9. God’s Chosen People: Jewish-Christian Relations in the Reformation Period.

Gregory L Powell

Social life during the Reformation was immensely diverse. A key characteristic was humanity’s inability to control and shape its own destiny. Human misfortune was attributed to the spiritual forces of Good and Evil which waged war on the earth. A superstitious culture looked to various forms of spirituality in an attempt to bring peace and order to their lives. In this dualist worldview, the Church was seen as the repository of God’s power while Jewish people were viewed as purveyors of the devilish magical arts. Influenced by St Augustine’s apocalyptic interpretations of history, Martin Luther was unable to escape his past and positively influence the Church’s view of Jewish people. Luther’s inability to escape the influences of his past becomes the impetus for Christian commitment to honest dialogue and interaction with proponents of Judaism in an enterprise aimed at accentuating our common heritage, values and God.

As this is being written, anti-Semitism has been on the rise in Germany. Once again people are discussing the Holocaust as a warning of what could happen in our future. It seems an appropriate time to demonstrate how social, spiritual and theological factors influenced the Church’s view of Jewish people during the Reformation. This will form the backdrop for a brief examination and critique of the contributions of Martin Luther. The results will be incorporated into a call for a renewed Christian commitment to honest dialogue and interaction with proponents of Judaism.


The sixteenth century was one of the most diverse social periods of history. Great advancements were made in mathematics, drama, architecture and theology. Shakespeare, Milton, Locke and others produced some of the finest literature known to humanity. However, it is often forgotten that only a privileged few experienced such creativity. Poverty, disease, illiteracy and famine afflicted the masses. Most of the European population lived in the countryside; it was an agrarian society in which capitalist structures were still at an elemental stage. Food supplies were heavily dependant upon the annual harvest which was often erratic The population doubled between 1500 and 1660!1 What food was available produced a diet that was often inadequate and which contributed to outbreaks of tuberculosis, anaemia and rickets. Many people fled country life in hopes of escaping the agricultural cycle and making a living in one of the many small factories in the city.

Those who lived in cities fared no better as the prospect of death by disease and fire were daily realities. Living conditions were crowded and filthy, producing “periodic waves of influenza, typhus, dysentery and smallpox”.2 The height of the bubonic plague had passed, but it remained an epidemic until the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The majority of the population was financially unable to obtain the services of a doctor. In reality, medical science had very little to offer in easing the pain of life as it simply did not possess the means to diagnose, prevent or cure the majority of illnesses which plagued the population. It is inconceivable for us today to imagine the destruction caused by fires during this period, but they were greatly feared by European city-dwellers and for good reason; there were no proper means to fight them and building materials accelerated them once they began.

In both countryside and city, the wealthy fared little better than the poor. A comparison of the mortality rates of the two groups indicates that money could not ensure a longer life.3 Money did allow for the purchase of life’s few pleasures, but tragedy could strike at any moment and many lost their entire fortunes in a single day. Under such unstable and enigmatic circumstances alcohol consumption became a prominent means of escape. Beer was the most popular form and home breweries provided a cheap and steady supply. A general survey of the diverse and emerging social structures of the Reformation period indicates that the essentials needed for existence “were beyond most people’s control and foresight”.4


In general, human misfortune was directly attributed to the belief that the earth was the battleground of a supernatural war between the forces of God and the devil. This spirit animated worldview was a medieval belief which continued to permeate society and gave rise to a very superstitious culture. Anyone who purported to have access to the spirit world was both revered and feared. The Church became a natural attraction as it offered a spiritual explanation for physical tragedies and promised a supernatural means to empower people to bring order and stability to their lives.

From its inception, the Church claimed to be mystically united with God. This was first expressed by New Testament writers through the use of an analogy taken from marriage in which the Church was described as the ‘Bride of Christ’.5 Such a union offered believers in the Reformation period innumerable benefits by granting them a personal relationship with the divine God. The New Testament was also used to solidify the Church’s position in society as the custodian of God’s supernatural power as it contained promises made by Jesus referring to the miracles his followers were to perform. The Church came to be seen as a “repository of supernatural power which could be dispensed to the faithful to help them in their daily problems”.6 This perception placed the Church and its leaders in positions which easily led to abuse. Church officials found it financially profitable to foster superstitious beliefs and church relics became a strategic medium. This gave rise to an apparatus which not only offered people the promise of power and control over their earthly destiny, but also security and rest in the after-life. Here the wealthy had a distinct advantage over the poor as money was exchanged for the promise of eternal security. Everything associated with the Church became a possible medium for harnessing divine power and thus was subject to abuse: candles, church bells, church land, clothing and even coins. Examples of their use included “holy candles to protect farm animals; formal curses to drive away caterpillars and rats and to kill weeds”.7 The Mass represented the height of superstition as it was believed that the mere pronouncement of words by a priest brought about a change in the character of material objects resulting in the physical presence of Jesus.8

From this short survey of social and spiritual influences in the Reformation period, the following general observations can be substantiated. First, life was unpredictable, short and painful. Tragedy could strike the rich or poor at any moment and from any direction. Under such conditions people became preoccupied with trying to explain and relieve their misfortunes. Second, medieval society handed on to future generations a view of the world that was highly spirit animated. Physical misfortune was explained in spiritual terms and fought with spiritual weapons. Third, the New Testament was used by Christians to solidify the Church’s position in society as the inheritor and guardian of God’s supernatural power by virtue of its intimate relationship with Jesus. The Church’s chief source of power resided in the eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass at which point the presence of Jesus was believed to be manifested.


The previous social and spiritual sketch is indicative of the situation faced by Protestant reformers who were committed to purifying the Church from superstitious belief and its corrupt penitential system. The initiation of change always begins with the acceptance of certain traditional beliefs which then fuels a corresponding movement towards the adoption of new beliefs.9 Concerning Jewish people, Martin Luther’s acceptance of the medieval image is clearly expressed in his comment that “a Jew is full of idolatry and sorcery as nine cows have hair on their backs, that is: without number and without end”.10 The sorcerer, or purveyors of devilish arts was the most popular image attached to Jewish people. A brief description of how this came about will be helpful in understanding the contributions of Martin Luther and how they impacted Jewish-Christian relations of the period.

While the Church gained status as the vessel and instrument of God’s power on earth, Jewish people were looked upon with suspicion and dread. From the time of John Chrysostom in the fourth century, Christians maintained that Jewish people rejected God and joined forces with the devil when they initiated the killing of God’s Son.11 This became a fundamental tenet passed on to future generations. The fifth century father Jerome, perceived “the link between the history of the Jews and the wrath of the apocalyptic incarnation of evil, the antichrist; and through his high authority he succeeded in implanting this concept indelibly upon the Middle Ages”.12 It was believed that in their plot to kill Jesus the Jewish people abdicated their vaunted position in. God’s plan of history, resulting in the Church’s emergence as the ‘New Israel’. Johannes Reuchlm, a German humanist and reformer, observed that “you Jews have perverted the holy mysteries, and for this reason you murmur your prayers in vain; in vain you call on God, whom you fail to venerate as He would have you. You flatter yourselves with your concocted ceremonies and persecute us, who truly serve God, with immortal hatred”.13 With their roles reversed, Jewish people found themselves outside the doorway of God’s salvation with only one alternative: conversion to Christianity.

Once seen in collusion with the devil, Jewish people became an easy target for abusive labels. In general, they were seen as the embodiment of all that was subversive, untrustworthy, devious and dark in Reformation society. Specifically, this translated into a legion of charges such as well poisoning, ritual murder of children, the blighting of crops and desecration of the host (which was interpreted by Protestants as Jewish assent to transubstantiation!). Pope Pius V explained in 1569 that “the worst of it is that they seduce a great many imprudent and weak persons with their satanic illusions, their fortune-telling, their charms and magic tricks and witcheries, and make them believe that the future can be foretold, that stolen goods revealed”.14 Thus, in the reversal of fortunes between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Israel, the reformers linked the Jewish people to the devil and his magical arts just as previous generations had done.


Yet, for all the enmity between the two groups, the Church also revered and feared the Jewish people because of their history. Certain reformers saw in Judaism an enviable cache of ‘magical’ paraphernalia which they felt should be passed on to God’s new people. Reuchlm and Pico della Miarandola were Christian Hebraists who attempted to convert these Jewish practices into their proper Christian equivalents. Their main focus was the Cabala; a collection of esoteric rabbinic writings which were believed to contain a method that once “secretly transmitted.. was designed to unlock the mystery of God’s revelation and even God’s very name from their occulted source.. in and behind the letters of the Old Testamenr”.15 They were urged on in their pursuits by the numerous stories of miraculous power and wisdom in the Jewish scriptures. Joseph interpreted dreams while in Egypt and God granted Solomon the possession of divine wisdom. Moses and Aaron engaged in a spiritual contest with Pharaoh’s magicians and emerged victorious by wielding a superior magic. In fact, Moses was seen as the consummate magician who “embodied in his code the vast store of occult learning that was his.. .and in consequence Judaism was considered a repository of magic, which its adherents learned from childhood”.16 Christian hatred of Jewish people during the Reformation period is symbolised by their acceptance and promotion of medieval images, but this hatred was combined with a strange and illogical reverence and fear.

Concerning the Jewish-Christian relations in the Reformation period, it seems fair to postulate that Christianity further solidified its position as the sole guardian power by stressing the alliance between the devil and Judaism as previous generations had done. This allegiance was symbolised in the image of the Jewish sorcerer whose spiritual insight and power was the direct result of involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus. Judaism’s denial of Jesus as Messiah placed its followers outside the Church and its salvific influence where they became an easy target for slanderous accusations. The perception that Judaism had encoded its knowledge of the magical arts in the Hebrew scriptures led certain reformers to seek the establishment of a Christian Cabala. A dualist world view inhibited the formation of an alternative vantage point from which the Church could view the Jewish people. Without this alternative, the Church was unable to stand up for, or embrace Jewish people in any way, as it would have led to the collapse of an intricate hermeneutic designed to interpret their world. By fostering the alliance between Judaism and the devil, the Church was not simply attempting to solidify its own position in society, nor was it solely seeking to mine the Jewish scriptures for magic; the Jewish people were, in fact, a pivotal piece in the formation of the Church’s self understanding and placement in God’s plan for humanity.


Martin Luther’s contributions to Jewish-Christian relations are immense and have created a debate which has lasted for centuries. Interest here will be restricted to his interpretation of history, his desire to identify the true church, and how these impacted Jewish people. Along with his acceptance of the traditional images assigned to Jewish people, Luther also accepted the historical interpretations of St Augustine. Augustine divided history into three epochs by using the advancement of the apocalyptic fulfilment of history as the interpretive tool. The first period was characterised by the Holy Fathers who had defined the faith and by the martyrs who died for it. The second period was Augustine’s own day when the heretics and false Christians subverted faith. The final period of history would see the recovery of the pure Apostolic faith and would be accompanied by a corresponding rise in the activity of the antichrist who would rally his forces for a final assault against God and His Church. Luther believed that he was witnessing this last phase of history. The social and spiritual atmosphere did nothing to diminish this view, and in fact, probably accelerated the pace with which he sought to recover the pure faith so that a holy Church could be presented to its soon returning Messiah.

Luther also followed Augustine in his allegorical interpretation of the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. In this context, their rejection was seen to be symbolic of the “stubborn capacity for sin that inheres in man”.17 Jewish failure to convert to Christianity was not viewed in ethnic terms, but was seen as a religious symbol of humanity’s propensity to seek salvation through works: this included Christians as well. Luther was less concerned that his contemporaries with claims that Jewish people poisoned wells, desecrated hosts, murdered children or were involved with sorcery. Instead he looked upon them as part of a larger group which opposed the Church. Jewish people were not singled out by Luther, but were always sentenced along with Turks, heretics and false Christians as standing under the aegis of the devil. This grouping is identified by Heiko Oberman as a “chain of iniquity” and that “grouping together the forces inimical to God gave Luther tremendous power of hindsight, which allowed him to read the signs of the times and to distinguish the various periods of world history according to the ‘progress’ of unbelief”.18

Luther’s reading of history indicated the imminence of the parousia and in light of this he maintained that a tolerant attitude should exist between Christians and Jewish people because “there are still future Christians among them”.19 This phrase applied not only to Jewish people but to everyone in society and is indicative of Luther’s broad salvation focus which extended beyond racial boundaries. Time was running out and the Church was seen to be a modern Noah’s ark which alone could provide the shelter from God’s judgment. Luther’s call for tolerance was in opposition to many who advocated expulsion as a remedy to Jewish obstinacy. However, Luther’s tolerance was always narrowly focussed and offered no alternative view to the traditional expectation that Jewish people convert to Christianity.

From this brief analysis, it would appear that for all his creative and groundbreaking contributions to Christianity, Luther had very little to offer by way of creating real Jewish/Christian dialogue. He remained dependant upon traditional views and failed to jettison parts of his tradition in favour of positing new thoughts. He simply aligned himself with previous generations of Christians by accepting and promoting the medieval image of the Jewish person as sorcerer and master of the magical arts. He borrowed Augustine’s apocalyptic view of history and allegorical interpretation of the Jewish rejection of Jesus and used them to interpret the rise of the antichrist, emergence of a true Church, and imminent judgement of God. In doing so, he grouped Jewish people together with all in society who opposed God. This broadened the Church’s view of Jewish people so that they were no longer seen simply as the race which conspired with the devil in the death of Jesus. However, Luther’s focus was not dialogue between the two groups but the creation of a ‘chain of iniquity’ by which he sought to calculate the appearance of the final judgement and emergence of the true Church.


lt is clear that during the Reformation real dialogue did not exist between Christians and Jewish people. Jewish people were used in various ways and always with a focus towards promotion of the Church’s interests. If a common history and heritage is to be formed in our day, then we must accept certain traditional views, reject others and posit new ones which make sense in light of our modern world view. This new course must be a joint endeavour marked by acceptance of the difficult and sensitive issues which should no longer be seen as insurmountable.

One such issue is the use of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Our Scriptures constitute the major part of our traditions and shape the way we see the world. The Reformation Church used the Scriptures to serve a wide and diverse spectrum of needs. The Scriptures provided them with spiritual answers to physical problems, the supernatural means to bring about peace and order, supplied proof of the supernatural power entrusted to the Church, contained encoded secrets which held the promise of mastery of the magical arts, contained Christological truths, provided insights into the demonic infiltration of the Church and provided a means by which to predict the end of the world. One is struck by the potential that exists for abuse. However, the most destructive use of the Scriptures occurred when trying to identify God’s true people. Above all other issues, this has served to divide Christianity and Judaism for almost two thousand years. As the Church came to see in the New Testament their elected status as the ‘new’ people of God, it simultaneously created the perception that Jewish people had been rejected by God and sent into eternal alliance with the devil. This raises the question: “How can God’s chosen people be rejected?” What does such a belief say about God’s faithfulness to His promises?

While sixteenth century society made sense of its surroundings by the attachment of ‘godly’ and ‘ungodly’ labels (as their dualist world view demanded), we are not bound by such a worldview. As Christians, we can no longer excuse ourselves from the responsibility of interacting with Jewish people in a joint enterprise aimed at creating a new lens through which we view one another. This prism will allow Christians to believe that Jesus is the Messiah without the initiation of the traditional corresponding move to denounce the belief system inherent in Judaism. We cannot allow the mystery of the bridegroom relationship between he Church and Jesus to blind us to the greater mystery that the Church has been grafted into the olive root of Judaism. This analogy, taken from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, is just one of many such scriptures which can be accessed in a promotion of dialogue between Jewish and Christian followers. In this way the scriptures serve to highlight our common interest, common heritage, common values and our common worship of the One God.

A survey of the social and spiritual milieu of the Reformation period reveals that physical misfortune was explained in spiritual terms, the Church, unable to escape influences which dated back to its very inception, treated Jewish people in an atrocious manner. Martin Luther also failed to break from this tradition. His reliance on the apocalyptic interpretations of Augustine dictated his view of Jewish people and detracted from his ability to positively effect change in Jewish-Christian relations. Ironically, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures which have traditionally been such a divisive issue, are in fact, the only source by which a common heritage and history can be built.


1 Thomas, K (1971), Religion and the Decline of Magic , p6, Wienfeld and Nicolson, London.

2 Ibid, p7.

3 Ibid, p5.

4 Cameron, E (1991), The European Reformation, p10, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

5 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31,32), NRSV.

6 Thomas, K, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p32 7 Ibid, p32.

8 Clark, FSJ (1960), Eucarist, Sacrifice and the Reformation, p79, Darton, Longman & Todd, London.

9 Newbigin, L (1989), The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p44, WB Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

10 Trachtenberg, J (1943), The Devil and the Jews: Medieval Conception of the Jew and its relation to Modern Anti-Semitism, as cited by Trachenberg on p57, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia.

11 It should be noted that Justus Jonas and Andreas Osiander were disciples of Martin Luther and did not hold such extremist views. They represented a small group which advocated a more tolerant position regarding Jewish people (The Roots of Anti-Semitism, p48 and p123).

12 Oberman, H (1981), The Roots of Antisemitism, p42, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

13 Ibid p27.

14 Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews. p76.

15 Oberman, The Roots of Anti-Semitism, p26.

16 Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews. P58.

17 Ibid, P104

18 Ibid, P104.

19 Weimarer Ausgabe, Abteilung Tischreden (WAT) number 7:600;34.

(First published in Tishrei Vol 1, No 3. The Journal Tishrei was launched in 1992 to highlight the need for the Church to return to its Jewish roots)



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