In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jews and the Reformation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Medieval Background
  • Jewish Experience
  • Distinguished Jews of the Reformation Era
  • Jews in Protestant Lands
  • Catholic Leaders and Jews
  • Catholic Lands
  • Christian Hebraica
  • English Puritanism and the Readmission of the Jews
  • Conversion and Converts
  • Anti-Judaism
  • Sources

Renaissance and Reformation Jews and the Reformation
Kenneth Austin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0492


The Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries convulsed European Christianity, leading disparate individuals and communities to revisit key, timeless questions: what did it mean to be a good Christian, how should a Christian community behave, and what were the central ideas and practices of Christianity? Jews and Judaism played important, if varying, roles in the answers to each of those questions. As regards the former, Christians reconsidered the place of Jews as a people. Traditionally, Christians, under the influence of St. Augustine, had tolerated Jews in their midst on the grounds that they played a critical role in divine history: they had once been God’s chosen people (as Christians now believed themselves to be), they had protected the Scriptures, and their current status—wretched, dispersed, and subjected to Christian rule—served as a reminder to Christians of what might happen if they failed to follow God’s commandments. But the growing awareness that the Jews they encountered were different from those in the Old Testament increasingly became a concern, while Jews’ refusal to accept what Christians held to be the self-evident truth of Christianity encouraged accusations of stubbornness and greater animosity. The conflicting pressures to tolerate or persecute were further complicated by the widely held belief that the Jews also had a critical role to play in the future: their widespread conversion to Christianity would be one of the signs of the Last Days. Meanwhile, the relationship with Judaism had been fundamental to the emergence and early development of Christianity and had remained a touchstone during the Middle Ages. It was not surprising, therefore, that Christians should look again to this relationship in the Reformation era. In particular, the Reformation encouraged a new and much wider engagement with Jewish materials and the Hebrew language, in order to combat the counter-claims of Jews, but also as a means of better understanding the Bible (especially the Hebrew of the Old Testament) and the context from which it had emerged, and hence the foundations of Christianity itself. In this respect this knowledge was weaponized, and became fundamental to the conflicts between the competing religions groups.

General Overviews

The subject of Jews and the Reformation is not especially well-served by general overviews. Much more work has been done on specific sub-themes, discussed elsewhere in this article. Nevertheless, there are a number of works which can be used by readers to orient themselves to the state of the field. Baron 1952–1983 is a staggering work of scholarship by a prolific scholar: several of its eighteen volumes are concerned with the Reformation era, and its almost encyclopedic approach means that the views of many reformers and religious groups are considered, though generally as part of the larger narrative. Hsia and Lehmann 1995 and Israel 1997 (originally published a decade earlier) both provide helpful overviews of Jewish-Christian relations in Germany and in western Europe in the Early Modern period more broadly. Kaplan and Teter 2009 is a programmatic article, in which the authors—specialists on Germany and Poland respectively—argue persuasively that discussions of Jews in the Reformation era should not be consigned to the margins, or, as they put it, the “historiographic ghetto.” The growing receptiveness to such calls to recognize the importance of the Jewish dimension to the Reformation has, in recent years, been reflected in contributions to student-oriented essay collections, such as Bodian 2004 and Gow and Fradkin 2016. Bell and Burnett 2006 is a much more substantial collection of essays, edited by two of the leading scholars of the field, which focuses on 16th-century Germany, but does much to shed light on broader themes. Detmers 2001, written by one of the contributors to their volume, is concerned with the theological ideas relating to Judaism of a number of Protestant thinkers in the first half of the sixteenth century. The most recent contribution is Austin 2020, which covers Protestantism and Catholicism, with a particular focus on western Europe across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; it seeks to bring together quite a diverse range of themes which have previously tended to be considered separately.

  • Austin, Kenneth. The Jews and the Reformation. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300186291.001.0001

    Accessible account of the impact of the Reformations—Protestant and Catholic—on the Jews of (especially western) Europe, and on Judeo-Christian relations, between the late fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Contends that attitudes toward Jews and Judaism were much more central to the Reformation endeavor than previously acknowledged, and in challenging the central position traditionally afforded to Luther’s views, seeks to highlight the complexity and diversity of Christian perspectives.

  • Baron, Salo Wittmayer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 18 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952–1983.

    A vast and exceptionally learned attempt to provide a comprehensive history of the Jews by perhaps the greatest Jewish historian of the twentieth century. Volumes 11–16 contain much material that pertains to the Reformation era, though the absence of a clear structure or argument within Baron’s grand narrative means that these volumes—and especially the very substantial endnotes—are above all sources of rich but slightly scattered detail.

  • Bell, Dean Phillip, and Stephen G. Burnett, eds. Jews, Judaism and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.

    Important collection of eighteen essays, written by leading scholars (many of whom appear in their own right elsewhere in this article), organized around four themes: “Road to Reformation,” “Reformers and the Jews,” “Representations of Jews and Judaism,” and “Jews, Judaism and Jewish Responses to the Reformation.” Despite the chronological and geographical focus signaled by the title, this is a groundbreaking volume, with implications for the field as a whole.

  • Bodian, Miriam. “Jews in a Divided Christendom.” In A Companion to the Reformation World. Edited by Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, 471–485. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    A relatively brief overview of the place of Jews, and Christian attitudes toward them, in the Reformation era, written by a distinguished historian of Jews in both Catholic and Protestant contexts. The appearance of this article, in a student-oriented “Companion” to the Reformation, exemplifies the growing attention to the Jewish dimension paid by Reformation scholarship.

  • Detmers, Achim. Reformation und Judentum: Israel-Lehren und Einstellungen zum Judentum von Luther bis zum frühen Calvin. Stuttgart: Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 2001.

    A work of great scholarship that examines attitudes toward contemporary and biblical Jews held by early Protestant reformers in the first half of the sixteenth century; these views are, in turn, set in the context of broader attitudes toward Jews in the medieval and Reformation eras. The volume contains a brief summary in English (pp. 322–327).

  • Gow, Andrew Colin, and Jeremy Fradkin. “Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations. Edited by Ulinka Rublack, 274–300. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    In this article, which appears in another student-oriented volume (in a section entitled “Geographies and Varieties of the Reformation”), and which thus again exemplifies the growing attention to other religious groups in the Reformation era, the authors look primarily at the relationships between Protestantism and Judaism, and between Protestantism and Islam. Jews and Judaism are the focus of pp. 276–285. A concise but effective introduction to the theme.

  • Hsia, Ronnie Po-Chia, and Hartmut Lehmann, eds. In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Collection of twenty-two articles, arranged under six broad headings, concerned with the relationships between Christians and Jews in the Holy Roman Empire between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Individual contributions focus on political, economic, social, and/or cultural dimensions of these relationships. While the Reformation and its consequences provide an important part of the context for many of the contributions, it is not an explicit point of focus.

  • Israel, Jonathan I. European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550–1750. Oxford and Portland, OR: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1997.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv36zr9b

    Third edition of a classic study, winner of the Wolfson Prize, first published in 1986, and written by a prolific scholar of Jewish history. Broadly chronological survey that argues that a range of factors associated with the Early Modern period—including the Reformation, but especially new political and economic priorities—heralded the advent of a new era in terms of Christian attitudes toward, and treatment of, Jews.

  • Kaplan, Debra, and Magda Teter. “Out of the (Historiographic) Ghetto: European Jews and Reformation Narratives.” Sixteenth Century Journal 40.2 (2009): 365–394.

    Important and persuasive article by Kaplan (a historian of Jews in Protestant Strasbourg) and Teter (a historian of Jews in Catholic Poland), calling for the proper integration of “Jewish history” within “the narrative of general history,” rather than treating it as a separate and distinct subfield, of interest only to “Jewish historians.”

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