Stephen G. Burnett
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.
Erik H. Herrmann
Martin Luther’s exposition of the Bible was not only fundamental to his academic vocation, it also stood at the very center of his reforming work. Through his interpretation of the New Testament, Luther came to new understanding of the gospel, expressed most directly in the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification. Considering the historical complexities of Luther’s own recollections on the matter, it is quite clear that he regarded his time immersed in the writings of Paul as the turning point for his theology and his approach to the entire Scriptures (cf. LW 34:336f). Furthermore, Luther’s interpretation of the New Testament was imbued with such force that it would influence the entire subsequent history of exegesis: colleagues, students, rivals, and opponents all had to reckon with it. However, as a professor, Luther’s exegetical lectures and commentaries were more often concerned with the Old Testament. Most of Luther’s New Testament interpretation is found in his preaching, which, following the lectionary, usually considered a text from one of the Gospels or Epistles. His reforms of worship in Wittenberg also called for weekly serial preaching on Matthew and John for the instruction of the people. From these texts, we have some of the richest sustained reflections on the Gospels in the 16th century. Not only was the substance of his interpretation influential, Luther’s contribution to exegetical method and the hermeneutical problem also opened new possibilities for biblical interpretation that would resonate with both Christian piety and critical, early modern scholarship.
John A. Maxfield
Scholarly analysis of biblical interpretation and commentary in the history of Christianity has become an important subfield in history as well as biblical studies and theology. From the Reformation and into the modern era, Martin Luther has been appreciated first of all as an expositor of the Bible and a confessor of its teachings. His vocation as a theologian called to teach in the University of Wittenberg was especially focused on the exposition of scripture, and his development as a theologian and eventually as an evangelical reformer was deeply tied to his experience in interpreting the Bible in his university classroom, in the Augustinian cloister, and in his household. His interpretation of scripture was the basis of his “Reformation discovery” of justification by faith, and his conflict with the papal church was largely the result of Luther’s conviction that the message of scripture, in particular “the gospel,” was being overwhelmed in the theology and churchly practice of his time by “human teachings” not supported by and contradicting scripture. As a result, Luther and other evangelical reformers of the 16th century appealed to scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the highest authority in shaping their theology and proposals for reform.
Luther’s teachings and leadership in the Reformation were shared and celebrated not only through his doctrinal and polemical treatises and catechetical writings, but also through the many sermons, biblical commentaries on both Old and New Testament books, and prefaces on the books of the Bible that were published in his lifetime and thereafter. Old Testament commentary was an especially important genre of Luther’s published works, as it encapsulated much of his work as a university professor of theology and evangelical reformer.