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Antisemitism and Sola Scriptura, Luther’s dangerous liaisons

Pierre-Olivier Léchot

Translation : The Revd Canon Tony Dickinson

Let us not mince words: Martin Luther developed a way of thinking about Judaism which in its main lines takes up pre-modern anti-Semitic discourse as it had developed in his day. His only possible excuse is that he could not show any originality in this area, since the principal threads of his vision of Judaism are to be found in the writings of his great adversary, the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, who has however happily, but without doubt wrongly, become one of the ancestors of modern tolerance. The case therefore seems settled: Luther was a child of his time. But is that all? I don’t think so. Indeed the problem, it seems to me, does not lie so much in the fact that Luther defended some anti-Semitic views current in his day as in the very close links which tie this pre-modern anti-Semitism to his theology.
Luther’s antisemitism and its history
The debate continues to rage in Germany, even when the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) thought it had satisfactorily de-mined the ground. Indeed more and more voices are being raised to denounce the « worship » of which Luther is the object among German Protestants when his conversations about Judaism at the end of his life ought to urge more restraint. That is why a group has been set up to have the « Jewish Sow » (a 14th-century sculpture set in one of the walls of the church in Wittenberg) taken down and offered to a museum commemorating the Holocaust. In May and June of 2017 there were even demonstrations on six successive Wednesdays in front of the church of Luther’s town to demand the sow’s disappearance. Is it necessary to make the Jewish sow disappear from the church in Wittenberg, when a plaque already explains its meaning and deplores it? Historically speaking, the step is debatable. What is unquestionably more disturbing is that Luther himself readily refers to this monument in his writings against the Jews. He writes this in 1543: « Here in Wittenberg you can see, on our church, a sow carved in stone. Underneath there are piglets and Jews suckling at her teats. Behind her stands a rabbi who lifts up the sow’s right leg, pulls her tail with his left hand, bends down and contemplates with zeal the Talmud under the animal’s rear, as if he was reading something extraordinary. Which of course points to the place where their Shem Hamphoras [the name of God] is found. »
In order to understand the polemics about Luther’s anti-Semitism and defuse the most questionable aspects, it is important to make a detour through the history of its reception. The problem posed by Luther’s anti-Jewish texts is, in fact, rather recent: it dates roughly from the end of the 19th century, in other words from the moment when western anti-Semitism was transformed into a racial theory and when its defenders began to include some of Luther’s texts in their anthologies. But we must immediately make it clear that this anti-Semitism did not then spread systematically among German Protestants. Indeed, several theologians of this period met in the Association for the Struggle against Anti-Semitism, founded by the liberal pastor Friedrich Otto Gräbner (1848-1922), at the heart of which are, for example, the biblical scholar Martin Rade and the historian Theodore Mommsen. Similarly the « German » Luther, that is to say Luther as a hero of the German nation, does not play as decisive a role at this period as would be the case under the Nazi regime. It is indeed relatively late, from the 1817 jubilee and especially from that of 1883, that Luther was enrolled among the heroes of the German nation and race. Even so in 1883 several Jewish authors took up their pen to salute him as a hero of freedom of conscience and to attribute to him an important role in their slow recognition within modern Germany. This benign image of Luther among German Jewry is also the fruit of a long history, since among Lutheran pietists and German representatives of the Enlightenment there were several who, in order to defend the recognition of Judaism, took their stand on the writings of the young Luther, which are more open to Judaism, in order to promote the idea of civic tolerance of the Jews.
So it is with Nazism above all that Luther is considered as a true precursor of modern anti-Semitism. Of course, since the first half of the 19th century, some prominent figures like pastor Ludwig Fischer of Leipzig had used the anti-Jewish writings of Luther to highlight the inhuman dimension of an « ethnic group » which represented in their eyes the « reverse » of humanity. However, such figures did not form a majority within German Protestantism, and for a very simple reason: Luther’s anti-Jewish writings were not then accessible to a very wide public. It was only from the 1830s that these texts were again on sale, first with the Erlangen edition of the Reformer’s complete works, then with the Weimar edition from 1883. However, the volume containing the « Jewish writings » appeared only in 1919, after the defeat of Germany in 1918. It is no surprise, then, that Luther made his appearance from 1887 in the Anti-Semitic Catechism of Theodor Fritsch which was to go through forty-four editions before 1944 and circulated in some 300,000 copies. It is known that Hitler considered Fritsch as one if his precursors and so it should not be ruled out that, from one point of view, the anti-Jewish writings of Luther might have been « a factor which made possible and even encouraged the Shoah, during this mental paralysis of all civil courage within the Lutheran population », as the historian Thomas Kaufmann notes.
It is understandable then that in the postwar period the question of Luther’s anti-Semitism should become a central point in studies of the Reformer. But it has to be underlined that, from this point of view, no consensus was ever really achieved, the debates remaining very much alive until our day. So, some underline the « anti-Judaic » dimension of Luther’s thought, allowing only the recognition the religious component of his opposition to Judaism, while others categorically reject the distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in favour of the thesis of an anti-Semitism that is integral to Luther and even, for some, an anti-Semitism congenital with the protestant confession and with Christianity. This is what causes some historians to be unhesitating in seeing in the majority vote of the protestant Länder for the Nazis in January 1933 as a direct consequence of Luther’s teaching.
Against this kind of elaboration of history, it is necessary to insist on setting this language in its historical context. In the 16th century, anti-Semitism as a racial theory did not exist. On the other hand there certainly existed a pre-modern anti-Semitism which rested on the idea of a corruption of the blood of the Jews, showing itself in their alleged avarice and their so-called bad faith. It is into this anti-Semitism that Luther’s remarks sink their roots: it is never, then, a question with him of a corrupt « Jewish race » opposed to a pure « Indo-European race », but, on the other hand, reference is certainly made to Jewish blood and its defects. It is, accordingly, too easy to speak only of a simple religious opposition to Judaism but it is equally an exaggeration to see in Luther a blatant anti-Semite in the sense in which we can use the term about the Nazi theoreticians.
A particularly vivid example of this pre-modern anti-Semitic imprint in Luther’s speech lies in the way he saw Jews who had converted and been baptised. Luther does not hesitate to affirm, in effect, that the baneful nature of the Jews cannot be changed by their conversion and the sacrament of baptism: « Here we see how much such corruption is stitched into their hearts and how firmly it is installed there, so much so that they are difficult to convert… Their corruption is so deep, that it has become second nature and they can no longer act otherwise. » That is why the Reformer means to warn his interlocutors against the bad faith of « this type of person »; « if I find myself baptising a pious Jew, I would take him rapidly onto the bridge over the Elbe [near Wittenberg], I would hang a rock round his neck and throw him in the Elbe; for these jokers make fun of us and of our religion. »
Luther’s evolution
Amid the debates between historians, one of the recurring arguments of Luther’s « defenders » consists in highlighting his writings in favour of the Jews written at the beginning of his reforming activity, and in particular his 1523 treatise « That Jesus Christ was born a Jew ». This motif is not recent, since this is the text which was constantly put forward by Lutheran pietists and some supporters of the German Enlightenment to plead in favour of tolerance for Jews in Germany. It is true that Luther pleads there for a kindly dialogue with the Jews and calls for clemency from the political authorities. So it is only at the end of his life that the Reformer launches into an anti-Jewish polemic of rare virulence, demanding, for example, that the princes of the Empire drive out Jews, destroy their synagogues, and prohibit their rabbis from teaching. Which gives rise to one of the thorniest problems for historians of the question: how are they to interpret Luther’s evolution?
Several hypotheses have been formulated. Some have highlighted reasons of a personal nature: Luther, embittered by the failure of the Reformation to spread further and marked by the death of his daughter Magdalena in 1542, let off steam, as it were, by throwing all his strength into a cathartic battle against Judaism. More seriously, some historians have preferred to highlight Luther’s disappointment in the face of the small number of Jews converted to the Reformation or even some economic reasons – like, for example, rejection of the usury practised by Jews, allegedly the cause of galloping pauperisation in Germany. None of these explanations however makes it easy to understand Luther’s recourse to the recurring theme of « corrupt Jewish blood » in the writings from the end of his life.
One extract from his essay On the Jews and their lies, which appeared in 1543, seems however to throw some light on the question of Luther’s evolution. Indeed one reads there: « Three learned Jews came to see me in the hope of finding a new Jew in my person, because we have begun to read Hebrew here in Wittenberg, and they declared that things were going to get better because we Christians were beginning to read their books. I started a discussion with them, then they began to do things in their own way, to dish up glosses. As I was forcing them to return to the text, they began to disregard this and declared that they were bound to believe their rabbis as we must believe the pope or the doctors, etc. I was gracious to them, I gave them a recommendation for the attention of the supervisory bodies, so that they allowed then to move freely. But later I learned that they had called our Christ « tola », in other words a hanged bandit. »
This episode, to which Luther often returned, describing it in a way that was sometimes very little different, seems to have been decisive for his evolution. There are several elements to underline in this extract. First, his insistence on the bad faith of the Jews and the impossibility of having a real dialogue with them: from that the Reformer drew the conclusion that it was not possible to behave tolerantly toward them because, in this case, they did not hesitate to engage in invective against Christ. This is what explains the conclusion which he draws: « That’s the reason why I no longer wish to have anything to do with the least Jew. » This explanation is all the more convincing because, during the 1530s, Luther read a treatise by Antonius Margaritha, a converted Jew, who insisted on the bad faith of the Jews and the importance of never seeking to convert them by an irenical dialogue, in case it aroused their hatred towards Christians. It might then be reasonable to think that Luther was, to some extent, convinced of the fact that his offers of dialogue in 1523 were not only futile but that they could prove to be counterproductive.
Theology, exegesis and history
Another significant element in this text rests on the comparison which Luther makes between Jews and « papists »: these two groups, which one can clearly see as constructs of Luther’s pen, mean indeed « to gloss » in relation to Scripture rather than « return to the text », which leads them to follow the opinion of « the rabbis » and « the pope » respectively. Now, such an orientation of their speech can mean only one thing in his eyes: denying Christ. We realise then that what sets Luther against the Jews as he perceives them is primarily a conflict over the interpretation of the biblical text and more particularly the Old Testament. This point is extremely important. In 1523, in That Jesus Christ was born a Jew, as in 1543, in On the Jews and their Lies, Luther is developing a long exegetical commentary on the same passages of the Old Testament to show his interlocutors that Jesus Christ is indeed the Messiah heralded by the prophets. What changes between the two texts is the way in which he sees the capacity of the Jews to accept his demonstrations. Significant fact, in 1543 Luther no longer addresses his demonstrations to Jews, but only to Christians to fortify them against the exegetical theories of « these dogs of rabbis ».
It is then in a hermeneutical question, in other words one tied to the interpretation of the Bible, that the theological nub of the problem lies. For Luther the reformation principle « Sola Scriptura » actually rests on another principle: that of the clarity of Scripture. It is because Scripture is « clear as the sun », as he happily writes, that it can be authoritative. He does not hesitate to recall, appropriately in his 1523 text, concerning the text of Genesis 49:10 (« The sceptre shall not depart from Judah… Until Shiloh comes to whom the peoples will rally »): « That is why there is no doubt: it is the Spirit who, through Moses, pictures for us in these words this man in a spiritual kingdom and describes for us how things happen in this kingdom and how it is governed. » In 1543 it is the same idea which returns, still in relation to Genesis 49: « Get this argument and this thought in your head and go and look at the text, in Hebrew and Chaldean, you will see if your heart and the letters don’t tell you: By the good God, it is the truth, it’s the meaning of the Patriarch’s words… For this word: ‘The sceptre shall not leave Judah’ is as crystal-clear as this one: ‘God created the heaven and the earth.' »
It should not be ruled out either that, on the question of the clarity of Scripture, the Luther of 1543 was even less open than the Luther of 1523 insofar as he had for almost ten years devoted his teaching at the University of Wittenberg to Genesis. This had undoubtedly allowed him to sharpen his arguments and to convince himself a little more of their pertinence. Only the consequences which Luther intended to draw from them in relation to Judaism seem to have changed: in 1543 he was persuaded that the Jews did not wish to hear his arguments. He still has to explain this closing of the Jewish people to his ideas. He did it by developing his own story of the theme of the Israel’s hardening. As he saw it, if this hardening went back to the Old Testament, an important change had nevertheless taken place with the appearance of Jesus in history. Expecting a secular Messiah, a political and military figure, the Jews could not recognise in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah heralded by the prophets. But, as they knew in themselves that he was well and truly this Messiah, they tried everything to make him fail, hence his crucifixion but also their commitment behind Shimon Bar Kokhba during the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the 2nd century. For Luther was convinced that the revolt of Bar Kokhba was not directed so much against the Roman occupier as against the Christians. It was about exterminating them.
The failure of Bar Kokhba’s uprising resulted in a new degree of hardening which this time touched the Jews’ relationship with the Scriptures themselves: « That is why at this period they began to rebel against the Scriptures (because the Romans had reduced them to powerlessness) and to interpret them in a strange sense, contrary to their contents, they dropped their ancestors and their prophets as well as their own reason because of which they had lost so many hundreds of thousands of men, the land and the city, and had sunk into misery, and in the course of the 1400 years which have followed, they have done nothing other than, when they discovered a verse which, among Christians, was interpreted as a reference to our Messiah, to take it for themselves, to mistreat it, to tear it out, to crucify it, to make a martyr of it, to deck it out with a false nose and a mask, so treating it in the same way as their ancestors treated our Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday, and they have done that in order to treat God as a liar and themselves as the possessors of the truth. »
That is when these « crows », « these coarse, uncultured donkeys », the rabbis, come on stage. They have only one objective, from now on, to infect young Jews « knowingly » and consistently until the time of Luther. So it is logical for the Reformer to bring in the anti-Semitic theme of the corruption of Jewish blood which he formulates in the light of Psalm 109:18: « This poison [the teaching of the rabbis] has passed into their blood and into their flesh, into marrow and bones, and… it has become totally their nature and their lives. » This is the origin of the conclusion which Luther draws in relation to the Jews’ capacity to convert: « just as they cannot change their flesh and their blood, their marrow and their bones, in the same way they cannot change their pride and their jealousy, they must remain like this and be lost, unless God performs an especially great miracle. »
It is obvious: faced by the refusal of the Jews to accept his reading of the Old Testament, Luther came to seek an explanation which he situated in Jewish history and which led him to formulate a theory of Jewish « nature », integrating in this way a proto-racist dimension into his reading of the hardening of Israel. So the problem is indeed linked closely with Luther’s understanding of the Old Testament. It can be verified, moreover, in relation to the notorious Jewish sow of Wittenberg; in another of his anti-Jewish writings in the same year, Luther indeed declares, in words aimed at the Jews: « The only Bible which you ought to read is the one which is found under the sow’s tail, and to scoff and drink the letters which fall from it of their own accord, there is a Bible which would suit such prophets who, like pigs, churn up and tear up the word of the divine Majesty, to which one ought to listen with honour, trembling and joy. »
And now?
In the edition of Évangile et liberté which appeared in October 2016, I defended the idea that Luther’s thought had a profound influence on our modern theological conceptions and that it could still speak to us. I remain convinced of this. But what we have just seen in relation to his reading of the history of the hardening of Israel must encourage us to add to this affirmation a second consideration, just as important: Luther is in a position to speak to us only if we are capable of putting him in his historical context, in other words of holding him at a distance from the point of view of history but also of theology. It is not just about being happy to say that he was a child if his age while seeking to erase as discreetly as possible whatever in his thought no longer suits us or which disturbs us. On the contrary we must perceive him first as an author and a theologian who is as distant from us as are Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. But we must also seek to understand the deep working of his theology in order to try to grasp what, in a case like the one we have just called to mind, can pose a problem.
Let us say clearly: in the case of his anti-Jewish polemic it is nothing less than the reformation principle of « Sola Scriptura » and its corollary, that of the clarity of Scripture, which are at stake. This is what authorises the anti-Semitic remarks of Luther and which, more broadly, provides the basis for his intolerance with regard to Muslims and Catholics, but also of Zwinglians or Anabaptists. Luther, indeed, was persuaded: the Bible was for him and his ideas. Hadn’t he declared as early as 1518: « I am not alone, for I have the truth with me »? It is on this same certitude that his often-quoted opposition to the emperor at the time of the Diet of Worms in 1521 rests as well as his aggressiveness against the Jews at the end of his life: « We have mastered the Holy Scriptures better than they [the Jews], we know it (God be praised) in truth, and all the devils will not be able to rob us of it, and still less the miserable Jews. » Protestants have to be aware of this: it is because he was intolerant, because he was convinced that he had the only correct and possible reading of the Bible, that Luther was able to oppose with so much conviction the pope and the emperor. But it is also because of this profound intolerance that he was able to rejoice at the death of Zwingli in 1531 and that he came to attack Judaism with such virulence.
Admittedly, we can perfectly well continue to affirm the principle of the authority and the clarity of Scripture without for all that lapsing into assertions of an anti-Semitic nature. But we will then remain incapable of developing a language that is theologically coherent and intelligible for our contemporaries in relation to other religions, whether Judaism or Islam. As I wrote in 2016, the orthodox option which consists in taking Luther’s theological assertions and transposing them to our age is indefensible; first, because it denies the Reformer’s historical otherness but also, all things considered, that of the Bible itself. We have, then, to break the link between the Bible, the Reformation and our present in order to be in a position afterwards to resume our reading of the Scriptures and of the Reformer while taking care to think for our time.
Certainly, it is not a question of asserting that the Bible no longer has anything to say to us. It is rather a question of recognising it as a source of inspiration for thinking about the human condition from the perspective of the divine rather than as the place of an unalterable non-temporal revelation. But this also implies, it seems to me, the admission that other grids exist for a religious reading of human reality than the Christian Bible. Judaism and Islam are two of them. That does not, however, mean to my mind that any critical dialogue is impossible, as if, basically, all religions were only different ways leading to the same goal. Fascinated by Muslim theological thought and its history, descended, on my mother’s side, from a Jewish family settled in Switzerland, I remain in my personal capacity convinced that Christianity offers a vision of the human more pertinent, on certain points, than Islam or Judaism. But if I think that, it is while acknowledging the necessity of a constructive dialogue with the representatives of the other religions of the Book, a dialogue which does not content itself with considering their « revelations » as impostures or pipe dreams but which takes seriously their points of view and tries to understand their bases and their consequences. It is because we take them seriously and respect them that we are able, rightly, to allow ourselves to remain critics in relation to the other religions of the Book, a little like the way in which two friends can allow one another to say in a spirit of trust, what, sometimes, disturbs them in the other.


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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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