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Martin Luther, Israel, and the Jewish people

Luther is famous for propelling the Protestant Reformation into action, and also, less illustriously, for penning such scathing anti-Semitic writings that they inspired Hitler. So, was he a champion of faith? Or a vile anti-Semite?

Five hundred years ago today, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, no longer able to endure what had become a very twisted church doctrine. His “95 Theses,” put forward two central beliefs—that the Bible should be the primary religious authority and that salvation can be obtained by faith alone, not by deeds. He railed against the wicked practice of “indulgences” which essentially sold forgiveness for money. He also criticised the greed rampant in the Catholic church at the time:

“Why does not the pope” asked Luther, “whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”[1]

Good question, Luther. So far, so good.

Inspiring Christians to study the Bible

The Reformation in 1517 brought a revolution to the body of Messiah around the world in a very positive way. One of the blessings that arose was that (also thanks in part to the invention of the printing press and Bible translation which occurred around the same time) people started reading their Bibles for themselves. They could see in the pages of their own Bibles, in their own language, that there were many promises that Israel would be regathered to the land once more before Yeshua’s return. This led to a great awakening in eschatological interest and study of Biblical prophecy, particularly in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As a result, many Christians and churches adopted a renewed interest in Israel, and in sharing the gospel with Jewish people both in Israel and abroad.

The Restorationist Movement (that eventually helped bring about the restoration of Israel) may not have developed or gained the traction the way it did had it not been for Luther’s radical actions, which led many to study the Bible for themselves. By bucking slavish adherence to church tradition and doctrine he showed that, rather than being de facto dangerous, studying the Bible with a willingness to question assumptions was a good and right thing to do.

Initially, Luther encouraged Christians to honor the Jewish people

Luther felt certain that the reason Jewish people hadn’t been accepting Yeshua as Messiah was due to the failure of the church to present the truth adequately. In 1523 he wrote the book, “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew”[2], encouraging Christians to adopt a kinder attitude towards their Jewish brethren:

“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…. 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

Luther at this point displays a great respect for the Jewish people, and encourages fellow Christians to follow suit. He notes the place of honour given to the Jewish people in the Bible:

“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.”…

“Therefore, I would request and advise that one deal gently with them and instruct them from Scripture; then some of them may come along. Instead of this we are trying only to drive them by force, slandering them, accusing them of having Christian blood if they don’t stink, and I know not what other foolishness. So long as we thus treat them like dogs, how can we expect to work any good among them?”

He was eager to start a new chapter of church history in which Christians would respect Jewish people as their “older brother”, saying that if he had been Jewish, seeing the way the church had been treating the Jews, he’d rather become a pig than a Christian. So, basically good, right?

From hater of corruption to a corrupted hater

But as the decades passed and it became clear to Luther that the spiritual blindness of the Jewish people[3] was not merely due to abuse at the hands of the church, his attitude changed. As many have noted, Luther was a passionate and tempestuous man, prone to moods and depressions, and his state of mind towards the latter end of his life was not good. In his frustration, Luther wrote “Concerning the Jews and their Lies” in 1543[4], in which he advised the German princes to destroy synagogues, to burn their books and raze their houses. He wanted to forbid Jewish practice and teaching, and considered Jewish people to be “just devils and nothing more”. He wrote,

“Verily, a hopeless, wicked, venomous and devilish thing is the existence of these Jews who for fourteen hundred years have been, and still are, our torment and misfortune… Know, Christian, that next to the devil, thou has no enemy more cruel, more venomous and violent than a true Jew”.

Martin Luther, “The Jews and their Lies”, 1543

This contemptible book is eye-wateringly anti-Semitic, to the degree that even at the time many rejected it. Many Lutherans ignored it, choosing the approach of his earlier book over the scalding hatred of his latter work, and even his Latin translator modified it, but Adolf Hitler landed upon it and considered Luther a genius.

As we follow the evil progress of the Nazis and the steps against the Jewish people, burning synagogues and destroying homes, it is hard to ignore the fact that Hitler was following the advice Luther had given the German princes all those years ago to a tee. Hitler used Luther’s words to justify his actions as “Christian”, and declared Luther the greatest warner of the German people against the Jews.

What is Luther’s legacy?

The Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, catalogues the descent into hell from propaganda to extermination camps. It creates a journey through the horrific realities of history and leads out to a panoramic view of modern Jerusalem. Luther sadly had a part to play in the Holocaust, but he also also encouraged Christians to read their Bible afresh and think for themselves, which led to many realising that God had in no way finished with Israel. The numerous prophecies about God’s intention to restore the people to the land became evident to many influential Christians, without whose help Israel may not have been reestablished.

Perhaps instead of trying to assign Luther either to the good books or the trashcan, we should soberly note the human capacity – even among believers – for both good and evil.

It is God who will have to sort through all this at the end of time, not you or I. It is hard to say that Luther was “not a real Christian”. He was. Yet he was deeply flawed. We all are. From the story of Luther, we can see the profound effect one life can make, for good or for bad. We can see how our words carry power and influence that may go way beyond what we could ever imagine. I wonder what Luther himself would make of the outworkings of history, if he could trace the impact his words had had on the church, on the people of Israel, and on the world.

[1] History.com, Martin Luther and the 95 Theses
[2] Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew”, 1523, excerpts
[3] See Romans 11, particularly verses 25 onwards
[4] Martin Luther “The Jews and their Lies”, 1543, excerpts

This article originally appeared on One for Israel and reposted with permission.

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