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Anti-Semitism in the Reformation Era



[1] “I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness – nay, I have never found common sense in any Jew.” Jews are “profane unholy sacrilegious dogs.” “Now the Jews are cut off like rotten limbs. We have taken their place.” “They [the Jews] renounced the one through whom they could rule over the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, and placed themselves under the tyranny of Satan.”

Who uttered the foregoing? Everyone wants to point the accusing finger at Martin Luther, because Luther’s anti-Jewish pronouncements are common knowledge. My earliest New Testament professor at Emmanuel College (U of T) told me, in 1967, that while the Shoah arose on Lutheran soil, it couldn’t have arisen on Reformed. Alas, John Calvin is the author of the statements I have just read.

I have never found common sense in any Jew”, Calvin announced. How many Jews had Calvin met in Geneva? Calvin went to Geneva in September 1536. He lived there until he died in 1564 (apart from his sojourn in Strasbourg, 1538-1541). The last Jew was expelled from Geneva in 1491. When Calvin came to the city there hadn’t been a Jewish person in it for 45 years.

[2] Let’s look at another thinker. This one insists that Jews not be allowed to build synagogues in his city. Jews are to be barred from the trades. Jews are to be policed rigorously so as to minimise their “blaspheming Christ”. They are to be engaged in “the humblest, most arduous and most trying tasks”; namely, sweeping chimneys, cleaning sewers, and disposing of deadstock. Their being assigned such tasks will be a “deterrent and a corrective”. The Talmud must be banned. If Jew and Christian are found living together, both must be executed.

The man who insisted on such harsh treatment of the Jewish people admitted Torah to be salvific (Jesus Christ, after all, is Torah incarnate); he also emphasized the cruciality of the Old Testament in Christianizing the social order of his city. The city is Strasbourg; the Reformer is Martin Bucer, whose eirenic demeanour was rivalled only by that of Philip Melanchthon.

And yet Luther is blamed for all things anti-Jewish, and, in popular parlance, blamed exclusively.

[3] Reformation theologians appear to be inherently anti-Semitic. Then did Jewish people receive better treatment at the hands of Renaissance humanists? Since humanism magnifies magnanimity as surely as the Reformers appear to shrink it, could refuge be sought in humanism? Today we shall look at two representative humanists, Reuchlin and Erasmus.

Johann Reuchlin was fully conversant with Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Hugely learned, he condemned the indiscriminate destruction of Talmudic texts. Nevertheless, he soon advertised himself to be no friend of the Jewish people. For he wanted the Talmud preserved only because he had enormous respect for a language of antiquity. In the second place, he insisted on a cabalistic interpretation of the Talmud, and strenuously maintained that knowledge of Hebrew was essential to penetrating cabalistic mysteries.

The Hebrew letters for “El Shaddai”, “The Almighty One”, added up to or otherwise subtly spelt out “Jesuch”, Jesus. Since Jewish readers wouldn’t admit this ‘truth’, it was plain that the Talmud stood between Jews and their conversion.

In Reuchlin there is no suggestion that the Talmud is related to Torah, the salvific covenant-forging Word and Act of God. In Reuchlin, a hugely learned Hebraist, there is no suggestion that Hebrew is the language of that people to whom God has bound himself irrevocably; no suggestion that Hebrew is the language apart from which the New Testament is incomprehensible.

Reuchlin maintained that Jewish misery, undeniable throughout the pre-Christian and Christian eras alike, is God-ordained punishment. Jews can escape such punishment only by converting. The Jews in Reuchlin’s day are fellow-citizens of the Holy Roman Empire. They remain, on the other hand, adversaries of the Kingdom of God. If they refuse to embrace Christ and refuse to refrain from money-lending (the one occupation the church has permitted and assigned them), they will cease to be fellow-citizens of the Empire, and must be expelled.

[4] The second thinker we shall probe is the Crown Prince of humanists, Desiderius Erasmus.

Erasmus was marvellously learned in Greek and Latin. Fluent in half-a-dozen vernacular languages as well, he didn’t know a word of Hebrew, claiming his research agenda left him no time to learn the language. I fear, however, that he knew no Hebrew because he didn’t want to learn any, virulently contemptuous as he was of the Jewish people.

Adept, of course, in French, Erasmus relished visiting France. France, he said, was the “purest blossom of Christianity, since she alone is uninfested with heretics, Bohemian schismatics [Hussites], with Jews, and with half-Jewish marranos [pigs].” The marranos, of course, were Spanish Jews who had forcibly been converted to the church under the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. A baptized Jew, Erasmus maintained, never really becomes a Christian; he remains a half-Jew.

Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism and a superb scholar, averred that if one were to perform surgery on a Jew, 600 Jews would spring out. Between 1507 and 1521 Pfefferkorn wrote more vitriolic pamphlets concerning the Jewish people than anyone else in the Renaissance and Reformation. And yet so very ingrained was Erasmus’ anti-Semitism that he refused to recognize Pfefferkorn, a Jewish convert, as a Christian.

To sum up the matter, Erasmus wrote, “if to hate the Jews is the proof of genuine Christians, then we are all excellent Christians.”

[5] Since this paper is being delivered in Baptist precincts, we must look at sixteenth-century Anabaptists. (Whether Anabaptism is at least part of the tradition of McMaster Divinity College I shall let my hosts decide.) Balthasar Hubmaier, living in Regensburg, spoke of the Jews as idle, lecherous and greedy. They are a plague, he contended. (We should note the metaphorical force of ‘plague’ in view of the fact that the Black Death killed 40% to 50% of Europe in fourteenth century Europe.) These pestilential people should be expelled. Hubmaier incited city authorities to do just this. In 1519 Hubmaier complained of the (supposed) Jewish defamation of Mary. Immediately the synagogue in Regensburg was torched, and a chapel honouring Mary erected in its place.

[6] It appears we have reached the nadir of Christian contempt for and mistreatment of the Jewish people. However, we haven’t. Pride of place must be accorded Johann Eck, Luther’s formidable Catholic opponent at Leipzig (1519), at Worms (1521), and at Augsburg (1530). Eck’s anti-Semitic toxicity, said Heiko Oberman (a Renaissance and Reformation scholar without peer in his day), outstripped anything the Reformers wrote “in crudity, spleen, and slander.”

Eck upheld the mediaeval blood-myth concerning the Jewish people, and Eck fulminated against Luther since Luther denied the blood-myth.

The blood-myth had many features, three of which we shall mention today.

  1. Jewish people murdered Christian children in order to extract the children’s blood for use as an ingredient in matzo, the unleavened bread Jews ate at Passover.
  2. Jews worked ‘black magic’, hexing the Eucharistic elements so that blood and wine, so far from Christic, were now Satanic.
  3. Jewish males menstruated. No one had ever seen it, but millions believed it anyway.

This lattermost feature of the blood-myth is crucial, for it pronounced Jews to be more than unbelieving, more than Christ-killers, more than murderers; Jews were nothing less than monstrous. After all, a male that menstruates isn’t human; it’s monstrous. Jews, in short, are sub-human monsters.

Eck upheld this notion; he faulted Luther because Luther didn’t – at that time.

[7] At last we have arrived at Luther. He is deemed the bete noire where a Christian approach to the Jewish people is concerned. (Already, however, we have found many who were no better, and some who were far worse.)

Luther penned six anti-Judaistic tracts, haunted as he was by the Jewish presence in Europe and its intractability.

Intractability? Luther had assumed that Jewish people were held off embracing Jesus Christ and entering the church on account of ethical and institutional abuses in the latter. As soon as these abuses were remedied, Luther assumed, Jews would flock to the church. Jews, however, were no more attracted to the church of the Reformation than they had been to the church of Rome. Puzzled at first, Luther eventually became hostile.

The difference in attitude can be seen readily in two major tracts he wrote twenty years apart, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew (1523) and On the Jews and Their Lies (1543). In 1523 Luther wrote, “If the apostles who were also Jews had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles have dealt with Jews, no Christians would ever have emerged from among the Gentiles.” Johann Eck, Luther’s formidable opponent, riposted, “…right now there is this superficially learned children’s preacher [Luther] with a hoof of the golden calf in his flank, who presumes to defend the bloodthirsty Jews, saying it is not true and not plausible that they murder Christian children….”

In his earlier tract, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, Luther recognizes the Jewishness of Jesus; in addition, he is attempting to correct those who did not. He hopes thereby to “win some Jews to the Christian faith.”

Luther acknowledges the centuries-old mistreatment of the Jewish people, and clearly believes that his own attitude towards them is qualitatively different:

They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings. They have done little else than deride them and seize their property….When the Jews see that Judaism has such strong support in Scripture and that Christianity has become a mere babble without reliance on Scripture, how can they possibly compose themselves and become right good Christians?

In the same tract he will claim that the scriptural support for Judaism in the Old Testament has been superseded by the addition of the New Testament. He does not say that the Old Testament itself has been superseded; he will say, however, that the New Testament, having revealed the true meaning of the Old Testament, has rendered the synagogue obsolete and the Jewish community’s adherence to it a political threat. Luther’s benign regard for the Jews, seemingly genuine, invariably serves the agenda of conversion.

Yet the Jews did not convert in any significant number. When Luther reflected on this matter his vivid apocalyptic sense became more vivid still. Luther had long regarded the world as beset with apocalyptic conflict. Jewish intransigence was nothing less than collaboration with apocalyptic powers, for which collaboration divine punishment would entail blindness and dispersal. Since the Old Testament was an integral part of Christian Scripture, Luther wanted to wrest it out of Jewish hands if only because the Jews persistently and consistently misinterpreted it and thereby threatened the church and the state. His motivation, in other words, was the elimination of falsehood and the protection of Christians.

Unquestionably, the older Luther believed Jewish intransigence to threaten the survival of the gospel. His most virulent statements arose from this notion, and for them he has been vilified ever since. Such statements cannot be ignored, nor their baneful aftermath denied. Listen to some:

Why, even today they [the Jews] cannot refrain from their nonsensical, insane boasting that they are God’s people, although they have been cast out, dispersed and utterly rejected for almost fifteen hundred years.” (1543) “If someone wanted to talk with Jews, it is enough to remind them of the fifteen hundred years as the people forgotten by God.” “[Y]ou have no more bitter, venomous, and vehement foe than a real Jew who earnestly seeks to be a Jew.”

By 1546 Luther had reversed his earlier position and embraced the mediaeval blood myth: “Therefore the history books often accuse them of contaminating wells, of kidnapping and piercing children….Whether it is true or not, I do know that they do not lack the complete, full and ready will to do such things either secretly or openly where possible.” The Jews traffic in witchcraft, continued Luther; and for this “they should be hanged on the gallows seven times higher than other thieves.”

Luther proposed shockingly severe treatment for Jews. His final directive was chilling: “We are at fault for not slaying them.” To reinforce his point, Luther insisted that all pastors should support the government in such an undertaking.

By now Luther had advertised himself as no better than Johann Eck.

[8] There are aspects of Reformation thought that one could expect to mitigate any proclivity to anti-Judaism (defamation of Jewish religion) or anti-Semitism (defamation of Jewish persons). Here we need only recall the Reformers’ grasp of the Old Testament, their appreciation of its logic, and their insistence on its being necessary for faith in Christ. Nowhere in the Reformers is there a hint of Marcionism, the notion that Jesus Christ has rendered Genesis-through-Malachi obsolete, or even an impediment. All the Reformers insist, contra Marcion, that to disregard the Old Testament is to render him a wax figure whom we can mould as we wish, thereby fashioning a deity in our image.

Luther’s first publication was his Lectures on the Psalms. He found the gospel, no less, everywhere in the OT. His last major publication he spent ten years preparing (1535-1545); namely, his eight-volume Lectures on Genesis.

Calvin wrote twice as much on the Old Testament as on the New. While we might expect Calvin to say that all of Scripture is a comment on the gospel, he maintains that all of Scripture is a comment on the law – and can expound this without inconsistency just because Calvin insists that the gospel is the content of the law; Jesus Christ is the content of the Torah; which is to say, Jesus Christ is the substance of both testaments. Calvin frequently reminds his readers that while the gospel as attested by the NT may be “plainer”, the NT adds nothing essentially to that gospel attested throughout the Old Testament.

Both Luther and Calvin insist that God can be known only in Jesus Christ. Calvin avers that apart from Christ nothing can be known of God. Luther, as early as the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), declares uncompromisingly that apart from Christ, God is indistinguishable from the devil. The Reformers, hearing and heeding the apostles, agreed that there is only one Mediator by whom anyone may be saved. Yet the Patriarchs were certainly possessed of saving faith. They were saved by the Nazarene prospectively as surely as the church today is saved retrospectively. Jacob encountered the Mediator as surely as did Peter.

Then what happened to put the Reformers on the trajectory of the anti-Judaism if not anti-Semitism outlined in the first part of this address? Specifically, why does Calvin insist that Israel’s sons and daughters were saved through a Torah whose Incarnation was yet to occur, while denying that contemporary Jews can be saved through a Torah whose Incarnation has already occurred? Why is it that when Calvin speaks of Deborah and Miriam he extols them, but when he refers to contemporary Jews he denounces them?

The Reformers speak as they do on account of contemporary Jewry’s rejection of Jesus Christ. This notion, coupled with a ‘replacement’ theology, legitimates, in their own understanding at least, their vehement, vitriolic denunciation of Jews.

[9] We should acknowledge that the ‘replacement’ theology on which the Reformers went wrong isn’t peculiar to them; it has always found a ready home in the church, and it remains the operative understanding today of most of the church’s view of the synagogue. Several features of it stand out.

A] RT denies that God’s covenant with Israel is eternal. It affirms that the church has replaced Israel. Israel proved unfaithful; Israel failed. It assumes, it should be noted, that the church has always exemplified covenant-faithfulness; whereas Israel failed, the church has remained a howling success.

B] RT presupposes that covenant-membership depends on the quality of one’s obedience. Disobedience entails God’s rejection and abandonment of covenant-violators. Herein the church, albeit left-handedly and perhaps unwittingly, advertises its confidence in its achievement. Since the church keeps covenant, it no longer has to confess “There is no health in us.” (BCP) Grace, God’s faithfulness to his covenant with us despite our traducing ours with him, has disappeared; grace has been replaced by merit. Covenant has been replaced with contract, the notion that failure on the part of one party releases the other party from any commitment – a notion that covenant denies.

C] RT contradicts the apostles’ understanding of Jesus Christ. The apostles insist that God’s covenant with Israel (ultimately for the sake of all humankind) is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the Torah-keeping, covenant-keeping Jew. More to the point, in light of the Incarnation, the apostles confess that humankind’s covenant with God is kept by God as human. Kept by God himself (albeit by God as human), humankind’s covenant with God can now never be undone, its fulfilment never denied.

D] RT reads past Rom. 9:45, where Paul declares, in the present tense, “…to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs.” The present tense obviates any suggestion of past tense: “there used to belong to them” or “there once belonged to them”. In Rom. 11:29 Paul states bluntly, “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

E] RT ignores Romans 9-11, the single most sustained exposition of Israel in the New Testament.

i] Paul would give everything (here he’s deploying the vocabulary of Moses) to see his people embrace Jesus as Messiah of Israel.

ii] Still, God’s covenant with Israel remains operative.

iii] Israel’s non-acknowledgement of Jesus as Messiah of Israel (with the exception of relatively few Jews, such as Paul), however, is God-ordained, and ordained for the sake of gathering the Gentiles into the people of God. Exactly how Jewish non-acknowledgement of Jesus is essential to Gentile acknowledgement Paul never specifies. He speaks of this development as a mystery, not as a secret.

iv] When the ‘full number’ of the Gentiles has been admitted, Israel’s non-acknowledgement of the Messiah will be rescinded.

F] RT repudiates the Messiah. The Messiah is always and everywhere the Messiah of Israel. Weaker translations of 1st Samuel 16:13 state that David, the Messianic prolepsis, was anointed “from among his brothers”. More accurate translations state “in the midst of his brothers”. The difference is crucial. According to Hebrew logic, the Messiah always includes his people with him. In other words, Christians can claim proximity to Christ only as they claim proximity to his people, Israel, the synagogue. Conversely, if Christians distance themselves from the Jewish people they distance themselves from Christ.

G] RT supports the theological aberration that liberal theology is. Liberal theology, while posturing as tolerant, inclusive, humane, etc., is pervasively and perniciously anti-Judaistic. With its cosmopolitan view of the human, liberal theology cannot tolerate Jewish particularity.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, the progenitor of liberal theology, appeared 250 years after the Reformation. Nevertheless, it isn’t anachronistic to speak of him in the context of Reformation-era anti-Semitism, because the Reformation era, in its caricature of Jews, anticipated liberal theology with respect to this issue even as the Reformers disagreed with humanist dilutions of the faith that would reappear in the liberal era.

In his 1799 Address on Religion to its Cultured Despisers Schleiermacher averred that Judaism had long been dead, and that “those who at present still bear its colours are actually sitting and mourning beside the undecaying mummy and weeping over its demise and sad legacy.” Liberal theology regards the faith of Israel as obsolete and now antiquated, attended by those with a penchant for curating museum-pieces. Schleiermacher regarded the Jewish community as a corpse that doesn’t have sense enough to decompose.

The Reformers, tragically, were supersessionists; i.e., they believed that the church had superseded Israel, thereby rendering Israel both obsolete and antiquated. Herein the Reformers failed to read the apostle Paul attentively, despite their veneration for the man.

H] Finally, RT renders God not worth believing in. For a God who violates his covenant with us on the grounds that we have violated ours with him is a God who cannot help us. Who needs or wants a God who quits on those who falter before him?

10] Challenges to the church today remain. For instance, the church tends to ignore the only physical description of Jesus that the apostles give us: he was circumcised. In other words, it means everything to our faith that Jesus is a son of Israel. (What we call ‘New Year’s Day’, January 1st, in the church calendar is the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. Why does the church make so very much of December 25th and nothing at all of January 1st?)

Again, Christians tend to speak of a ‘new covenant’ in the sense of opposed to ‘old’, forgetting that there can only be one covenant. If there were more than one covenant, God would suffer from a Dissociative Identity Disorder (what used to be called a Multiple Personality Disorder). While God’s covenant with humankind has always remained fulfilled, humankind’s covenant with God has now been kept definitively by God as human, on behalf of all humankind.

The Reformers contended that the church was the beneficiary of God’s act under the economy of the gospel, while Israel was the beneficiary of the same under the economy of the Torah, the gospel being the substance of the Torah. Yet when the Christian community arises, the Reformers deny that Jewish people can savingly encounter the Holy One of Israel as surely as the patriarchs could. Why the denial?

I am not denying that the church must bear witness to the synagogue (just as the synagogue bears witness to the church, pre-eminently concerning the faithfulness of God). I am not denying that it is appropriate for the Jew to become a Christian. (To say anything else would eliminate the apostles.)

I am however, haunted by the Reformers’ denial. More to the point, I am haunted that their denial renders impossible the denial that the Reformers contributed prodigiously to the Holocaust – which disaster, say our Jewish friends, is the single largest catastrophe to befall the synagogue; and which disaster, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is the single largest catastrophe to befall the church.

Victor A. Shepherd     October 2017