Martin Luther & the Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Vom Shem Hamphorash and The Jew in Christian Theology

by Gerhard Falk (McFarland & Co., Publishers)

In 1543, the founder of Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther, published an anti-Jewish diatribe called Vom Shem Hamphorash. Vom is German and means “Of the.” Hamphoarsh is Hebrew and may be translated as “interpret” or “explicit.”

Because this book by Luther was not included in the American edition of all the works of Martin Luther, I translated this book into modern American English. In 1543, the German language was as distant from modern German as Chaucer’s English is distinct from American English today. Moreover, Luther used Gothic script and cited a number of Latin  authors without translating them, because Latin was in his day a universal language used by all literate Europeans.

 Translators have been called liars because we take the liberty of choosing words and phrases which in our opinion reflect the meaning of the original, even if a verbatim translation would lead to a different wording. Therefore I chose to translate Shem Hamphorash as “The Unknowable Name” of God.

In this book, Luther demands that all synagogues be burned down and that all Jewish books be burned. He also wanted all Jews to be out of Germany and hinted that he would not object to the mass murder of the Jewish population.

There are those who have repeatedly traced a direct influence of Luther to Hitler and the persecution of the European Jews during the Holocaust. Indeed, Nazi propaganda included citations from the work of Luther. Nevertheless, it is evident that the root cause of anti-Jewish behavior in Europe for 1900 years was that Jews were a small minority who were defenseless and easily murdered. If there had been a hundred million Jews in Europe instead of only 9 million among 700 million Europeans, and if these Jews had weapons, there surely could not have been and would not have been any persecution. The evidence for this is that the six million Jews of Israel have successfully defended themselves against 250 million Arabs seeking to kill them all.

The reason Luther wrote such an anti-Jewish diatribe was that he was raised in the Christian tradition, which denounced Jews since the first century. In fact, the first anti-Jewish hatemonger among Christians was a former Jew known only as Barnabas. He had accepted the new religion, Christianity, and therefore demanded that all Jews convert as he had done. When Jews would not follow him, he wrote horrendous invectives and the most vicious attacks against his erstwhile brethren, which were then repeated by Christian theologians and others throughout the centuries.

In my book The Jew in Christian Theology I have shown that the early church fathers participated vigorously in  anti-Jewish hatred, claiming in particular that all Jews are  guilty of having killed the Christian God, who is also a Jew. Throughout the ages, this accusation served as an excuse for murder and bloodshed and violence against the Jewish minority in Europe. Protestants as well as Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox and all other Christian denominations participated in anti-Jewish persecutions because they profited greatly from stealing Jewish property, driving Jews out of their homes, and cheating Jews out of their earnings.

The anti-Jewish European literature is so vast that it cannot be listed here. One example is the work of Geert Geerts, who called himself Erasmus (1439-1546), which  is Latin for The Dearly Beloved. Erasmus repeated all the anti-Jewish canards with which everyone else was already acquainted.

Another outstanding Christian theologian discussed in The Jew in Christian Theology was the Frenchman Jehan Cauvin, known among English speakers as John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin abused the Jews in his influential writings, demanding the Jews convert to his form of Christianity. He perpetuated the usual hatemongering into the succeeding generations. Calvin founded the Puritan version of Christianity.

After the French Revolution of 1789, French Jews were given some rights and were released from the ghettos by Napoleon Bonaparte. As science gradually weakened the anti-Jewish polemics, it became necessary for the hatemongers to find reasons other than theology for the persecution of the European Jews. Therefore a German journalist by the name of Wilhelm Marr invented the phrase anti-Semitism in 1873. According to the Torah, Sem was one of the sons of Noah who, after the flood, settled in the area now known as Israel. Therefore linguists called languages spoken in the Middle East Semitic languages, including Hebrew and Arabic. Marr now claimed that Jews were racially Semites who  destroyed all culture and were the enemies of all civilized men. By these means, Marr converted a language group into a race, and promoted the view that Jews cannot live among Europeans. By placing anti-Judaism on a racial basis, he made religion irrelevant, so that even Jews converted to Christianity were still Semites and needed to be eliminated. Marr founded The League of Anti-Semites, which became the most successful social movement Europe had ever experienced. This is true because 60 years after its founding, Hitler became dictator of Germany, as the Nazi party ruled thereafter for 12 years.

 It is therefore obvious that is was not Hitler’s own idea to persecute Jews, but that he had learned all this from his reading of history, from the speeches of politicians, from newspapers, and from the sermons of Christian clergy. There are those who like to say that Hitler was crazy or a psychiatric case. This was by no means so, as Hitler reflected everything that was already believed before he was even born. William Shirer, in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, writes that Hitler was so successful because he preached anti-Jewish hate, which appealed to all his listeners who already believed that.

It needs to be remembered that the European population vigorously participated in the murder of the local Jews after the invasion of each European country by the German Army. This shows that hatred of Jews was and is as much a part of European civilization as speaking the local language, driving on the right side of the street (except for England), or reading newspapers. Even today, European Jews are leaving France and other European countries in large numbers, so that as of now there are  only 1.4 million Jews among 750 million Europeans.

 We may not overlook that on October 17, 1965, the Catholic Church issued a declaration entitled ”Nostra Aetate” or “In Our Age.” These are the first words of a proclamation by Vatican II, which was a meeting of the major church leaders on the request of Pope John XXIII. That council issued a proclamation which rejected anti-Jewish conduct, as well as all aspects of so-called anti-Semitism. In 1983, the Lutheran Church followed this example, as did most Protestant denominations.

I have therefore included in my book The Jew in Christian Theology several appendices concerning these developments.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Drug Culture (with Dr. Thomas S. Weinberg & Dr. Ursula A. Falk, 2018).

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