Luther and the Jews (Abstract)

For Protestants at least, the legacy of Martin Luther is largely positive.  We view him as one of the many “heroes of the faith.”  We honor his unflinching passion and stand for Biblical truth, along with many other qualities that have benefited the Christian Church.  There is however, a “dark side” to the great reformer as well.  Especially in light of WWII and the Holocaust, Luther has come under fire for his treatment of the Jews and his admirers have had to wrestle with this less-than-cheerful aspect of his thought.

The main issue within “Luther and the Jews” studies is the apparent difference in attitude and treatment proscribed by Luther between his first “Jewish” treatise of 1523 and his later very anti-Jewish treatises of 1543.  The early Luther calls for his fellow Christians to deal gently with the Jews, to positively encourage them towards conversion and acceptance of Christ.  The later Luther, however, lashes out against their willful stubbornness and calls for the officials to burn their synagogues and schools, and drive them from the region if they don’t convert.

This paper descriptively explores the various reasons offered to explain Luther’s attitude(s) toward the Jews.  Emphasis is placed upon understanding Luther in his own historical context, how he compared to both his society in general as well as his intellectual world.  The paper tentatively concludes that there is a theological continuity between the 1523 and 1543 treatises, but for various reasons Luther’s practical had changed.



6 Responses to “Luther and the Jews (Abstract)”

  1. ben August 28, 2009 at 4:25 am #

    Matthew, I hope you post your further conclusions. As is, this abstract is only a teaser. I look forward to reading your “tentative” conclusions.

  2. mthiesen14 August 28, 2009 at 5:52 am #

    haha, I thought that’s what an abstract was 😉

    I said “tentative” because I honestly struggled a bit to reach a “conclusion.” There are so many different interpretations and reasonings proposed… for that matter, as far as I can tell, only a fraction of the scholarship on this issue is even written in English.
    Basically, I tried to summarize most of the views, and then synthesized those I agreed with into a cohesive whole. It doesn’t seem like Luther’s “change” can be boiled down to any single reason. Things like Luther’s age and increased health problems, higher engagement in political polemics, increased sense of apocalypticism, disappointment over lack of reformational “conversions” (both Jew and Catholic), and news of successful Jewish proselytizing of Christians all seem to combine, resulting in the vitriolic treatises of the later Luther.
    I’m still kinda uncomfortable with that conclusion though, as the difference, at least in practical treatment, of Luther’s recommendations between ’23 and ’43 is just so vast. To some extent, I think I just chalk it up to the huge and unconscious impact of the medieval worldview upon Luther’s own outlook. And even that may not be quite right.
    Its been an interesting and challenging study, to say the least! Any further thoughts, or perhaps additional factors I’ve forgotten or left out?

  3. Marc August 28, 2009 at 2:12 pm #

    In your paper you also argued that Luther’s theological framework for understanding the Jews was pretty consistent throughout his life. That would seem to make the task of explaining the significant differences between the early and later writings that much more difficult. If his theological perspective on the Jews hasn’t changed, why have his conclusions about how to treat the Jews shifted so radically? That combination of consistency and difference seems like the real core of the problem.

  4. mthiesen14 August 28, 2009 at 4:15 pm #

    Yes, you’re right Marc, that does seem to be the real problem point. I forgot to clarify that in my follow-up post.

    Some scholars try to argue Luther simply changed his mind, both theologically and practically, but it seems to me his theological perspective did remain constant: the Jews had rejected their messiah and their rabbis were leading them astray. While he viewed “Judaism” as dead and past away, Jews could/should convert to Christianity, as instituted by their own messiah. Indeed, I think he even argued Jews had more of a right to “Christianity” than Gentiles.

    The ’23 Luther never accepted “Judaism” per se, he just advocated the “gentle treatment” of the Jews, so they would/could freely convert. But by ’43, he seems to have become convinced that Judaism was too dangerous to Christian society to be allowed to remain, hence his harsh advice concerning Judaism, and thus, Jews.

    As I said, its been an interesting study!

  5. Brian LePort September 8, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    I do hope you post your paper once it is done. This sounds like a very interesting topic.

  6. rick deacon January 7, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    My thoughts are simple. I believe Luther simply could not understand why the Jews or anyone for that matter could not except his 95 thesis, especially the ‘just shall live by faith.’ For Luther to turn a complete 180 may suggest there was already some anti-semitism down deep inside of him. And we must admit to ourselves that the history of the Christian church ( or best to say organized church )was a horrendous treatment, including torture, confiscating of their property and of course death. I’ve never read if Luther ever repented of his diatribe against the Jew. How much of it caused further hurt to the Jew, I guess we’ll never know, but it is for certain it added to it.

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