“The Jews’ Residence”: Orthodox Lutheran Attitudes towards the Coexistence of Jews and Christians

Jutta Braden

Source Description

This excerpt is a passage from a reference work published in 1644 by the pastor of the church St. Petri in Hamburg, Johannes Müller (1626–1672), under the title “Judaismus oder Judenthumb” [“Judaism”]. Over a thousand pages long, this work, intended for a general audience, was published by Zacharias Hertel, a well-known bookseller from Hamburg. It reflects the dominant attitudes towards Judaism in orthodox Lutheranism of the 17th century. Hertel’s heirs reissued Müller’s “Judaismus” in 1707, and it became a standard reference work found in many private libraries in the early modern era. Even today, this book remains part of the inventory in many German university libraries. “Judaismus” is thus rightly considered the most influential of the many works published against Judaism in the 17th century. The excerpts included here come from the introduction (“The Jews’ Residence”) to the Second Part, and they show that preachers like Müller were quite occupied with the fundamental question as to whether Jews should be allowed to live among Christians.

  • Jutta Braden

Pastor Müller’s text must be understood as a response to the specific context of Jews in Hamburg in his day. In addition to a small community of Jews from central and eastern Europe (Ashkenazi), Sephardic Jews—descendants of Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula—had settled in Hamburg starting in the early 17th century. Some of them had been forcibly baptized before their expulsion, but they had subsequently returned to the Jewish faith of their ancestors. These Jews, who had been socialized and educated within Christian society, displayed an unprecedented confidence and social presence in Hamburg. This troubled the orthodox Lutheran clergy who were responsible for maintaining the pre-eminence of the Lutheran faith within the city. In addition to defending orthodox Lutheran doctrine and exposing the Jewish faith as an “un-faith,” in “Judaismus” pastor Müller outlines some guidelines for dealing with Jews based on the contemporary theological position. These were directed primarily at those with political power in the senate and parliament, where Lutheran orthodoxy had the status of official religion. In the early modern era, religion and politics were inextricably intertwined. Theological considerations thus played a central role in discussions about how to deal with non-Lutherans, for example whether Jews and Catholics should be allowed to settle in the city. The theological ideal of confessional conformity, however, could be outweighed by commercial interests; it was such considerations which led the senate to permit Jews to settle in the city. These opposing theological and economic priorities created a tension which led to numerous conflicts in the 17th century about the position of the Jewish minority.

The theological conflict between Christian and Jewish faith

The excerpt here from “Judaismus” addresses the fundamental question as to whether and under which circumstances Jews could live among Christians. Müller outlines the central theological problem at the outset: Lutheran orthodoxy held that Jews were blasphemers and thus posed a danger to the salvation of Christian souls. “For it is certain,” claims Müller, “that the Jews [. . .] terribly blaspheme Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Mother the Virgin Mary” (p. 1385). This view was rooted in the tension which had developed within Christianity in the course of its history. It resulted from Christian dogmas which spoke of Jesus as the Messiah, of the divine Trinity, and of a “new” covenant of God with Christians which, with the birth of Christ, had superseded God’s “old” covenant with the Jewish people. The clergy even based these doctrines on the (Hebrew) Bible (i.e., the Old Testament), which they interpreted from a Christological perspective, in other words, as a foreshadowing of Jesus’s coming as the savior of humanity. As a consequence, the Jews were assigned the role of blasphemers who remained steadfastly blind and unrepentant towards the true Christian faith. The diaspora which ensued after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was seen as a divine punishment because the Jews refused to accept the “correct” Christian faith and held fast to their own religion.

Müller’s references to the anti-Judaic writings of Luther and other authors

In regards to the supposed Jewish blasphemy, Müller refers to Luther’s anti-Judaic text “On the Jews and their Lies” from the year 1543. Luther incorporated Christian anti-Judaism into his reformatory doctrines. One of his earlier texts, published in 1523 under the title “That Jesus was Born a Jew,” displayed a milder stance with hope that the Jews would convert to his reformed Christian faith. Later in his career, Luther displayed a vehement anti-Judaism, drawing on the anti-Judaic myths and prejudices common in the Middle Ages. Müller likewise draws on a trove of anti-Judaic stereotypes. He incorporates legends into his account—for example, that Jews poisoned wells or participated in ritual murder—which reinforced perceptions of Jewish animosity towards or even desire to kill Christians. Müller thus evokes an image of Jews as the epitome of all that was evil, Satanic, sinful, and infidel.

In addition to referencing Luther, Müller also draws on the work of later orthodox Lutheran scholars on Judaism, for example on that of Johannes Buxtorff (1564–1629), an orientalist from Basel, or the theologian Christoph Helvicus (1581–1617) from Giessen. Müller also relies on texts by Jews who had converted to Christianity, including Antonius Margarita, Ernst Ferdinand Hess, and Christian Gerson. These “converted Jews,” as Müller calls them (p. 1385), were under pressure to defend themselves in the face of doubts concerning their fidelity to the faith given their conversion. In an effort to prove their true Christian conviction, they were eager to confirm preexisting Christian prejudices. Müller can thus use their writings to claim that converted Jews did in fact “unanimously” admit to the blasphemy of the Jews towards Christianity.

Allegations against the Jews in Hamburg

Within the conglomeration of common anti-Judaic prejudices which Müller presents in his argumentation against the toleration of the Jews (p. 1386–1387), there are also allegations which can be seen as concrete references to the Jews in Hamburg. These include his displeasure over Jews’ publishing books in Hamburg and Altona. Presumably this is a reference to books by the Sephardic doctor Benjamin Mussaphia, who in 1640 had published a text in which he addressed medical questions from the Bible. From the perspective of the clergy, Mussaphia had thus claimed an authority to interpret the Old Testament which rightly belonged to Christians alone. A further point on which Müller is critical is the religious freedom extended to the Sephardic Jews in Hamburg, which in his opinion reinforced their false faith. The Sephardic Jews were supported by the senate in Hamburg due to the benefits of their involvement in trade and finance for the city’s economy. Müller views this toleration as a “blindness” of those in positions of political responsibility, which he blames on bribery. His complaints about publically audible singing coming from the synagogues and visible celebrations of Jewish holidays can be read as a sort of caricature of the vivid piety of the religious life which Sephardic Jews in Hamburg led (p. 1387).

Müller’s arguments for toleration of the Jews

Müller closes his argumentation against the toleration of the Jews with a discussion of the numerous expulsions of the Jews in the course of history (p. 1388–1389). He follows this clear sign of the possible consequence of the opposition with a list of theological points that justified the toleration of the Jews. Following the precedence of Luther’s early writings, he begins with the Biblical prediction of a future conversion of the Jews to Christianity (for example, in Romans 11:25). “If they are to recognize Christ [as Savior],” argues Müller, “this must be effected by Christians, [. . .] and this could not happen if they are not allowed to live among Christians” (p. 1389). The other arguments which Müller presents are theologically weaker, including the Jews’ role as guardians of the (Hebrew) Bible or as an example of the extent of divine punishment. His fundamental acceptance of the toleration of the Jews, however, was restricted by numerous conditions. Müller needs several pages to outline the comprehensive social and religious regulations and measures which he considers necessary to protect Christianity against the supposed Jewish blasphemies and to ensure the Christian hierarchy and to encourage the conversion of the Jews to the Christian faith (pp. 1389–1390).

These included a prohibition of synagogues, which, based on his explanation in another section of Judaismus, Müller understands as a ban of all practices of Jewish ritual. This demand was based on Luther’s appellation to “set fire” to the Jews’ synagogues and schools (p. 1391). Instead of adhering to Jewish rituals and customs, Müller suggests that Jews who lived in Christian society should visit Christian sermons and receive daily instruction in Christian doctrine from a specially appointed clergyman. In order to avoid the Jewish blasphemies, Müller considers it necessary to forbid Jewish literature (e.g., the Talmud) (p. 1391) and the kosher slaughter of livestock according to Jewish rituals (p. 1394).

Additional conditions suggested by Müller aimed to safeguard the hierarchy which theologians suggested should be maintained between the two religions (pp. 1392–1394). These included, for example, an abolition of the right of the Jews to dispense justice within their community, the right to own property, or to employ Christians as servants. In Müller’s opinion, Jews should be excluded from honorary offices, like those occupied by some Sephardic Jews in Hamburg as the envoys of foreign powers (p. 1394). In order to teach the Jews humility, Müller advocates that they be required to wear “special symbols” (a “yellow ring”) on their clothing. He draws on old anti-Judaic stereotypes when he demands a ban on usury and warns about their swearing false oaths (p. 1393). Like Luther he seems to have been ignorant of the fact that the Jews, because they were excluded from Christian craft guilds, were often practically forced into mercantile pursuits. With this defamation of their primary employment in trade and financial markets as “idleness” and his plea that Jews should earn their daily bread through physical labor, Müller evokes a distorted image of the actual relationships and responsibilities (p. 1392).

Anti-Judaism vs. economic interests

Müller’s discussion of the question of tolerating the Jews displays the typical effort of orthodox Lutheranism in the 17th century to reach a compromise between Luther’s initial hopes of their conversion and his later anti-Judaism. The latter, however, remained the central element. In Müller’s conception, the Jews were not to be allowed to live according to their own religious laws, but they were to be forced to live in such a way under Christian authorities as might effect their metamorphosis to Christians. Due to this anti-Judaic ideology, many Lutheran cities in Germany, including, for example, Nuremberg and Lübeck, did not allow Jews to reside within the city.

Orthodox Lutheran dogma did in fact play an important role in influencing the political situation of Jews in 17th century Hamburg. Economic interests, however, prevented the implementation of some theological stipulations along the lines Müller outlined. Already in the late 16th century, those in important mercantile circles in Hamburg had recognized that there where “strangers” could be enticed with “hospitality and freedom,” the “noblest economic centers” could gain “honor, power, and prosperity.” Cited from Jutta Braden, “Die Hamburger Judenpolitik und die lutherisch-orthodoxe Geistlichkeit im 17. Jahrhundert,” in: Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte 89 (2003), pp. 1-40: here p. 2. [Translation] This economically motivated turn-of-face in Hamburg meant that for the first time in the early 17th century, Jews were allowed to settle there and granted fairly liberal rights of trade, even as their right to practice their religion remained quite restricted.

Select Bibliography

Jutta Braden, Hamburger Judenpolitik im Zeitalter lutherischer Orthodoxie 1590-1710, Hamburg 2001.
Martin Friedrich, Zwischen Abwehr und Bekehrung. Die Stellung der deutschen evangelischen Theologie zum Judentum im 17. Jahrhundert, Tübingen 1988.
Thomas Kaufmann, Luthers Juden, Stuttgart 2014.
Referat für Christlich-jüdischen Dialog der Nordkirche in Kooperation mit der Arbeitsstelle für Reformationsjubiläum 2017 der Evangelisch Lutherischen Kirche in Norddeutschland (Nordkirche) (ed.), „Ertragen können wir sie nicht“ Martin Luther und die Juden. Begleitheft zur Ausstellung., Hamburg 2014.
Stefan Rohrbacher / Michael Schmidt, Judenbilder. Kulturgeschichte antijüdischer Mythen und antisemitischer Vorurteile. Reinbek, Hamburg 1991.

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About the Author

Jutta Braden, Dr. phil., is historian and research assistant in a research project which deals with the history of missionary work to Jews in Hamburg at the University of Hamburg in collaboration with the Institute for the history of the German Jews. Her focus of research is: policies towards Jews and Jewish-Christian conversions in Hamburg in early modern times.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Jutta Braden, “The Jews’ Residence”: Orthodox Lutheran Attitudes towards the Coexistence of Jews and Christians (translated by Ellen Yutzy Glebe), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-63.en.v1> [April 19, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.