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Martin Luther, stained glass, Evangelische Stadtkirche RavensburgPhoto: Wikimedia Commons
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Martin Luther and Me

How a Jewish journalist came to spend years writing a book about the Protestant Reformation

Michael Massing
April 23, 2018
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Martin Luther, stained glass, Evangelische Stadtkirche RavensburgPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

For most of my life, I had no interest in Christianity. It was raised in a comfortable middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore. It was Barry Levinson’s Baltimore—families of Eastern European immigrants who worked in small business, rooted for the Colts, and celebrated Thanksgiving and Passover with equal earnestness. Three days a week, I attended Hebrew school. Though as bored as everyone else, I became quite observant, regularly attending shul and not mixing milk and meat. Soon after my bar mitzvah, the fervor faded, but out of a sense of obligation I continued my Jewish studies, taking courses at a local Hebrew college. The instruction—in Hebrew, the Bible, and Jewish history—was uninspired, hastening my secularization. By the tenth grade, I was plotting my escape, taking as my models Neil Klugman in Goodbye Columbus and Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.

Throughout, I was shielded from all things Christian. American Jewish parents instinctively worry that if their kids are exposed to the nation’s hegemonic faith, they’ll be sucked up into it. As a result, I had never read the New Testament, could not tell Peter from Paul, and had no idea how Christianity had become the West’s dominant religion. This continued through four years of college, a year working as a reporter in Mexico, and a year of graduate school in London. In the late seventies, I arrived in New York, determined to make it as a writer. Early on, I lived in a rundown sixth-floor walkup at Avenue A and 11th Street. The area was dirty, dangerous, and rife with heroin. A few years earlier, however, Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers had come out, and, reading it in my dreary apartment, I became captivated by the story of the migration of Jews from Poland and Ukraine to New York and their wrenching but stirring adaptation to life in lower Manhattan. I learned that the scenes from the movie “Ragtime” that were set on the Lower East Side were shot on the same block on which I lived. Later, I moved to the Upper West Side, and in this district of synagogues and Seinfeld, professors and professionals, Zabar’s and H & H Bagels, I felt I had found the Garden of Eden of secular Judaism.

All the while, I remained indifferent to Christianity. That began to change, however, in the 1990s, when I began making periodic visits to Rome to see friends. Like so many others, I was overwhelmed by the city’s beauty, vitality, and layers of history. I was also overwhelmed by my ignorance. Walking among the ruins, I realized how little I knew about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Visiting the city’s churches, I was similarly at a loss. Surveying the vast interior of St. Peter’s, with its giant marble pilasters, grandiose papal tombs, and splendid works of art, I felt I was in one of the great strongholds of Western culture, yet I had no idea how the Catholic Church had attained such wealth and power. The question nagged: How did a small underground sect that had splintered off from Judaism and been so fiercely persecuted by Rome manage, in the course of four centuries, to replace the empire as Europe’s organizing force?

In my work as a journalist, meanwhile, I was becoming aware of the growing influence of conservative Christians on American political life. The word “evangelical” began appearing in news articles, but I did not fully understand what it meant. More generally, I felt I needed to learn more about the deeper historical forces shaping American society and the world at large.

And so I began a personal tutorial. At Labyrinth Books (now Book Culture) near Columbia University, I sought out volumes on the Roman Empire and early Christianity. I read Charles Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, and Rome, Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity, Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels, and A. N. Wilson’s biographies of Jesus and Paul. In Wilson’s book on Paul, I came upon this arresting passage about his Epistle to the Romans: “It is one of those books, such as Rousseau’s Contrat Social or the Communist Manifesto or The Origin of Species, which are perceived to have changed the way the human race regards itself.” Yet I had never read it.

The story of Rome’s fall and Christianity’s rise proved so enthralling that when I reached 476 and the collapse of the empire, I decided to keep going. Reading Norman Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages, I learned about the Roman Church’s mission to convert the “barbarians” of the North, the efforts by Charlemagne to create a governable society, and the catalytic effect that the rediscovery of Aristotle’s lost works had on Scholastic theology. Reaching the Renaissance, I felt on more familiar ground; everyone knows about Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael and the artistic and cultural renewal they helped spark. But then I discovered the Northern Renaissance and the great intellectual, moral, and religious debates taking place north of the Alps.

At the center of it all was Erasmus of Rotterdam. Europe’s leading humanist, he devoted his life to creating a new blueprint—a “design for living”—for the new order that was emerging in Europe. The old order, dominated by the Roman Church, emphasized hierarchy, authority, tradition, and the performance of rituals. The new Europe was marked by spreading literacy, expanding trade, growing cities, the birth of printing, and the rise of a new middle class. Erasmus became the most articulate spokesman for this class. His pleas on behalf of peace, concord, tolerance, and social justice marked him as an early standard-bearer of liberal reform.

What most captured me, though, was Erasmus’s work on the New Testament. In the course of my readings, I had become engrossed in the innovative work being done on the Bible and its authorship. In Hebrew school, it was presumed that the Torah had been given by God to Moses, but I became curious about how this foundation text of Judaism came to be. In Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?, I read of how scholars, using grammar, philology, the collation of manuscripts, and other techniques of critical editing, had detected in the Five Books of Moses four different narratives prepared over five centuries and knit together by the “great redactor” (probably Ezra).

Erasmus, I was startled to learn, had pioneered many of these techniques. As part of his program to reform Christian culture, he wanted to purify the text on which it was based. This was the Vulgate—the Latin translation of the Bible (from Hebrew in the case of the Old Testament and Greek in the case of the New). Many of the Roman Church’s doctrines and institutions were based on specific words and phrases in the Vulgate. Yet a close inspection of the text raised many questions about its sacred status. It was marred by spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and scribal blunders. In 1500, Erasmus set out to learn Greek so that he could read the Gospels and Epistles in the language in which they had originally been written. (After the fall of Rome, knowledge of Greek had more or less disappeared from the Latin West.) Erasmus also began hunting down old manuscripts of the Greek New Testament; by comparing and collating them, he hoped to conjecture what their authors truly meant to say.

In early 1516, after months of exhausting writing, editing, and proofing in the print shop of Johann Froben in Basel, Switzerland, the work was done. In addition to providing a revised Latin translation of the New Testament and a parallel Greek text (the first ever in print), Erasmus offered hundreds of annotations explaining the changes he had made. In them, he argued for a new way of reading the Bible—not as a collection of miracles, prophecies, and supernatural acts but as the story of a transcendent being whose simplicity, humility, and compassion could encourage readers to change their ways and follow a more pious path. The publication of Erasmus’s revised New Testament was a milestone in biblical studies, giving scholars the tools to read the Bible as a document that, while divinely inspired, was a human product that could be deconstructed and edited in the same manner as a text by Livy or Seneca. As copies began circulating, Erasmus was hailed as the new Cicero—as the apostle of a new enlightened era that would result in a united, borderless, and peaceful Europe.

Given Erasmus’s renown in his day, I wondered why he was so little known in ours. The reason quickly became apparent: Martin Luther. About seventeen years Erasmus’s junior, Luther at that time was an obscure Augustinian friar in Wittenberg, Germany. The following year, however, he posted his Ninety-Five Theses, protesting the Church’s practice of granting (in reality, selling) indulgences to reduce the time people had to spend in purgatory before being admitted to heaven. As the theses were printed up and distributed across Germany, Luther became a household name. At the time, Luther was a great admirer of Erasmus and an eager consumer of his revised New Testament, but from the start he was aware of the stark differences in their ideas of what constitutes a good Christian. Where Erasmus stressed the importance of doing Christ-like good works, Luther emphasized faith in Christ. However many works a person might do, without faith, he or she cannot gain God’s grace. Upon discovering this truth, Luther would later write, “I was altogether born again” and “entered paradise itself through open gates.” While Erasmus looked upon the Bible as a guide to upright conduct, Luther saw it as a source of doctrines that all Christians must accept.

As these differences became clear, Erasmus and Luther engaged in a fierce rivalry—the one calling for brotherhood, compassion, and pluralism, the other proclaiming faith the essence of Christianity and Scripture its sole authority. In a flood of essays, tracts, and letters, each sought to win Europe over to his side. In the end, Erasmus’s rationalist and internationalist vision could not compete with Luther’s more ardent and nationalistic one. While Luther inspired a mass movement that set in motion the Reformation, Erasmus died a largely forgotten man—reviled by both Catholics, for being too critical, and Protestants, for being too timid.

Reading about Luther, I was struck by the parallels between his views and those of modern-day evangelicals. His experience of feeling born again seemed to provide a model for later-day Protestants seeking similar renewal. Erasmus, meanwhile, seemed a forerunner of modern liberalism. Their rivalry seemed to mark a fault line in the Western intellectual tradition, when these two competing traditions, humanism and evangelicalism, came into being.

I decided to write a book about that rivalry. During my research, I often felt I was in a foreign land, grappling with unfamiliar languages, uncharted terrain, and obscure customs. I was sustained, however, by the many discoveries I was making. I learned, for instance, that the doctrine of original sin, which is so central to the Christian tradition, arose in part from a Latin mistranslation of a Greek preposition in Romans 5:12. I learned that the division of Protestantism into separate Lutheran and Reformed (or Calvinist) branches arose from irreconcilable differences over the interpretations of four words at Matthew 26:26—“This is my body.” I found that the celibacy of priests had been mandated only during the Middle Ages and that Erasmus had waged a campaign to convince Rome to relax this stricture on the grounds that it was too difficult to keep; his failure helped ensure the survival of this institution into modern times.

Reading the New Testament proved especially revealing. I discovered that in addition to the New Testament’s well-known irenic statements about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemy, it contains many passages of a far more militant sort. At Matthew 10:34, for instance, Jesus declares, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword, for I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Luther (and many others) frequently invoked this passage to justify religious-based conflict and even violence. In John, Christ says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and “no one comes to the Father except through me”—a statement often cited by Christians to declare theirs the one true faith and used to support the persecution of those rejecting Christ, Jews in particular.

In writing about the Protestant Reformation, I initially thought that, as a Jew, I did not have a stake in the fight and so could avoid the temptation of those raised in either the Catholic or Protestant tradition to turn Luther into a demon or a saint. As I proceeded, however, I realized how hard it was to set my own upbringing aside.

Luther was one of history’s most violent haters of Jews. In his notorious On the Jews and Their Lies, written in 1545 (the year before his death), he called the Jews “boastful arrogant rascals,” “real liars and bloodhounds,” and “the vilest whores and rogues under the sun.” He urged the princes to set fire to their synagogues and schools and to destroy their houses. If such measures did not succeed in subjugating the Jews, they should be driven out “like mad dogs.”

In a note to On the Jews and Their Lies, the editors of the American edition of Luther’s works observe that it is impossible to publish the treatise today “without noting how similar to his proposals were the actions of the National Socialist regime in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s.” Referring specifically to Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), they directed readers to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer’s firsthand account of Germany from 1934 to 1940. “It is difficult to understand the behavior of most German Protestants in the first Nazi years,” Shirer wrote, “unless one is aware of two things: their history and the influence of Martin Luther. The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate anti-Semite and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority.” Luther’s call to Germany to rid itself of its Jews, deprive them of their money, set fire to their synagogues and schools, and destroy their houses “was literally followed four centuries later by Hitler, Goering and Himmler.”

I spent much time trying to determine if Shirer was correct. A huge literature on the subject of Luther and the Jews has arisen as Lutherans have sought to come to terms with their founder’s repellent views. With the help of Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All, a study of the shifting fortunes of German Jews between 1743 and 1933, I came to believe that anti-Semitism was not a fixed and unvarying feature of German life but a phenomenon that ebbed and flowed as German society became more or less liberal and tolerant. It became clear, moreover, that Luther was very much a product of his time. The Jews were hated by virtually every Christian in sixteenth-century Europe—Erasmus included. Erasmus was indifferent to the usual crimes attributed to the Jews—their supposed role in killing Christ and their continued rejection of his messiahship. What he hated about the Jews was their Judaism—their stress on the performance of rituals in a rote and mechanical fashion—which he believed had infected and debased Christianity. This was of course a gross stereotype, and it was disappointing to find such a strong defender of religious tolerance to be so intolerant of the Jews. (“If it is Christian to detest the Jews,” he wrote, “on this count we are all good Christians, and to spare.”)

For Erasmus, however, Jew-hatred was a sideshow. For Luther, it was central. I discovered, in fact, that Luther’s loathing of the Jews played a key part in the formation of his theology. In studying his early intellectual development, I read Luther’s notes for an early set of lectures he gave on the Psalms. They fill two volumes, and their disorganization, repetitiveness, and use of ornate allegories made for tough going. So did Luther’s vitriol. The Jews, he wrote, pierce the truth “with their extremely hard iron lies,” they “scourge, stone, and kill the prophets and scribes in the same way as did their fathers.” Sucking the living spirit from the Bible, they inspire heretics, who “seek to approve their own empty opinion by the authority of Scripture, Judaizing with Jewish treachery.” And so on.

Luther hated the Jews for many of the same reasons everyone else did. But, as I bore into his notes, I found an additional, unique reason for his detestation: the Jews’ efforts to become righteous before God through their own actions. By praying, fasting, giving charity, and doing good works, they felt they could merit divine favor. During his early years as a friar, Luther had tried to follow such a course. Terrified that he would be trapped for years in purgatory and subjected to its tormenting fires, Luther tried to live a pious and blameless life. Yet he always found himself falling short; the more strenuously he strove to become righteous, the more keenly he felt his sinfulness. This caused him great psychic anguish, and for it he blamed the Jews, with their Ten Commandments and other stringent moral codes. Fiercely rejecting this outlook, Luther concluded that no one can become righteous before God through his own acts—that only through faith in Christ can one hope to gain divine grace. Luther’s hatred of the Jews (together with his readings in Paul and Augustine) thus played a key part in the conceiving of his central doctrine—justification (or salvation) by faith alone.

As he began preaching his new gospel, Luther felt sure that the Jews would see the light and convert; in his middle years he wrote much more acceptingly—even warmly—about them. When in his final years it became clear that the Jews were not going to convert, Luther turned on them with renewed fury; On the Jews and Their Lies was but one of several vile tracts he directed at the Jews, and in his final four sermons he denounced them as blasphemers, leeches, and potential murderers.

On the question of Luther and Nazi Germany, I ultimately concluded that, as much as Kristallnacht seemed a fulfillment of Luther’s proposals, there is no evidence that the Nazis followed them; Hitler did not need Luther to conceive his program of annihilation. What Luther did do, however, was to place his imprimatur as the founder of Protestantism on a toxic strain of Christian intolerance that, by dehumanizing the Jews and demonizing them as the “other,” made them seem deserving of murderous hatred. Along with his insistent demands for total obedience toward the state, such feverish rhetoric created an environment in which the Nazis’ exterminationist program would find broad support and in which many Protestant ministers would stand silently by.

My intense encounter over many years with Erasmus and Luther, the Reformation and the New Testament, had the paradoxical effect of strengthening my connection to Judaism. It was not just the relentless persecution of the Jews. All the contention over faith in Christ and the use of that standard as a measure of one’s merit made me even more appreciative of such Jewish values as compassion, charity, raising up the lowly, and repairing the world. I became aware of the deep mark that all those stultifying years in Hebrew school had left on me, and how strongly the Torah and its ideas about righteous conduct had imprinted themselves on my mind.

I also became aware of the yawning absence of religious knowledge in my secular world. As was true of me before my odyssey, most of my Jewish friends remain ill-informed about Christianity. But most of my Christian friends do as well. At one point, I made a pest of myself by asking people at parties and dinners if they could identify the author of the Epistle to the Romans; few could. In an age in which Christianity continues to exert such a strong influence on American political and social life, such ignorance seems a serious drawback.


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