Volume 44 - Issue 2

Luther’s Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism

by Thomas Kaufmann

This book (a translation of Kaufmann’s Luthers Juden [Stuttgart: Reclam, 2014]) is an ambitious attempt to fully “historicize” Martin Luther’s writings and statements about Jews and Judaism. Kaufmann here offers a systematic and chronological survey of Luther’s dealings with and writings about Jews, building on his own earlier study which systematically placed each of Luther’s major “Jewish writings” (Judenschriften) in their own respective historical contexts (Luthers “Judenschriften”: Ein Beitrag zu ihrer historischen Kontextualisierung [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013]). He also dives into the fraught and often tragic reception history that Luther’s anti-Jewish writings have had.

To this end, chapter 1 pursues a twofold aim. First, Kaufmann broadly assesses the legal, cultural, and economic situation of European Jews in the sixteenth century, demonstrating how they were at once ingrained in European life and yet legally, culturally, and religiously marginalized. He then attempts to parse out what actual contact Luther had with living Jews. Such contact for Luther was slim, though not non-existent, and Kaufmann highlights the role that Bernhard, a converted Jew, played in Wittenberg and in Luther’s thinking about Jews more broadly.

Chapters 2 through 5 proceed with a chronological, workman-like survey of Luther’s comments and policies towards the Jews. Methodologically, a glance at the endnotes reveals that Kaufmann has decided to focus exclusively on expositing Luther’s views from the primary sources themselves. References to secondary scholarship are entirely non-existent in the notes, though a helpful bibliography is included at the end of the work.

The first two chapters of this section cover Luther’s opening decade as an author and a public figure. Chapter 2 gives evidence from Luther’s earliest writings that the reformer’s developing theology had surprisingly pro-Jewish elements, discarding many medieval legends and stereotypes about Jewish host desecration, ritual murder, and well poisoning. Chapter 3 then focuses on Luther’s key 1523 treatise, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew. Kaufmann agrees with many in noting how the work was remarkably tolerant for its own time. Importantly, he sees it as a carefully formulated statement of Jewish policy, especially emphasizing how Luther closed the treatise by noting that he advocated increased Jewish toleration but only until he could “see what effect [it] had” (p. 62).

Chapters 4 and 5 turn to the period from 1523 until Luther’s death in 1546. Here Kaufmann covers much traditional information but also helpfully chronicles the publication history of Luther’s Judenschriften. In this way, he demonstrates that the early, more tolerant Luther, was in fact much more widely-read in the sixteenth century than Luther’s late anti-Jewish diatribes. Kaufmann further shows that many of Luther’s late fears, such as Sabbatarian Christians who underwent circumcision at the hands of Jews, were, in fact, polemical literary creations of the reformer’s own mind with little to no basis in reality.

The final chapter reveals the ambiguous afterlife of Luther’s Jewish writings. Just as this corpus of texts gave a contradictory set of perspectives on the Jews, so also it has been received and used for quite different ends. Kaufmann is here to be commended. In seeking to interpret Luther historically, he does not—indeed, he believes one cannot—ignore the fateful ways in which Luther’s Judenschriften have been used. In the twentieth century, Nazi party members with “no interest in Luther’s theological concerns” (p. 147) published widely-read extracts of Luther’s most anti-Jewish statements, thereby seeking to appropriate him as the father of modern anti-Semitism. It is an image that, while grossly simplistic from a historical angle, has nevertheless persisted with tragic consequences.

On the whole Kaufmann’s volume offers a brief but helpful summary of the perennial topic of “Luther and the Jews” that serves well as a systematic introduction to what Luther said and thought. However, due to its decision to proceed without reference to the concerns of secondary literature, it would be helpfully supplemented by the standard work of Heiko Oberman (The Roots of Anti-Semitism [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984]) or the informative but much larger volume edited by Stephen G. Burnett and Dean Phillip Bell (Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth Century Germany [Leiden: Brill, 2006]).

While on one level a survey, Kaufmann’s work also contains insights that will prove helpful even to specialists. Several of these stand out. First, Kaufmann at various points contextualizes Luther’s Jewish writings by describing contemporaneous, but little-known works by Christian authors about Jews (e.g., pp. 65–71). Second, Kaufmann repeatedly and rightly insists that Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, in fact, utilized a “two-pronged attack” (p. 124). Specifically, in their own historical moment, the Judenschriften were directed not only against Jews but also, and perhaps more primarily, against Christian Hebraists of Luther’s own time whom the reformer believed inadequately interpreted the Old Testament in a Messianic fashion. The Basel Hebraist Sebastian Münster justly plays a central role in Kaufmann’s narrative at this point, an emphasis missed by many other studies (pp. 101–9).

Despite these virtues, the work is at times marred by translational and editorial infelicities. For example, the translators inexplicably use the King James Version for quotations of the Bible, resulting in odd archaisms such as God being able “to graff [the Jews] in again” (p. 46). As for the work’s content, Kaufmann spends very little time noting anti-Jewish medieval and contemporary influences on Luther, such as the works of Ramon Martí and Petrus Galatinus, to which Luther was heavily indebted in his late Judenschriften. Yet these minor matters do not detract from what is generally a fine work.

Kaufmann ends where he began—by making clear the need to read Luther “through a consistently historicizing lens” (p. 156). This means placing Luther, and his views, firmly in their sixteenth-century context. Yet “to historicize [Luther] does not mean to justify him, to make him irrelevant, or to ‘diminish’ him” (p. 159). Rather, this study raises the perennial challenge of whether, in looking at Luther, we will pause long enough to recognize his own distance and differences from us, rather than simply proof-texting from him to justify our own ends. In this regard, Kaufmann’s work presents a model to be emulated.

Erik Lundeen

Erik Lundeen
Baylor University
Waco, Texas, USA

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