Luther’s Jews

by Thomas Kaufmann, OUP, £18.99

Martin Luther’s venomous writings against the Jewish people were part of what Thomas Kaufmann describes as “a specifically pre-modern anti-Semitism”. This was an era during which absurd rumours about Jews ritually murdering Christian children were commonplace, and in which Jews were vilified as Christ-killing contaminants who deserved to languish in isolation and servitude. Even at his most splenetic, in his later writings, Luther was “only saying out loud, at length and obscenely, what many people already thought”. The phrase “later writings” is crucial, however. In his 1543 tract, On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther argued for expulsions, the razing of synagogues and the eradication of Jewish books. Jews, he averred, “wish us every kind of harm with curses, slanders and spitting beyond imagining” and they would always “remain bitter, virulent and vicious enemies of Christians”. And yet, just 20 years earlier, Luther had been writing his book That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, in which he proposed unconditional toleration of Jews in Christian society.

Why this shift? The nub of Kaufmann’s analysis is that any apparent transformation is deceptive. Its not as if, back in 1523, Luther was a lover or admirer of Judaism. Tolerance was only ever deemed prudent because it increased the potential for conversions. Jews, for Luther, were still the “object of God’s wrath”, they still offered misleading interpretations of the Old Testament, and Luther’s theological opposition to Judaism was as deep-seated as it would be two decades later.

One of Luther’s chief goals was to demonstrate that the Church of Rome had been making a hash of the duty to convert the Jewish people. Treating them “like dogs and not human beings” was counterproductive and led, at best, to sham conversions motivated by fear. Moreover, Rome was accused of failing miserably to make Christianity seem like a viable theological alternative.

“If I had been a Jew,” Luther wrote, “and had seen such idiots and thickheads in charge of teaching the Christian faith I would have rather been a pig than a Christian.” Luther’s apparent sympathy for Europe’s Jews was just one more polemical weapon in his protest against Roman Catholicism. A manifesto for freedom of religion it most certainly was not.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection