Book Review of Richard S Harvey's Luther and the Jews

here is my book review of Richard S Harvey's book Luther and the Jews: Putting Right the Lies.
it is also posted in academia.

Book Review by Dr Anthony Loke of Richard S Harvey, Luther and the Jews: Putting Right the Lies, (Eugene: Cascade, 2017), 138 pages. [ISBN: 978-1-5326-1901-4]

Richard Harvey is a Messianic Jew and in his book, Luther and the Jews, he takes it to heart to reconsider the legacy of Martin Luther in relation to the Jews today. Many Christians would remember that Luther wrote many pieces of polemic writings against the Jews which sparked a violent revolt and led to many deaths in Luther’s time. The biggest question Christians and Jews struggle about Luther is that he, who wrote about the three solas, on justification by faith, and the triumph of God’s grace, can express such deep hostility against the Jews of his day. In the book’s Introduction, Richard explains what would be a personal quest as to how he, being a Messianic Jew and with deep family roots in Germany, can contribute to bringing into effect a deep and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews, this all the more pertinent in the light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. Richard lists out four questions which the book will seek to address and he hopes their answers will help both Christians and Jews to clear their misconceptions about Luther and his teachings about the Jews. He believes both sides of the divide need to hear the truth so that ‘lies might be put right’ (p. 5). 

The rest of the book is divided into short chapters each covering topics which seek first to lay the historical and theological backgrounds. Chapter 1 deals with the key character, Martin Luther. In just 23 pages, Richard condenses the biography of Luther by only providing key details of his life, ministry, and his fight with the Catholic Church. This is done so that the reader will not be loaded with too many distractions. The reader who wishes to read further into the fascinating life of Luther can refer to some of the sources mentioned in the book’s Bibliography.   

Chapter 2 is equally long and deals with the question: ‘Who are the Jewish people?’ Again, the topic is immense considering the long history of the Jewish people, the growth of Judaism, and the modern history of Jewry. Richard does a capable job of summarizing what he thinks is useful and pertinent to the four answers he has shortlisted. One shortcoming of this is that the history of the Jews at the time of the Reformation is too brief, just one page (p. 38). One wishes more can be said to illustrate the historical, cultural, and religious background of European Jewry in order to understand the 16th century Luther. Richard, however, brings the history of the Jews up to the modern era, including a bit of personal family history during the Holocaust, and the origins and growth of the Messianic Jews.

Chapter 3 goes to the heart of the issue: anti-Semitism.(1) Modern scholars make a clear distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, the former is more of theological formulations in opposition to the Jews and their faith while the latter is a wider hatred and hostility towards the Jews on account of their race and their right to legitimacy as a people group. Based on this working definition, the latter is an issue of racism. As Richard points out, for many people, there is little distinction between the two terms and this was probably true for Luther. Luther grew up in Europe at a time when suspicion against the Jews were high, pogroms and persecutions conducted on Jewish villages, and blame was often placed upon them for their part in the Black Death plague. Luther drank in these ‘lies’ which posit that the Jews were condemned to wander homelessly on this earth for their part in rejecting Jesus as the messiah.

Chapter 4 is the key chapter where Richard tackles the actual writings of Luther. As Richard reminds us, it is easy to try to excuse Luther’s anti-Jewish polemic (e.g. Luther was a child of his times, p. 66). While Luther inherited a lot of the anti-Semitism from his environment and history, he was fully responsible for what he wrote. Many of Luther’s friends disassociated themselves from his position. Richard lists out and quotes pertinent parts from Luther’s main writings on the Jews (what Schramm calls the ‘big four’). This is helpful for the readers to read the actual sources for themselves. Luther was not inventing new arguments but rehashing previous arguments used against the Jews. However, through time, Luther’s writings against the Jews ‘grew harsher and more antagonistic.’ (p. 79). Perhaps the harshest writing was Luther’s On the Jew and Their Lies (1543). This was later used and printed by the Nazis in Germany to eradicate the Jews. Luther’s tirade in 65,000 words was in response to a Jewish apologetic pamphlet which he received. Luther’s arguments included the fact that the Jews rejected Jesus and the generation of Jews in his time were no different. A lot of Luther’s arguments included often misconstrued lies supposedly made by the Jews on Christians. Richard helpfully summarizes Luther’s lies about the Jews in five statements (pp. 88-89).The subsequent proposals by Luther were extreme, including expulsion of the Jews and burning of their synagogues! (p. 84). Luther’s polemic continued into his last pieces of his writings, sermons and letters to his wife. Some Christians think there was last minute deathbed repentance from Luther but Richard thinks otherwise – Luther was obstinate till the day he died.

Chapter 5 lays out the thesis of the book: how does one make reconciliation between Lutherans and Jews? One has to begin by unpacking the term ‘reconciliation’ and what it entails. What type of apology will this be? Is it merely expressing confession of sins and asking for forgiveness from the other party? How does one put right what was wrong as history cannot be undone? Is there a restitution to make? (p. 92). Richard does not mince his words, as he calls a spade a spade. Firstly, he lists out all the lies Luther made about the Jews in his writings (pp. 94-96). Then, he shows what Lutherans have been doing, coming out with statements to recognize Luther’s anti-Semitism, repudiate and disassociate themselves from it, and to make a full apology to the Jews. Thirdly, Richard lists out things that need to be done apart from issuing formal statements. One act that Richard proposes is to remove the image of the Judensau (Jew-pig) at Wittenberg church.(2)  Richard initiated a petition to have the image removed in the light of efforts to reconcile the two parties although acknowledging that the removal may prove difficult because of the long history and sentimental value of the object in a building which is now part of a World Global Heritage site.

Chapter 6 is the most imaginative in the book. ‘What if’ speculates the possibility of a different outcome. What if Luther’s fight with the Catholic Church had taken a different turn? What if Luther had shaken off the poison and slander against the Jews of his day? What if his interaction with Rabbi Josef had been more eirenical?  What if Luther’s most polemical piece had been On the Jews and Their Truths? What if Luther had indeed recanted on his deathbed? We will never know the answers but it would have been a different 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation where Christians and Jews can sing and rejoice together! (p. 120).

In the Conclusion, Richard longs to see the day when Jews and Christians can indeed dance together in heaven. For Christ has come to put down the dividing wall of hostility and has made us both one, for He is our peace (Eph 2:14). Let there be one new man instead of two, reconciling us to God in one body and bringing the hostility to an end (Eph 2:16). It is an excellent book to read and ponder in the light of the many attempts today in the world to bring about deep lasting reconciliation to warring parties over issues of religion, race, culture, and space.


(1) A word coined by Wilhelm Marr in 1879 which unfortunately is an inaccurate term to denote hostility to Jewish people alone. The word comes from ‘Shem’, one of the sons of Noah. Semites include the Arabs, Elamites, Assyrians, and Arameans, p. 53, fn 1.
(2) The reviewer made a trip to Germany in 2016 following the Luther tour and viewed the stone image in the Wittenberg church which was still there!