success on the market and was reprinted many times, “On the Jews and Their Lies” during Luther’s lifetime saw only one reprint. As regards the political authorities, princes and magistrates, at whom Luther’s anti-Jewish demands were directed, they were not inclined to make “On the Jews and Their Lies” the blueprint of their politics. Only some of them followed his advice to expel all Jews from their territories, and none followed his other “counsels.”

The Contradictory Receptions of Luther’s Statements on the Jews in the Course of History

It is difficult to determine the reception of Luther’s theological view of the Jews. Since its general lines were common in Christian tradition, his thoughts were likewise handed down with the general theological inheritance. How far the specific way in which this had been appropriated by Luther was received has to be identified for particular areas and authors individually. Lutheran Pietism, for example, made a special case of Luther’s temporary interpretation of Romans 11:25 f. in the sense of a comprehensive conversion of the Jewish people, which was a standard feature in pietistic eschatology.

As for Luther’s writings on how the Christian society should deal with contemporary Jews, more precisely “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” and “On the Jews and Their Lies,” there is a distinctive history of reception. Due to his contrary statements in 1523 and 1543, this history comprises varying strands and breaks. During the first period after Luther’s death, the time of the Lutheran Orthodoxy or so-called Age of Confessionalism, theologians in general took their orientation from “On the Jews and Their Lies” and accordingly opted for the exclusion of Jews from Protestant territories—though with limited results. The treatise from 1543 was reprinted not only as part of Luther’s collected works but until 1616 also separately for easier availability.

Northern German and Prussian Pietism brought about the decisive turn which stamped the history of reception of the writings in question for more than two hundred years. This turn was launched by the founder of Lutheran pietism, Philipp Jakob Spener (1636‒1705), who called his fellow Protestants to respect and love the Jews with reference to Luther’s treatise of 1523. Whereas Spener’s appeal included an implicit criticism of Luther’s later anti-Jewish writing, other pietists explicitly criticized “On the Jews and Their Lies.” No further separate editions were published. To this turn corresponded a host of pro-Jewish opinions delivered in particular by the pietistic theological faculty of Halle, which supported the right of Jews to live in protestant territories, to hold religious services, and to build synagogues, and which defended them against various accusations of religious offences. Thus, Jewish congregations suffering affliction were motivated to appeal to the faculty of Halle. The new pietistic attitude toward the Jews came together with the certainty of Jewish conversion: differently from Luther’s general line and from the theologians of the Age of Confessionalism, the pietists, based on Paul’s letter to the Romans, expected the eventual conversion of all Jews to Jesus Christ.

To turn away from “On the Jews and Their Lies” was the usual attitude well beyond pietism. Altogether in church and society, Luther’s anti-Jewish writing from 1543 fell into oblivion. The few academic theologians familiar with it in the late 18th and in the 19th century—and they knew it only because they used the collected works’ editions, for there were no separate printings—rejected it. The Luther image of the time was based completely on the Luther of the early Reformation, and it showed him as a protagonist of freedom, enlightenment, culture, and education who was held in high esteem also by many Jews. If they knew about “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in general they attached little relevance to it as compared to the overall importance of the Reformer.

The second turn in the history of reception came after World War I. There had been first signs already in the 19th century when collections of quotations from “On the Jews and Their Lies” were put together and went round in volkish circles. A few isolated theologians participated in this effort. However, what really served the spreading of and positive reference to Luther’s anti-Jewish statements, in the first place sentences from “On the Jews and Their Lies,” was the massive use of the Reformer for German nationalism from the time of the empire. The more this nationalism took on anti-Semitic tones, the more his statements against the Jews were taken up. Their appropriation in this process went along with a new interpretation: the theological arguments which had determined Luther’s statements were disregarded and replaced by arguments of race ideology. On a large scale, this happened during the time of the Weimar Republic and most of all in the Third Reich. The reference to “On the Jews and Their Lies” for the purpose of race ideology was regularly connected with the reproach against the Protestant churches to have suppressed this writing, and by not reprinting it for centuries to have caused it to be forgotten and without effect. As a remedy “editions for the common man” of “On the Jews and Their Lies” were published, very short extracts in which what makes up the bulk of this treatise, the theological passages, were more or less eliminated. This was done by volkish, National Socialist, and ecclesial circles. Representatives of the “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen) invoked “On the Jews and Their Lies,” though altogether rarely. The bottom of this history of reception was reached with the infamous pamphlet of the German-Christian bishop of Thuringia Martin Sasse (1890‒1942). A few weeks after the so-called Reichskristallnacht in 1938, Sasse celebrated the widespread burning of synagogues that night as the realization of what Luther had demanded in 1543.

Thus within a few years, contrary to the development since the late 17th century, the treatise “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” had completely receded into the background. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906‒1945), who with reference to this treatise spoke out in favor of the Jews, belonged to a tiny minority. It is difficult to estimate which role “On the Jews and Their Lies” actually played in the widespread anti-Semitism of German Protestants. This anti-Semitism largely flowed from other sources. However, the use of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings in the service of the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich most probably affirmed German Protestants in their anti-Semitism and stifled their alertness to its deadly consequences.

The Encyclopedia Judaica stated a hundred years ago that due to the contradictory demands Luther made for the treatment of the Jews, friends and enemies of the Jews had equally appealed to him. This statement was written before the Shoah when enmity against the Jews took on a wholly new dimension. This crime cannot attributed to the treatise “On the Jews and Their Lies,” whose aim was the expulsion of the Jews rather than mass murder, and whose arguments were based on religious motives rather than racial politics. Thus, the appeal of National Socialists and German Christians to this treatise missed the mark. On the other hand, Luther’s writings could be put to the service of National Socialist propaganda because he, too, had defamed Jews and demanded the “freeing” of territories from their Jews.

Germany is not the only country with Lutheran and other Protestant churches that appeal to Martin Luther. Churches in other countries have their own history of dealing with Luther’s pro- and anti-Jewish demands and they have their own history of relations with the Jews, not least during the time of Nazi persecution. In some cases marked differences compared to the German scene can be seen, for example, in Lutheran Norway. This makes historical generalizations even more difficult. However, in all the Lutheran churches, there is an ongoing debate on how to deal with this multifaceted element of Luther’s legacy. In Germany, the history of reception is itself part of this debate: the fact that for a long stretch of the history of the Lutheran churches the writing which had set the standard was “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” while “On the Jews and Their Lies” was rejected, demonstrates that the reception of Martin Luther, then and now, is a matter of responsible choice.

Review of the Literature

Only recently the topic “Luther and the Jews” became an object of intensified scholarship. Historical-critical research on Luther which started in the second half of the 19th century hardly touched this theme. The scholarly biographies of the time (e.g., Theodor Kolde and Julius Köstlin, to name just the two most important ones) referred to Luther’s writings of 1523 and 1543 but briefly. The first historical study dedicated to “Luther and the Jews” was by Reinhold Lewin, a Jewish historian and rabbi: Luthers Stellung zu den Juden (Berlin, 1911). Lewin’s book became a point of reference for all respective research during the following decades, starting from the Weimarer Ausgabe. On the basis of extensive source material, he painted a psychological picture of Luther’s attitude toward the Jews: after a negative phase which was based on dogmatic theology, Luther, encouraged by a personal encounter with Jews in 1521, fostered enthusiastic hopes for a general Jewish conversion to Christianity which changed into passionate anti-Judaism when such a conversion did not come about. Erich Vogelsang, however, a well-known Luther scholar who belonged to the “German Christians,” in 1933 presented a study Luthers Kampf gegen die Juden (Tübingen, 1933), which repudiated the psychological interpretation in favor of a theological one and the diagnosis of different phases in Luther’s attitude in favor of continuity. The “Jewish question” for Luther was a “Christ question.” Since Christ was the center of Luther’s theology, whereas he was rejected by the Jews there could only be antagonism from the beginning to the end. Luther’s contradictory demands regarding the behavior of Christians toward the Jews were not denied but considered of marginal importance. Vogelsang’s closeness to National Socialism expressed itself in obvious sympathy with “On the Jews and Their Lies,” which in spite of his emphasis on the Christological focus of Luther’s writings was largely interpreted in volkish categories.

The question of whether there had essentially been change or continuity in Luther’s attitude toward the Jews remained at the center of historical and theological reflection after World War II when the topic was discussed in Germany, which was, however, not the case too often during the first postwar years. Change began in the 1960s with their general trend toward a more critical assessment of societal and theological traditions. An important contribution came from the Roman Catholic theologian Johannes Brosseder, who in a rich and detailed study analyzed the history of the reception of Luther’s writings on the Jews: Luthers Stellung zu den Juden im Spiegel seiner Interpreten (Munich, 1972). The years around the Luther Jubilee in 1983 saw a breakthrough on the topic of “Luther and the Jews” in public awareness as well as in scholarship. The latter was part of a more general shift of academic interest. Whereas so far the last two decades of Luther’s life and work had played a secondary role in scholarly research, now the “older Luther” became a focus of attention and thus his writings of 1543. The most important fruit and catalyst of this development was Heiko A. Oberman’s Roots of Antisemitism (German original, Berlin, 1981; English translation, 1984), which does not exclusively, but extensively deals with Luther. As the title indicates, Oberman was not just interested in early modern anti-Judaism, but he also reflected on the relationship between the anti-Judaism of the Late Middle Ages and the 16th century, on the one hand, and modern anti-Semitism, on the other. This question became a matter of general interest, however, only toward the end of the millennium in connection with the surge of anti-Semitism and holocaust research.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, there was little scholarly interest in the topic in the 19th and through most part of the 20th century, as Luther did not play a prominent role in religious life and scientific work in general. Peter Wiener’s notorious pamphlet Martin Luther: Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor (London, 1945) received a refutation based on historical scholarship by Gordon Rupp, Martin Luther: Hitler’s Cause or Cure? (London, 1945). Only in 1971, “On the Jews and Their Lies” appeared in English in the scholarly edition Luther’s Works after right-wing ideologists in the United States had published it already in 1948. “On the Last Words of David” is also included in Luthers’s Works, whereas “Vom Schem Hamphoras” is not to this year. The Luther Jubilee of 1983 brought the topic to wider awareness also in the United States, a process for which Heiko A. Oberman again played an important role. Since then a number of studies on different historical, literary, and theological aspects of the topic have appeared.

Further Reading

Bell, Dean Philip, and Stephen Burnett, eds. Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.Find this resource:

Ben-Sasson, Haym Hille. “The Reformation in Contemporary Jewish Eyes.” Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 4 (1969/1970): 239–326.Find this resource:

Brosseder, Johannes. Luthers Stellung zu den Juden im Spiegel seiner Interpreten. Munich: Hueber, 1972.Find this resource:

Burnett, Stephen G. “‘Luther and the Jews’ in ‘Anglo-American Discussion.’” In Martin Luthers “Judenschriften”: Die Rezeption im 19. und 20. Jahrhun dert. Edited by Harry Oelke et al., 249–265. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016.Find this resource:

Kaufmann, Thomas. Luthers Juden. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2014.Find this resource:

Oberman, Heiko. The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.Find this resource:

Oelke, Harry, et al., eds. Martin Luthers “Judenschriften”: Die Rezeption im 19. und 20. Jahrhun dert. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016.Find this resource:

von der Osten-Sacken, Peter. Martin Luther und die Juden: Neu untersucht anhand Antonius Margarithas “Der gantz Jüdisch glaub” (1530/31). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2002.Find this resource:

Sherman, Franklin. “North American Lutheranism and the Jews.” In Wendebourg – Stegmann – Ohst (eds.), Protestantismus – Antijudaismus – Antisemitismus (see below).Find this resource:

Wallmann, Johannes. The Reception of Luther’s Writings to the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century. LuthQ n.s. 1 (1987): 72–97.Find this resource:

Wendebourg, Dorothea, “Ein Lehrer, der Unterscheidung verlangt: Martin Luthers Haltung zu den Juden im Zusammenhang seiner Theologie.” ThLZ 140 (2015): 1034–1059.Find this resource:

Wendebourg, Dorothea. “Jews Commemorating Luther in the Nineteenth Century.” LuthQ n.s. 26 (2012): 249–270.Find this resource:

Wendebourg, Dorothea, Andreas Stegmann, and Martin Ohst, eds. Protestantismus—Antijudaismus—Antisemitis mus: Konvergenzen und Konfrontationen in ihren Kontexten. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. In this book, there are contributions on the history of the reception of Luther’s writings on the Jews not only in Germany but also in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the United States.Find this resource:


(1.) I.e., the Saxon code of law. See WA 18:14–17; cf. WA 16:378, at 11 and at 23.

(2.) WA 54:88, 10–13.

(3.) WA 47:66, 21f.; cf. WA 53:647, 7–9.

(4.) WA 55 I:5, 1–5.

(5.) WA 54:67, 1–14.

(6.) LW 45:228; WA 11:335, 33–35.

(7.) WA 55/I and II.

(8.) WA 55/II:69, 20f.

(9.) WA 1:81, 18f.

(10.) LW 21:350; WA 7:595, 35.

(11.) WA 1:81, 18f.

(12.) WA 55/II:112, 10s.; 167, 14–20; 167, 7s.

(13.) Cf. LW 45:217‒219; WA 11:329, 25; 330, 16; 328, 18f.

(14.) WA 1:109, 24–29; WA 55/II:523, 721–724; WA 53:608, 19‒25.

(15.) WA BR 1:24, 43s.; WA 19:606, 21.

(16.) WA 56:436, 25–438, 26.

(17.) WA 56:438, 19–21; 436, 25f.; WA 5:428, 27–30; WA 13, 13, 20f.; WA 10/I,1:, 288,15–18.; 289, 5–10.

(18.) LW 45:229; WA 11:336, 33f.

(19.) WA 53:513–519; 522, 29–38.

(20.) WA 53:513–519; 522, 29–38.

(21.) WA 11:315, 15–316, 1.

(22.) WA 56:224, 6f.

(23.) WA 7:597, 27–29.

(24.) WA 42: 423, 24f.

(25.) LW 21:351; WA 7:597, 2–7.

(26.) WA 13:13, 6–10.

(27.) WA 7:597, 1–4.

(28.) WA 55/I:682, 2f.; cf. 1 Cor. 1:24; 12:13.

(29.) WA 56:439, 8.

(30.) WA 56:440, 3–5; cf. Rom. 11:29.

(31.) De civ. XVIII 46.

(32.) LW 45:201; WA 11:315, 27.

(33.) WA 10/II:283, 10f.

(34.) LW 45:200; WA 11:314, 31–315, 2.

(35.) WA 11:315, 23; 325, 18; 336, 23f.; cf. 314, 28.

(36.) WA 11:262, 9f. and 20f.; 268, 19–269, 15; 271, 11–21.

(37.) LW 45:229; WA 11:336, 35.

(38.) WA 419:4–16.

(39.) WA 53:417, 5–7.

(40.) WA 53:579–648, and WA 54:28–100.

(41.) WA 53:523, 1–526, 6; 536, 23–537, 17.

(42.) WA 53:526, 11–16; 529, 19f.; 538, 9–13.

(43.) LW 47:273; WA 53:527, 16f.

(44.) WA 53:523, 13–16; 541, 31–33.

(45.) LW 47:285; WA 53:536, 14–18.

(46.) LW 47:288; WA 53:538, 10–13.

(47.) WA 51:195f.