By Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D.
Martin Luther’s views concerning the Jews and Judaism have been the subject of much debate. According to Hans J. Hillerbrand, “There is scholarly agreement that the early Luther spoke thoughtfully and positively about Jews.” Luther (1483–1546) prayed for the Jews and called for their friendly treatment. He said, “We ought, therefore, not to treat the Jews in so unkindly a spirit, for there are future Christians among them, and they are turning every day.” Luther also held to a special distinction for the Jews in God’s plan: “Moreover, they alone, and not we Gentiles, have this promise, that there shall always be Christians among Abraham’s seed, who acknowledge the blessed Seed.”
With his 1523 work, “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew,” Luther appeared optimistic that many Jews would convert to Christianity. His hope was that “many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs.” Hans Küng points out that with dawning of the Reformation, Luther believed that “a new last age had dawned for the Jews as well.”
Luther’s attitude toward the Jews, however, changed dramatically in his later years. As Hillerbrand writes, “From the end of the 1530s onward . . . a different tone can be discerned in Luther’s writings. There is less optimism about the possibility of Jewish conversion.” This decreasing optimism concerning Jewish conversion may have stimulated much of Luther’s harsh rhetoric toward the Jews.
Luther’s strongest statements against the Jews are found in his 1543 tract, “Concerning the Jews and Their Lies.” He referred to the Jews as a “miserable and accursed people.” Luther’s intolerance toward the Jews is also evident in the following statement: “What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming.”
In addition to his anti-Semitic rhetoric, Luther also made statements consistent with a punitive replacement view toward Israel. He viewed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70 as evidence of God’s permanent rejection of the Jews: “‘Listen, Jew, are you aware that Jerusalem and your sovereignty, together with your temple and priesthood, have been destroyed for over 1,460 years?’. . . 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.” In reference to the promise of Abraham’s descendants being a ‘great nation’ Luther said, “Therefore the Jews have lost this promise, no matter how much they boast of their father Abraham. . . . They are no longer the people of God.” Luther also argued that the designations “Israel” and “Jew” had undergone a transformation. True Israelites, according to him, were those who now accepted the new covenant:
The Jews make a point of the name Israel and claim that they alone are Israel and we are Gentiles. Now this is true so far as the first part of the prophecy and the old covenant of Moses are concerned. . . . But according to the second part of the prophecy and the new covenant, the Jews are no longer Israel, for all things are to be new, and Israel must become new. Those alone are the true Israel who have accepted the new covenant, which was established and begun at Jerusalem.
Luther also said, “Thus all the Gentiles who are Christians are the true Israelites and new Jews, born of Christ, the noblest Jew.” Summarizing Luther’s later supersessionist views concerning Israel and the Jews, Hillerbrand states, “There is no more promise for Israel. God is silent. Israel experiences the silence of God, which is his wrath. . . . In his later writings Luther appears to have abandoned the notion of the permanence of Israel’s election.”
Editor’s note: Michael Valch did his Ph.D dissertation on supersessionism (replacement theology). Luther’s theological condemnation of the Jews sowed the seeds of anti-Semitism that surfaced with a vengeance during the reign of Hitler.