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On the Jews and Their Lies (Martin Luther)

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Subject: Christianity and antisemitism, Nicholas of Lyra, Medieval antisemitism
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On the Jews and Their Lies (Martin Luther)

On the Jews and Their Lies (German: Von den Jüden und iren Lügen; in modern spelling Von den Juden und ihren Lügen) is a 65,000-word antisemitic treatise written in 1543 by the German Reformation leader Martin Luther.

In the treatise, Luther describes Jews as a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth."[1] Luther wrote that they are "full of the devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine,"[2] and the synagogue is an "incorrigible whore and an evil slut".[3]

In the first ten sections of the treatise, Luther expounds, at considerable length, upon his views concerning Jews and Judaism and how these compare against Christians and Christianity. Following this exposition, Section XI of the treatise advises Christians to carry out seven remedial actions. These are -

  1. for Jewish synagogues and schools to be burned to the ground, and the remnants buried out of sight;
  2. for houses owned by Jews to be likewise razed, and the owners made to live in agricultural outbuildings;
  3. for their religious writings to be taken away;
  4. for rabbis to be forbidden to preach, and to be executed if they do;
  5. for safe conduct on the roads to be abolished for Jews;
  6. for usury to be prohibited, and for all silver and gold to be removed and "put aside for safekeeping"; and
  7. for the Jewish population to be put to work as agricultural slave laborers.[4]

The prevailing scholarly view[5] since the Second World War is that the treatise exercised a major and persistent influence on Germany's attitude toward its Jewish citizens in the centuries between the Reformation and the Holocaust. Four hundred years after it was written, the Nazis displayed On the Jews and Their Lies during Nuremberg rallies, and the city of Nuremberg presented a first edition to Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, the newspaper describing it as the most radically antisemitic tract ever published.[6] Against this view, theologian Johannes Wallmann writes that the treatise had no continuity of influence in Germany, and was in fact largely ignored during the 18th and 19th centuries.[7] Hans Hillerbrand argues that to focus on Luther's role in the development of German antisemitism is to underestimate the "larger peculiarities of German history."[8]

Since the 1980s, some Lutheran church bodies have formally denounced and dissociated themselves from Luther's vitriol about the Jews. In November 1998, on the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Lutheran Church of Bavaria issued a statement: "It is imperative for the Lutheran Church, which knows itself to be indebted to the work and tradition of Martin Luther, to take seriously also his anti-Jewish utterances, to acknowledge their theological function, and to reflect on their consequences. It has to distance itself from every [expression of] anti-Judaism in Lutheran theology."[9]

Evolution of Luther's views

Luther's attitude toward the Jews took different forms over his life. In his earlier period, until 1537 or not much earlier, he wanted to convert Jews to Christianity; in his later period, the last nine years of his life, he denounced them and urged their persecution.[10]

Medieval Church and the Jews

Early in his life, Luther had argued that the Jews had been prevented from converting to Christianity by the proclamation of what he believed to be an impure gospel by the Catholic Church, and he believed they would respond favorably to the evangelical message if it were presented to them gently. He expressed concern for the poor conditions in which they were forced to live, and insisted that anyone denying that Jesus was born a Jew was committing heresy.[11]

Luther's first known comment on the Jews is in a letter written to Reverend Spalatin in 1514: Template:Cquote

In 1519 Luther challenged the doctrine Servitus Judaeorum ("Servitude of the Jews"), established in Corpus Juris Civilis by Justinian I in 529. He wrote: "Absurd theologians defend hatred for the Jews. ... What Jew would consent to enter our ranks when he sees the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them—that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?" [12]

In his commentary on the Magnificat, Luther is critical of the emphasis Judaism places on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. He states that they "undertook to keep the law by their own strength, and failed to learn from it their needy and cursed state."[13] Yet, he concludes that God's grace will continue for Jews as Abraham's descendants for all time, since they may always become Christians.[14] "We ought...not to treat the Jews in so unkindly a spirit, for there are future Christians among them."[15]

In his 1523 essay That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, Luther condemned the inhuman treatment of the Jews and urged Christians to treat them kindly. Luther's fervent desire was that Jews would hear the Gospel proclaimed clearly and be moved to convert to Christianity. Thus he argued:


Against the Jews

In August 1536, Luther's prince, Elector of Saxony John Frederick, issued a mandate that prohibited Jews from inhabiting, engaging in business in, or passing through his realm. An Alsatian shtadlan, Rabbi Josel of Rosheim, asked a reformer, Wolfgang Capito, to approach Luther in order to obtain an audience with the prince, but Luther refused every intercession.[16] In response to Josel, Luther referred to his unsuccessful attempts to convert the Jews: "... I would willingly do my best for your people but I will not contribute to your [Jewish] obstinacy by my own kind actions. You must find another intermediary with my good lord."[17] Heiko Oberman notes this event as significant in Luther's attitude toward the Jews: "Even today this refusal is often judged to be the decisive turning point in Luther's career from friendliness to hostility toward the Jews;"[18] yet, Oberman contends that Luther would have denied any such "turning point." Rather he felt that Jews were to be treated in a "friendly way" in order to avoid placing unnecessary obstacles in their path to Christian conversion, a genuine concern of Luther.[19]

Paul Johnson writes that "Luther was not content with verbal abuse. Even before he wrote his anti-Semitic pamphlet, he got Jews expelled from Saxony in 1537, and in the 1540s he drove them from many German towns; he tried unsuccessfully to get the elector to expel them from Brandenburg in 1543."[20]

Michael Berenbaum writes that Luther's reliance on the Bible as the sole source of Christian authority fed his later fury toward Jews over their rejection of Jesus as the messiah.[11] For Luther, salvation depended on the belief that Jesus was the Son of God, a belief that adherents of Judaism do not share. Graham Noble writes that Luther wanted to save Jews, in his own terms, not exterminate them, but beneath his apparent reasonableness toward them, there was a "biting intolerance," which produced "ever more furious demands for their conversion to his own brand of Christianity" (Noble, 1-2). When they failed to convert, he turned on them.[21]

See also


  1. Michael, Robert. Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; see chapter 4 "The Germanies from Luther to Hitler," pp. 105-151.
  2. Hillerbrand, Hans J. "Martin Luther," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007. Hillerbrand writes: "[H]is strident pronouncements against the Jews, especially toward the end of his life, have raised the question of whether Luther significantly encouraged the development of German antisemitism. Although many scholars have taken this view, this perspective puts far too much emphasis on Luther and not enough on the larger peculiarities of German history."
  3. "Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community", Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, April 18, 1994;
  4. "Statement by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada to the Jewish Communities in Canada", Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, July 12–16, 1995;
  5. "Time to Turn", The Evangelical [Protestant] Churches in Austria and the Jews. Declaration of the General Synod of the Evangelical Church A.B. and H.B., October 28, 1998.


  • Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978. ISBN 0-687-16894-5.
  • Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther, 3 vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985-1993. ISBN 0-8006-0738-4, ISBN 0-8006-2463-7, ISBN 0-8006-2704-0.
  • Gavriel, Mardell J. The Anti-Semitism of Martin Luther: A Psychohistorical Exploration. Ph.D. diss., Chicago School of Professional Psychology, 1996.
  • Goldhagen, Daniel. Hitler's Willing Executioners. Vintage, 1997. ISBN 0-679-77268-5.
  • Halpérin, Jean, and Arne Sovik, eds. Luther, Lutheranism and the Jews: A Record of the Second Consultation between Representatives of The International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation and the Lutheran World Federation Held in Stockholm, Sweden, 11–13 July 1983. Geneva: LWF, 1984.
  • Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1987. ISBN 0-06-091533-1.
  • Kaennel, Lucie. Luther était-il antisémite? (Luther: Was He an Antisemite?). Entrée Libre N° 38. Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1997. ISBN 2-8309-0869-4.
  • Kittelson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986. ISBN 0-8066-2240-7.
  • Luther, Martin. "On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543". Martin H. Bertram, trans. In Luther's Works. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971. 47:137-306.
  • Oberman, Heiko A. The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation. James I. Porter, trans. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8006-0709-0.
  • Rosenberg, Elliot, But Were They Good for the Jews? (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1997). ISBN 1-55972-436-6.
  • Roynesdal, Olaf. Martin Luther and the Jews. Ph.D. diss., Marquette University, 1986.
  • Rupp, Gordon. Martin Luther: Hitler's Cause or Cure? In Reply to Peter F. Wiener. London: Lutterworth Press, 1945.
  • Siemon-Netto, Uwe. The Fabricated Luther: the Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth. Peter L. Berger, Foreword. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1995. ISBN 0-570-04800-1.
  • Siemon-Netto, Uwe. "Luther and the Jews". Lutheran Witness 123 (2004)No. 4:16-19. (PDF)
  • Steigmann-Gall, Richard. The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945. Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-521-82371-4.
  • Tjernagel, Neelak S. Martin Luther and the Jewish People. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1985. ISBN 0-8100-0213-2.
  • Wallmann, Johannes. "The Reception of Luther's Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century." Lutheran Quarterly 1 (Spring 1987) 1:72-97.
  • Wiener, Peter F. Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor, Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1945;[2]

External links

  • Gotthard Deutsch
  • Martin Luther’s Attitude Toward The Jews by James Swan
  • Martin Luther And The Jews by Mark Albrecht
  • On the Jews and Their Lies


de:Martin Luther#Luther und die Juden
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