Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People
Publication Year: 2012
The place and significance of Martin Luther in the long history of Christian anti-Jewish polemic has been and continues to be a contested issue. It is true that Luther's anti-Jewish rhetoric intensified toward the end of his life, but reading Luther with a careful eye toward "the Jewish question," it becomes clear that Luther's theological presuppositions toward Judaism and the Jewish people are a central, core component of his thought throughout his career, not just at the end. It follows then that it is impossible to understand the heart and building blocks of Luther's theology without acknowledging the crucial role of "the Jews" in his fundamental thinking.
Luther was constrained by ideas, images, and superstitions regarding the Jews and Judaism that he inherited from medieval Christian tradition. But the engine in the development of Luther's theological thought as it relates to the Jews is his biblical hermeneutics. Just as "the Jewish question" is a central, core component of his thought, so biblical interpretation (and especially Old Testament interpretation) is the primary arena in which fundamental claims about the Jews and Judaism are formulated and developed.
Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers
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Title Page, Copyright
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...The difficult subject matter of the present volume has been a common scholarly and human interest of both writers for many years. The momentum to launch the project derives from two “Luther and the Jews” seminars jointly taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (LTSG) in the fall semester of 2007 and the spring semester of 2009. We are beneficiaries of the aid, support, and counsel of numerous people and institutions, and our work was made possible by three financial resources: (1) a summer...
Introduction: Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People
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...The place, significance, and influence of Martin Luther in the long history of Christian anti-Jewish polemic has been and continues to be a contested issue. The literature on the subject is substantial and diverse. While efforts to absolve Luther as simply a man of his times—as one who merely passed on and perpetuated what he himself had already received from his cultural and theological tradition—have generally been jettisoned, there still persists even...
The Jew in Luther’s World
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...What did Martin Luther know and think about the Jews? What did he mean with the words “Jew” and “Jewish”? What were his sources? What do we know about the lives and conditions of Jews in sixteenth-century Europe, and what can we gather particularly about their place in Christian imagination, rhetoric, beliefs, on the one hand, and in legislation and daily lives, on the other? With these questions in mind, this introduction is designed as an orientation...
The Text Selections
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...Luther’s references and allusions to Jews, Judaism, synagogue, rabbis, and so on run into the many thousands. The format of a book such as this requires that numerous difficult decisions be made. The guiding principle throughout has been that the text selections, when taken as a whole, will serve as an orientation for students into a challenging subject matter and as an invitation to further study. In working through the selections, students will gain...
Text #1: First Psalm Lectures (1513–1515)
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...As a new professor at the University of Wittenberg, Luther chose the Psalms for his first lectures on the Bible, that is, the book that was his most consistent theological and spiritual companion. Presented in the traditional academic style of Glosses (brief grammatical/philological remarks) and Scholia (expansive interpretive remarks), and utilizing the traditional medieval method...
Text #2: Letter to George Spalatin (1514)
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...At the time of the writing of this letter, George Spalatin (1484–1545) was in the service of Elector Frederick the Wise in the Saxon court, and among his many duties he served as laison to the University of Wittenberg. Luther and Spalatin developed a lifelong friendship, and over the course of his career Luther would write more letters to Spalatin than to anyone else...
Text #3: Lectures on Romans (1515–1516)
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...After lecturing through the Psalter, Luther turned next to Romans. The lectures, still in the style of Glosses and Scholia, were delivered from Spring 1515–Fall 1516 but were not published. Long thought to have been lost, Luther’s original manuscript was rediscovered in the early twentieth century by Johannes Ficker, the editor of WA 56...
Text #4: Lectures on Galatians (1519)
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...Luther’s third lectures on Bible focused on Galatians and were delivered from October 1516—March 1517, and then with significant revisions published in 1519. It is noteworthy that the Gloss/Scholia format is no longer in use. This is the epistle that Luther would later equate with his beloved wife: “The Epistle to the Galatians is my dear epistle. I have put my confidence in it. It is my Katy von Bora.”1 Having just discovered in Paul’s Romans what was for him an entirely new, faithcentered lens to the Scriptures, these...
Text #5: Second Psalms Lectures (1519–1521)
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...Having lectured through the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews in the years 1513–1518, Luther returned again to the Psalms in 1519–1521. The first 15 Psalms were published already by January 1520, but the lecture series would end with Psalm 22 because of Luther’s summons to the Diet of Worms in March 1521. These were decisive times for Luther and the evangelical Reformation...
Text #6: Magnificat (1521)
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...Luther’s treatise on Mary’s “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) was begun in early 1521, but the writing was delayed by his summons to Worms. He completed the work while in hiding on the Wartburg in June 1521, and it was in print by August/ September 1521. The work was quite popular, and it circulated in several editions...
Text #7: That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523)
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...After first defending himself against charges made at the Diet of Nuremberg (1522) to the effect that he denied the virginity of Mary—and thus by implication the divinity of Christ, which would have made him a heretic against the decisions of the early councils he so revered—the treatise evolves into a kind of manual on how to deal with the Jews in hopes of converting them. Luther’s proposed strategy regarding Jewish conversion involves a two-step process: (1) treat them kindly; (2) teach them how to interpret...
Text #8: Letter to the Baptized Jew, Bernard (1523)
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...The Bernard of this letter is the former Rabbi Jacob Gipher of Göppingen, who was baptized prior to the summer of 1519 and whose son was baptized in 1523, with Luther present. Bernard, married to Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt’s maid, occasionally served as both Luther’s messenger and as Hebrew instructor at the University of Wittenberg. Having trouble making ends meet, Bernard incurred considerable debts, which compelled him...
Text #9: Lectures on Deuteronomy (1525)
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...Luther was occupied with Deuteronomy from 1522–1525. During 1522 he translated the book into German, and in early 1523 he began lectures which were delivered to a small circle of friends. These lectures covered only the first third of the book. During 1524–1525 Luther prepared his own notes on the entire book for publication. His method throughout is to give his understanding of the simple/ literal sense of the text, but then he often adds extensive comments about the allegorical/ mystical sense. This latter sense...
Text #10: Sermon: How Christians Should Regard Moses (1525)
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...As part of Luther’s long series of sermons on the book of Exodus, this sermon was preached in Wittenberg on August 27, 1525. In revised form it appeared as a separate publication in May 1526, and then shortly after as part of several smaller collections of Luther’s writings. In the background of the sermon stand the terrible circumstances surrounding the Peasants’ War of January–August 1525, and the execution of Thomas Münzer on May 27, 1525...
Text #11: Lectures on Zechariah (1525/1526)
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...Zechariah 1–6 contains the eight mysterious “night visions” of the prophet Zechariah, who, together with his contemporary prophet, Haggai, was instrumental in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, 520–515 bce. Excerpted below are selections from Luther’s treatment of the sixth (a flying scroll) and seventh (a woman in a basket/ephah) visions, which he interprets as a prophetic description of the...
Text #12: Sermon on Jeremiah 23:5-8 (The Visit of Three Jews) (1526)
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...For Luther, that the promised Branch/Messiah will be called “The Lord is our righteousness” means that the Tetragrammaton, the personal name of God, will be applied to the Messiah, that is, the Messiah will be called Lord. This in turn implies that the Messiah will be God. And because Jesus is the Messiah, this becomes a proof text for the divine nature of Jesus. This then leads Luther into recalling a debate he had had with some highly learned Jews...
Text #13: Commentary on Psalm 109 (1526)
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...On November 1, 1526, Luther dedicated and sent his commentary on the four traditional Christian “Psalms of Comfort” (37; 62; 94; 109) to the recently widowed young Mary (1505–1558), Queen Consort of Hungary and Bohemia. At the time when the evangelicals’ fate was still in jeopardy, Luther hoped to find the sister of Emperor Charles V at least favorably inclined toward the Reformation, and offered from his part unsolicited...
Text #14: Lectures on Isaiah (1527–1530)
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...In the late 1520’s and as part of the ongoing project to translate the prophetic books into German, Luther lectured through the entire book of Isaiah. Begun in the summer of 1527 and interrupted twice, once by the plague (1527) and once by an extended trip to Marburg (1529), he was able to finish the book in February 1530 (published 1532). We are dependent on the work of two student scribes for the content of the lectures. A second expanded edition was published in 1534...
Text #15: Preface to Daniel (1530)
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...which first appeared in complete form in 1534 and then subsequently revised between 1541 and 1545. The German New Testament, which Luther had translated over a three-month period while on the Wartburg, had appeared already in 1522, but it took twelve years for him and his translation team to complete the work on the Old Testament. Though the prefaces were intended to aid the general reader, they are of high value toward understanding the basic principles of Luther’s approach to the biblical text...
Text #16: Letter to Josel of Rosheim (1537)
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...In August 1536, Elector John Frederick issued an edict making Electoral Saxony off limits for Jews; they were not to live there, do business there, or even pass through the territory. Permanent residence in Electoral Saxony had been denied Jews since 1432, but obviously at least in small numbers Jews had continued to function there, as well as in other Evangelical territories, such as neighboring Hesse. That the 1530’s again brought tightened...
Text #17: Lectures on Genesis 12 (1537)
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...Luther’s career as a professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg began with lectures on the Psalter, which he delivered over the years 1513–1515. These first lectures by the young professor are saturated with anti-Jewish references and allusions. At the opposite end of his career stand the lectures on Genesis (1535–1545), a work rightly called his...
Text #18: The Three Symbols of the Christian Faith (1538)
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...polytheistic. By stressing the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity, Luther seeks to highlight the Trinity as something already known to the prophets, which they taught—in vain—to the stiff-necked Jews. Luther’s bottom line is that Jews believe and teach unbiblically, whereas Christians do just the opposite. The doctrine of the Trinity serves as proof of that. In connection with this Luther also announces his growing intention to...
Text #19: Lectures on Genesis 17 (1538)
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...In the section excerpted below, Luther argues that circumcision was a temporal covenant and that it was never intended for anyone but the Jews alone. With the coming of Christ, the covenant of circumsion has ceased, along with the Mosaic law as a whole. This claim, though not explicitly stated, derives directly from Luther’s understanding of...
Text #20: Against the Sabbatarians (1538)
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...Having received a report from a “good friend,” Count Wolfgang Schlick of Falkenau, about “Judaizing” activities among Christians in Moravia, Luther proceeds to mount an argument from Scripture against any Jewish claims upon Christian faith and practice.2 Behind Luther’s fury, it is important to distinguish here between what may have been happening in Moravia and what Luther thought was happening. Luther’s opening remarks paint a confusing picture, because what he says does not square with what...
Text #21: New Preface to Ezekiel (1541)
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...The preface never materialized, but as part of the German Bible revision of 1541, Luther did compose an entirely new preface to Ezekiel specifically aimed at the Rabbis, the primary purpose of which was to debunk what he knew of Jewish interpretation of the book. Here we find an extended description of the relationship between the new (spiritual) and the old (bodily/physical/Mosaic) covenants. Regarding the Jews, Luther bluntly states: “The new covenant they do not want, the old they cannot have.” Gentile Christians are...
Text #22: Liscentiate Exam Heinrich Schmedenstede (1542)
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...In concise fashion, the initial theses present Luther’s understanding of the unity of the Testaments around the promise of the Seed and faith in that promise, which for Luther is the common characteristic of the people of God in both Testaments of the Christian Bible. This identity of faith is what enables Luther both to speak of the “Church” as being present in the Old Testament as well as to refer to the Old Testament saints as “Christians;” this he does throughout his Genesis lectures...
Text #23: On the Jews and Their Lies (1543)
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...Though often characterized as the ravings of a sick old man, the treatise is a rhetorical tour-de-force and coheres as well with Luther’s overall body of work concerning the Jews. One novel element in Luther’s rhetorical arsenal here is his repeated invoking of the old stereotypical accusations against the Jews in terms of well-poisoning, ritual murder of Christian children, etc., which...
Text #24: On the Ineffable Name and on the Lineage of Christ (1543)
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...rather he writes to warn those in danger of becoming Jews. The treatise is saturated with fecal imagery and references to the Devil (a common association in Christian art and writing from the twelfth-thirteenth centuries onward), all of which is linked to the Jews: the Jews are the Devil’s children, they worship the Devil, the Devil is their god, Jewish biblical interpretation is “Judas-piss,” and so on. The crudeness of the treatise is approached perhaps only by...
Text #25: Josel of Rosheim: Letter to the Strasbourg City Council (1543)
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...Josel’s second letter is essential for understanding how Luther had come to be regarded in the German Jewish Community as well as for providing testimony to how Josel himself dealt with the anti-Jesus material in the Toledot Yeshu traditions. In addition, it must be said that Josel’s letter gives the lie to the argument that Luther cannot be held accountable to “modern” standards...
Text #26: On the Last Words of David (1543)
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...The Last Words of David, 2 Samuel 23:1-7, was for Luther one of the premier christological passages in the Old Testament, and he referred to it constantly whenever christological interpretation of the Old Testament was at stake. For Luther David is not speaking in this passage about himself but rather about the Messiah in whom he believed. This treatise was written to defend that view and also to defend Luther’s new translation of the passage...
Text #27: Two Letters to Katharina Luther (1546)
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...In two of Luther’s last remaining letters to his wife Katharina, the matter of the Jews is at the forefront of the issues he wants to share with her, alongside reports on his consumption of beer and wine, his health, and his bowel movements. Responding to her recent letters, Luther playfully fuels his wife’s worries with the depiction of a substantial presence of Jews in and around Eisleben, implying that they have the ability to cause physical harm, even...
Text #28: An Admonition against the Jews (1546)
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...As is clear from his recent letters to Katharina, the existence of Jews in and around Eisleben caused him deep distress. He had promised his wife to put an end to it with the primary means available to him: the pulpit. On February 7 he wrote his wife: “Today I made my opinion known in a sufficiently blunt way if anyone wishes to pay attention to it...
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...Martin Luther never danced at a Jewish wedding. He never broke bread at Passover. He never shared a cup of Sabbath wine. He never studied Torah with a rabbi. He never held in his arms a newly circumcised Jewish boy. He never saw the anguish of expelled Jewish families vandalized at the hands of an irate Christian mob. He never smelled the smoke of burning Jewish martyrs. He never met Josel of Rosheim, who came to ask for his help...
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...It can be argued that the very basics of the Christian belief system incorporate anti-Jewish perspectives that have been tragically acted out in Christian tradition from liturgy to social order. Through the centuries, Jewish people have been subjected to random and organized violence—pogroms, trials, massacres and burnings, destruction of property, synagogues, books and lives—at the hands of the Christian majority in Europe...
Declaration of ELCA to the Jewish Community
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...In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers. Very few Christian communities of faith were able to escape the contagion of anti-Judaism and its modern successor, anti-Semitism. Lutherans belonging to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feel a special burden in this regard because of certain elements...
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Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012