Luther's Jews

A Journey into Anti-Semitism

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Thomas Kaufmann
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Luther’s Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism, Thomas Kaufmann argues that religious and non-religious anti-Semitism are inseparably united in Luther, over against those who see his anti-Judaism as only religious in nature, that is, as part of his argument for justification by faith alone. Kaufmann acknowledges that the racial theory of anti-Semitism is distinctly modern, arising in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but he argues that there is a “pre-modern, proto-racist form of anti-Semitism,” and he insists that Luther is part of it (140). One sees this pre-modern anti-Semitism in early 16th century Spain, in the idea of the essential corruption of Jewish blood. Kaufmann claims that Luther “took pre-modern anti-Semitism for granted, adopted it, and helped to spread it” (4). This explains the subtitle of his book, A Journey into Anti-Semitism.

The aim of the book is therefore to place Luther into the context of his own age, and to see his ideas about the Jews in light of what was normal for his day, for only this method “creates the right critical distance from Luther” (156). Kaufmann points out that Luther had no day to day contact with Jews, as they had been expelled prior to his birth. Hence the title of the book is not “Luther and the Jews,” as Luther did not encounter Jews as real neighbors, but is rather Luther’s Jews, for the Jews about whom Luther speaks “are a conglomerate of ill-defined fears, calculated publishing projects, and targeted use of biblical traditions, and also of resentment, cultural traditions, and sheer fantasy—in other words, a phantom” (10). Kaufmann documents the one reliable encounter Luther had with contemporary Jews, in the account from the 1520’s of Jews who came to Wittenberg to question Luther. Luther was struck for the rest of his life by his inability to debate with these Jews, as they appealed to the Talmud and to rabbinic midrash, and not to scripture alone; and they departed by calling Jesus “Thola,” “strung up,” which deeply pained Luther (31). Luther also corresponded with Josel von Rosheim in 1537, whom Luther called his friend, even though he refused Josel’s request for help, pointing out to him the obstinacy of the Jews. Hence his limited encounter with actual Jews only confirmed the picture of “the Jews” that Luther had already created in his own mind.

The central problem examined by Kaufmann in his book is the rather astonishing change in Luther’s approach to the Jews between 1523 and 1543. In 1523, Luther castigated the papacy for treating the Jews like dogs, whereas in 1543 Luther urged the temporal rulers to drive the Jews out of their territories like mad dogs (118). In order to account for this change in attitude toward the Jews, Kaufmann first examines Luther’s theology of the Jews from his first lectures on the Psalms (1513-15) to the end of his career. Kaufmann finds that Luther’s religious appraisal of the Jews remains the same throughout his career. Luther insists throughout that the Old Testament clearly prophesies the birth, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, thereby proving the Christian claim that he is the Christ. This prophecy is further confirmed by the 1400-year exile of the Jews from their homeland after the destruction of their Temple by the Romans, revealing that the Jews are under the wrath of God for rejecting Jesus. 

The novelty of Luther’s approach in 1523 is to be found in the way he wanted the Jews to be treated in a friendly manner by the Christian authorities so  they could live together with Christians in society. However, the goal of this approach was never to tolerate Judaism as a religious commitment but to provide the Jews with the opportunity to convert to the Gospel so that they could escape the wrath of God that otherwise lay upon them. Luther was convinced that nothing would prove the truth of the Gospel he taught more than the conversion of the Jews, for the papacy had utterly failed to convert the Jews. Moreover, Luther ended the text with the condition that he would wait to see what effect this friendly approach to the Jews would have. Kaufmann persuasively argues that this condition links the treatise of 1523 with everything that came before and after it, as it indicates that Luther always saw unconverted Jews as people lying under the wrath of God (64). 

The subsequent failure of the Jews to convert to the Gospel led Luther to create a new phantom, that of the Jew who seeks to convert evangelical Christians to Judaism. Luther could no longer blame the papacy for the failure of the Jews to convert, and this led him to hold two distinct parties responsible for this failure: Christian Hebraicists like Sebastian Muenster, and the Jews themselves. Luther thought that the Christian Hebraicists had conceded far too much to Jewish interpretations of Hebrew Scripture, and he insisted against them that Christ is the subject matter of Hebrew Scripture, without whom one cannot understand a sentence of Scripture, no matter how much Hebrew one knows. When Luther takes on the Jews, he spares no effort in vilifying and demonizing them by reviving all of the medieval slanders he had suppressed in 1523. This demonization forms the basis of Luther’s exhortation to the rulers to burn the books and synagogues of the Jews, and to expel them from their territories.

By showing the depth of Luther’s anti-Judaism, and his commitment to early-modern anti-Semitism, Kaufmann hopes to break the reverence Protestants have for Luther, for this has retarded their efforts to come to terms with their relationship to the Jews after the Holocaust (151). Kaufmann does not hold Luther directly responsible for the Holocaust, but he insists that he was a factor in helping to make it possible. Hence, the only way forward is to accept “that we can no more put our faith blindly in Luther’s theology than responsible 21st century adults would voluntarily place themselves in the hands of a 16th-century surgeon” (11).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Randall C. Zachman is Adjunct Professor of Church History at Lancaster Theological Seminary.

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

Thomas Kaufmann is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Göttingen and Chairman of the German Society for Reformation History. He has published numerous books on the theological, cultural, and social history of Christendom in the late Middle Ages and in the Early Modern period, and is one of the world's leading experts on Reformation history, with a particular focus on the Lutheran Reformation.


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