Burnett earns Humboldt Prize

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Burnett earns Humboldt Prize

Stephen Burnett

Stephen Burnett has a unique skill set: he is fluent in Hebrew, German and Latin and has research expertise in Hebrew Bible texts.

These skills ultimately led to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor to receive a Humboldt Research Award. Granted by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany, the honor is given in recognition of a researcher’s achievements whose fundamental discoveries, new theories or insights have had a significant impact on their discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future.

The prize is one of fewer than 100 given this year and will allow Burnett, chair of classics and religious studies, to spend time in Germany researching and writing a book exploring Martin Luther’s 1543 polemical books and the anti-Jewish sentiments he shared that eventually were used by the Nazis for pre-World War II propaganda.

“It’s a difficult topic, and frankly, it’s a poisonous one in some ways,” Burnett said.

Luther’s three 1543 polemical books, “On the Jews and their Lies,” “On the Ineffable Name,” and “On the Last Words of David,” were written against both German Jews and “Judaizers,” or Christians who agreed with some Jewish beliefs and interpretations of the Bible. In the polemical books, Luther’s self-appointed task was to draw clear boundaries between Christianity and Judaism as religions and warn German Protestant political and religious leaders of the dangers that Jews and Judaizers posed to Christian societies.

“My project is significant both because of Luther’s enduring historical and religious importance and because these troubling books were used by the Nazis in their own anti-Semitic propaganda,” Burnett said. “My book will be the first to focus on these three toxic texts and to provide an historically contextualized interpretation of them.”

Burnett, who has also focused on the study of Hebrew during the Renaissance and Reformation, will working in consultation with Thomas Kauffman, a faculty member at the University of Göttingen and a Reformation historian. Burnett has worked with Kauffman before, using his fluency in German to translate one of Kauffman’s works. Kauffman nominated Burnett for the Humboldt.

Burnett will spend seven months in Germany starting in April. His main focus will be getting his book ready for publication to coincide with the anniversary of the Reformation, which began in 1517 with the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses.

“Protestants admire Luther for his insistence that the Bible should serve as the foundation for Christian faith and for his courage in standing up to the Catholic hierarchy and the Holy Roman Emperor to assert this,” Burnett said. “But his legacy is a mixed one. Since nearly every undergraduate who has taken a course either in modern Jewish history or in the history of anti-Semitism has read quotations from the final pages of Luther’s ‘On the Jews and their Lies,’ any book that effectually contextualizes his shocking demands will inevitably help shape these discussions.”

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