The wrath of a disappointed lover: On Luther’s attitude toward the jews
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionMishkan : a Forum on the Gospel and the Jewish People. 2017, 77 19-27.
Martin Luther is one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the Christian Church. 500 years ago this year, he published his 95 theses on indulgence, which launched one of the most remarkable revival movements in European history. Understanding the causes and significance of the events surrounding the Reformation remains relevant even today, Luther shared the Renaissance fascination with historical sources, becoming one of the sixteenth century’s leading Christian experts on the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. He had a keen interest in the people of the Bible as both historical and contemporary realities. The strange ambiguity in his writings on the Jews has made the topic “Luther and the Jews” a controversial and hotly debated issue, however.1 At the same time as exhibiting a respectful tolerance toward the Jewish people, he also shamelessly vilifies them, denigrating them with such a vehemence and rhetorical force that the Nazis enlisted him in support of their extreme antiSemitism. Is Luther’s thinking concerning the Jews systematic? Or is he a Christian equally confused and angered by the consistent Jewish rejection of the gospel of Christ so that his writings on this topic are nothing but a haphazard collection of incoherent thoughts? This question is exacerbated by Luther’s position within German, European, and ecclesiastical history. His personality looms large, even contemporary discussions of the relation between Jews and the more or less secularized Christian West, including the political issues of the Middle East, are colored by our understanding of Luther’s position in relation to the Jews. In the following, I shall address Luther’s most important writings on this topic in their historical context. How did Luther’s predecessors and contemporaries view the Jews and what are the main characteristics of his early approach? What caused the apparent shift in his position? Did Luther’s theological evaluation of the Jewish people change or do the strict measures against the Jews he promoted in his later years derive from other factors? Despite being aware of how our approach to this particular part of our past is shaped by more recent history, I shall not go beyond a discussion of the historical sources.