A Messianic Jew Looks at Luther

For five years now Luther’s writings and impact on the Jewish people have burdened me. I have visited Wittenberg three times to protest at the continued offence of the Judensau (Jew-Pig) sculpture on the wall of the Stadtkirche where Luther preached.1 I have written two books, the recently-released Luther and the Jews: Putting Right the Lies2 and the upcoming Luther and the Messianic Jews: Strange Theological Bedfellows. One is at a popular level addressing the impact of Luther’s legacy of Christian anti-Judaism that influenced the anti-Semitic genocidal program of the Nazis culminating in the Holocaust. The other brings Lutheran and Messianic Jewish scholars together to engage with each other’s differing theological views and traditions.

Good News for Jewish Believers

I grew up in the UK, where the Protestant Reformation resulted in the formation of the Church of England, and where the Anglican Church, like the Lutheran Church around the world, combines elements of Catholic and Reformed tradition. When I became a believer in Jesus my early years of discipleship were within a Protestant Evangelical context, so the works of Luther, his classic statements of the doctrines of justification by faith, the supremacy of scripture and the need for personal faith, were taught as fundamental to the life of a believer.

When I began to study theology in the 1970s there was a revolution in Pauline studies brought about by E.P. Sanders’ 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism,3 which questioned what he characterized as the “Lutheran reading of Paul” as someone who set Law as revealed in the Old Testament against Gospel and Grace as revealed in the New. My New Testament teacher, John Ziesler, was in regular conversation with Sanders as we worked through the Greek text of Romans in class. I realized that this “New Perspective on Paul” was good news for Jewish believers in Jesus like myself, who often felt forced to choose between Torah and Messiah, and were accused of legalism and “going back under the law” if we chose to be Torah-observant as Jesus-believing Jews.

I was part of the movement of Messianic Judaism and was involved in the London Messianic Congregation in the 1980s. Much of Messianic Jewish theology at the time was in reaction to anti-Jewish elements of Christian theology, particularly the supersessionist argument that the Church had replaced the Jewish people to become the “new” or ‘“true” Israel. Messianic Jewish theology repudiated the “teaching of contempt,” that the Jews,

because of their crime of deicide, deserved exile and continuing punishment for their rejection of Jesus.4

Encountering Luther’s Anti-semitism

My encounter with Martin Luther brought into sharp focus Luther’s role in spreading Christian anti-Judaism and popular anti-Semitism. This has challenged my ability to forgive Luther and Lutherans for the sufferings brought about by him on my people, and has created a strong desire to see reconciliation between Lutherans, Jews, and Jewish Christians today.

I was staggered to read the anti-Jewish writings of Luther. His constant litany of abuse, insult, hatred, and hostility against Jews and Judaism is shocking and unacceptable. His vicious, obscene and inflammatory language is inexcusable. His mix of racial and religious hatred, his claims to be based on Scripture and the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, his murderous threats and poisonous accusations and libels against the Jewish people are probably the worst examples ever of Christian anti-Judaism. He mocks Jewish respect for the sacred name of God and argues that the Talmud comes out of a pig’s anus.

No wonder his works were praised and republished by the Nazis, who claimed he would be proud of their actions on Kristallnacht (1939)5 and appealed to him for justification of their actions in their defense at Nuremberg (1945).6 He argues that the Jews should be thrown out of Germany, their property confiscated, their books burnt, their synagogues destroyed, and they should be given no safety. He backed up his inflammatory language with repeated attempts to persuade German leaders to carry out this program. His theological anti-Judaism and social and political anti-Semitism cannot be disentangled or excused.

There are two commonly believed myths about Luther’s views on the Jewish people. Neither is correct, but both are in some way used to justify Luther’s inexcusable attitudes to the Jewish people. The first is that Luther started off his ministry with a positive attitude to the Jewish people, believing that they would, if treated considerately, become true believers in Jesus and aid him in his struggles against the Roman Catholic church. The second is that Luther, for all his anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, finally repented of these sins on his deathbed.

It is correct that Luther’s early works, especially “That Jesus Christ was born a Jew,” have some positive statements about how Jewish people should be treated, and that the means of persuasion he advised then did not include sanctions and violence against them. From his earliest writings, however, such as his lectures on the Psalms and on Genesis, Luther uses an anti-Jewish polemic that he inherited as an Augustinian monk from Augustine’s belief that the Jews were condemned to be “reluctant witnesses” of the truth of Christianity by their rejection of Jesus and their consequent sentence and punishment to be a “wandering people” within Christendom.

As for the imagined death-bed repentance, while it is true that Luther confessed his sins, his hatred, fear, and attacks on the Jewish people persisted right up to the time of his final sermons a few days before he died. In his imagination it was the Jews who were attacking him, trying to kill him, and against whom in his final public sermons and private words to his wife he gave admonitions and vitriolic condemnations.

There are strains of theological anti-Judaism and popular anti-Semitism running throughout Luther’s life and works.7 Theologically, because the Jewish interpretation of Scripture as handed down by rabbinic tradition denies that Jesus is Messiah, Luther opposed such interpretations by his own method of translating, interpreting and applying scripture. “On the Jews and their Lies” is a 65,000-word tirade against the Jewish people and their interpretation of scripture, particularly their interpretation of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, which Luther attempts to show have been fulfilled in the coming of Christ. For Luther, the continuing exile of the Jewish people from their land for the past 1500 years is a further proof of the condemnation and judgment of God upon them.

My Messianic Jewish Perspective on Luther

First, my Messianic Jewish perspective on Luther recognizes all the good that Luther did. His bold and faithful proclamation of the Gospel, his willingness to stand against the abuses and evils of the Church of his day, his contribution to the development of the Reformation and the modern world, his introduction of the Bible into the vernacular language, his influence on the formation of the modern world and the nation state, his development of popular Christian life and culture. All these things I affirm and I appreciate Luther’s contribution.

Second, my Messianic Jewish perspective offers forgiveness. For my people, Luther’s anti-Judaism cannot and should not be separated from later anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust, the genocidal murder of six million of my people, and six million others (communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled and mentally ill, fellow travelers, and others). My people still suffer from a multi-generational post-traumatic stress disorder that has equally unfortunate and unintended consequences such as the possibility of the victimized becoming the victimizer, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not wish in any way to give ammunition to those who would challenge the legitimacy of the State of Israel or the remarkable achievements of Zionism as a movement, and I rejoice in the re-establishment of our people in their ancestral homeland. It is important, however, to recognise the significant challenges in social and political terms that Israel faces, and to be aware of possible consequences of the multi-generational psychological and emotional wounds of the Shoah.

Reconciliation in Israel/Palestine is another tortuous and complex subject, and is greatly needed as we celebrate with our people the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, and also commiserate with the loss of rights and land that ensued for the Palestinians.8 So reconciliation is greatly needed, first between German Christians and Messianic Jews, and then more widely between Jews and Lutherans. Sadly I have observed little of this, and find that many Lutherans just do not understand how Jewish people and Jewish believers in Jesus feel. This grieves me greatly, as I would like my family, most of whom do not believe in Jesus, to hear genuinely good news from Lutherans, or at least an expression of regret, a note of apology, and a willingness to do something to put matters right.

I recite daily the prayer of forgiveness that orthodox Jews pray from the siddur, which echoes closely the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or provoked me or sinned against me, physically or financially or by failing to give me due respect, or in any other matter relating to me, involuntarily or willingly, inadvertently or deliberately, whether in word or deed: let no one incur punishment because of me.9

Third, my Messianic Jewish perspective calls for repentance and the fruits of repentance. After 500 years of Luther’s anti-Judaism, and thousands of years of Christian anti-Semitism, Lutherans need to go out of their way to show the love of Yeshua to his people Israel. I am waiting for that to happen, and have yet to see evidence of it. One very powerful symbol of Luther’s anti-Judaism, the Wittenberg Judensau, should be removed with a public act of repentance, and placed in a study center rather than left on the wall of a church building dedicated to the worship of God.

So I am waiting for Lutherans, both as church bodies and as individuals, to show the fruits and action of repentance. Many expressions of regret and remorse have been made over the years for the sufferings of the Jewish people, but few actual acts of repentance, requests for forgiveness, or demonstrations of a new heart, attitudes, and actions to restore relations between Jews and Lutherans.

Fourth, my Messianic Jewish perspective looks for the reconciliation that only Yeshua can bring. Messianic Jews and Lutherans have one thing in common—we both believe in Jesus/Yeshua, the Son of God who took on Jewish flesh, who died on the cross and rose again from the dead to reconcile us to God and to reconcile us to one another. We are called to be God’s ambassadors of reconciliation to the world, and this must begin between the divided peoples, ethnicities, and histories that we have within the ekklesia, the Body of Christ. When I get to heaven I look forward to embracing Martin Luther and thanking him for blessing me. I hope he too will embrace me with tears of repentance in his eyes, and we will be truly reconciled together in the love and fellowship of the God of Israel and all nations.

Lutherans and Messianic Jews Together

Lutherans have by and large yet to take cognizance of the young, small, and challenging Messianic Jewish movement. Have Luther’s greatest fears been realized: a group of Jesus-believing Jews is challenging the church and its teachings not only by maintaining their ethnic and cultural identity as Jews but also by seeing no contradiction between Torah observance and their place within the universal body of Christ? While recent studies such as the New Perspective on Paul (and now beyond that, “Paul within Judaism”10) advocate the Jewishness of life, faith, and practice of the first followers of Jesus, it seems a step too far for many Lutherans who have a negative view of Law and Jewish practices to allow such continued identification with Jews and Judaism within the church itself.

Furthermore, for Jews and Messianic Jews, Luther’s legacy of anti-Judaism remains a barrier to understanding the truth of the Gospel for which Lutherans stand. In the light of the five hundredth anniversary of the posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five theses on 31st October 1517, many Lutheran groups have made statements distancing themselves in repentance and shame for Luther’s views and their effects, but there is still much ground to be covered, both theologically and interpersonally. I would dearly like my family to hear some positive good news at this time of commemoration, and also for my fellow Messianic Jews to know they will be welcome in Lutheran churches and not accused of legalism or Judaising if they retain aspects of Jewish life and practice. I dare say that for a church with such strong emphasis on the contrast between the freedom that comes from “grace” and the bondage that is found in “law” this takes some doing. Those Lutherans, unfamiliar with the “Torah-positive approach”11 that most streams of the Messianic movement have to the Law, and unaware of a more nuanced approach that Jewish thought in general brings, see the “justification by works” as a danger to which Messianic Jews might be particularly prone.

However, on the positive note, Lutherans have much to teach Messianic Jews about the nature of the gospel, the freedom that it brings, and the nature of the universal body of Christ. Especially in Israel/Palestine, Lutherans can bring together the divided peoples in the unity of faith, and in the honouring of Christ as Lord of the church and Lord of the nations. Messianic Jews have much to learn from Palestinian Lutheran bishop Munib A. Younan’s cry for justice, peace, and reconciliation in the midst of conflict.12

There are indeed serious theological, social, and political challenges which Messianic Jews pose to both Christians and Jews, and these cannot be quickly removed or easily avoided. What is needed is three different but related conversations. Not only that between Jews and Christians, but also between Messianic Jews and Christians from the nations, and between Jews who believe in Jesus, and the majority who do not. May this article be a small contribution to such conversations.

Resources for Mission in Luther

Despite Luther’s own anti-Judaism, it is clear that his life, teaching and theology provide vital resources for effective engagement in mission. His focus on the Word of God, revealed in Messiah, in the Scriptures, and in the proclamation of the Gospel, is the basis for all mission. Seeing the Missio Dei, God’s mission, in the calling of Abraham, the mission of Israel, and through the sending of the Son of God, the sending and equipping of the Church, reminds us as it did Luther of the command to “make disciples of all nations”, including Israel. Luther’s forthright proclamation, by word and deed, can only strengthen our mission and ministry today. As Eugene Bunkowske has identified, Luther’s mission theology is spontaneous, biblically based, with a priority on prayer, people oriented, student centered, teaching focused, and indigenously directed.13 If we can avoid Luther’s own weaknesses and errors, and stay attuned to the best of his teaching, we will do well.

Dr. Richard Harvey is Senior Researcher with Jews for Jesus and Associate Lecturer at All Nations Christian College, UK. He is married to Monica, also a Jewish disciple of Yeshua, and they have two children and three grandchildren. He was a founding member of the London Messianic Congregation and past President of the International Messianic Jewish Alliance. His PhD dissertation, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology, was supervised by Rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok and published by Authentic Media (2008). This article is his personal view and does not represent the views of any other individual or organization.

1 See “Fjern Wittenbergs jødesvin” and “Remove the Wittenberg Judensau” online at www.change.org.

2 Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017.

3 E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (UK: SCM Press, 1977).

4 For a survey of Messianic Jewish Theology see Richard Harvey, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Paternoster/Authentic Media: UK, 2000).

5 Richard Harvey, “On November 10, 1938, on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany,” www.messianicjewishhistory.wordpress.com.

6 Julius Streicher’s defence statement, 29th April 1945: “Dr. Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants’ dock today, if this book had been taken into consideration by the Prosecution. In the book The Jews and Their Lies, Dr. Martin Luther writes that the Jews are a serpent’s brood and one should burn down their synagogues and destroy them…” http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/04-29-46.asp.

7 Two books in particular are recommended for this topic amongst the myriad of publications on Luther and the Jews: Thomas Kaufmann, Luther’s Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Kirsi I. Stjerna and Brooks Schramm, Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader (cited above). They introduce readers to the world and writings of Martin Luther and the Jews, to help them form their own opinion of the subject.

8 See Richard Harvey, Towards a Messianic Jewish Theology of Reconciilation, http://www.lulu.com/shop/richard-harvey/towards-a-messianic-jewish-theology-of-reconciliation/paperback/product-20635999.html and the Lausanne Initiative on Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine (LIRIP), Larnaca Statement (January 2016), https://www.lausanne.org/content/larnaca-statement (accessed 18 October 2018).

9 The Koren Siddur with introduction, translation and commentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2009), 294–295.

10 Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).

11 Daniel Juster’s phrase. See my chapter ”Torah in Theory” in Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology, pp.140-183. Five of the eight streams of Messianic Jewish theology can be identified as “Torah-positive”.

12 Munib A. Younan, “Beyond Luther: Toward a Prophetic Interfaith Dialogue for Life,” The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times, ed. Christine Helmer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).

13 Eugene Bunkowske, “Luther the Missionary,” God’s Mission in Action (Fort Wayne, IN: The Great Commission Library, 1986), 54–89.