Martin Luther, before he became an antisemite…
Martin Luther, a former German Catholic monk and the father of Protestant Reformation, had made an indelible impression on Christianity and the world of faith. His revolutionary [at the time] views on papal authority, scripture, grace and salvation were a stark departure from the Catholicism of his day. His ideas have influenced millions of Protestants of all denominations for generations and continue to do so. For all the good he’s considered to impart, Luther, however, had a very dark side to him, a horrible legacy that is often swept under the rug and very rarely discussed. At the later stage of his life, frustrated by his failed attempts at converting Jews to his brand of Christianity, Luther exploded with a vitriolic antisemitic rage against them. This rage could be said to rival even the worst historic enemies of the Jews and has influenced not a few future ones, including Hitler and his minions who claimed to only complete what Luther started and who widely quoted from and distributed Luther’s works.
Here’s one glimpse into the mind of Luther the antisemite:
“First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire… Second, that all their books–their prayer books, their Talmudic writings, also the entire Bible–be taken from them, not leaving them one leaf, and that these be preserved for those who may be converted…Third, that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country…Fourth, that they be forbidden to utter the name of God within our hearing. For we cannot with a good conscience listen to this or tolerate it…” (Martin Luther, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” 1543)
Martin Luther, a friend of the Jews?
However, what is also almost unknown, is that Martin Luther did not always feel this way. Just go back in time 20 years prior to his words above, and some of his early writing can be rightly considered to be some of the most philosemitic (that is respectful and appreciative of the Jewish people) to date, and that at the time when Christian antisemitism reigned supreme and Jews were reviled, discriminated against, vilified, crowded in ghettos of Europe and at times outright slaughtered. In a word, Luther’s early ideas and statements were revolutionary pro-Jewish! To read his 1523 work, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, for example, one gets an impression of an author who is so friendly to Jews, so understanding of their plight, so welcoming, so protective of them, that it could have been penned by a modern Christian Zionist Dispensationalist Evangelical.
Luther compared the general moral character of Christians vs. that of Jews of his day and found it lacking. Looking at Christian mistreatment of Jews, he rightly posed a question about why would any Jew in his right mind want anything to do with either Christians or their religion?
“…I will cite from Scripture the reasons that move me to believe that Christ was a Jew born of a virgin, that I might perhaps also win some Jews to the Christian faith. Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks-the crude asses’ heads-have hitherto so treated the Jews that anyone who wished to be a good Christian would almost have had to become 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.” (Martin Luther , “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew”, 1523)
It’s amazing to read Luther’s condemnations of his fellow Christians for the same behavior towards Jews that he came to so strongly advocate only 20 later. However, it is almost just as eye-opening to read Luther’s words that Jews, through their Judaism, base their faith so strongly on the Bible while his Christian coreligionists had failed to do so. [Ironically, many modern Protestants claim quite the opposite by regularly equating Judaism with Catholicism, and hold that Jews, through their rabbis, their traditions and their Talmud have departed from scripture!]
“They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but only subject them to popishness and monkery. When the Jews then see that Judaism has such strong support in Scripture, and that Christianity has become a mere babble without reliance on Scripture, how can they possibly compose themselves and become right good Christians? I have myself heard from pious baptized Jews that if they had not in our day heard the gospel they would have remained Jews under the cloak of Christianity for the rest of their days. For they acknowledge that they have never yet heard anything about Christ from those who baptized and taught them.” (Martin Luther , “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew”, 1523)
An advocate for Messianic Judaism?
Incredibly, Martin Luther at the time believed that Jews coming to faith in Jesus should be allowed to retain their Judaism. We could, if we may be so bold, even call him an early advocate for Messianic Judaism. This was at the time when any Jew who wished to convert to Christianity had to renounce any connection to his Jewish past, to his Judaism and completely cut himself off from the Jewish community. Martin Luther, a “friend of the Jews”, called for Christians to treat Jews in the same loving “brotherly” manner that Jewish followers of Jesus once treated the pagan Gentiles coming to faith back in the first century:
“I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs. They will only be frightened further away from it if their Judaism is so utterly rejected that nothing is allowed to remain, and they are treated only with arrogance and scorn. If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles. Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them. For even we ourselves are not yet all very far along, not to speak of having arrived.” (Martin Luther , “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew”, 1523)
At the time, Martin Luther saw Jews as the people honored by G-d, the “blood relatives” of Christ who were closer to Jesus than the Gentile Christians. He believed that Gentiles owed much to the Jews and should repay in kind:
“When we are inclined to boast of our position 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, as St. Paul says in Romans 9[:5]. God has also demonstrated this by his acts, for to no nation among the Gentiles has he granted so high an honor as he has to the Jews. For from among the Gentiles there have been raised up no patriarchs, no apostles, no prophets, indeed, very few genuine Christians either. And although the gospel has been proclaimed to all the world, yet He committed the Holy Scriptures, that is, the law and the prophets, to no nation except the Jews, as Paul says in Romans 3[:2] and Psalm 147[:19-20], “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; nor revealed his ordinances to them.” (Martin Luther , “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew”, 1523)
Unfortunately, the roots of Luther’s early philosemitism did not find a deep and fertile enough ground. The fruit it produced withered on the vine. But the history of Jewish-Christian relations could have turned out so differently if only Martin Luther believed and practiced his own words. Perhaps even the nightmare of the Holocaust that his later writings helped inspire could have been averted. Perhaps.