On the Jews and Their Lies
Edited and Introduced by
Thomas Dalton, PhD
New for 2020, from Clemens & Blair (250 pp., unabridged)
As the founder of the Lutheran church, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was one of the most consequential theologians in history. The Catholic Church was perhaps his most famous opponent, but Luther faced another threat in the Jews. Jews, said Luther, posed a mortal threat to social and spiritual well-being for several reasons: they taught false theology, they slandered Jesus, Mary, and all Christians, and they virtually enslaved the populace through their damnable usury (lending at interest). Jews are arrogant liars, thought Luther, and they harbor an interminable hatred of humanity. As such, the harshest measures against them are warranted.
Hence his dramatic plan of action: destroy the synagogues, ban Judaic teaching, confiscate ill-gotten Jewish wealth, put Jews to hard labor, and ultimately, drive them out of Christian lands. Jews are incorrigible corrupters of humanity, and nothing less would get to the root of the problem.
On the Jews and Their Lies thus stands as one of the most remarkable books in history. Owing to its controversy, it is also one of the least-known. Now for the first time, the entire text is presented in English, in an authoritative fashion—complete with proper introduction, detailed footnotes, and helpful bibliography and index.
This is not just ancient history. Martin Luther’s book is suffused with lessons for the present day.
Introduction, by Thomas Dalton 5
Part I: Jewish Conceit 43
Descent from “God’s Chosen”
Conceit and the Law of Moses
Arrogance regarding the Promised Land
Part II: The Coming of the Messiah 85
2 Samuel 23
Ten Lies of the Jews
Part III: Slander Against the Lord 165
Part IV: A Plan of Action 181
Part V: Conclusion 209
Afterword, by Thomas Dalton 225
As one of the most notorious works of the Renaissance, Martin Luther’s book On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) demands a thorough study by anyone concerned with Christianity, Judaism, or the role of Jews in modern society. Unfortunately, the book is so striking in its polemics and so harsh in its condemnation that we can scarcely discuss it in the present day without incurring terrible insults and slander. Like most such books, the only acceptable view is one of total and unconditional repudiation; Luther was wrong, misguided, hate-filled, anti-Semitic, etc. These become the only allowable positions to take on the work. But such simple-minded condemnation belies the sophistication of Luther’s argument, and ignores the lengthy, confirmatory history that preceded (and postdated) him. In short, Luther was well-justified in his attacks, both for theological and sociological reasons, and his case is therefore much stronger than many would like to believe.
Here, in this brief introduction, I will outline both the basic themes of his critique and provide something of the important historical context that lends meaning and substance to the book. This work is not merely of historical interest, nor strictly for Christian scholars; it has potent implications for the entire modern world.
In Luther, the Jews could hardly have earned a more formidable opponent. As the founder of the Lutheran Church and originator of Protestantism generally, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of all time. One source puts him in the “Big 5”, along with Augustine, Aquinas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. His Lutheran Church claims some 75 million members globally, making it one of the largest protestant denominations. As a man, he was known for his absolute commitment to principles, for his rigorous and extensive theological knowledge, and for his moral courage to confront the religious powers of the day, no matter the personal cost. In fact, he fully expected to be put to death for challenging the Catholic hierarchy, though in the end it did not come to that. Today he is known for taking on corruption within Catholicism as much as for his conflict with Judaism. Ultimately, though, it was the latter of these two that turned out to be the more important, as I will show.
Life of a Reformer
Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483 in Eisleben, Germany—a small town in the center-east of the country, not far from Leipzig. He attended primary school in Magdeburg and Eisenach, and in 1501, at the age of 17, he entered the university at Erfurt to study law, theology, and philosophy; he completed his initial degree four years later. By the summer of 1505, at age 21, he felt his spiritual calling and entered St. Augustine’s Monastery in the same city. He followed the Augustinian order of Catholicism, and became an ordained priest in 1507. Luther then enrolled in the Wittenberg University to study formal theology, earning a doctorate in 1512. He then began a long career as a member of their faculty.
At that time, a variety of corruption issues began to surface within the Catholic Church, one of the most visible being the sale of so-called indulgences—in order to lessen one’s time in purgatory, it was said. In a sense, one could buy one’s way out of hell. This fund-raising practice was widespread in Europe and had the blessings of the entire church hierarchy, up to Pope Leo X himself. By 1517, at age 34, Luther felt compelled to speak out against such dubious religious practices. Late that year he wrote a short piece articulating his specific grievances against indulgences and other problems with the Church; this itemized list came to be known as his “95 Theses,” and it would become the founding document of Protestantism. By early 1518 they had become widely circulated throughout Europe, and Luther acquired both fame and notoriety.
The pope was slow to act, taking a series of gradual measures against Luther over the next three years. But Luther stood fast, confronting him directly. Luther’s two main points of theological contention were (a) that faith alone provided salvation, and neither good acts nor indulgences could improve one’s standing in the afterlife; and (b) that the pope was not the final arbiter on scripture, and thus was fallible. Luther held that faith in Jesus was the sole means of redemption, and that the Bible was clear and direct, and therefore spoke to each person individually, without the need for an interpreter. But this was too much for the good pope, who excommunicated Luther in January 1521. In May, the Diet of Worms banned his books and issued a warrant for his arrest. They also made it legal for anyone to kill him on sight.
Fortunately the death warrant and arrest were never enforced. Luther went into hiding for most of the subsequent year, then returned to preach and write at Wittenberg. He got married in 1525, eventually having six children. The late 1520s and 1530s were spent researching, writing, and building his new church. In 1534 he published a full German translation of the Bible, now known as the Luther Bible, which proved extremely popular among the German public.
It was also at this time that his health began to deteriorate. Though still a young man—he celebrated his 50th birthday in 1533—he suffered from a variety of ailments including headaches, kidney stones, cataracts, arthritis, and coronary disease. By the 1540s, as he was completing his final major works, his public appearances became ever more infrequent. Into the year 1546 he was still able to give sermons, while becoming increasingly enfeebled. In February of that year he suffered a stroke, and died at age 62. His body is buried today in the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.
A Proper Historical Context
During his lifetime Luther addressed a wide array of theological matters, but the main issue at hand is his treatment of the Jews. When modern commentators tackle this thorny subject, they typically respond in one of two standard ways. First and most commonly, they simply ignore it. Rather than have to discuss and respond to one of the strongest and most consequential anti-Jewish stances in history, they prefer to pass it by. This is by far the easiest course of action, as it raises no troublesome issues. A recent example of this tactic is the 415-page authoritative text Martin Luther in Context (2018). Nominally addressing all circumstantial aspects of the man’s life, this book scarcely mentions Jews at all. Yes, there is one small dedicated entry on “Jews and Judaism,” but it covers all of six pages, and completely avoids Luther’s many controversial statements. Only a single page in the entire book so much as mentions the now-infamous title, On the Jews and Their Lies (p. 185). It’s almost as if the editor doesn’t want the reader to think that there is anything of substance here, in this most-contentious of topics.
Secondly, when compelled to address it, modern writers invariably respond with some variation of three actions: 1) slandering the book, 2) slandering Luther personally, or 3) explaining it away as part of a generally “irrational” anti-Semitic milieu, of a broader anti-Jewish outlook within Christianity that has now been completely repudiated. Such charges, of course, are utterly unsubstantiated, and they furthermore say nothing against the actual arguments presented in the book, or against Luther’s many valid insights into the social effect of European Jewry. Suffice to say that Luther has rarely, if ever, received fair treatment on this topic.
Later I will lay out the main points of Luther’s critique of the Jews, but first I need to recall the relevant history of anti-Jewish thinking and writing. Though especially harsh, Luther was far from alone in his criticism. There is in fact a long, well-documented, and highly-pedigreed history of such critical language, one that very few people today are aware of. Here I will highlight some of the main individuals in history, as they relate to Luther’s writing. ...
Into the Christian Era
By the 300s, as the power of Rome began to decline, Christianity became increasingly important throughout the Middle East and Europe. Emperor Constantine was the first to convert to the new religion in 312, and Theodosius made it the official religion of Rome in 380. All the while, the theological gulf between Christians and Jews grew, and the Christian emperors found it increasingly necessary to take action against the Hebrews. Constantine, for example, punished anyone attempting to convert to the “deadly” and “nefarious sect” of Judaism. Gratian (383 AD) threatened all who have “polluted themselves with the Jewish contagions.” Honorius (409) decreed that no one shall “adopt the abominable and vile name of the Jews,” nor accept “the Jewish perversity, which is alien to the Roman Empire.” Theodosius II (438) referred to the “blindly senseless Jews” as “monstrous heretics” and “an abominable sect.”
Finally, in 476 AD, the classic (western) Roman Empire collapsed, leaving the popes and the Church to fill the void. The Dark Ages thus commenced, and the Christian Church began its rise to power. It was at this time that the theological disputes with Jews came to the fore. Early critiques by the likes of Tertullian and Hippolytus, around the year 200, were quite mild. But by the late 300s, the criticisms became more heated. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, blasted the Jews as the absolute dregs of humanity, deploying an impressive array of adjectives:
Murderers of the Lord, murderers of prophets, rebels and full of hatred against God, they commit outrage against the law, resist God’s grace, repudiate the faith of their fathers. They are confederates of the devil, offspring of vipers, scandal-mongers, slanderers, darkened in mind, leaven of the Pharisees, Sanhedrin of demons, accursed, utterly vile, quick to abuse, enemies of all that is good. (In Christi resurr. orat., 5).
Such anger must have been grounded in something more than mere theology. There was something deeply personal here. Gregory seems to have found the Jews to be profoundly antisocial, immoral, corrupt, a real danger to the well-being of the public.
Saint Jerome was another harsh critic, attacking the Jews in a number of his many writings. In 407 he predicted that, “by means of intrigue and deception…Jews would persecute the people of Christ [and] rule the world”. Later he said of the synagogue, “If you call it a brothel, a den of vice, the Devil’s refuge, Satan’s fortress, a place to deprave the soul…you are still saying less than it deserves”. John Hood (1995: 16) adds that Jerome “accused the Jews of almost every imaginable vice, but avarice, drunkenness, gluttony, and licentiousness were his favorites.”
The strongest early critic, however, was undoubtedly John Chrysostom. Of particular note is his work Adversus Judaeos, commonly called Homilies against the Jews (387 AD). The first homily captures the essence of his attack. He begins with mention of a “very serious illness” that pervades society. “What is this disease? The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews” which were soon to commence (I.I.4). “But do not be surprised that I call the Jews pitiable,” he adds. “They really are pitiable and miserable” (I.II.1). Citing Biblical precedent, Chrysostom refers to them as dogs, and as “stiff-necked.” They are drawn to gluttony and drunkenness (I.II.5), and chiefly characterized by their lust for animal pleasures. Indeed, they are animals, though of a worthless kind: “Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing” (I.II.6)—a shocking call from this man of God. “And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter.” He even cites Biblical mandate here, from the Gospel of Luke (19:27): “This is why Christ said, ‘But as for these my enemies,… bring them here and slay them’.”
Chrysostom disparages the religious rituals of the synagogue: “[The Jews] drag into the synagogue the whole theater, actors and all. For there is no difference between the theater and the synagogue” (I.II.7). “That place is a brothel,” he adds. “It is also a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts.” In fact it has become no less than “the dwelling of demons” (I.III.1)—as “the Jews themselves are demons” (I.VI.3).
He then raises a fundamental metaphysical dispute. The Christian testament speaks of a bifurcated afterlife: either eternal bliss with God in heaven, or eternal damnation. “But the Jews,” says Chrysostom,
neither know nor dream of these things. They live for their bellies, they gape for the things of this world, their condition is no better than that of pigs or goats because of their wanton ways and excessive gluttony. They know but one thing: to fill their bellies and be drunk… (I.IV.1)
Then there are the standard charges of the Jews as Christ-killers, and—presaging Luther—as failing to properly honor the old prophets: “And so it is that we must hate both them and their synagogue all the more because of the offensive treatment of those holy men.” On a more practical level, the Jews are to be shunned because of “their plundering, their covetousness, their abandonment of the poor, their thefts, their cheating in trade” (I.VII.1)—charges that relate to fundamental cultural and ethnic traits, rather than religion.
For all these reasons, says Chrysostom, we must “turn away from them, since they are the common disgrace and infection of the whole world” (I.VI.7)—recalling Claudius’ imagery of a “general plague that infests the whole world.” Finally, Chrysostom appeals to his Christian reader to not fear the Jews’ sorcery and black powers; “the Jews frighten you as if you were little children, and you do not see it” (I.III.7). Such a sentiment could be repeated in the present day, as many Gentiles seem to act in evident fear of hidden Jewish power of retribution, as if afraid of some evil spell. Overall, Chrysostom’s language sounds shockingly harsh to today’s sensitive ears, but they merely reflected the prevailing opinion of the time. In light of such talk, Luther’s words, coming some 1,000 years later, appear simply as more of the same.
A few years after Chrysostom’s death, back in Alexandria, the Jews were once again expelled, in the year 414. Clearly they were a source of endless trouble in the ancient world.
A final, albeit mild critique from those early years of Christianity came from Augustine, who wrote his work Adversus Judaeos (‘Against the Jews’) in 425. Robert Wistrich (2010: 86) describes Augustine’s general view of the Jews as “incurably ‘carnal,’ blind to spiritual meaning, perfidious, faithless, and apostate.” In the Adversus, Augustine wrote sharply against the Hebrews as the driving force in the crucifixion: “It was the Jews who held [Jesus]; the Jews who insulted him; the Jews who bound him; the Jews who crowned him with thorns; who soiled him with their spit; who whipped him; who ridiculed him; who hung him on the cross; who stabbed his body with their spears.” But the harsh personal attacks of his predecessors are absent.
As Europe progressed through the Dark Ages, the Church gradually grew in power, even as learned commentary faded into the background for a few centuries. In the 800s, a French archbishop, Agobard of Lyon, complained vociferously to king Louis the Pious about the “insolence of the Jews.” They “daily curse Jesus Christ and the Christians,” engage in slave trading of Christians, and pass off their unclean meats to the unsuspecting Gentile public, he said. In general, the Jews are “the detestable enemies of the truth.”
By the time of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Pope Innocent III was prepared to reassert control over the Hebrews. New resolutions (canons) were passed, “designed to isolate, restrict, and denigrate Jews”. Usury—lending money at interest, and often at exorbitant rates—was a growing problem, especially when it was causing the bankruptcy of church members who were expected to donate generously. Canon 67 reads: “The more the Christians are restrained from the practice of usury, the more are they oppressed in this matter by the treachery of the Jews, so that in a short time they exhaust the resources of the Christians.” There was also the problem of identification. Then as now, Jews were able to move largely unnoticed through Gentile society, owing to the lack of obvious ethnic features. This was unacceptable to the Church and hence they mandated a “difference of dress” for Jews (and also Muslims, or “Saracens”): “we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress” (Canon 68). This was no idle declaration; conical caps, badges, and related clothing were instituted in France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy in the following centuries. Finally, Canon 69 states that “Jews are not to be given public offices… [because] it is absurd that a blasphemer of Christ exercise authority over Christians.”
This harsher stance was taken up by the preeminent theologian of the day, Thomas Aquinas. In contrast to Augustine, Aquinas preferred to emphasize the fact that the Jews knowingly sinned in first refusing and then later crucifying the Savior. As Hood (1995: 74) writes, “In Aquinas’ view, the Jewish leaders had sufficient evidence to know that Jesus was divine, but they willfully refused to draw the conclusion. This increased rather than limited their culpability.” This guilt, Aquinas says, is furthermore perpetually binding on the Jewish people, so long as they refuse Christ and adhere to Mosaic Law: “The blood of Christ binds the children of the Jews insofar as they are imitators of their parents’ malice and thus approve of Christ’s killing” (Questiones Disputata de Malo, 4.8).
Apart from this theological guilt was the practical problem of usury. As he writes in the Summa Theologica, “Lending money at interest is intrinsically unjust” (ST2-2, 78.1). All interest is unethical because it entails no effort; it is reward without work, hardly better than sheer theft. That this is a crime is manifestly obvious to Aquinas, and thus he calls for the harshest of punishment. And the Jews come in for special reprimand, as they were most closely identified with that crime. “It seems to me that a Jew, or any other usurer, should be fined more heavily than others who are punished with fines, since they are known to have less title to the money taken from them” (De Regimine Judaeorum [On the Government of the Jews], 70-74). Monarchs of Europe would suffer from restrictions on interest, but still they have an obligation to rein in the usurers: “It would be better for [royalty] to compel Jews to work for a living, as is done in parts of Italy, than to allow them to live in idleness and grow rich by usury. If rulers suffer loss, it is only because they have been negligent” (De Regimine, 81-88).
The Jews were guilty on both philosophical and pragmatic counts, and thus were to be shunned. For Aquinas, “Jews were profoundly dangerous, and…contact with them should be avoided whenever possible”. One should not socialize or eat with them, discuss religion, or marry them; they were indeed the true “enemies” of Christian society (ST2-2, 10.11). Aquinas upheld the Lateran Council’s dictate on restricting Jews from public office, and he endorsed the call to mark them with distinctive clothing. On this latter point he wrote, “The response to this question is clear, since, according to the statue of the general [Lateran] council, Jews of each sex in all Christian lands and at all times should be distinguished from other people by their dress” (De Regimine, 244-249). The point is obvious but it bears repeating: the act of identifying one’s enemy is the first step in dealing with him.
For theological, sociological, and practical reasons, then, the nations of Europe began to take action, and progressively banished their Jewish populations. Waves of expulsions swept the continent in the 14th and 15th centuries: France (1306 and 1394), Germany (1348), Hungary (1349), Austria (1421), Lithuania (1445), Provence (1490), Spain (1492), Portugal (1497). But these would only be temporary measures, as we know; within two or three centuries the Jews were back, in sufficiently large numbers to cause problems once again.
Luther’s Frontal Assault
This brings us to the time of Martin Luther. Recall that it was in 1517, at the age of 34, that he issued his famous 95 Theses against the Catholic Church, largely because of the corrupting sale of indulgences. But even at that age, he had already begun to formulate his critique of the Jews. His lectures on the Psalms, dating to 1513, included many of the main points that he would later raise, as would his Lectures on Romans (1515). He back-tracked a bit in a 1523 work, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, but this seems to have been a minor departure from his generally critical stance.
By the 1540s, his overall position was clear: Jews were a lying, incorrigible people who refused to think sensibly about the Bible, slandered and condemned Christians, stole their money, and refused to believe that a savior had indeed already come to Earth. As such, they posed a mortal (and indeed, immortal!) threat to humanity, and hence the harshest measures were justified. When asked in 1541 about how to go about baptizing a Jew, Luther replied:
If a Jew, not converted at heart, were to ask baptism at my hands, I would take him on to the bridge, tie a stone round his neck, and hurl him into the river; for those wretches are wont to make a jest of our religion.
The following year (1542) he became convinced of the need to write a lengthy critique, for reasons that apparently extended beyond mere theology:
I intend to write against the Jews once again because I hear that some of our lords [nobles] are befriending them. I’ll advise them to chase all the Jews out of their land. What reason do they have to slander and insult the dear Virgin Mary as they do? They call her a stinkpot, a hag, a monstrosity. If I were a lord, I’d take them by the throat, or they’d have to show cause [why I shouldn’t]. They’re wretched people. I know of no stronger argument against them than to ask them why they’ve been in exile so long.
And write he did. The result was one of the most remarkable books in Western history: Von den Juden und ihren Lügen—‘On the Jews and Their Lies,’ published in 1543. Here, Luther raises two general categories of complaints: (1) theological disputes, and (2) secular (pragmatic or practical) concerns. As befitting a religious man, most of the text—perhaps 90%—is focused on the theological aspect, much of it detailed and arcane. The Jews misread and distort the meaning of the Old Testament, they slander Jesus and Mary, they insult the name of God himself, says Luther. All of this tends to be centered on the key dispute: whether the Messiah has already come or not. Christians, of course, say he came (now) 2,000 years ago, in the person of Jesus. Jews say Jesus was an imposter and fraud, and the real Messiah—the savior of the Jews—has yet to come. The Old Testament speaks of a savior who would come just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, in order to save all of humanity, argues Luther; Jews say, by contrast, that it speaks of a still-to-come redeemer of Israel, a commander and general, who will raise it up to become the greatest world power. As we can imagine, both sides are able to cite multiple passages in their own defense, even as Luther displays supreme confidence in his own analysis.
As interesting as Luther’s biblical exegesis is, it is the other aspect—the secular and pragmatic dispute—that is of greatest importance for the present day. The main reason, of course, is that modern western society is, broadly speaking, secular. Governments are formally so, as are corporations, most universities, and most social institutions. Conflicts in modern industrial society are based in politics, economics, or other pragmatic matters; few people are concerned on a day-to-day basis with issues of theology. And many Jews are non-religious, or only mildly so.
Specifically, Luther identifies some eight items of concern, apart from theological matters:
1. Usury: Jews are financiers and money-lenders who exploit and deceive the common people, driving them into bankruptcy, taking their assets, and acquiring vast wealth thereby.
2. Arrogance: For a variety of reasons, Jews see themselves as superior to everyone else, when in fact they are, in many ways, much our inferiors.
3. Lying: Jews lie incessantly, even about the most consequential matters. They are deliberately and maliciously deceitful, in many ways. Hence they can never be trusted, on anything.
4. Stubbornness: Lacking all sense of humility, Jews see no need to modify their behavior or to learn from others.
5. Greedy: Jews have an inordinate love of money, gold, power, and all manifestations of material wealth.
6. Sexist: Male Jews view all females, even their own, as lesser humans.
7. Misanthropic: Jews display a general hatred and contempt toward all other people. They are willing to use and abuse others to any extent, if it serves their benefit.
8. Murderers: Jews will take the most extreme actions, even including mass murder, to gain wealth and power, and to inflict their hatred upon humanity.
We can see from both Luther’s remarks and from the long history that preceded him, that such characteristics seem to be endemic to the Jewish people. Not every Jew, of course, exhibits all such vices, and conversely, many other people, many non-Jews, also possess these shortcomings. However, they are disproportionately present in Jews, and they lead to disproportionate harm in the society—or so we may conclude. If Luther had experienced such failings in, say, Turks, he surely would have written a book On the Turks and Their Lies. But he did not. And other famous writers before Luther would have written such books. But they did not. Evidence and history point to something uniquely troublesome about the Jewish people—perhaps they really are cursed by God.
Both the secular and the religious aspects are amplified today by the outsized and disproportionate role played by Jews in western nations. In the US, for example, Jews number around 6 million, and thus constitute about 2% of the total population. And yet they own or control around half of the total wealth in the country. They own or control all major media corporations. In government, the Jewish Lobby donates between a third and half of all political contributions to Congressmen and presidential candidates, giving them overwhelming influence in governmental policy, both domestic and foreign. And though the percent of Jewish population is smaller in other countries, such as Canada, UK, France, and Australia, a similar situation obtains there. I have documented all these matters elsewhere, and I refer the interested reader to these sources.
In sum, considering their numbers, Jews have astoundingly disproportionate power in modern western nations, and therefore the world. This is most dramatically shown in the United States, the sole global superpower and the nation with more Jews than any other (including Israel). The American Jewish Lobby operates on both right and left of the political spectrum, on both Democrats and Republicans (and minor parties as well). American Jews dictate US economic policy, foreign policy, military policy, and most large spending priorities. Notably, they are the dominant factor when it comes to war. Jews have been central to US involvement in World Wars One and Two, the Vietnam War, both Iraq wars, Afghanistan, and all post-9/11 military actions. In 2003, at the onset of the second Iraq war against Saddam Hussein, US congressman Jim Moran stated, “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this”. Later that same year, with the war well underway, Malaysian president Mahathir Mohamad said it best: “Today Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them”. Luther would have been aghast and appalled, to say the least. In fact, these are the very reasons why his analysis is so important today.
Luther’s book is organized into five parts, which tend to become increasingly harsh in tone as the work progresses. The main thrust of each is as follows:
Part I: After a few introductory comments, Luther proceeds to address and refute four prime reasons for Jewish conceit and arrogance: (1) they claim descent from God’s original ‘chosen people’; (2) they are circumcised, which is the mark of God’s blessing; (3) their prophet Moses was the sole recipient of God’s “law,” i.e. the Ten Commandments; and (4) they were the sole recipients of God’s “promised land.” Luther challenges each claim in detail, arguing that there is little or no biblical basis for such points, and therefore that Jewish arrogance is completely unfounded.
Part II: The longest of the book, this section addresses the past (or future) coming of the Messiah. In his defense of the coming of Jesus some 1,500 years prior, Luther analyzes four Old Testament passages that are central to his case: (a) Genesis 49:10, (b) 2 Samuel 23:5, (c) Haggai 2:6, and (d) Daniel 9:24. His knowledge of scripture here is truly impressive. However, for those readers less interested in theological minutiae, this part can be skipped without losing the main thrust of the book.
Part III: Here the language becomes harsher, as Luther takes on Jewish insults against Jesus and Mary. Those who could do such things, he says, are capable of the most horrendous acts of abuse and violence against Christian (Gentile) people. Jews have in the past, and would so again, slaughter Christians and Gentiles, given the power to do so. Therefore the Jews must be driven from Christian lands, and perhaps themselves killed, if we are to defend ourselves.
Part IV: The most infamous section of the book, because it lays out in detail Luther’s plan of action against the Hebrew tribe. The section opens with seven specific actions: 1) burn down their synagogues and schools, 2) destroy their homes, 3) take away all their holy books, 4) prohibit all rabbis from teaching Jewish theology, 5) abolish their right of free travel, 6) ban all Jewish moneylending (“usury”), and confiscate all Jewish wealth, and 7) put them to hard physical labor. Later he adds an eighth point, that “they must be driven from our country.”
Part V: A short concluding section in which Luther reiterates the need to “drive them out like mad dogs.” He warns that, through their vast financial resources, they are on their way to becoming “masters” of the world—a strikingly accurate forecast, unfortunately.
Luther’s language, especially in the later parts, is brutal and unforgiving—recalling the harsh earlier words of Gregory, Jerome, and Chrysostom. His frankness and explicitness cannot be overstated. In what follows, we read such astonishing words as these:
“The sun has never shone on a more bloodthirsty and vengeful people than they are who imagine that they are God’s people who have been commissioned and commanded to murder and to slay the Gentiles. In fact, the most important thing that they expect of their Messiah is that he will murder and kill the entire world with their sword.” (I)
“Therefore, be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously and vehemently, just as the devils themselves do.” (I)
“They are the circumcised saints who have God’s commandments and do not keep them, but are stiff-necked, disobedient, prophet-murderers, arrogant, usurers, and filled with every vice, as the whole of Scripture and their present conduct bear out.” (II)
“Therefore, dear Christian, be on your guard against the Jews, who, as you discover here, are consigned by the wrath of God to the devil, who has not only robbed them of a proper understanding of Scripture, but also of ordinary human reason, shame, and sense, and only works mischief with Holy Scripture through them. Therefore they cannot be trusted and believed in any other matter either, even though a truthful word may occasionally drop from their lips.” (II)
“They alone want to have the Messiah and be masters of the world. The accursed Goyim must be servants, give their desire (that is, their gold and silver) to the Jews, and let themselves be slaughtered like wretched cattle. They would rather remain lost consciously and eternally than give up this view.” (II)
“And these dreary dregs, this stinking scum, this dried-up froth, this moldy leaven and boggy morass of Jewry should merit, on the strength of their repentance and righteousness, the empires of the whole world—that is, the Messiah and the fulfillment of the prophecies—though they possess none of the aforementioned items and are nothing but rotten, stinking, rejected dregs of their fathers’ lineage!” (II)
“Moreover, they are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch-thieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security.” (II)
“The Jews have not acquired a perfect mastery of the art of lying; they lie so clumsily and ineptly that anyone who is just a little observant can easily detect it.” (II)
“This is to say that he is to kill and exterminate all of us Goyim through their Messiah, so that they can lay their hands on the land, the goods, and the government of the whole world. And now a storm breaks over us with curses, defamation, and derision that cannot be expressed with words. They wish that sword and war, distress and every misfortune may overtake us accursed Goyim.” (III)
“No one is holding them here now. The country and the roads are open for them to proceed to their land whenever they wish. If they did so, we would be glad to present gifts to them on the occasion; it would be good riddance. They are a heavy burden, a plague, a pestilence, a sheer misfortune for our country.” (III)
“We are at fault in not slaying them.” (III)
“Such a desperate, thoroughly evil, poisonous, and devilish lot are these Jews, who for these 1,400 years have been and still are our plague, our pestilence, and our misfortune.” (IV)
“That they are venomous, bitter, vindictive, tricky serpents, assassins, and children of the devil, who sting and work harm stealthily wherever they cannot do it openly.” (IV)
“Now, let me commend these Jews sincerely to whoever feels the desire to shelter and feed them, to honor them, to be fleeced, robbed, plundered, defamed, vilified, and cursed by them, and to suffer every evil at their hands—these venomous serpents and devil’s children, who are the most vehement enemies of Christ our Lord and of us all.” (IV)
“They must be driven from our country.” (IV)
“But since they are loath to quit the country, they will boldly deny everything and will also offer the government money enough for permission to remain here. Woe to those who accept such money, and accursed be that money, which they have stolen from us so damnably through usury. They deny just as brazenly as they lie. And wherever they can secretly curse, poison, or harm us Christians, they do so without any qualms of conscience. If they are caught in the act or charged with something, they are bold enough to deny it impudently, even to the point of death, since they don’t regard us worthy of being told the truth. In fact, these holy children of God consider any harm they can wish or inflict on us as a great service to God. Indeed, if they had the power to do to us what we are able to do to them, not one of us would live for an hour.”
“Therefore, I firmly believe that they say and practice far worse things secretly than the histories and others record about them, meanwhile relying on their denials and on their money. But even if they could deny all else, they cannot deny that they curse us Christians openly—not because of our evil life, but because we regard Jesus as the Messiah, and because they view themselves as our captives, although they know very well that the latter is a lie, and that they are really the ones who hold us captive in our own country by means of their usury, and that everyone would gladly be rid of them. Because they curse us, they also curse our Lord; and if they curse our Lord, they also curse God the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth. Thus their lying cannot avail them. Their cursing alone convicts them, so that we are indeed compelled to believe all the evil things written about them. Undoubtedly they do more and viler things than those which we know and discover.” (IV)
For all this, we must bear in mind that this was no mindless raving, no sheer unrestrained rage. As we will see, Luther had many well-grounded historical, theological, and sociological reasons for his condemnation and for his proposed actions. We may be uncomfortable hearing such words today, but in Luther’s time, nothing less would have gotten to the root of the problem.
The question for us now, however, is this: What lessons can we draw for the present day? Many nations around the world have their own versions of a ‘Jewish problem.’ Israel is perhaps the single most-hated country in the world. Jews are the most disliked, least trusted ethnicity, at least in the western world and much of the Middle East. The American Jewish Lobby, which distributes more campaign money than any other, is the most corrupting force in US government. Through their manipulation of the American military and NATO, and through Israeli secret services, Jews have much blood on their hands, worldwide. What to do? Or rather, let us ask: What would a present-day Martin Luther recommend to us? In the Afterword to this book, I make a few speculations along this line.
To the Main Text
Let me close this introduction by offering a few technical remarks on the text to follow. First, Luther’s many Bible citations were originally only partial (book but no verse, for example) or were wrong. In what follows, I have corrected and completed all citations, so that the reader can easily find and confirm all passages. Second, I use the Revised Standard Version (RSV) English Bible. In some cases, the specific translation affects the wording in potentially important ways; in such instances, the reader may want to consult alternate translations for comparison. Third, phrases in parentheses are Luther’s original, whereas phrases in square brackets [ ] are my own editorial insertions. Fourth, I have added a significant number of explanatory footnotes throughout, to clarify points, add context, give specific dates, or to supplement Luther’s words. Fifth, all cited works are listed in the Bibliography at the end of this book.
Finally, the reader must bear in mind Luther’s writing style. He is highly sarcastic, to say the least. Many of his words are dripping with irony and sarcasm, and should probably be set in ‘scare quotes’ or otherwise highlighted. I have not done this. I trust that the reader will be able to sort this out on his own.
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