“To forget the victims means to kill them a second time. So I couldn’t prevent the first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death. “
“Antisemitism”, commonly understood to be the discrimination against the Jewish people, has never, ever been approved doctrine by any orthodox branch of the Christian church. After all, Jesus Himself was Jewish.
However, there have been a number of very terrible instances when antisemitic sentiment found itself promoted by a supposedly “Christianized” culture, and even supported by some practicing and prominent Christians themselves. As we continue this blog series on Christian Zionism, we take a closer look at one of the greatest tragedies in Christian history, stemming back to the famous Protestant reformer, Martin Luther.
Luther’s Deadly Error: The Charge of Anti-Semitism
Martin Luther’s watchword, “salvation is by faith alone,” has encouraged countless people to look to Christ as revealed in the Bible for their only hope. Luther remains one my personal theological heroes. But like any man, Luther was still a flawed human being, especially when it came to how he viewed the Jewish people.
Early in his career, Martin Luther was actually very open towards the Jewish people and condemned attacks on Jews. From his 1523 essay That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew:
“If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian….. When we are inclined to boast of our position [as Christians] we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are.”
Luther was confident that if the Gospel was presented to the Jewish people in a very loving way, they would embrace the message. However, over time, Luther’s views changed, and changed for the worst. Luther, who was never much for mincing words, wrote this twenty years later in his 1543 essay On the Jews and Their Lies (various selected quotes):
“[The Jews are a ] base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth…therefore be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer selfglory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously and veheming his eyes on them…one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.”
Luther went on to recommend that Jewish synagogues be destroyed, Jewish homes be razed to the ground, their religious writings be taken away from them, and that the Jews should be placed into forced agricultural slave labor. What then provoked this disturbingly radical change of mind?1
Though modern readers are rightly horrified by Luther’s rhetoric, the historical context reveals a more complicated story. Luther made several efforts over the years to try to convince Jewish rabbis living near his home in Wittenberg, Germany, to consider the New Testament claims about Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish, long awaited Messiah. But Luther’s attempts were met with opposition, and the Great Reformer, who was known for “shooting off at the mouth” at times with his easily aggravated temper, took up his pen in indignant response. Here is why…
Luther had read counter-opinions from his Jewish rabbi neighbors of curses against Jesus and Mary. For example, in these Jewish writings, Mary was considered a “whore” or a “dung heap,” and Jesus did not come across as that much better. Mary must have given birth to Jesus in the midst of her menstrual cycle, thus implying that Jesus was some type of freak. The Jews did not accept Luther’s interpretation of messianic prophecies as given in the Old Testament. Furthermore, the type of Messiah his Jewish neighbors were waiting for was expected to destroy and “kill Christians,” as heretics themselves!
In Luther’s mind, all of these ideas were nothing more than pure blasphemies. For Luther to allow these charges to go unanswered would, in his view, make Luther and other Christians complicit with the sin of the Jews. Luther soon began to favor expulsion of the Jews from German Christian territories, pretty much giving up any hope that his Jewish neighbors might be converted to the Christian faith. In his defense of Christian messianic interpretations of various Old Testament passages, Luther violated his own principles of how to read the Bible in its original, historical context, putting a deeper wedge between himself and his Jewish counterparts. It was as though Luther’s zeal blinded him from maintaining a more forbearing attitude towards the rabbis.2
Luther lived many centuries before the modern concept of religious freedom took hold in the prevailing Western mindset, but his legacy has been tarnished in this area. Luther’s negative rhetoric was used by later Germans as justification for the worst kind of antisemitism. A visit to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., makes the compelling case that Luther’s antisemitism helped to fuel the terror of Hitler and his German Nazism. The terror that the late Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, says that we should “never forget,” owes much to the ill-tempered rhetoric of Martin Luther. If anything, Luther’s deadly error demonstrates that even the most ardent proponent of the theology of grace still stands in need of that very grace.
Yes, Martin Luther’s error needs to be contextualized within history. Nevertheless, the verdict still stands:
Martin Luther’s sin is without excuse.
Luther was not alone in this type of sin. The history of “Christian” Europe is filled with incidents of forced conversions and violent repressions, including the First Crusade in 1096, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and various pogroms in Russia, just to name a few of all too numerous examples.
Bright Spots and Hope for a Homeland
Thankfully, there have been some bright spots along the way in church history. The Puritan Commonwealth leader in the 17th century England, Oliver Cromwell, welcomed the Jews back into England after centuries of expulsion. Across the Atlantic, Roger Williams’ tiny colony of Rhode Island was the first European-based settlement to grant full protection for the Jews in the mid 17th century. Finally, in more recent times, we have the courageous examples of Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who acted on behalf of Jews to help them escape the terrors of the Nazis. Even today, there has been a growing movement of ethnic Jews embracing faith in Jesus, or “Yeshua,” as their Messiah, demonstrating at a very personal and spiritual level that Christian faith can indeed be reconciled with Jewish identity.
Nevertheless, the real threat of antisemitic violence has made life very difficult for many Jewish people. Is it any wonder why so many Jews have longed for a place where they can call home, a place that is safe and secure? It should come as no surprise that a desire for a modern national Jewish state is but an expression of that hope.
But how well has modern Israel actually succeeded in realizing this hope? And how does this all relate to bible prophecy? We will cover these topics in future posts.
Previous posts in this series include the introduction, and a brief survey of church history prior to Luther regarding the tension between Christians and Jews.
1. Sometimes learning that one’s “heroes,” theological or otherwise, are deeply flawed can be disturbing news. Progressive Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans offers her own reflections concerning the day that she learned that Martin Luther expressed antisemitic thoughts in his later writings. Sadly, Christians are often guilty of not studying history well enough. We need to better understand our Christian past, warts and all.↩
2. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church (1987). English translation, 1999. Pages 341ff. I am indebted to Brecht for the bulk of this blog post. Interestingly, Luther had claimed that Haggai 2:7 was an Old Testament prophecy anticipating the coming of the Messiah, revealing Jesus as the Christ. Luther had translated this verse from the Latin Vulgate, here in English, as “then the consolation of all Gentiles will come.” The messianic overtones are clear here, as well as in some English translations, such as the venerable King James Version, “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts.” Note, however, that the English Standard Version, like many other modern translations, moves away from the messianic message, or at least it becomes a lot more cryptic, “And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts.” The NET Bible notes go so far as saying that this is no direct reference to the coming of the Messiah, in particular emphasizing a plural subject, “treasures,” in contrast with the singular “desire” of the KJV. Modern translations tend to reflect more of the text that the Jews were using in disputing with Luther. Luther, in turn, categorized such counter-arguments from his Jewish interlocutors as obstinacy, when actually, the weight of the evidence in Haggai 2:7 favors, at best, only an indirect reference to the Messiah, for Luther’s view. Luther had better support in other messianic prophecies in Scripture, but his difficulty surrounding Haggai 2:7 only entrenched his attitude against the Jews.↩