Martin Luther and Christian Hebraism
Summary and Keywords
Christian Hebraism was a facet of Renaissance humanism. Biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools sought to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in its original language, and to borrow and adapt ideas and literary forms from post-biblical Hebrew texts to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. While some medieval Christian scholars such as Nicholas of Lyra and Raymond Martin made extensive use of Hebrew in their works, not until the early 16th century were a significant number of Christians able to learn Hebrew and use it to study the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish texts. The desire of biblical humanists to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the curiosity of Christian Kabbalists searching for ancient wisdom, and a slowly growing number of Jewish tutors and Christians who were able to provide Hebrew instruction all contributed to the growth of this movement. Jewish printers pioneered the techniques of mass-producing Hebrew books to feed this new market. Christian printers would use these same techniques to print grammars, dictionaries, and other books needed for instructing Christians. The growing conviction of Martin Luther and his followers that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority (sola scriptura) provided the most compelling reason for large numbers of Christians to learn Hebrew. The most active and innovative Protestant Hebraists during Luther’s lifetime were members of the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis,” including Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, Conrad Pellican, and above all Sebastian Münster.
Martin Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues were early adopters of the new Hebrew learning. He first learned Hebrew using Johannes Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar, and put his knowledge to practical use when lecturing on the Old Testament and translating the Bible into German. His colleagues, above all Philip Melanchthon and Matthaeus Aurogallus, helped Luther translate and revise his translation from 1521 until his death in 1546. Luther characterized his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Bible as “Grammatica Theologica,” employing Hebrew philology to interpret the text, but also wherever possible making it “rhyme” with the New Testament. Toward the end of his life, Luther became increasingly concerned that Münster and other Hebraists were too quick to accept Jewish interpretations of many Old Testament passages, particularly verses that traditionally had been understood to be messianic prophecies. In On the Last Words of David (1543) Luther offered a model of how he interpreted the Old Testament, while sharply criticizing Christian Hebraists who followed Jewish interpretation too closely.
Christian Hebraism was a facet of Renaissance humanism. Biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools sought to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in its original language, and to borrow and adapt ideas and literary forms from post-biblical Hebrew texts to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. Although Church Fathers such as Jerome and Augustine believed and taught that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament was worthy of study, very few Christian scholars pursued Hebrew learning until the high Middle Ages.1 Christians who wished to learn biblical Hebrew faced a series of barriers to overcome, above all finding an instructor. Since Jews and Christians differed over the interpretation of many passages in the Hebrew Bible, the scholarly quest for Hebrew and Aramaic learning was motivated in part by apologetic concerns. Familiarity with Hebrew and with the Hebrew Bible was especially important for Christians who wished to debate with Jews. By the beginning of the 16th century, Christians had new reasons to study Hebrew and new opportunities to do so. Both biblical humanism and Protestantism emphasized the importance of a return to the sources (ad fontes) of the Christian faith through study of the Old and New Testaments in their original languages. Italian Jewish presses, above all Daniel Bomberg’s firm in Venice, made Hebrew Bibles and other Jewish texts more readily available to Hebrew students. The inclusion of Hebrew into university and even Latin school curricula, an educational change urged by advocates of biblical humanism and Protestant reformers alike, provided more opportunities for Christians to learn Hebrew, ultimately creating a small but growing market for Christian Hebrew books. Martin Luther and his colleagues benefited from all of these developments and would transform Wittenberg into a center of Hebrew scholarship in its own right.
Medieval and Renaissance Christian Hebraism
The most common uses of Hebrew learning among Christians during the Middle Ages were textual studies and anti-Jewish polemics. The most important Christian medieval exegete to employ Hebrew in a biblical commentary was Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270–1349). Nicholas’s use of Rashi’s biblical commentary, translating substantial parts of it into Latin and incorporating it into his discussions of specific biblical passages in his Postillae, provided an example of how Christians could benefit from the study of Jewish texts. Nicholas did this through a combination of exegetical sifting and occasional anti-Jewish polemic, making clear to his readers the extent to which Jews could be trusted to understand the literal interpretation of a passage and where they were blind to its meaning.2
Medieval Spain with its large populations of Jews and Muslims became the focus of intense missionary efforts after the founding of the Franciscan (1209) and Dominican orders (1216). At the disputation of Barcelona (1263), the Christian spokesman Pablo Christiani constructed his argument against the validity of Judaism by using quotations from the Talmud and other Jewish sources.3 This new approach to anti-Jewish polemic required that at least some Christian scholars learn not only biblical Hebrew, but also medieval Hebrew and Aramaic. Raymond Martin’s enormous Pugio fidei was the most important book to employ this new approach. The missionary concerns of the medieval church are reflected in the famous decree of the Council of Vienne (1311–1312), which called for the creation of university chairs in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic at the universities of Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and Salamanca. While the universities largely ignored the council decree, the Dominican order supported schools so that its own members could learn Hebrew and Arabic.4
Renaissance humanism provided new reasons for scholars to pursue Hebrew learning by the end of the 15th century. The humanist desire to explore old texts for insight and information manifested itself in two important ways: a yearning for the new wisdom that kabbalistic learning offered, and a desire to return to the source texts of the Christian faith, including the Hebrew Bible.5 Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola introduced the Christian world of scholarship to Kabbalah through his 900 Theses (1486), at least forty-seven of which referred specifically to kabbalistic ideas.6 Pico believed that kabbalistic literature was even older than classical Greek literature and that it could be mined for information and for insight into what he and Marsilio Ficino termed the Prisca theologica. Yet Pico’s greatest influence on the growth of Christian Hebrew learning came not through his own kabbalistic studies, but through his persuading Johannes Reuchlin to study the Kabbalah.
Johannes Reuchlin was a jurist and diplomat who pursued his passion for Hebrew and Greek learning as a side interest.7 Reuchlin’s two books on the Kabbalah, De verbo mirifico (1494) and De arte cabalistica (1517), served to popularize kabbalistic learning. His book De rudimenta (Pforzheim, 1506), which contained a Hebrew grammar and lexicon, provided both biblical humanists and would-be kabbalists with a means of learning Hebrew themselves. Reuchlin’s work was divided into three parts: a brief introduction to the Hebrew alphabet and morphology, a massive lexicon of biblical Hebrew, and his discussion of the Hebrew parts of speech. Reuchlin presented Hebrew grammar by marrying the philological content of Hebrew, especially as explained by Moses and David Kimhi, with the grammatical structure of classical Latin. Moses Kimhi’s book Mahalakah shevile ha-da’at (Journey on the Paths of Knowledge) was his most valuable source of explanations and examples for the grammatical section, while David Kimhi’s Sefer ha-shorashim (Book of Roots) was the principal source for the lexicon. Reuchlin provided biblical quotations in Latin for nearly all of the words, which made the lexicon more accessible for beginning Hebrew students but limited its usefulness for more advanced students.8 Price notes, “The sheer quantity of quotations from Jerome transformed the lexicon into an overwhelmingly Christian book. But this modification established the context for Reuchlin’s sustained effort to correct the Vulgate text and reject its authority on the basis of Jewish biblical research.”9
Biblical humanism was the single most important factor that contributed to the growth of widespread Hebrew learning among Christians before the Reformation. Erasmus was not the first Renaissance scholar to heed the Church Father Jerome’s call for a return to the sources by reading the New Testament in its original Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew, but he was a singularly effective spokesman for Jerome’s ideal. In his introduction to the first printed Greek New Testament (1516), he asserted that knowledge of the biblical languages was essential for theologians. His associates Wolfgang Capito, Johannes Oecolampadius, and Conrad Pellican were all pioneers in the study of Hebrew and would become leaders in the Protestant movement. A number of Catholic biblical humanists, particularly Sanctes Pagninus, made substantial contributions to the growth of Hebrew learning.10
Jewish printers who produced Hebrew Bibles also encouraged the growth of Christian Hebrew scholarship. In 1506 Reuchlin confidently asserted in the introduction to his Hebrew grammar that “throughout Italy Hebrew Bibles are printed and one can without effort purchase them at low cost,” and he urged would-be Hebrew students to make the effort to purchase their own copies.11 Daniel Bomberg took advantage of the growing market for Hebrew Bibles among both Christians and Jews by printing pocket-sized copies of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon in duodecimo (12°) and quarto Hebrew Bibles in 1516–1517, 1521, and 1525–1528, which had only the Hebrew Bible text. Christian presses that specialized in producing humanist books soon began to produce books with Hebrew type written by Christian authors or, like the works of Elias Levita, translated and adapted for Christian readers.12
Finding a teacher was the most difficult challenge for would-be Christian Hebraists before 1520. Johannes Reuchlin hired at least three Jewish tutors to teach him Hebrew before he wrote his own Hebrew grammar, De rudimentis hebraicis (1506). Conrad Pellican had an even more difficult time learning Hebrew and was largely self-taught. He began to study the language in 1499 by using a Hebrew manuscript of the latter prophets, together with a few transcribed Hebrew phrases from the book of Isaiah which he found in Peter Schwarz’s Tractatus contra perfidos Judeos (1475) and the Vulgate.13
In 1513 Pellican studied with Matthias Adrianus, and in 1538 he read Talmud with Michael Adam; both men were Jewish converts. After 1515, a number of academies and universities began to offer Hebrew instruction as part of their curriculum, including Paris (1517), Wittenberg (1518), Louvain (1520), Ingolstadt (1520), Freiburg/Briesgau (1521), Strasbourg (1523), Basel (1524), the Sapienzia in Rome (1524), Zurich (1525), Bern (1527), Marburg (1527) and Salamanca (1530).14 The University of Wittenberg flourished within this favorable environment for Hebrew studies.
Luther and Wittenberg Hebraism
Martin Luther was an early adopter of the new Hebrew learning rather than a pioneer. He began learning Hebrew through self-study, using Johannes Reuchlin’s De rudimenta (1506) perhaps as early as 1509. Luther would continue to use it as his guide to Hebrew until the very end of his career, when he lectured on Genesis (1535–1545).15 Luther also studied using Reuchlin’s annotated Hebrew text of Seven Penitential Psalms (1512), which he translated into German in 1517.
Luther probably acquired his first Hebrew Bible (Brescia, 1494) sometime between 1515 and 1518. It was a small book, easy to carry around, which may have been the reason that Luther held on to it until the end of his career.16 Luther began referring to the Hebrew text by the end of his first series of lectures on the Psalms (1513–1515), and did so with much greater confidence in his second series of Psalms lectures (1519–1521).17 Luther practiced and improved his Hebrew further while hiding in the Wartburg. When staying overnight in Jena, disguised as Junker Jörg, Luther was incautious enough to sit and read a Hebrew Psalter in the public room of his inn.18 At a time when it was still quite unusual for Christian scholars to learn and read Hebrew, Luther was already a diligent student of the language. He would become more familiar with Hebrew over the course of his professional life through lecturing on Old Testament texts, and his German Bible translation.
German Bible Translation
Luther is justly remembered for his Bible translation. Biblical expositors may pick and choose the passages they wish to preach or teach on, but Bible translators must pay attention to each and every word, expression, and sentence of each biblical book. Luther devoted most of his career to translating the Bible, and then further revising his translation (most intensively during 1521–1534 and 1539–1541). His biblical lectures and his other published works involving biblical exposition must be read in light of his constant linguistic studies. The actual philological work of translation was not easy for Luther. He wrote to Spalatin in February of 1524 that Job had suffered more from the attempts of his translators than from the bad advice of his friends.19 In his Open Letter on Translating (1530), Luther recalled the troubles that he, Melanchthon, and Aurogallus had when they worked on the book of Job:
I have constantly tried in translating to produce a pure and clear German, and it has often happened that for two or three or four weeks we have searched and inquired for a single word and sometimes have not found it even then. In translating Job, Master Philip, Aurogallus and I labored so that sometimes we scarcely handled three lines in four days.20
In 1528, Luther complained, “We are laboring hard to bring out the prophets in the mother tongue. My God, what a great and difficult work it is to make the Hebrew writers speak German! They resist it so, and are unwilling to give up their Hebrew existence and become like Germans.”21 Luther and his colleagues frequently had difficulties with individual words and with figures of speech, and the existing linguistic tools were often of no help. Luther wrote to Spalatin in December of 1522 about the difficulties he was having giving some birds and animals of the Bible their proper names:
I am all right on the birds of the night—owl, raven, horned owl, tawny owl, screech owl—and on the birds of prey—vulture, kite, hawk, and sparrow hawk. I can handle the stag, roebuck and chamois, but what in the devil am I to do with the taragelaphus, pygargus, oryx and camelopard (animal names from the Vulgate)?22
Luther’s concern to clarify the Hebrew text grew in part from his work as a Bible translator.
In light of Luther’s Bible translation work, his constant complaints about the poor quality of the Hebrew reference books available to him become clearer. Luther believed that the Hebrew grammars and lexicons he had at his disposal were woefully inaccurate when dealing with figures of speech and proverbs. He felt this lack keenly, since it was only possible to render a passage into good German if one first understood the passage in good Hebrew, meaning Hebrew that reflected usus loquendi rather than the artificial variety of grammarians.23 While acknowledging that Jews preserved knowledge of Hebrew, Luther asserted that it was a halting grammatical knowledge of Hebrew and that Jews no longer possessed a really fluent, pure familiarity with the language.24 Quite apart from their ignorance of Christ, the subject of Scripture, Jewish linguists and commentators frequently did not understand Hebrew phrases, figures of speech, and idioms. Rather like an poor organist who gropes for keys or pipes, asking “Are you the right one or are you the right one?” so Jewish Bible interpreters were often at a loss to explain Hebrew words or phrases.25 Luther’s comment was not an expression of despair that he could never properly understand the Hebrew Bible text, but rather a warning that the state of Hebrew scholarship was poor in his day, and therefore Hebrew grammar could not be considered an absolutely infallible tool for understanding the Hebrew Scriptures.
Luther’s Bible translation was primarily his own work, but he relied quite heavily on the Hebrew skills of his Wittenberg colleagues. Philip Melanchthon received some Hebrew instruction from Reuchlin himself. He taught Hebrew at the University of Wittenberg on occasion, though he always preferred Greek to Hebrew.26 Matthaeus Aurogallus served as professor of Hebrew at Wittenberg from 1521 until his death in 1543. Aurogallus was the only member of Luther’s circle to publish a Hebrew grammar (1523). The book interestingly contained a guide to Hebrew abbreviations commonly found in Hebrew Bible commentaries, enabling Wittenberg scholars and students to consult these texts.27 Caspar Cruciger and Johannes Bugenhagen also participated in these meetings and were able to consult the Hebrew Bible text directly.28 Melanchthon, Aurogallus, and Cruciger all apparently owned rabbinic Bibles and were able to use both the Hebrew and Targum texts, and to some extent the Jewish Bible commentaries printed in them.29 Presumably they also used Sebastian Münster’s annotations to his Hebraica Biblia (1534–1535), as Luther himself did (see below). According to Matthesius’ account of the 1539–1541 translation committee, it would meet weekly and each participant would bring the Bible they were most accustomed to use: Melanchthon a Septuagint, Bugenhagen a Vulgate, Cruciger (and presumably Aurogallus) the Hebrew Bible:
At first everybody had prepared for the text to be discussed and had looked into Greek, Latin and Jewish interpretations. Thereupon this president [i.e., Luther] proposed a text and asked one after the other, what each of them wanted to say about it, according to the nature of the language or according to the interpretation of the old doctors. Wonderful and informative speeches were given about this work. M[agister] Georg [Roerer] has written some of them down. [1539–1541].30
Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues spent over a decade working together with the Hebrew Bible text, making their work in some ways comparable to the Zurich Prophezei or the formidable expertise of Strasbourg Academy faculty such as Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, and Paul Fagius.
Luther’s Old Testament Lectures
Heinrich Bornkamm famously declared that in contemporary terms Luther would have to be considered a professor of Old Testament, since he devoted the majority of his thirty-two-year career to lecturing on it rather than on New Testament books (only three to four years).31 A chronological list of Luther’s major lecture series confirms this:
Song of Solomon
Luther’s use of Hebrew and Hebrew tools was rudimentary at the beginning of his career. While lecturing on the Minor Prophets, he frequently quoted Reuchlin’s definitions of words, but also used the commentaries of Nicholas of Lyra and Paul of Burgos to gain insight into the Hebrew. He also consulted not only the Vulgate and Septuagint, but also the “Worms Prophets” translation of Hans Denck and Ludwig Hätzer.33 As Christian Hebraists elsewhere in Europe published new scholarly works, Luther and his colleagues read them. The holdings of the Wittenberg University Library in 1536 indicate that the Wittenbergers had access to much the same works as Bucer, Münster, and their colleagues in the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis” did, and that they followed the emerging Hebrew scholarship closely. The catalogue contains references to twenty-five Hebrew books, seventeen written or edited by Sebastian Münster. The two most important non-German Christian Hebraist works were Pagninus’s Thesaurus linguae sanctae lexicon hebraicum (Lyons, 1529), and Giustiniani’s famous polyglot Psalter (Genoa, 1516). Jewish imprints included a second edition Bomberg rabbinical Bible (1525), Nathan b. Kalonymous’s Hebrew Bible concordance, and Abraham de Balmes’s grammar (1523).34
Luther consulted these works with differing degrees of comfort, since members of the Upper Rhineland School used Jewish scholarship with varying degrees of dependence. Oecolampadius’s Isaiah commentary was well received by Luther and his colleagues.35 Oecolampadius’s approach to translation and interpretation of the text matched Luther’s needs and priorities quite well. Oecolampadius wrote:
[S]ince a number of my listeners had begun Hebrew studies, I wished to be content with the Hebrew text and be tied to no other translation; even though I did not despise the others, but consulted and even on occasion adduced them by way of commentary. For this same reason anywhere that idioms of the Hebrew people sounding somewhat harsh in Latin have been retained, this was deliberate, consideration having been taken of the students who might thereby read Hebrew more easily.36
Luther used Oecolampadius’s literal translation as an aid to understanding the Hebrew text of Isaiah and as a resource for his lectures on it (1528–1530).37
Luther’s consulted Bucer’s Psalms commentary (1529) but did so with some qualms, as noted in his Defense of the Translation of the Psalms (1531).38 Luther made it clear that he and his colleagues consulted Jewish biblical commentaries in their work, but did so selectively. Luther wrote, “We have not acted out of a misunderstanding of the languages or out of ignorance of the rabbinical commentaries, but knowingly and deliberately.”39 When he discussed how the rabbis interpreted Psalms 58:9 (10) and Psalms 118:27 in both his Defense and in the Psalms revision protocol, he closely followed Bucer’s account of rabbinical opinion.40
Luther found Münster’s biblical annotations (1534–1535) far more troubling reading than Bucer’s or Oecolampadius’s commentaries.41 Münster employed a far wider variety of Jewish biblical commentaries than his predecessors and often presented a variety of conflicting Jewish interpretations, leaving his puzzled readers to decide which (if any) of the rabbis had understood the text correctly.42 In the introduction to his Hebraica Biblia, Münster stressed that his role was that of a philologist, a language expert who sought to clarify the meaning of individual verses as Erasmus had for the New Testament, leaving the theological aspects of the text for others to clarify.43 Münster’s reluctance to pursue theological interpretation concerned Luther. Luther once commented that Münster would have profited from a stay in Wittenberg, where Münster could see how he and his colleagues interpreted Scripture.44
Nonetheless, Luther made extensive use of Münster’s annotations when lecturing on Genesis during 1535–1545, mixing praise and blame throughout. While he praised Münster’s abilities as a Hebraist, far surpassing his own skills, Luther frequently voiced three major criticisms of him. First, Luther asserted that Münster failed to relate the words of Scripture to its subject matter. When commenting on Cain’s complaint to God that his sin was too great to bear (Gen. 4:7), Luther delivered a broadside against the rabbis and “those who pattern themselves after them”:
Gerondi [Moses Nahmanides] has an excellent knowledge of the words (just as there are many today who far surpass me in their knowledge of the Hebrew language); but because he does not understand the matter (res), he distorts the passage with which we are dealing.
Luther learned what Nahmanides thought at this point through reading Münster’s biblical annotations, clarifying whom he meant by the phrase “those who pattern themselves after the rabbis.”45
Second, Luther believed that Münster was too confident about the state of scholarship on the Hebrew language. He believed that study of the theological and grammatical aspects of particular verses could not be separated (see below).46 The minutes of Luther’s translation committee meetings of 1531 and 1539–1541 attest to the struggles of the Wittenbergers with the grammatical difficulties of particular verses. They frequently consulted rabbinical Bible commentaries, whether directly in their copies of rabbinical Bibles or indirectly through works such as Bucer’s Psalms commentary or Münster’s biblical annotations.47 While Münster was prone to “beat” Luther with the “whip” of the fallible rules of grammar, Luther’s response was to question the authority of Jewish grammatical scholarship.48
Third, Luther’s final criticism of Münster involved the latter’s unconcern for establishing the single, simple meaning of each and every biblical passage. By quoting so many different, frequently conflicting rabbinical comments in his biblical annotations, Münster gave them credence as possible interpretive options. When commenting on the meaning of the Hebrew word kibrat (“distance”), Luther wrote that neither he nor the Jews knew what the word meant (Gen. 35:17), but that ignorance spurred rather than stifled rabbinical creativity: “[W]hen the Jews have doubts about a word, they resort to equivocation and multiply meanings and make it more obscure by their glosses.”49 Worse, Luther believed that Jewish interpreters were quite capable of changing the meaning of a verse by deliberately misreading it. In his comments on Gal. 3:8 Luther wrote:
“Abraham believed God” and “I have established you as the father”—these very clear and magnificent statements, which commend faith very highly and contain promises of spiritual things, the Jews not only ignore completely; but they also reason captiously about them and distort them with their foolish and wicked glosses [emphasis added]. For they are blind and callous; therefore they do not see that in these passages faith toward God and righteousness in the sight of God are being treated. With the same perversity they evade this outstanding passage about the spiritual blessing (Gen. 12:3): “In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” They explain, “bless” as “to praise, to wish well, to pronounce glorious.” Thus it would mean: “Blessed are you, O Jew, born of the progeny of Abraham. Blessed are you, O foreigner, you who worship the God of the Jews and join them.”50
Luther worried that if Christians should start to accept these wrongheaded rabbinic interpretations about key scriptural passages, they might lose the gospel entirely.
Luther and Grammatica Theologia
Throughout his career Luther believed that Christ was the “subject matter” (res) of the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments. His unique contribution to Old Testament interpretation was his understanding of how faith in the promised Christ was expressed at different important junctures of Old Testament history. Bornkamm described these turning points as “hours of revelation,” a time when the people of God were to recognize and heed the prophetic word of God as it steered his people in a new direction.51 Luther’s On the Last Words of David (1543) exemplified his mature understanding of how Christians should understand the Old Testament. In 2 Samuel 23:1, Luther linked David’s faith to both the promise given the tribe of Judah in Genesis 49:10 (“The scepter shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh comes”) and to 2 Samuel 7:11–16 [= 1 Chron. 17:10–14] where God narrowed the promise to David’s descendants within the tribe of Judah.52 Luther believed that a mere philological interpretation of the 2 Samuel 23 that did not consider either its theological antecedents or its New Testament outcome was unsatisfactory at best, devilish at worst.
Luther was convinced that his theological perspective tallied neatly with his grammatical interpretation of the passage. In the course of his exposition of 2 Samuel 23, Luther made three rather precise points in supporting biblical texts, based upon his understanding of Hebrew words. For example, he understood Genesis 4:1, when Eve spoke of Cain’s birth, to mean, “I have gotten a man, the Lord.” Here Luther understood the Hebrew word ‘et to be the direct object marker, not as the preposition meaning “with.”53 Whether Luther was right or wrong in his three interpretations is less important than his willingness to base his interpretation on the grammatical features of the Hebrew Bible text, employing philological argumentation to back up his exposition. In his interpretation of 1 Chronicles 17:17, Luther claimed to find an Old Testament discussion of the dual nature (human and divine) of the coming Messiah, something none of the Church Fathers had claimed. Luther defended the very novelty of his interpretation, noting, “After the days of the apostles knowledge of the Hebrew language was scant and deficient.”54 He was convinced that a careful, grammatical examination of the passages he offered as a model would confirm his interpretation. Even Jewish experts, Luther believed, if they could be compelled to examine his work, would be obliged to agree that these interpretations were grammatical.55
Luther sought to model what he considered the proper way to translate and exposit a given Hebrew text to make it “rhyme” with the New Testament. As he interpreted each phrase of 2 Samuel 23:1–7, Luther looked for correspondences between the Old and New Testaments, and found them in the doctrine of the Trinity, the coming Messiah of David’s house, and the nature of faith itself. Luther placed great stress on the presence and activity of not only God the Father, but also of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible. They were indicated when, in poetic passages such as 2 Samuel 23:3, the Spirit of the Lord speaks as well as God (or where one member of the Godhead speaks to another), and where Christ reveals himself in words or deeds to be distinct from the Father.56 Luther also contrasts the Christian understanding of the Messiah with the Jewish view as he understood it, to the detriment of the latter. Finally, Luther held up the faith of David in the coming Messiah as worthy of emulation.57 Christian Hebraists were duty bound to make these observations and not to stick to philology alone.
Luther consciously used anti-Jewish polemic in On the Last Words of David to remind Christian Hebraists that Jews are not neutral sources of information about the Old Testament text, but rather were fully convinced foes of the gospel whose scholarship should not be taken at face value. Jewish Bible commentaries were not a neutral source of textual knowledge, but reflected Jewish blindness, stubbornness, and rebellion against God. Luther described his exposition of 2 Samuel 23 as both a way of “strengthening our faith” and of defying “all devils, Jews, Muslims, papists, and all other enemies of this Son of David.”58 By emphasizing the theological distance between Jew and Christian, rabbi and Christian Hebraist, Luther warned Christian Hebraists that those who uncritically followed the Jews in biblical interpretation were in danger of becoming “thieves of truth” themselves. The texts whose meaning the Jews “seized” through misunderstanding, distortion, equivocation, or other means should be properly interpreted and restored to their rightful owner, the Christian church.
Luther’s career as a Christian Hebraist was narrowly focused on the interpretation and exposition of the biblical text. While he admitted to the end of his life that Jewish linguistic scholarship was critical for a Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible text, he was less willing to adopt Jewish hermeneutical insights from Jewish Bible commentaries. Some early Lutheran Hebraists, most notably Andreas Osiander, were more willing to use Jewish commentaries. By the early 17th century, Lutheran Hebraists such as Johann Gerhard and Solomon Glass would make far greater use of Jewish scholarship than Luther would have thought appropriate.59
Review of the Literature
Christian Hebraism and its impact upon the Reformation before 1550 has been an active research specialization since the 1960s, but much research remains to be done. The surveys of Jerome Friedman and Stephen G. Burnett provide context for the relationship of Christian Hebraism and the Reformation, but the impact of individual Christian Hebraists and their work on the theology and translation activities of Luther and other reformers remains unclear.60
Individual Hebraists have received the most scholarly attention. David H. Price has provided a fine overview of Reuchlin’s Hebraism and its place within his many accomplishments.61 R. Gerald Hobbs’s numerous studies of Martin Bucer and his use of Hebrew and Jewish commentaries are excellent, but a full evaluation of Bucer’s extremely important Psalms commentary with his constant interaction with David Kimhi’s biblical commentary remains to be done.62 Bernard Roussel and R. Gerald Hobbs together identified the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis” of Christian Hebraism, making clear the links of professional cooperation AMONG Strasbourg, Basel, and Zurich.63 G. Sujin Pak provides an excellent discussion of the differences between the emerging Lutheran and Reformed approaches to interpreting messianic psalms and the connections between confessional formation and hermeneutics.64 The biographies of Karl Heinz Burmeister and Richard Raubenheimer provide a good starting point for the Christian Hebraism of Sebastian Münster and Paul Fagius, but discuss their philological work only superficially.65 Paul F. Grendler notes that the important Italian pioneers of Christian Hebraism, above all Sanctes Pagninus, have yet to receive serious scholarly study.66
Hebrew learning, Jews, and Jewish scholarship were closely linked in the minds of Luther and his contemporaries, and this topic has received some scrutiny. Jeremy Cohen and Deeana Copeland Klepper provide the medieval background, above all for Nicholas of Lyra’s career and commentary.67 Achim Detmers provides the best survey of the attitudes of the Reformers and the Jews, though for treatment of individual reformers including Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Zwingli, Calvin and Osiander, see also the essays in Dean Philip Bell and Stephen G. Burnett.68
While the problem of Luther and the Jews has received an enormous amount of scholarly attention, Luther’s use of Jewish Bible commentaries and scholarship has not. Heinrich Bornkamm remains an indispensable starting point for research on Luther, Hebrew, and his Bible translation and theology of the Old Testament.69 Siegfried Raeder provides an excellent overview of the scholarly work that has been done on Luther and Christian Hebraism.70 He also wrote several books focusing on Luther’s use of Hebrew in the first and second Psalms commentaries, most importantly Grammatica Theologica.71 Gerhard Krause and Dietrich Thyen discuss Luther’s use of Hebrew in his lectures on the Minor Prophets and Isaiah, but there is almost no scholarship on the last fifteen years of Luther’s career.72 Since Luther spent these years revising his Psalms translation and Old Testament translation as a whole, and lecturing on Psalms and Genesis, this is a serious deficiency. The ways that Luther used Hebrew scholarship in his translation revisions and in his late lectures have not been adequately studied.
Bell, Dean Philip, and Stephen G. Burnett. Jews, Judaism and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.Find this resource:
Bornkamm, Heinrich. Luther and the Old Testament. Translated by Eric W. Gritsch and Ruth C. Gritsch. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969.Find this resource:
Burmeister, Karl Heinz. Sebastian Münster: Versuch eines biographischen Gesamtbilden. Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1963.Find this resource:
Burnett, Stephen G. “Reassessing the ‘Basel-Wittenberg Conflict’: Dimensions of the Reformation-Era Discussion of Hebrew Scholarship.” In Hebraica Veritas? Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe. Edited by Allison P. Coudert and Jeffrey S. Shoulsen, 181–201. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.Find this resource:
Burnett, Stephen G. Christian Hebraism in the Reformation Era (1500–1660): Authors, Books, and the Transmission of Jewish Learning. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.Find this resource:
Cohen, Jeremy. The Friars and the Jews. The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.Find this resource:
Detmers, Achim. Reformation und Judentum: Israel; Lehren und Einstellungen zum Judentum von Luther bis zum frühen Calvin. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2001.Find this resource:
Friedman, Jerome. The Most Ancient Testimony: Christian-Hebraica in the Age of Renaissance Nostalgia. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1983.Find this resource:
Grendler, Paul F. “Italian Biblical Humanism and the Papacy, 1515–1535.” In Biblical Humanism and Scholasticism in the Age of Erasmus. Edited by Erika Rummel, 227–276. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.Find this resource:
Hobbs, Gerald. “Martin Bucer on Psalm 22: A Study in the Application of Rabbinic Exegesis by a Christian Hebraist.” In Histoire de l’exégèse au XVIe siècle. Edited by Olivier Fatio and Pierre Fraenkel, 144–163. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1978.Find this resource:
Hobbs, Gerald. “How Firm a Foundation: Martin Bucer’s Historical Exegesis of the Psalms.” Church History 53 (1984): 477–491.Find this resource:
Klepper, Deeana Copeland. The Insight of Unbelievers: Nicholas of Lyra and Christian Reading of Jewish Text in the Later Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Krause, Gerhard. Studien zu Luthers Auslegung der Kleinen Propheten. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1962.Find this resource:
Pak, G. Sujin. The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:
Price, David H. Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Raeder, Siegfried. Grammatica Theologica: Studien zu Luthers Operationes in Psalmos. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1977.Find this resource:
Raeder, Siegfried. “The Exegetical and Hermeneutical Work of Martin Luther.” In Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation; Vol. 2: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Edited by Magne Saebø and Michael Fishbane, 363–406. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008.Find this resource:
Raubenheimer, Richard. Paul Fagius aus Bergzabern: Sein Leben und Wirken als Reformator und Gelehrter. Grünstadt, Germany: Verein für Pfälzische Kirchengeschichte, 1957.Find this resource:
Roussel, Bernard, and R. Gerald Hobbs. “De Strasbourg a Bale et Zurich: Une ‘Ecole Rhenane’ d’Exegese (ca 1525–ca 1540).” Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 68 (1988): 19–39.Find this resource:
Roussel, Bernard, and R. Gerald Hobbs. “Strasbourg et ‘l’ecole rhenane’ d’exegese (1525–1540).” Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français 135 (1989): 36–41.Find this resource:
Thyen, Dietrich. “Untersuchungen zu Luthers Jesaja-Vorlesung.” Theological Diss., University of Heidelberg, 1964.Find this resource:
(1.) Stephen G. Burnett, Christian Hebraism in the Reformation Era (1500–1660): Authors, Books, and the Transmission of Jewish Learning (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 12.
(2.) Deeana Copeland Klepper, The Insight of Unbelievers: Nicholas of Lyra and Christian Reading of Jewish Text in the Later Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 1, 5.
(3.) Robert Chazan, Daggers of Faith: Thirteenth-Century Christian Missionizing and Jewish Response (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 67–85, 115–136.
(4.) Berthold Altaner, “Die Fremdsprachliche Ausbildung der Dominikanermissionare während des 13. und 14. Jahrhunderts,” Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft 23 (1933): 236–241.
(5.) Saverio Campanini, “Die Geburt der Judaistik aus dem Geist der Christlichen Kabbalah,” in Gottes Sprache in der philologischen Werkstatt: Hebraistik vom 15. bis zum 19. Jahrhundert, ed. Giuseppe Veltri and Gerold Necker (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004), 135–145.
(6.) Chaim Wirszubski, Pico della Mirandola’s Encounter with Jewish Mysticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 19–52.
(7.) David H. Price, Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
(10.) Paul F. Grendler, “Italian Biblical Humanism and the Papacy, 1515–1535,” in Biblical Humanism and Scholasticism in the Age of Erasmus, ed. Erika Rummel (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 241–247.
(11.) Johannes Reuchlin, Reuchlin Briefwechsel, ed. Stefan Rhein, Matthias Dall’Asta and Gerald Dörmer (4 vols.; Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Fromann-Holzboog, 2000–2011), 2: 35, ll. 29–30, no. 138.
(12.) Burnett, Christian Hebraism, 190–194.
(15.) Siegfried Raeder, “The Exegetical and Hermeneutical Work of Martin Luther,” in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, vol. 2: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. Magne Saebø and Michael Fishbane (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), 397.
(16.) Christoph Mackert, “Luthers Handexemplar der hebräischen Bibelausgabe von 1494—Objekt bezogene und besitzgeschichtliche Aspekte,” in Meilensteine der Reformation: Schlüsseldokumente der frühen Wirksamkeit Martin Luthers, edited by Irene Dingel and Henning Jürgens (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2014), 70–78, with plates 4–8.
(17.) Raeder, “Exegetical,” 374, 379.
(18.) Johannes Kessler, Johannes Kesslers Sabbata mit kleineren Schriften und Briefe, ed. Emil Egli and Rudolf Schoch (St. Gallen: Fehr’sche Buchhandlung, 1902), 78, line 9.
(19.) Luther to Spalatin, 23 February 1524. Quoted by Raeder, “Exegetical,” 398.
(20.) Luther, On Translating—An Open Letter (1530), LW 35:188; WA 30/II:632–646).
(21.) Luther to Wenzeslaus Link [Wittenberg], 14 June 1528, WA BR 4:484, 9–11. English translation from Encyclopedia Britannica, 10th ed. (1902), s. v. “Luther, Martin.”
(22.) Luther to Spalatin [Wittenberg, c. 12 December 1522], WA BR 2:630, 14–631, 43, trans. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950), 327–328.
(23.) Bengt Hägglund, “Martin Luther über die Sprache,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 26 (1984): 4.
(24.) WA 43:206–207, 418–419, 659–660; 44:101–102, 248; LW 4:99 (Gen. 22:1–2); 393 (Gen. 25:29–30); 5:335 (Gen. 30:5–8); 6:136 (Gen. 32:25); 322 (Gen. 37:9); and WA 44:101–102, 135, 415–416; LW 6:136 (Gen. 32:25); 181–182 (Gen. 33:18); 7:157 (Gen. 41:33–36).
(25.) Luther, On the Last Words of David, LW 15:322.
(26.) Hans Volz, “Melanchthons Anteil an der Lutherbibel,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 45 (1954): 202.
(27.) Otto Eissfeldt, “Des Matthäus Aurigallus Hebräische Grammatik von 1523,” in Kleine Schriften, ed. Otto Eissfeldt, Rudolf Sellheim and Fritz Maass (Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1966), vol. 3, 200–204.
(28.) Volker Gummelt, Lex et Evangelium: Untersuchungen zu Jesajavorlesung von Johannes Bugenhagen (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994), 83–87.
(29.) Stephen G. Burnett, “Reassessing the “Basel-Wittenberg Conflict: Dimensions of the Reformation-Era Discussion of Hebrew Scholarship,” in Hebraica Veritas? Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe, ed. Allison P. Coudert and Jeffrey S. Shoulsen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 187. On the importance of the rabbinic Bible during the Reformation, see Stephen G. Burnett, “The Strange Career of the Biblia Rabbinica among Christian Hebraists, 1517–1620,” in Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars and Readers in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Matthew McLean and Bruce Gordon (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 63–83.
(30.) Johannes Mathesius, Leben Dr. Martin Luthers, in Siebzehn Predigten, edited by A. J. D. Rust (Berlin: Crantz, 1841), 281–282, trans. Raeder, “Exegetical,” 400. Roerer’s minutes are printed in WA DB 3:166–580; and WA DB 4:1–278.
(31.) Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther and the Old Testament, trans. Eric W. Gritsch and Ruth C. Gritsch (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 7.
(32.) Raeder, “Exegetical,” 379–380.
(33.) Gerhard Krause, Studien zu Luthers Auslegung der Kleinen Propheten (Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1962), 56–72.
(34.) Sachiko Kusukawa, A Wittenberg University Library Catalogue of 1536 (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995), 1–3.
(35.) Timothy J. Wengert, Philipp Melanchthon’s Annotationes in Johannem in Relation to its Predecessors and Contemporaries (Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1987), 128–134.
(36.) Quoted and translated by R. Gerald Hobbs, “Exegetical Projects and Problems: A New Look at an Undated Letter from Bucer to Zwingli,” in Prophet, Pastor, Protestant: The Work of Huldrych Zwingli After Five Hundred Years, ed. E. J. Furcha and H. Wayne Pipkin (Allen Park, PA: Pickwick, 1984), 94–95.
(37.) Dietrich Thyen, “Untersuchungen zu Luthers Jesaja-Vorlesung” (Theological Diss., University of Heidelberg, 1964), 105–109.
(38.) Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church 1532–1546, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 107–108.
(39.) Luther, Defense of the Translation of the Psalms, LW 35:209.
(40.) Compare Luther, Ursachen des Dolmetschens, WA 38:9, 15–33 (Ps. 58:9) and 15, 11–20 (Ps. 118:27) and WA DB 3:61, 16–28, 3:147, 33–148, 3 with Martin Bucer, S. Psalmororum libri quinque ad ebraicam veritatem versi et familiari explanatione elucidati ([Strasbourg: Georg Viricherus Andlanus Chalcographus, 1529)], ff. 239b (Ps. 58:9) and 353b, 355a (Ps. 118:27).
(41.) Sebastian Münster, En tibi lector: Hebraica Biblia Latina Planeque Nova Sebast. Munsteri translatione …, vol. 1 (Basel: Bebel, Isengrin & Petri, 1534) [Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Sig. 2 B. orient 18–1/2].
(42.) Burnett, “Reassessing,” 192. On Münster’s Jewish sources, see Erwin I. J. Rosenthal, “Sebastian Münster’s Knowledge and Use of Jewish Exegesis,” Studia Semitica, vol. 1: Jewish Themes (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 127–145.
(43.) Karl Heinz Burmeister, Sebastian Münster: Versuch eines biographischen Gesamtbildes (Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1963), 90.
(44.) LW 54:445–446; WA TR 5:218–219, no. 5002.
(45.) Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1–5, LW 1:263–266 (Gen. 4:7).
(46.) Siegfried Raeder, Grammatica Theologica: Studien zu Luthers Operationes in Psalmos, (Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1977), 34–36; and Siegfried Raeder, “Voraussetzungen und Methode von Luthers Bibelübersetzung,” in Geist und Geschichte der Reformation: Festgabe Hanns Rückert zum 65. Geburtstag (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 38; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1966), 154.
(47.) See their discussions of Ps. 68: 27 where the notes read “Sic exponunt Rabini Bibliam” (WA DB 3:554, 10) and Ps. 127:“Rabbi Kimchi est deus Rabinorum” (WA DB 3:574, 2).
(48.) “Munsteri Hebraismus. 27 Martii fiebat mentio Munsteri et aliorum Hebraeorum, qui Lutherum flagellarunt in translatione bibliae omnia ad regulas grmmaticas referentes: Grammatica quidem necessaria est in declinando, coniugando et construendo, sed in oratione sententiae et res considerandae non grammatica den die grammatica soll nicht gregnare super sententias.” WA TR 3:619, 25–30, March 27, 1538.
(49.) See Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 31–37, LW 6:266 (Gen 35:17); WA 44:197, 35–37; and Münster, Hebraica Biblia, 35a.
(50.) Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1–4, LW 26, 242–243.
(51.) Bornkamm, Luther and the Old Testament, 113.
(52.) LW 15:271–272, 279.
(53.) LW 15:319.
(54.) LW 15:286–287.
(55.) LW 15:321.
(56.) LW 15:277–278, 336–337.
(57.) LW 15:272–273.
(58.) LW 15:298–299.
(59.) Johann Anselm Steiger, “The Development of the Reformation Legacy: Hermeneutics and Interpretation of Sacred Scripture in the Age of Orthodoxy,” in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, vol. 2: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. Magne Saebø and Michael Fishbane (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), 691–757.
(60.) Jerome Friedman, The Most Ancient Testimony: Christian-Hebraica in the Age of Renaissance Nostalgia (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1983); Burnett, Christian Hebraism.
(61.) Price, Johannes Reuchlin.
(62.) Gerald Hobbs, “Martin Bucer on Psalm 22: A Study in the Application of Rabbinic Exegesis by a Christian Hebraist,” in Histoire de l’exégèse au XVIe siècle, ed. Olivier Fatio and Pierre Fraenkel (Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1978), 144–163; Hobbs, “Exegetical Projects and Problems.”
(63.) Bernard Roussel and R. Gerald Hobbs, “De Strasbourg a Bale et Zurich: Une ‘Ecole Rhenane’ d’Exegese (ca 1525–ca 1540),” Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 68 (1988): 19–39; Roussel and Hobbs, “Strasbourg et ‘l’ecole rhenane’ d’exegese (1525–1540),” Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français 135 (1989): 36–41.
(64.) G. Sujin Pak, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
(65.) Burmeister, Sebastian Münster; Richard Raubenheimer, Paul Fagius aus Bergzabern: Sein Leben und Wirken als Reformator und Gelehrter (Grünstadt, Germany: Verein für Pfälzische Kirchengeschichte, 1957).
(66.) Grendler, “Italian Biblical Humanism and the Papacy.”
(67.) Jeremy Cohen, The Friars and the Jews. The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983); Klepper, The Insight of Unbelievers.
(68.) Achim Detmers, Reformation und Judentum: Israel; Lehren und Einstellungen zum Judentum von Luther bis zum frühen Calvin (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2001); Dean Philip and Stephen G. Burnett, Jews, Judaism and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006).
(69.) Bornkamm, Luther and the Old Testament.
(70.) Raeder, “Exegetical.”
(71.) Raeder, Grammatica Theologica.
(72.) Krause, Studien; Thyen, “Untersuchungen.”