Luther remembered in a new quincentenary tome

Martin Luther/The Guardian

Unlike other biographers of Martin Luther, Lyndal Roper portrays the theologian as an authoritarian fuelled by hatred – of Jews as well as the papacy, writes Ian Thomson in The Guardian.

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lynda Roper (Vintage)

Jesus Christ, a Jewish rabboni, or teacher, alarmed the Temple authorities by daring to come back to life. "OK, so we killed him, but only for three days", runs the Jewish joke.

Christianity began with a crucified body that went missing – but was it really a Jewish body? Martin Luther's austere, reforming personality would not allow for Christ's Jewish blood because Jews fed off satanic excrement. "The devil stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place," Luther preached.

The German theologian was aware of the Hebraic roots of the Bible. (Matthew's gospel, the most demonstrably "Jewish" of the four, seeks to show how every recorded act of Jesus is rooted in Jewish scripture.) Yet Luther called for German Jewry's complete cultural eradication. Small wonder his anti-semitism was co-opted by the Third Reich. His virulent Jew-baiting was no mere relic of Catholic anti-semitism; it was integral to Protestant identity and a Protestant sense of election as God's anointed people.

As Lyndal Roper writes in her excellent and wholly absorbing biography, Luther argued repeatedly that Jews did not belong to the German race. Instead, they were a contaminant akin to the Nazis' Fremdkörper – an alien body within the nation.

In many ways, Luther's campaign to "restore" Biblical Christianity to 16th-century Germany was a battle for land and national supremacy. Catholics, no less than Jews, were seen by Luther as a supranational sect inimical to the sturdy bond of Germanic race and nationhood. His animus against Rome served not only to unite Germans against the papacy, but strengthened their territorial sovereignty.

Unlike other biographers of Luther, Roper concentrates on the churchman's childhood. Luther was born in Eisleben, in northern Germany in 1483, but grew up in the provincial mining town of Mansfeld, a Dantean hellpit of smouldering slagheaps and furnaces. Luther's father, a well-off smelting master, wanted young Martin to marry into money; instead, in a flagrant act of disobedience, he became a tonsured Augustinian monk.

Monastic sexual continence did not suit the mine owner's son, however, and in 1525 Luther married a former nun, Katharina von Bora. It was no longer a requirement for priests to be celibate.

In Roper's analysis, Luther's rebellion against his father anticipated his attacks against the Pope.

READ MORE

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper – review (The Guardian)

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An engraving of Martin Luther (The Guardian)

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