Part Six of my series on the canon continues here. Please begin at the beginning, or you won’t be able to follow along with the mystery.
Few Protestants have been made aware of the fact that the Great Reformer, Martin Luther, actually ADDED a word to his translation of Holy Scripture to make a point. When heretical groups commit this gross SIN, Christians are rightly appalled. Martin Luther, however, has inexplicably gotten a historical free pass from his fellow Protestants….
Our Protestant protagonist is understandably shaken when he learns about the insertion of the extra word “alone” into Luther’s Bible translation, but his original questions remain: Where did the Apocrypha come from? Why were those books added to Catholic Bibles? And why were they in the first Protestant Bibles?? What does Martin Luther have to do with all this?
If you are trying to solve this mystery along with our hero, pay special attention to Luther’s attitude towards the books of James and Esther – this will play an important role later on in the story!
Luther’s approach to the translation of the New Testament was interesting, to say the least. Again, according to the Hastings Dictionary of the Bible:
Moreover, the Bible is sorted and arranged in grades according as it does so more or less clearly, and to Luther there is ‘a NT within the NT,’ a kernel of all Scripture, consisting of those books which he sees most clearly set forth the gospel. Thus he wrote: ‘John’s Gospel, the Epistles of Paul, especially Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter—these are the books which show thee Christ, and teach all that it is needful and blessed for thee to know even if you never see or hear any other book, or any other doctrine. Therefore is the Epistle of James a mere epistle of straw (eine rechte stroherne Epistel) since it has no character of the gospel in it’ (Preface to NT, 1522; the passage was omitted from later editions).
Luther did not merely accept the books that he found in the New Testament; he graded them. Jesus said in John 5:39 that the Scriptures bear witness to Him. Luther applied this criterion to the books that he translated and ranked them according to how faithfully he felt that they “preached Christ.” Luther used this criterion to dismiss certain books as less worthy of their place in the Bible. As he explains in his original preface to the book of James:
The true touchstone for testing every book is to discover whether it emphasizes the prominence of Christ or not.
He further explained:
That which does not preach Christ is not apostolic, though it be the work of Peter or Paul, and conversely that which does teach Christ is apostolic even though it be written by Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod.
The epistle of James, in Luther’s view, did not pass that test! He wrote:
Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.
In his Table Talk, written many years later, Luther is quoted expressing his misgivings about the Book of James:
We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning [Jas. 1:1; 2:1]. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did. He wrote not a word about the suffering and resurrection of Christ, although this is what all the apostles preached about. Besides, there’s no order or method in the epistle. Now he discusses clothing and then he writes about wrath and is constantly shifting from one to the other. He presents a comparison: ‘As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead’ [Jas. 2:26]. O Mary, mother of God! What a terrible comparison that is! James compares faith with the body when he should rather have compared faith with the soul! The ancients recognized this, too, and therefore they didn’t acknowledge this letter as one of the catholic epistles.
Luther used this reasoning to shunt the book of James out of the main body of the New Testament, out of its place between Hebrews and I Peter, into a “special section” at the end of the New Testament. And James was not alone there, for Luther (and according to him, the “ancients” as well) had misgivings concerning three other New Testament books, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation! Although Luther considered Hebrews to be “a marvelously fine Epistle,” and felt that Christians should “accept this fine teaching with all honor” he insisted that “to be sure, we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles.” This was his reasoning:
The fact that Hebrews is not an epistle of St. Paul, or of any other apostle, is proved by what it says in chapter 2, that through those who had themselves heard it from the Lord this doctrine has come to us and remained among us. It is thereby made clear that he is speaking about the apostles, as a disciple to whom this doctrine has come from the apostles, perhaps long after them. For St. Paul, in Galatians 1, testifies powerfully that he has his gospel from no man, neither through men, but from God himself.
He had the same poor opinion of the book of Jude:
Concerning the epistle of St. Jude, no one can deny that it is an extract or copy of St. Peter’s second epistle, so very like it are all the words. He also speaks of the apostles like a disciple who comes long after them [Jude 17] and cites sayings and incidents that are found nowhere else in the Scriptures [Jude 9, 14]. This moved the ancient Fathers to exclude this epistle from the main body of the Scriptures.
Moreover the Apostle Jude did not go to Greek-speaking lands, but to Persia, as it is said, so that he did not write Greek. Therefore,
although I value this book, it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are supposed to lay the foundations of faith.
And concerning Revelation, Luther stated:
Let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is not taught or known in it. But to teach Christ is the thing which an Apostle is bound above all else to do, as Christ says in Acts 1:8, ‘Ye shall be my witnesses,’ Therefore I stick to the books which give me Christ, clearly and purely.” “About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas, and would bind no man to my opinion or judgment; I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and this makes me hold it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic . . .. And so I think of it almost as I do of the Fourth Book of Esdras, and can nohow detect that the Holy Spirit produced it . . . . It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep.
And so, using his “true touchstone,” Luther single-handedly decided which books to “keep” – and Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation were eased out of their places into what one author calls a “kind of bibliographical ghetto” at the back of the Bible. The Canon of the New Testament tells you:
Luther’s lower estimate of four books of the New Testament is disclosed in the Table of Contents, where the first twenty-three books from Matthew to 3 John are each assigned a number, whereas, after a blank space, the column of titles, without numbers, continues with Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation.
This, you read, was the same way Luther dealt with the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament; he segregated them in a section between the Old and New Testament.
You had almost forgotten about the Apocrypha in your concern over the New Testament books. In his 1534 Preface to the Apocrypha, Luther wrote: “The books of the Apocrypha are not to be regarded as Holy Scripture, yet they are useful and good to be read”.
So the Apocrypha is “useful and good to be read,” but is NOT Holy Scripture – but as you just read in his preface to Revelation, Luther wrote “I think of it [Revelation] almost as I do of the Fourth Book of Esdras, and can nohow detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.” According to him, Revelation was “neither apostolic nor prophetic.” It certainly sounds like Luther put the book of Revelation, along with Hebrews, James and Jude, if not on the same level with the Apocrypha, then maybe just one step up!
The Old Testament apparently fared better than the New under Luther’s handling, although he felt that the books of I and II Kings were “a hundred thousand steps in advance” of I and II Chronicles, and “deserved more credit.” He expressed unhappiness with certain aspects of the books of Jeremiah, Jonah and the Song of Solomon. The book of Esther, however, he disparaged, saying that it “deserves more than all the rest in my judgment to be regarded as noncanonical.” He is further quoted (in Table Talk) as stating that “I so hate Esther and 2 Maccabees that I wish they did not exist. There is too much Judaism in them and not a little heathenism.”
Hmm… it certainly sounds like Luther is tossing the baby out with the bathwater. He would like to get rid of Esther, which everyone knows is Holy Scripture, along with 2 Maccabees, which everyone knows is not Holy Scripture! Obviously, his system of picking and choosing among the books of the Bible isn’t working very well!
You learn that Luther apparently had no real problem with 2 Maccabees or any of the other Apocryphal books, quoting from them as if he considered them to be Holy Scripture, until a debate opponent used a verse in 2 Maccabees to try to prove Luther wrong on the subject of purgatory. Luther’s response is his first recorded objection to an Apocryphal book, referring to 2 Maccabees as “not being in the Canon.”
The custom of segregating the Apocrypha in a section between the Old and New Testament began with Luther’s translation, you read. Both Wycliffe and Luther had Apocryphal books in their Bible translation, although Wycliffe included 1 Esdras in his Bible (as did the KJV), a book which Luther declined to translate. Wycliffe (who died 100 years before Luther was born) did not segregate the Apocrypha; he had the Apocryphal books mixed in among the rest of the books of the Old Testament.
This is bewildering – why would Wycliffe do that??? Does that mean that Wycliffe translated from a Bible manuscript that included the Apocrypha as if it were Scripture when he translated the Old Testament? Where did he find something like that???
On the memorial of St. Arnold Janssen
Deo omnis gloria!