I have no personal interest in defending Luther, giant of the Reformation though he was. In fact, I have personally given him a very critical treatment in a lecture at this summer’s Worldview SuperConference.
But on the score of his treatment of the Jews, I simply have to come to his defense, at least to a degree. Here’s why:
We live in a world of Christianity today that is fixated with ethnic Israelites, “the future of Israel,” and the physical land of Israel today as a focus for prophecy and alleged end-times events. Fixated. The suggestion that the promises of an eternal Kingdom are fulfilled in Israel the New Testament Church draws accusations of “anti-semitism,” or “anti-Judaism” as one scholar has recently put it.1 Who could dare be so callous and unloving to the Jewish people as to claim they have no special place in the future of Bible prophecy? Anyone who so cold as to “exclude” “God’s chosen people” from the promises “made to them” must simply be filled with prejudice and hate.
The poster-boy for this “hateful” claim is Martin Luther. Luther had experienced dashed hopes. He had discovered the true Gospel beneath the smoke and jewels of Papalism, and he thought that surely the Jews would now accept it. After many long years believing this to no fruition, Luther abruptly changed. A few years before he died, he wrote a vitriolic tract called On the Jews and Their Lies. It was filled with radical rhetoric which, if taken literally, would have been calls to violence. Thankfully, he did do enough to say that he did not advocate vengeance, for that should be left to God alone.
But some modern-day Israel proponents, eager to smear their opponents as anti-semitic, etc., seize Luther’s harshest words, and present those as symbol of our mindset. It is very easy to find quotations in this regard from Luther all over the web. Some abridged versions of this tract are nothing more than a few paragraphs of the most biting words strung together out of context. Let me tell you, Boy are those presentations abridged! The actual tract is about 65,000 words—enough to fill about 200 standard double-spaced pages of print. In them you will find several topics each comprised of consistent and long argumentation, and usually in tune with a detailed look at important Scripture passages.
Luther’s opponents—whether liberal Christians or dispensational/premillennial types—never tell you this. Instead, we get a few choice excerpts of juicy material—very much like a political attack ad today. Needless to say, those abridged version hardly do justice to Luther’s point, let alone Luther in general, and could well be accused of outright dishonesty.
A Lutheran Legacy Fallacy
Luther is generally portrayed today as so rabidly anti-Semitic as to have paved the road to the Holocaust with his single tract alone. Premillenialist Barry Horner argues that “Luther’s excesses” left an eschatological legacy that had disastrous results: “the Jews continued to be an offense to Western civilization, especially within Europe, a claimant forever disinherited because of their Jewishness.”2 Horner then favorably quotes R. S. Wistrich who says, “The seed of hatred sown by Luther would reach its horrible climax in the Third Reich, when German Protestants showed themselves particularly receptive to Nazi anti-Semitism.”3
Both Horner and Wistrich commit a classic post hoc (“after this”) fallacy with these comments. The Holocaust did come after Luther’s “excesses,” yes, but it will take much more than a superficial “anti-Jew” similarity between the two to prove actual, historical causation. There were many more factors involved in Nazism than Luther’s tract against the Jews and their lies; in fact, when we properly understand why Luther wrote that tract, and what he actually argued in it, we will have to admit that it had very little if anything to do with the Nazi Germany.
(I personally think Luther’s theology does bear some blame for that culture, BUT, not because of his tract on the Jews. It had much more to do with his “two kingdoms” theology in which Christians and the Church are commanded to avoid applying biblical law to politics and culture. By separating the voice of God from the public square and the marketplace in this way, the two-kingdoms approach allowed politics to become lawless, while preachers commanded to remain silent. Hitler was keenly aware of this theology, and he used it to his advantage, specifically referring to it in some His speeches.)
Luther being Luther
We must admit that Luther crossed several rhetorical lines with his intemperate comments against the Jews, but this was less “anti-Semitism” proper and more just Luther being Luther. He had spewed as ferociously against the Pope, Carlstadt, the Peasants, the Anabaptists, the Zwinglians, and probably his own children a time or two. Truly, in fact, he was just one example of the polemical style of the day; everyone blasted everyone, and everyone understood it so.
Luther’s incendiary pen had gotten him in trouble often before. Notably, some very early comment he made was used against him at the Diet of Worms where he was declared an outlaw. In response to an attack from the Pope’s own palace theologian, Luther had concluded,
If the raging madness (of the Roman churchmen) were to continue, it seems to me no better counsel and remedy could be found against it than that kings and princes apply force, arm themselves, attack those evil people who have poisoned the entire world, and put an end to this game once and for all, with arms, not with words. Since we punish thieves with the halter, murderers with the sword, and heretics with the fire, why do we not turn on all those evil teachers of perdition, those popes, cardinals and bishops, and the entire swarm of the Roman Sodom with arms in hand, and wash our hands in their blood.4
While Luther would later write that he did not intend the “wash our hands in their blood” comment to be taken literally, it was quite too little too late. The Edict pronounced at Worms made explicit reference this very comment:
He . . . encourages the laity to wash their hands in the blood of the clergy. His teaching makes for rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson, and the collapse of Christendom. He lives the life of a beast. He burns the decretals. He despises alike the ban and the sword. He does more harm to the civil than to the ecclesiastical power.5
Thus did Luther’s carelessness with his pen lead to his own condemnation. He was declared an outlaw and his life was saved only by the secret and surprise intervention of a lesser magistrate.
So the over-the-top comments found in his book on the Jews should be understood largely in the same manner. This does not excuse them in general, but show that the cause was more Luther’s personality than anti-Semitism in general. The saddest part of it is that after twenty or thirty years of polemic writing, Luther learned nothing about the power of a careless pen. Whatever his intentions were, he should not have written as harshly as he did. He knew what the consequences could be. He knew that too harsh and condemnatory rhetoric can actually detract from the power of the logic and facts of the actual arguments he presented: people would focus on the “hate,” and totally ignore the weight.
This continues today, with both Luther’s arguments and those of modern theologians.
On the Talmud and Its Lies
But what most Christians don’t know, and what most dispensational Jewdolators wish to remain hidden, is that what the Jews had long since written about Christ and Christians was (and still is) so disgusting that it made Luther look like an innocent school child. Most Christians have no idea of the level of disgust and hatred towards Christ that the Jews expressed in their Talmud and in some other books. They are completely unaware.
But Luther was not.
Only after learning how grossly the Hebrew books spoke of certain religious topics did Luther finally lose hope that the Jews would convert to the Gospel.
By “Hebrew books” I do not mean the Old Testament. Since before the time of Christ, Judaism was dominated by the Pharisaical traditions enshrined in the Talmud—a massive body of writings that include Rabbinical debates and rationalizations of laws in the Torah. It was this very tradition—which so often departs from Torah—that Jesus confronted throughout his ministry. This is what he confronted every time he said, “You have heard it said . . . But I say unto you. . . .” This is why Jesus and the Pharisees were consistently and ultimately at odds.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, temple and Torah observance vanished, and the only stream of “Judaism” that survived was that of the Pharisees. All modern-day “Judaism” is derivative of the Talmudic tradition. It is not anything like “Old Testament religion”; it is rather an odyssey into the rabbit-hole of the rabbinical “you’ve heard it said” tradition divergent from the Old Testament.
And here is the terrible part. The Talmudic tradition not only does not recognize Christ, it overtly blasphemes and condemns him and his followers. According to the Talmud, Jesus was the son of an adulterous relationship of Miriam (Mary), and both He and His followers are punished in hell “with boiling excrement.” This punishment comes not because they have abandoned God, or anything to do with God, but because “Whoever mocks the words of the Sages is punished with boiling excrement.”6 In other words, the words of the “Sages”—the Rabbis—are the standard of judgment.
There is much else in the Talmudic tradition: Adam had sex with all of the beasts of the field before he had Eve; Pederasty with a child below nine is not considered as bad as with a child above that (another Rabbi makes the age of division at three). There is much more that would make one scratch their head, and make their stomach turn.7
Now there is a fairly well established apologetic endeavor launched by modern Talmudists in order to “debunk” these claims, but they rely on the various edited and censored editions of the Talmud to argue that these claims are imaginary, exaggerated, taken out of context, or are speaking of another “Jesus” or “Yehoshua.” And of course, the really bad stuff is expurgated from the censored editions, even the allegedly definitive English edition of Soncino.
The stuff still exists in the manuscripts, however, no matter how much they try to hide it. The best and most scholarly work on this to date is Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), who concludes on the side of authenticity. Schäfer appears to me to be a liberal historian, and so it seems he would have every incentive to ignore the dark side of modern Judaism. He has, however, spoken the hard truth: “as to the narratives about Jesus’ execution, the fate of his disciples, and Jesus’ punishment in hell, there can be no doubt that they are talking about Jesus/Jesus the Nazarene. . . . the founder of Christianity.”8
But this tradition has only become publically accessible in recent decades. Throughout most of the Talmud’s history, it was essentially knowledge kept among a secret society, if you will, of the Rabbis and their colleague. The “Jesus in boiling excrement” was like an inside joke to them, while publically portraying themselves as friends or passive citizens in Christian society.
Luther, however, had rabbinical friends, and other friends who were experts in the “Hebrew books.” And he makes it quite clear, in the largely condemned but unread On the Jew and Their Lies, that the “Judaism” he opposed was the secretly harbored, hateful, racist, blasphemous, and antisocial Talmudic tradition. In just one instance of his mentioning of this, he writes:
Three learned Jews came to me, hoping to discover a new Jew in me because we were beginning to read Hebrew here in Wittenberg, and remarking that matters would soon improve since we Christians were starting to read their books. When I debated with them, they gave me their glosses, as they usually do. But when I forced them back to the text, they soon fled from it, saying that they were obliged to believe their rabbis as we do the pope and the doctors, etc. I took pity on them and give them a letter of recommendation to the authorities, asking that for Christ’s sake they let them freely go their way. But later, I found out that they called Christ a tola, that is, a hanged highwayman. Therefore I do not wish to have anything more to do with any Jew. As St. Paul says, they are consigned to wrath; the more one tries to help them the baser and more stubborn they become. Leave them to their own devices.
Throughout the tract you will see references to “their books.” Luther knew something that has largely been hidden from most Christians: that modern “Judaism” is not Judaism. It is not a faithful carrying-on of Old Testament faith, or even of Old Testament forms without faith. It is a humanistic tradition that places tens of thousands of pages of Rabbinical lawyering as a judge over and above God’s Word, and above all, not only refuses to believe but consciously blasphemes and repudiates Christ and Christianity. Modern Judaism is not Judaism. Modern “Jews” are Jews only ethnically and nominally, not Biblically. For, a full carrying-on of Old Testament faith must accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.
The True Jew
Modern-day writers can see the exact same distinction between biblical Judaism (which is Christianity) and the modern “Judiasm” which the Dispensationalists wish us to praise. Rev. Steve Schlissel is one of these writers. He is a Christian and a lover of God’s Word. More importantly for this discussion, however, Steve is also Jewish. He is a bona-fide, Brooklyn-born, Passover-celebrating Jew who has embraced Christ as his Lord and Savior. He could hardly be called an anti-Semite. And yet, He would clearly deny that the land of Israel, or ethnic Israel—or “modern-day Israel” as it is often referred to—is the important factor in regard to the true people of God. Schlissel has written,
Dispensationalists believe that the Jewish people have a title to the land that transcends virtually any other consideration, including unbelief, rebellion, and hatred toward Christ and His church. Consequently, anti-zionism is equated with anti- semitism.
The reconstructionist, on the other hand, makes a distinction. He believes that the Jewish people may exercise the title only when they comply with the condition of repentance and faith. He has nothing against Jews living in “eretz yisrael” [the land of Israel] per se, but he recognizes that the far more significant question is Israel’s faith.9
Steve immediately follows with an important consideration: “In light of this, it might be appropriate to ask which theological system has the true and best interests of the Jew close to its heart? If one’s heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel agrees with the inspired Apostle’s as recorded in Romans 10 [“that they might be saved,” (10:1)], can he thereby be called anti-semitic?”
Now let us look at true Judaism from another side. According to the premillennialist Barry Horner, anyone who opposes the “biblical legacy of Torah as mediated through Abraham and Moses” is “Anti-Judaic.” This is his definition of “Anti-Judaism.” He is likewise careful to distinguish the Torah tradition from the Talmudic tradition, and he excludes the latter from his definition. Great!
Well, let the Torah (Mosaic) legacy speak for itself: Jesus told the Talmudic-fathers, the Pharisees, “There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses [the Torah], you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:45–46).
Jesus argument uses a classic logical form: If P, then Q. In this form, if P is affirmed, then Q must necessarily follow; conversely, if Q is denied, the P is necessarily also denied. In others words, according to Jesus, if the Pharisees deny Him, they have necessarily also denied the Torah.
The argument is quite simple: it is Pharisees who deny the Torah, according to Jesus, because they reject Him. Therefore, the Pharisaic tradition is, to use Horner’s own definition, “Anti-Judaism.” Since the entirety of modern-day “Judaism” is based on the Talmudic and Pharisaic tradition which denies Christ (and therefore the Torah), then we must conclude (again, based on Horner’s own definition) that modern-day Israel/Judaism is “Anti-Judaism.”
This corresponds exactly with the lesson Paul taught to the Roman Church: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom. 2:28–29).
Why then anyone would make ethnicity and real-estate the ultimate factor is beyond comprehension. The Physical characteristics of the people simply do not enter into the equation. The issue is confession and faith. Judaism has not been replaced by Christianity, rather, Judaism is only faithfully represented in Christianity. That is, only Christianity has legitimate claim to the biblical definition of Judiasm. Anything else is a repudiation of Torah, and its follower not True Jews.
After reviewing the arguments and statements of the dispensationalists and premillennialists, Schlissel concludes:
It seems to me that this is what has occurred: Some dispensationalists have accepted the unbelieving Jewish expectations of the Messianic Kingdom as correct. They have, thereby, taken sides with Rabbinical Judaism against Christ’s “Judaism,” or Kingdom. They then cite the existence of the State of Israel as proof of their assertions, define themselves as the true protectors of the Jews, and, with the arrogance that so often accompanies such pragmatic paternalism, declare that all those who don’t agree with their theology are, in principle, anti-semitic. Hogwash (i. e., non-kosher argumentation).10
It is high time that modern Christians stop making an idol out of modern “Judaism” or “Israel.” In fact, it is high time they quit using those names for something those names don’t even rightfully apply. They apply only properly to God’s people in Christ, the Church. The Church is Israel: advance her kingdom and glory, expand her lands, teach her glorious future of world dominion, pursue her peace.
Especially the latter, for perhaps nothing has caused more dissent, prejudice, and name-calling in the modern church than the fixation on prophecy matters, and the future role of a people who have no other avenue of salvation than anyone else. Instead of herding the Jews to “Israel” for Armageddon (how pro-Israel is that?), the premils and dispys should be trying to evangelize and convert them to True Judaism.
Luther may have been, after all, not as far off as he has been portrayed. Went too far in his language he did, yes. But the other 99% of his work, The Jews and Their Lies, deserves attention from more Christian readers. It should be assigned reading in ever seminary. Especially the dispensational ones.
- Barry E. Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007.(↩)
- Barry E. Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007), 155.(↩)
- Quoted in Barry E. Horner, Future Israel, 156.(↩)
- Quoted in Frederick Engels, “The Peasant War in Germany,” Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, 50 vol. (New York: International Publishers, 1975–2005), 10:416; revised according editor’s footnote b. Compare Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483–1521, trans. by James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1985), 347. Unfortunately, the full quotation cited above only seems to appear within the writings of the Marxist tradition, certainly owing to Engels’ work. The shorter version found in Brecht and elsewhere tends to leave off the explicit call to kings and princes.(↩)
- Quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, XXX.(↩)
- See Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 85.(↩)
- See Gary North, The Judeo-Christian Tradition: A Guide for the Perplexed (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), 86–105.(↩)
- Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud, 142, 144.(↩)
- SteveM Schlissel, “To Those Who Wonder if Reconstructionism is Anti-Semitic,” in Gary DeMar and Peter J. Leithart, The Legacy of Hate Continues: A Response to Hal Lindsay’s The Road to Holocaust (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 59.(↩)
- SteveM Schlissel, “To Those Who Wonder if Reconstructionism is Anti-Semitic,” 60–61.(↩)