Luther’s Burning Antisemitism

Posted on February 14, 2019


By David Ettinger

Jekyll and Hyde
German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) is one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity. He was the catalyst of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, and his “Ninety-five Theses” is a document of immeasurable influence.

But there was also a disturbing “Jekyll and Hyde” aspect to Luther’s life, that being his burning hatred of the Jewish people.

Though many in the Reformed Church choose to overlook this blatant discretion, as one born and raised Jewish I cannot. Though I came to faith in Christ at age 28 (32 years ago), I still consider myself Jewish, and have trouble wrapping my head around Luther’s shameful and astonishing writings regarding the Jewish people.

Not Always That Way
Interestingly, Luther was not always antisemitic. In fact, until his early 40s, he fully understood why the Jews would not come to faith in Christ as the only example to them of Christianity was the (at that time) corrupt and Jew-persecuting Catholic Church.

Luther, on the other hand, believed that the Jewish people would respond favorably to the Gospel if it were presented to them more lovingly. He even expressed concern for the poor conditions in which the Jewish people were forced to live, and insisted that anyone denying Jesus was born Jewish was committing heresy.

Luther Turns
However, by his late 40s and to the rest of his life (he died at age 62), Luther turned against the Jewish people, the reasons too lengthy to be considered here. The point is, though, that he turned – and turned hard!

In 1543, at age 59 or 60, Luther authored On the Jews and Their Lies, a 65,000-word antisemitic treatise which graphically detailed precisely how he felt about the Jewish people.

Luther argued that Jewish synagogues and schools should be set on fire, their prayer books should be destroyed, rabbis should be forbidden to preach, Jewish homes should be burned, and their property and money confiscated.

Furthermore, Jews should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and “these poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[W]e are at fault in not slaying them.”

Luther described the Jewish people as a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” Additionally, Luther wrote that they are “full of the devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,” and that the synagogue in which they worship is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut.”

Heinous indeed.

What to Make of It
Quite a while ago, a pastor told me about an elderly man he visited in the hospital who was on his deathbed. This man was a 50-year-plus believer, a godly, saintly man who deeply impacted the lives of numerous believers.

While the two men talked, suddenly the dying man – whose mind had been going in and out on him – let loose a torrent of expletives which would make Hollywood blush. Basically, he spewed forth every word in the book – several the pastor was not familiar with. The pastor attributed it to the frailty and decay of the human condition – body and mind.

Perhaps this was the case with Luther. I know some fellow Jewish believers who won’t accept that Luther was even a Christian – that no believer in the Lord Jesus Christ could harbor such hatred against any group of human beings for whom Jesus died.

I disagree. I don’t doubt for a second that Luther loved the Lord Jesus Christ and was indeed a Christian, but, to use modern-day vernacular, he had a “screw loose” somewhere. Granted, it is a very large screw and it was indeed very, very loose.

I would like to believe that, as the expletive-spewing gentleman in the story above, Luther was near death and his mind fading when he turned against the Jewish people, but he was not. He still had about 15 or more years of life left – making his antisemitism that much more contemptible.

Luther’s Sad Legacy
Sadly, Luther’s antisemitism has had an effect on the Church, much of it manifested subtly in the doctrine known as “Replacement Theology.” This is the belief that the Church has replaced Israel and that all of God’s “good” promises to Israel now belong to the Church, while Israel – the Jewish people – are still subject to God’s “bad” promises.

Me personally? For what it’s worth, I hold no malice toward Luther and fully recognize the incredible good he did for the Christian faith. I only wish the Church today were more vocal in talking about and condemning his burning antisemitism, and correcting their flawed thinking of not recognizing God’s continuing plan and love for the Jewish people.