Martin Luther and the Jews

Martin Luther and the Jews – a necessary reminder on the occasion of the Reformation anniversary

Declaration from the second session of the 12th Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD)

In 2017, the EKD celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On this occasion, we look back over our historical and theological heritage and inquire what essential insights it holds for today. Amidst all the gratitude and joy, we do not close our eyes to the mistakes made by the Reformers and Reformation churches and their involvement in guilt.Troubling perceptions

  • The Reformation aimed to reform the church by the power of the gospel. This rarely gave rise to a new way of regarding the Jews. The Reformers operated within a tradition of anti-Judaic thought patterns, the roots of which reached back to the early church.
  • It is our responsibility to clarify how we deal with the anti-Judaic statements made during the Reformation period and the history of their impact and reception. We ask to what extent they fostered a generally anti-Judaic attitude in Protestant churches and how this can be overcome today. Engaging with Martin Luther’s attitude towards the Jews takes on exemplary significance in this process.
  • Luther linked central insights of his theology with anti-Judaic thought patterns. His recommendations for dealing with Jews in practice were contradictory. First he argued for a friendly, persuasive approach to Jews, and then resorted to invective, demanding that they be deprived of their rights and expelled.
  • In the lead-up to the Reformation anniversary we cannot bypass this history of guilt. The fact that Luther’s anti-Judaic recommendations in later life were a source for Nazi anti-Semitism is a further burden weighing on the Protestant churches in Germany.

A distressing legacy

  • Luther’s early statements and his late writings from 1538, with their undisguised hatred of Jews, show continuity in his theological judgment. He regarded the Judaism of his time as a religion that had missed its own calling. It was guided by the meritoriousness of works and refused to read the Old Testament as leading up to Jesus Christ. According to Luther, the suffering experienced by the Jews was an expression of God’s punishment for their denial of Jesus Christ.
  • Luther’s judgment was bound up with the western tradition of hostility towards the Jews. At first he rejected widespread slanderous tales such as the charges of desecrating the Eucharistic host and of ritual murder, stating that they were lies and fabrications. Later he returned to obsolete stereotypes and remained blinded by irrational fears and resentments.
  • Luther believed that Christians could only live alongside Jews on a temporary basis, and in the hope of converting them. In 1523, in a clear critique of the customary Jew-baiting, he expressed the 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.” [1] (That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew). In 1543 he composed On the Jews and Their Lies. For fear that tolerating the Jewish religion could bring down the wrath of God upon the Christian community as well, he ended this treatise by recommending that the temporal authorities e.g. burn synagogues, destroy Jewish houses, confiscate their Talmuds and prayer books, prohibit them from trading and draft them into forced labor. If that did not help, he advised driving out the Jews “like mad dogs”. [2]
  • For centuries, people had recourse to Luther’s advice. On the one hand, with reference to his attitude of qualified friendliness in 1523, they argued for tolerating Jews but also for a more intensive mission to the Jews. On the other, they appealed to Luther’s late writings in order to justify hatred and persecution of Jews, in particular with the emergence of racist anti-Semitism and at the time of National Socialism. It is not possible to draw simple continuous lines. Nevertheless, in the 19th and 20th century, Luther was a source for theological and ecclesial anti-Judaism, as well as for political anti-Semitism.

Renewing relationships

  • After 1945, the churches embarked upon a learning curve about their culpable failure regarding Judaism – hesitantly at first, and this process is not yet complete. The Evangelical Church in Germany redefined its relationship with Judaism in theological terms, rejecting any form of hostility to Jews and calling for encounter with Judaism. Statements to this effect were included in the constitutions of many EKD member churches.
  • According to our present understanding, Luther’s view of Judaism and his invective against Jews contradict his faith in the one God who revealed himself in Jesus the Jew. Luther’s judgment upon Israel therefore does not correspond to the biblical statements on God’s covenant faithfulness to his people and the lasting election of Israel.
  • In theology and church life we face the challenge of rethinking central theological doctrines of the Reformation and of not falling into disparaging anti-Judaic stereotypes. This particularly concerns the distinctions ‘law and gospel’, ‘promise and fulfillment’, ‘faith and works’ and ‘old and new covenant’.
  • We acknowledge the need to deal critically with our Reformation heritage when interpreting Scripture, in particular the Old Testament. We recognize that “the Jewish exegesis of the Holy Scriptures of Israel [Tanakh] contains a perspective which is also not only legitimate but even necessary for the Christian interpretation” (Church and Israel, Leuenberg Documents 6, II, 227). We can explore the richness of Scripture more profoundly when we are aware of Jewish biblical interpretation.
  • We recognize the part played by the Reformation tradition in the painful history of ‘mismeeting’ (from Martin Buber’s ‘Vergegnung’) between Christians and Jews. The far-reaching failure of Protestant churches in Germany with regard to the Jewish people fills us with sorrow and shame. The horror at such historical and theological aberrations and the awareness of our share of guilt in the continued suffering of Jews give rise to a special responsibility to resist and oppose all forms of enmity and inhumanity towards Jews today.
  • “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Martin Luther). The Reformation anniversary in 2017 is an opportunity to take further steps of repentance and renewal.


Bremen, 11 November 2015
Dr. Irmgard Schwaetzer

The President of Synod
Evangelical Church in Germany


1. Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., eds. J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955ff.), 45:200.
2. Ibid., 47:292.

Martin Luther

Quotes from Martin Luther
‘On Jews and their Lies’ – Index

The theology of Martin Luther has had a profound influence over modern day Protestant Christianity, in particular Luther’s interpretation of ‘Salvation by faith’ which remains the driving ideological justification for the type of Christian evangelism we are so familiar with today. Luther’s ‘faith’ however has a dark side, intolerance and the damnation of dissent and difference and this aspect of both his character and his theology are clearly revealed in one of Luther’s less celebrated works ‘On the Jews and their lies’, justifiably believed to have contributed much to the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War. Luther’s ‘salvation by faith’ included a doctrine of ‘damnation for not believing’ and in his case this even included damnation for ‘having faith’ in doctrines which differed from those doctrines in which Luther had faith. While much emphasis is placed on Luther’s doctrine of ‘no salvation by works’ in truth, an examination reveals that Luther’s doctrine of ‘faith’ was in greater part ‘salvation by faith in doctrines’ and this leads directly to the modern saying by certain Christian sects that ‘I am not without sin, just forgiven’ (in otherwords ‘works’ and ‘deeds’ are not the criteria used to determination ‘salvation’ in this expression of the Protestant faith, but rather a person is ‘saved’ by ‘believing doctrine’ and it is this belief in correct doctrine that is emphasized by Luther and thus defines what is meant by ‘faith’. For example you will hear evangelists teaching that you will be saved ‘based on how you answer this question – Who was Jesus’ and in the end one is saved by believing certain doctrines (thus having ‘faith’) and one can also ‘claim to be a Christian’ but nevertheless ‘go to hell’ for believing ‘incorrect doctrines’). The totalitarian nature of Luther’s doctrine of ‘faith’ and its stubborn insistence on correct ‘doctrine’ (‘faith’) is clearly illustrated in Luther’s anti-semetic attack on the Jews. The better part of the first half of his essay concentrates on the correct doctrinal interpretation of scriptural passages, interpersed with attacks on the Jewish people for deviating from these orthodox interpretations. In the mid section of his essay Luther gives his advice on how to treat Jews, all of which was put into literal practice by the Nazis during the Holocaust, and in the final section of his essay Luther concentrates on railing at the Jews for not being Christians and for deviating from ‘faith’ in Christian doctrine (the true means to salvation ‘by faith’ in the Protestant system Luther developed – salvation by faith in correct beliefs, which explains the Protestant intolerance for deviation in doctrine and the emphasis on ‘believing doctrines’ which is the defining characteristic of so much protestant religion to this very day).


Selected Quotes from ‘On Jews and their lies’

Luther’s Attacks on the Jews
for incorrect interpretation of scripture 

Luther’s Advice for dealing with the Jews

Luther’s Christianity and his judgment
and condemnation of the Jews

One the Jews and their Lies
The Complete Text

1. Introduction

2. Jewish ancestors
Luther attempts to keep the authority of the Bible, while at the same time denying the Jews any connection to the stories of their ancestors, such as Abraham. In general, Luther will rely on Paul’s argument from Romans that ‘not all Jews are really the children of Abraham’.

3. Circumcision
Luther attacks the Jews for boasting about circumcision as ‘the sign of their covenant with God.’ Once again Luther will be recycling Paul’s argument from Romans as well as other similar letters…

4. Moses
Luther attacks Jews based on certain passages where Moses also criticizes Jews in an attempt to carry on the argument that ‘today’s Jews are not real Jews but rather devils.’

5. Canaan
Luther attempts to nullify claims Jews were making to the promises of God as illustrated in the Canaan stories.

6. Prophecy
Luther quarrels with Jews over traditional Christian interpretations of prophecy.

7. Jacob and David
Once again Luther attempts to make the case that promises made to Jacob or David have nothing to with the Jews of his time.

8. Jeremiah
Jeremiah was a Christian, and not Jewish, according to Luther.

9. Eternally
Once again Luther is recycling the argument from Romans, in this case insisting that Jews have no right to insist that the passages regarding an ‘eternal covenant’ have anything to do with the Jews of his time.

10. Goyim
Luther accuses the Jews of being bigots.

11. Haggai and the temple
Luther once again quarrels with the Jews over the traditional Christian interpretation of prophecy.

12. Daniel
Luther quarrels with the Jews over the interpretation of the book of Daniel, using arguments that remain standard fare to this day.

13. Poor Jesus
Luther accuses the Jews of persecuting Jesus and his ‘poor Mother’ for no reason.

14. Jews persecuting Christians
Luther insists that Christians must endure wide spread persecution, bigotry and oppression at the hands of the Jews. These sorts of arguments will be recycled centuries later by Hitler.

15. Luthers final solution ot the Jewish problem
Point by point Luther gives advice to the political leaders and the pulpit on how to go about persecuting Jews. His advice will be taken literally by Hitler and the Nazi party resulting in the Holocaust.

16. New Testament
Luther reveals the true nature of his doctrine of ‘justification by faith.’ Faith means belief in orthodox doctrines, as Luther reveals when he attacks the Jews for not believing in the Church Testament, which is continuation of his earlier attacks on the Jews for not interpreting the Jewish Testament according to Orthodox Christian belief.

17. The final solution reprised.
Luther repeats his demands for persecution of the Jews by the political powers and from the pulpit, on the pains of eternal damnation for sharing in their unbelief by tolerating their differences in faith (the flip side, the dark side, of Luthers doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ which in practice means justification by belief in certain doctrines).

18. Jewish Messiah is a sow
Using a deliberately insulting analogy to ‘pork’ (an ‘unclean food’) Luther insists that belief in the Jewish Messiah makes one a sow, in otherwords an ‘unclean pig’.

19. Miracles and conclusion
Luther goes on about the miracles constantly being done by the church, and then concludes his diatribe.

Anti-Semitic ‘Jewish Sow’ relief may be removed from Luther’s church

Medieval sculpture on façade of Unesco World Heritage site in Wittenberg is one of around 30 similar pieces across Europe



The so-called Judensau relief on the façade of the Wittenberg church where Martin Luther preached

The so-called Judensau relief on the façade of the Wittenberg church where Martin Luther preached

Church leaders and art historians are debating whether to remove an obscene 13th-century anti-Jewish relief from the façade of the heritage-protected church where Martin Luther once preached in the German city of Wittenberg.

The sandstone relief depicts Jewish people drinking from a sow’s teats while a rabbi lifts her tail to inspect her hindquarters. In response to a court complaint filed by a member of the German Jewish community and an online petition, the Evangelical Church is now discussing its removal and alternative display options.

“The proposal to take down the medieval sculpture and integrate it into a new monument seems convincing to me,” Irmgard Schwaetzer, the president of the synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany, said in a statement sent by email. “It expresses pure hatred of Jews. A centre of education that finds acceptance beyond the parish should be established here. This also means considering the feelings that this place awakens in our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

Around 30 “Judensau” (Jewish Sow) images still exist in medieval churches around Europe, primarily in Germany. The oldest surviving example, dating from 1230, is in Brandenburg. Their intention was to dehumanise Jewish people, provoking scorn and ridicule by associating them with a beast considered impure and dirty.

Until now, the church has shown no willingness to consider the removal of the Wittenberg relief, says Richard Harvey, a British theologian specialised in Jewish-Christian relations and the author of an online petition which has garnered 10,000 signatures advocating its relocation. Heritage experts have also argued against taking it down.

“We can’t allow this to lead to a kind of iconoclasm,” the art historian Insa-Christiane Hennen said in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio station. “The problem of modern-day anti-Semitism cannot be solved by removing these medieval objects.”

A legal complaint demanding the removal of the Wittenberg relief filed by Michael Düllmann was rejected by a regional court on 24 May. Düllmann had argued that the church was abusing and insulting him and other Jews. The court ruled that the fact that the church had not removed the relief could not be considered abuse.

“We have lost the first round,” says Hubertus Benecke, the lawyer representing him. “My client plans to appeal. We will also be watching to see how the discussions develop.”

Harvey says the Wittenberg relief is “the most egregious example” of a “Judensau” because it is located on the façade of the church in full public view. It is also in the church where Luther preached and married—a Unesco World Heritage site. A post-Reformation script on the image echoes an anti-Jewish text by Luther, implying that the Rabbi inspecting the sow’s behind is trying to read the Talmud. The parish added a plaque and an explanation in 1988, when Wittenberg was still behind the Iron Curtain.

“I have tremendous respect for what they were trying to do,” Harvey says. “But these days, more needs to be done. The sculpture continues to cause offence and defame Jewish people and their faith. I want it to be relocated to a museum or study centre so it’s removed from sacred space and from public social space.”


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