History Crash Course #50: The Reformation and the Jews

The Reformation exposed the corruption of the Church. For the Jews it meant more bad news.

Jewish history did not happen in a vacuum, and we have to always keep in mind the events going on in the world at large that impacted the Jews in a major way. One of those huge events that shook up Europe was the Protestant Reformation.

What brought it about?

Simply put, the corruption of the Church in Rome.

As we saw in Part 45, with the decline of the Roman Empire, the Church became the great feudal player in the economic system of Europe. This was a system that, while virtually enslaving huge masses of people, made the Church very rich and very powerful ― both politically and militarily.

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton, and this was certainly true of the Church at this time.

Rolling in wealth, the Church built great edifices and fielded its own armies and sank deeper and deeper into immorality, materialism, and decadence.

The list of papal affairs and political intrigues is extensive. For example, Pope Alexander VI bribed some members of the College of Cardinals to insure his election in 1492, the year the Jews were thrown out of Spain. [History of Christianity, Paul Johnson, p. 280, 363] Once in office, he brought the papacy to new heights of spiritual laxity.

A number of popes before him had abandoned celibacy, but Alexander VI openly flaunted his reputation as a great lover. He had a portrait of his mistress ― dressed up like Mary, the mother of Jesus ― painted over the door in his bedroom, and he publicly acknowledged his illegitimate children, who became famous in their own right, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. [Chronicle of the World, Derrik Mercer ed., DK Publishing, p.391]

Giovanni Boccaccio, the great 14th century Italian humanist writer offers us a humorous insight into the corruption and decadence of the Church of his day. In his classic work, Decameron, a Jew by the name of Abraham is pressured by a Christian friend to visit Rome in the hope that he will be so impressed that he will convert to Christianity. Abraham returns disgusted and reports:

“I say this for that, if I was able to observe aright, no piety, no devoutness, no good work or example of life or other what did I see there in any who was Churchman: nay lust, covetise, gluttony and the like and worse … And as far as I judge, meseemeth your chief pastor and consequently all others endeavor with all diligence and all their wit and every art to bring to nought and to banish from the world the [values of the] Christian religion …”

Dangerous Book

Those wanting to reform the moral stature of the Church were powerless. Even as the hypocrisy of the situation was becoming intolerable, the Church used its power to stifle any signs of defiance.

The defiance began in the 14th century with challenges to Church doctrine and attempts at translating the Bible into languages other than Latin (the language of the Roman Empire which few spoke). These attempts were brutally put down.

Why didn’t the Church want the common people to read the Bible? Just imagine what might happen if the serfs should get a hold of a Bible and find out what it actually said about the obligations of every person (even “his lordship” and “his eminence”) of loving his neighbor and of treating him with equality since all human beings were created in the image of God.

It is precisely for this reason that the Church refrained from translating the Bible into the vernacular. Writes Henry Phelps-Brown in Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality (p. 68):

“Despite its anxiety to save man’s souls from the perdition of earthly pursuits in order to preserve it for the salvation of the life after death, the medieval Church insulated pupils from the dangerous contamination of Scriptures. Only those entering holy orders were allowed to study theology and delve into Holy Writ. Unsupervised, independent exploration of the Bible was tantamount to heresy and only clerics in good standing were permitted to expound Scripture from a Latin text incomprehensible to the Christian masses.”

Martin Luther

In 1506, the Church of Rome undertook one of its grandest and most expensive projects ― the building of a new St. Peter’s Basilica as the centerpiece of the Vatican. The Church was to be so lavish and so huge that, when completed 150 years later, it was the largest Church ever built and it remained so until 1989.

Such an astronomical project would take an astronomical sum of money, and, as a source of fund-raising, the Church turned to the sale of indulgences.

The practice of granting indulgences ― remission of punishment for sins through the intercession of the Church ― already had a long history. But early on, indulgences were granted when a sinner performed some hazardous duty for the Church ― like going on a crusade. (A crusade to the Holy Land got you forgiveness for all sins ever committed.) Later, it became possible to buy indulgences on your deathbed. (Thus, you insured that you would enter heaven immediately, bypassing purgatory.)

With the Church engaged in a major fund-raising effort, the sale on indulgences took on new significance.

Pope Sixtus IV’s fund-raising campaign touted indulgences which would free your deceased loved ones suffering in purgatory. Church envoys resorted to imitating the anguished wailing of parents who, in the throes of holy purification fires, pleaded with their children to buy an indulgence and ease their torment.

One creative envoy, a Dominican monk by the name of Johann Tetzel, made up a little ditty: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

At the height of the indulgence sale, Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar from Germany, traveled to Rome and was shocked by what he saw. How could the Church sell God’s gifts to the highest bidder? And how could the bishops and cardinals behave with such moral laxity and worldliness?

Luther returned home and was plunged into a crisis of faith. He resolved his dilemma by coming up with the theory of grace, which would later become part of the Protestant theology. This theory holds that salvation comes by God’s grace ― or God’s indulgence, so to speak. A gift from God could clearly not be sold by the Church.

Full of youthful idealistic zeal (he was only 34 at the time), Luther posted his protest ― the now famous “Ninety-Five Theses” ― on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, on October 31, 1517.

The long and short of it was that his protest reached Rome and he was asked, in no uncertain terms, to recant. He refused, proclaiming his famous defense, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” He was excommunicated four years later. (Luther went into hiding in 1521 in Wartburg Castle where he translated the Bible from Greek to German. His translation appeared in 1522 and had a tremendous political impact on the church and on German culture and language.)

But it was too late to silence him, thanks in part to a remarkable technological advance which would change history forever ― the Gutenberg press.

A mere fifty years before Luther’s protest, Johann Gutenberg had perfected a system of making metal letters in moulds, setting them in rows, and using the templates thus formed to print multiple copies of a document in minutes, which previously would have had to be copied tediously by hand over many hours.

When this incredible printing machine was applied to Luther’s “Ninety Five Theses” ― which, in effect, represented an indictment of the Church ― all hell broke loose. What might have been a local dispute, with the protestant muzzled by his excommunication, became a public controversy that spread far and wide.

Martin Luther’s new religion, called Protestantism, got a lot of backing across northern Europe from the nobles who were more than happy to throw the Church out of their land and seize the Church’s wealth.

The Church had its allies as well, and Europe was thrown into the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This war, which was primarily between Protestants and Catholics, meant a lot of bloodshed and loss of life and destruction.[1]Although it was ostensibly a religious conflict between Protestant and Catholics, the rivalry between the Austrian Habsburg dynasty and other powers was a more central motive, as shown by the fact … Continue reading And it had a big impact on the Jews.

Luther and the Jews

Luther had seen how shamefully the Church had treated the Jews, and he had a plan to change that[2]Luther actually lived in a part of Germany from where the Jews had long-since been expelled. It may well be that he, like William Shakespeare, never actually met a Jew.. He was sure that the reason that Jews did not convert to Christianity was that they couldn’t stomach the corruption of the Church. Now the Jews would see that the Protestants were different and that they would be nice to the Jews. And then, the Jews would all become Christians.

He wrote in his work entitled, That Jesus Christ Was A Jew:

For they [Church clergy] have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs and not human beings. They have done nothing for them but curse them and seize their wealth… I hope that if the Jews are treated friendly and instructed kindly enough through the Bible, many of them will become real Christians and come back to the ancestral faith of the prophets and patriarchs…[3]Alexis P. Rubin ed., Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975. (Jason Aronson, 1993), pp 94-96.

Naturally, the Jews didn’t go for Protestantism either. Their allegiance to Judaism and the Torah had nothing to do with the Christians being nasty to them. To Jews, Christianity was a false religion from the start, and the behavior of the Christians over the years only proved it.

Now Martin Luther would further add to that proof. As soon as the Jews rejected his overtures and didn’t start converting en masse, Luther, who took this rejection personally, turned into one of the most virulent anti-Semites in history.

A few years later, he wrote in his Concerning The Jews And Their Lies:

“What shall we do with this damned rejected race of Jews since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing. We cannot tolerate them even if we do not wish to share their lives, curses and blasphemy. Perhaps we can spare a few of them from the fire and flames. Let me give you my honest advice…”[4]Ibid., 89-90.

Luther’s “honest advice” outlined a plan for dealing with the Jews. It included:

  1. burn all synagogues
  2. destroy Jewish holy books
  3. forbid rabbis to teach
  4. destroy Jewish homes
  5. ban Jews from roads and markets
  6. forbid Jews to make loans
  7. seize Jewish property
  8. force Jews to do hard labor
  9. expel Jews from Christian towns

(For more on Luther’s plan see A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson, p. 242. See also Why the Jews? by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, p. 107.)

Four hundred years later, Hitler and the Nazis, using Luther’s anti-Jewish writings in their anti-Jewish propaganda, would put that plan into action.


1 Although it was ostensibly a religious conflict between Protestant and Catholics, the rivalry between the Austrian Habsburg dynasty and other powers was a more central motive, as shown by the fact that Catholic France supported the Protestant side in order to weaken the Habsburgs, thereby furthering France’s position as the pre-eminent European power. This increased the France-Habsburg rivalry which led later to direct war between France and Spain.
2 Luther actually lived in a part of Germany from where the Jews had long-since been expelled. It may well be that he, like William Shakespeare, never actually met a Jew.
3 Alexis P. Rubin ed., Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975. (Jason Aronson, 1993), pp 94-96.
4 Ibid., 89-90.
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