Martin Luther was a German theologian and religious reformer who initiated the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Regrettably, the reformation did not bring about a reformation in attitudes toward Jews. In fact, the animosity toward the Jewish people was reinforced and intensified by the reformers’ writings, especially Martin Luther, the very man who initiated the Reformation.
At first, Luther showed some sympathy toward the Jews, believing that their rejection of the Gospel was a result of their awareness of the corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. However, when they rejected Luther’s attempts at converting them, his attitude shifted dramatically:
They have failed to learn any lesson from the terrible distress that has been theirs for over fourteen hundred years in exile. If these blows do not help, it is reasonable to assume that our talking and explaining will help even less. Much less do I propose to convert the Jews, for that is impossible.[i]
Luther wrote of the Jews as a “race” that could not genuinely convert to Christianity. By portraying the Jews as the devil’s people, Luther placed them beyond the possibility of conversion. He argued that attempting to convert Jews was akin to “trying to cast out the devil.”[ii] In his sermon given on September 25, 1539, Luther demonstrated through several examples that individual Jews could not convert permanently.[iii]
In multiple passages of Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther seemed to reject the notion that Jews would or could convert:
Dear Christian, be advised and so not doubt that next to the devil, you have no more bitter, venomous, and vehement foe than a real Jew who earnestly seeks to be a Jew… Their lineage and circumcision infect them all. A Jewish heart is as hard as stone and iron and cannot be moved by any means. Even if the Jews were punished in the most gruesome manner so that the streets ran with blood, so that their dead would be counted not in the hundred thousands but in the millions, [it would not be] possible to convert these children of the devil! It is impossible to convert the devil and his own, nor are we commanded to attempt this.[iv]
This document also contained vehement anti-Semitic sentiments. In it, he referred to the Jews in a derogatory manner, expressing his disappointment and anger at their refusal to accept the Gospel:[v]
For such ruthless wrath of God is sufficient evidence that they [the Jewish people] assuredly have erred and gone astray. Even a child can comprehend this. For one dare not regard God as so cruel that he would punish his own people so long, so terrible, so unmercifully. Therefore, this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God.[vi]
Martin Luther also wrote:
What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we can not tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy. In this way we cannot quench the inextinguishable fire of divine rage nor convert the Jews. We must prayerfully and reverentially practice a merciful severity. Perhaps we may save a few from the fire and flames [of hell]. We must not seek vengeance. They are surely being punished a thousand times more than we might wish them. Let me give you my honest advice.
First, their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians, and that we have not wittingly tolerated or approved of such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of His Son and His Christians.
Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. For they perpetrate the same things there that they do in their synagogues. For this reason they ought to be put under one roof or in a stable, like gypsies, in order that they may realize that they are not masters in our land, as they boast, but miserable captives, as they complain of incessantly before God with bitter wailing.
Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught.
Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more…
Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews. For they have no business in the rural districts since they are not nobles, nor officials, nor merchants, nor the like. Let them stay at home…If you princes and nobles do not close the road legally to such exploiters, then some troop ought to ride against them, for they will learn from this pamphlet what the Jews are and how to handle them and that they ought not to be protected. You ought not, you cannot protect them, unless in the eyes of God you want to share all their abomination…
To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden – the Jews…
Let the government deal with them in this respect, as I have suggested. But whether the government acts or not, let everyone at least be guided by his own conscience and form for himself a definition or image of a Jew. When you lay eyes on or think of a Jew you must say to yourself: Alas, that mouth which I there behold has cursed and execrated and maligned every Saturday my dear Lord Jesus Christ, who has redeemed me with his precious blood; in addition, it prayed and pleaded before God that I, my wife and children, and all Christians might be stabbed to death and perish miserably. And he himself would gladly do this if he were able, in order to appropriate our goods…
Such a desperate, thoroughly evil, poisonous, and devilish lot are these Jews, who for these fourteen hundred years have been and still are our plague, our pestilence, and our misfortune.
I have read and heard many stories about the Jews which agree with this judgment of Christ, namely, how they have poisoned wells, made assassinations, kidnapped children, as related before. I have heard that one Jew sent another Jew, and this by means of a Christian, a pot of blood, together with a barrel of wine, in which when drunk empty, a dead Jew was found. There are many other similar stories. For their kidnapping of children they have often been burned at the stake or banished (as we already heard). I am well aware that they deny all of this. However, it all coincides with the judgment of Christ which declares that they are venomous, bitter, vindictive, tricky serpents, assassins, and children of the devil, who sting and work harm stealthily wherever they cannot do it openly. For this reason, I would like to see them where there are no Christians. The Turks and other heathen do not tolerate what we Christians endure from these venomous serpents and young devils…next to the devil, a Christian has no more bitter and galling foe than a Jew. There is no other to whom we accord as many benefactions and from whom we suffer as much as we do from these base children of the devil, this brood of vipers.[vii]
This, to remind us, is the father of the reformation. Martin Luther’s work not only perpetuated existing prejudices but also added much fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism, which would continue to have a devastating impact on Jewish communities for centuries to come and set the stage for the Holocaust.
Undeniably, the Nazis used Luther’s writings as they rose to power and initiated the Holocaust. In his famous book, Mein Kampf, published in 1925, Adolf Hitler praised Martin Luther as “a great warrior, a true statesman, and a great reformer.”
Hitler, too, claimed to be a Christian. In 1924, at a Christian gathering in Berlin, Hitler spoke to thousands and received a standing ovation when he made the following declaration:
I believe that today I am acting in accordance with the will of Almighty God as I announce the most important work that Christians could undertake — and that is to be against the Jews and get rid of them once and for all.[viii]
Hitler then proceeded to discuss the great impact Luther had on his life:
Martin Luther has been the greatest encouragement of my life. Luther was a great man. He was a giant. With one blow he heralded the coming of the new dawn and the new age. He saw clearly that the Jews need to be destroyed, and we’re only beginning to see that we need to carry this work on.[ix]
It may be shocking, but Hitler’s views, as extreme as they were, didn’t differ significantly from those held by many Christians throughout history. The key distinction is that Hitler had the means to implement these deeply ingrained ideas.
In fact, at the Nuremberg trials, the Nazi leader Julius Streicher, who was third-highest rank in the Nazi leadership, defended himself by asserting:
I have never said anything that Martin Luther did not say.[x]
The painful truth that many Christians are reluctant to confront, and which some are unaware of, is that the Holocaust was the culmination of nearly 1,900 years of persistent Christian anti-Semitism. Acknowledging this dark chapter in history is hard yet crucial for ensuring such atrocities won’t occur again.
Sure, Martin Luther introduced a significant Jewish value into Christianity, which is the truth that we do not need to earn the love of our Heavenly Father; instead, we simply need to acknowledge it. However, it is ironic that he failed to grasp the full implications of that love when he turned against the Jews with hatred and contempt.
Antisemitism played a significant role in enabling and justifying the Holocaust, as it provided a framework for the Nazi regime to dehumanize and demonize Jews and justify their extermination.
In 1924 at a Christian gathering in Berlin, Hitler spoke to thousands and received a standing ovation when he made the following proclamation:
I believe that today I am acting in accordance with the will of Almighty God as I announce the most important work that Christians could undertake — and that is to be against the Jews and get rid of them once and for all.[xi]
In 1933 Martin Luther’s wish finally came true. When Adolf Hitler met with Bishop Berning, Hitler told him:
I recognize the representatives of this [Jewish] race as pestilent for the state and for the church and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service for pushing them out of schools and public functions.[xii]
Under the Nazi regime in Germany, some Jews found that wearing a necklace with the cross of Jesus provided protection, as it helped conceal their Jewish identity from those who sook to harm them. It is a striking irony that the cross, a symbol intrinsically linked to Christianity, could serve as a shield to protect Jews from persecution and potential death by those who professed to be Christians. The cross symbolizes torture, persecution, and death for the Jewish people, not of Christ, but their own.
We, Jews, have learned to fear Christians just as much as mice fear cats. Christianity turned Jesus into Judaism’s kryptonite, unknowingly serving Satan’s agenda of keeping Jews from believing in Jesus.
This article was taken from my book, “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus.“
[i] Martin Luther, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in Luther’s Works, trans. Franklin Sherman (Philadelphia 1971), 137–8 (this translation of “Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen,” Weimar Edition, 53:417–52, will hereafter be abbreviated as “Jews”).
[ii] Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” in Walther Brandt, ed., Luther’s Works (Philadelphia 1967), 45:213; repeated in Vom Schem Hamphoras.
[iii] Reinhold Lewin, Luthers Stellung zu den Juden: Ein Betrag zur Geschichte der Juden während des Reformationszeitalters (Berlin 1911), 77.
[iv] Luther, “Jews,” 170, 216–17, 253, 267–9, 285–6. See also Gerhard Falk, The Jew in Christian Theology (London 1992), 166–7.
[v] Phyllis Petty, “Christian Hatred and Persecution of the Jews,” www.therefinersfire.org/antisemitism_in_church.htm.
[vi] Martin Luther, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in LW 47:138-39. See also WA 53:418.
[vii] Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543. Martin H. Bertram, translator, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).
[viii] Phyllis Petty, “Christian Hatred and Persecution of the Jews,” www.therefinersfire.org/antisemitism_in_church.htm, accessed on May 28, 2007.
[x] Knox Theological Seminary, “An Open Letter to Evangelicals and Other Interested Parties: The People of God, the Land of Israel, and the Impartiality of the Gospel.”
[xi] Phyllis Petty, “Christian Hatred and Persecution of the Jews.”
[xii] Akten deutscher Bischöfe, vol. 1, pp. 100-102. Quoted in Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, p. 47.