Wild Boar in the Vineyard: Martin Luther at the Birth of the Modern World

Luther and the Jews

Luther’s writings on Jews and Judaism mark an abominable moment in the history of Christian anti-semitism. In Wittenberg, the parish church where Luther often preached featured a frieze of a “Judensau,” an obscene and sacrilegious image of a “Jew-pig.” Luther wrote his anti-semitic works in a prevailing European culture characterized by demonizing stereotypes and slanderous rumors of poisoning, usury, and blood libel. It was also furthered by portions of his theology that conflated Judaism with the other “false religions” of Islam and Roman Catholicism and became the target of his savage polemics.

In his earlier work, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523), Luther was somewhat more measured, arguing against expulsion and harsh treatment of Jews in hope that some would be converted. He described them as “cousins and brothers of our Lord,” acknowledged past mistreatment at the hands of Christians, and conceded that had he himself been Jewish and “seen such idiots and thickheads in charge of and teaching the Christian faith” he himself would not have been converted. In its time, it was perceived by both Christians and Jews as relatively “tolerant.” Some Catholic critics even called Luther a “friend of the Jews” for writing it.

In the later years of his life, faced with the failure of his message to win converts, Luther viciously attacked Jews and Judaism in vulgar, defamatory language. In On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), he called for the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues, forced labor, the prohibition of the teaching and practice their religion, raging that Christians were “at fault in not slaying them.” In one of his last sermons, he vilifies Jews as “public enemies” and murderers, reiterating a call for their conversion and urging their expulsion from Germany if they did not. Jews were already forbidden to reside in many parts of Europe.

That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Wittenberg: Christian Döring, 1523
Burke Tower 03-B1141

Dr. Martin Luther: Four Hundred Years of German Struggle Against Jewish Alien Domination
Munich: Deutscher Volksverlag, 1940
Rare Book DS141 .L775

On the Jews and Their Lies became a core text for subsequent anti-semitism. Excerpts from this work and from his Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ were reprinted in the Nazi era and were used at Nazi rallies. One historian has recently argued that his use by the Nazis makes Luther “the most fateful figure in German history.”

On the Jews and Their Lies (Binding)
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1543
Burke Union Rare GT2 1543vb

Four Sermons of the Venerable Lord Dr. Martin Luther, in Eisleben Before his Parting from this Life.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1546
Burke Tower 03-B1245

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