Luther and the Jews

Luther and the Jews

Putting Right the Lies

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Richard S. Harvey
  • Cascade Books
    , August
     152 pages.
     For other formats: .


The focus of this brief volume is the impact of Martin Luther (1483-1546) on negative teachings about Jews and Judaism at the start of the Protestant Reformation; his legacy in Jewish-Christian relations and in Christian active and passive support of the Nazi demonizing of the Jews; and what we can learn about Christian culpability (Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, Orthodox) in the near total destruction of European Jewry. Author Richard S. Harvey also discusses how we might right these wrongs.

Of particular importance in Harvey’s study of Martin Luther’s letters, sermons, table talk, teachings, and writings is the encounter of German and Jew from the viewpoint of Christian scriptures, church fathers, and ecclesiastical decrees. He relates the subject chronologically, highlighting the problems of the Jewish minority in the German-speaking provinces. What becomes very clear is that the poisoned, savage origins of Nazi antisemitism are not traced to nineteenth century racism nor nationalism, but go back to the early Middle Ages when the Jew was identified as enemy and devil to the German Christian majority.

The book covers interesting snippets on Luther’s public and private life: his life as a troubled monk obsessed with the certainty that the “justice of God “ rewards the righteous and deals justly in punishing the unjust; his dire and volatile disagreement with the Church of Rome on scripture’s reading, interpretation, and teaching suggested by his understanding of Paul’s epistle to the Romans that the “justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith” (10) and not by papal authority and decree, nor canon law, nor public diet; his aura of teaching and preaching rooted in sola scriptura, clear reason and conscience indebted to the Word of God are exemplary of the Protestant Reformation. These mirror Luther’s methodology and theology which permeate the ninety-five theses nailed on the church door at Wittenberg (circa 31 October 1517) and echo in his second debate against Johannes Eck in Worms on 16 April 1521, several months after his excommunication from Roman Catholic Church in January, under the sponsorship of Frederick the Wise, a papal elector in Germany.

Luther’s writings on Judaism and the Jews run the gamut from respectfully tolerant to vituperative anti-Jewish polemics leading to expulsion and genocidal activity. In the spirit of Christian outreach to and conversion of the Jews, Luther condemned exaggerated sermons on scriptural references to the misdeeds of Jews. He opposed the thrashing of Talmud and rabbinic literature. According to Luther, the cry for help in a moment of despair intoned in Psalm 22 (‘eli, ‘el, lamh `azavtani /”My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me”) mirrors the suffering Jewish people separated from the truth of the Cross by the absurd and ignorant teachings and wicked lifestyles of popes, priests, sophists, and monks. Compounding Luther’s distaste for Catholic misunderstanding of scriptures was his strong desire to guide perplexed Jews past the misguided teachings of popedom to the morning glory of the risen Christ.

Luther’s Dass Jesus Christus ein geborener jude sei (“That Jesus Christ Was Born A Jew,” 1523) is a manifesto calling on his listeners to treat Jews friendly, dissociate them from hated practices and thoughts (such as imposed usury and Foetor Judaicus [”Jewish stench”] ), and instruct them properly in scriptures, since this will lead to the return of many Jews to ancestral patriarchs and prophets who are seen by Luther as Christian prototypes. Branded a “Crypto-Jew,” Luther’s seemingly philo-Semiticism was encouraging, but his appeal to convert the Jews was rejected. Terrible disappointment irritated Luther to the end of his life. His volatile behavior and caustic tongue and hand projected hate-filled anti-Jewish bias in his Table Talks of the 1530s (“the stiffnecked Jews, ironhearted and stubborn as the devil”); condemning a Protestant sect for adapting seventh day Sabbath and other rituals, Letter Against the Sabbatarians (1538); and vituperative venom suggesting that Jews practice idolatry, witchcraft, sorcery, and casting spells by using the ineffable Name (YHWH), On the Shem Hamephoraš (1543). We think also of the infamous legacy of the 65,000 word diatribe, Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1543): Luther counsels legal restriction towards the rabbis and synagogues, strict restriction on prayer books and religious objects, total restriction of passports, travelling privileges, public presence, and so forth. His last words to the princes and nobles who have Jews in their domains was that they should follow a path that will enable “all be free of this insufferable devilish burden –the Jews.” 

To engage the wrongs of Martin Luther’s religious teachings and theology and their consequences for Christianity and Judaism is the nexus of this reader-friendly volume geared for the 500th year anniversary of the acclaimed start of the Protestant Reformation. But can author Richard Harvey, British Jewish believer in Yeshua (Jesus) “right the lies” of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism streaming from Luther’s writings on the Jews?  Harvey insists that Christ loved his own and this has empowered the active campaign to convert the Jews to believe in the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus to ensure their salvation. To teach otherwise, Harvey suggests, is to deny the Jews eternal salvation and this is unacceptable.

However, for the Jews this standard call to be gloriously fulfilled in Christ Jesus—not explicitly denied by Harvey—is unconscionable. His is not a proclamation of conscious malice, but, in my view, a misguided spiritual voice in the valley of fallen ashes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Zev Garber is Emertius Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Harvey is a British Jewish believer in Jesus (Yeshua). He taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at All Nations Christian College, UK, is a past president of the International Messianic Jewish Alliance, and is now a Senior Researcher with Jews for Jesus. He is author of Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology.


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