Saturday, November 12, 2016

Luther: "Ecclesiastes ought to have been more complete. There is too much incoherent matter in it..."

Here's a quote that surfaces from time to time in regard to Luther's view of Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes ought to have been more complete. There is too much incoherent matter in it ... Solomon did not, therefore, write this book ...

This has been a favorite Luther quote for Rome's defenders. This version of the quote came from a person who was "moving beyond being a life-long Mormon into full communion with the Body of Christ, which is His Church." By "His Church," Rome is meant. Elsewhere in cyberspace,  this defender of Rome uses a version of the quote as an example of "Luther's Narcissism." This online Roman Catholic periodical uses it to imply Luther was "an enemy of the Bible." Examples could easily be multiplied. We'll see there's a case to be made that Luther wasn't a narcissist or an enemy of the Bible because he was not referring to Ecclesiastes but rather to the deuterocanonical book, Ecclesiasticus.

Documentation: Patrick O'Hare, The Facts About Luther
When the quote is documented on-line, often the source given is either to Roman Catholic author Msgr. Patrick O'Hare or his book, The Facts About Luther. This old book had sunk into obscurity until it was revived by the Roman Catholic publisher Tan Books in 1987.  In their zeal, some of Rome's 1990's early e-pologists put O'Hare's content on the Internet without checking his facts about Luther. Here is how Father O'Hare presents the quote:
But even for the books he chose to retain, he showed little or no respect. Here are some examples of his judgments on them. Of the Pentateuch he says: "We have no wish either to see or hear Moses." "Judith is a good, serious, brave tragedy." "Tobias is an elegant, pleasing, godly comedy." "Ecclesiasticus is a profitable book for an ordinary man." "Of very little worth is the book of Baruch, whoever the worthy Baruch may be." "Esdras I would not translate, because there is nothing in it which you might not find better in Aesop." "Job spoke not as it stands written in his book; but only had such thoughts. It is merely the argument of a fable. It is probable that Solomon wrote and made this book." "The book entitled 'Ecclesiastes' ought to have been more complete. There is too much incoherent matter in it. It has neither boots nor spurs; but rides only in socks as I myself did when an inmate of the cloister. Solomon did not, therefore, write this book, which was made in the days of the Maccabees of Sirach. It is like a Talmud, compiled from many books, perhaps in Egypt at the desire of King Evergetes." (p.207, p.202 Tan)
O'Hare does not say where he took this material from (his documentation is often sketchy), and many of Rome's modern cyber-defenders do not care to do any research as to where the quote comes from.

Documentation: Sir William Hamilton
There were a number of English sources previous to O'Hare that present versions of this quote.  One of the closest English translations I found previous to O'Hare is from an 1865 work:
"The book entitled Ecclesiastes, ought," he continues, "to have been more full. There is too much incoherent matter in it. It has neither boots nor spurs; but rides only in socks, as I myself did, when an inmate of the cloister. Solomon has not, therefore, written this book, which was made in the days of the Machabees, by Sirach. It is like a Talmud, compiled from many books, perhaps in Egypt, at the desire of King Evergetes. So have, also, the Proverbs of Solomon, been collected by others" [link].
There are striking similarities with this source and some of O'Hare's other Luther quotes. The author cites "Edinburgh Review, No. 121" which refers to an article from 1834 entitled, On The Right Of Dissenters To Admission Into The English Universities. This appears to be the main source from which all the English translations of the quote stem from. This article was put together by Sir William Hamilton. Hamilton was not a Roman Catholic theologian but rather a Scottish philosopher and academic. The article has to do with the issue of whether or not those with dissenting religious views should be allowed into universities and compelled to follow the religious views of the English universities.

A number of Luther's statements are brought up to demonstrate that Luther's views would dissent against alleged contemporary Lutheran orthodoxy. Hamilton states, "We can easily show... there is hardly an obnoxious doctrine to be found among the modern Lutherans, which has not its warrant and example in the writings of Luther himself." Hamilton then provides a "hasty anthology of some of Luther's opinions." He provides a few pages of Luther citations broken down into categories. Under the heading of "Biblical Criticism" he quotes Luther saying,    
This book (Ecclesiastes) 'ought to have been more full; there is too much of broken matter 'in it; it has neither boots nor spurs, but rides only in socks, as I myself when in the cloister. Solomon hath not therefore written this book, which hath been made in the days of the Maccabees by Sirach. It is like a Talmud compiled from many books, perhaps in Egypt, at the desire of King Ptolemy Eurgetes. So also have the Proverbs of Solomon been collected by others [link].
This appears to be the main English source for the quote. Hamilton does not admit to doing the English translations (but he did have the ability to do them) nor does he provide a reference as to where the quote comes from. He was challenged for his Luther citations and lack of documentation by Julius Charles Hare. Hare demonstrated that the entire section on "Biblical Criticism" was taken from Luther's Table Talk, an unreliable source. Seemingly provoked by Hare, some years later Hamilton republished his article and added lengthy clarifications and retractions of his Luther material.  In this later revision, Hamilton states:
I now doubt not that Luther used the word Ecclesiasticus, which the reporter heard as Ecclesiastes, appending afterward the translation of The Preacher; for the quotation is from the Table Talk. I think no one will dispute this who compares, inter alia, Luther's " Preface to the Book of Jesus Sirach," to be found, as all the others, in Walch's edition of his works, (xiv. 91.)" [link].
Hamilton says it's more likely Luther meant “Ecclesiasticus” and not “Ecclesiastes.” Despite this retraction, it appears the damaged had already been done. Rome's defenders seized this quote (and probably some of the others in regard to Luther's comments of the Bible presented by Hamilton). Rome's early e-pologists utilized and popularized O'Hare's book without bothering to check the facts.

Julius Charles Hare revealed Hamilton took his undocumented quote from the Table Talk. Luther didn't write the Table Talk. It is a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends and students, published after his death. The entry in question appears to be the following:

This text can also be found in WA TR 1:207. I'm not aware of any official English renderings of this Table Talk, however Hamilton's translation above does capture the essence of the quote.

Comparing Luther's Table Talk Comments to the Preface to Ecclesiasticus
Let's follow the suggestion of Hamilton to compare the sentiments of this Table Talk utterance with Luther’s Preface to the Book of Jesus Sirach:
Since [the translator] admits in the prologue that he came to Egypt in the reign of King Euergetes and that he there completed this book (which his grandfather had originally begun), it seems to us that he has compiled the best from as many books as he could find. After all, there was a valuable library in Egypt which had been founded by the father of Euergetes, King Philadelphus. Moreover in those days both books and learned men were held in high esteem; and, having come from all over, especially from Greece, they constituted one great school of learning [in Alexandria]. There, too, the Jews had built a temple and instituted divine worship.That the book must be a compilation is suggested also by the fact that in it one part is not fitted neatly to the next, as in the work of a single author. Instead it draws on many books and authors and mixes them together, much as a bee sucks juices out of all sorts of flowers and mixes them. Moreover, as one may deduce from Philo, it appears that Jesus Sirach was descended from the royal line of David, and was either a nephew or grandson of Amos Sirach, the foremost prince in the house of Judah, living some two centuries before the birth of Christ, about the time of the Maccabees.” [LW 35: 348]
These comments from Luther do support Hamilton's hypothesis that despite the textual tradition, Luther must have meant Ecclesiasticus. Contrary to the textual tradition of the Table Talk, it can be demonstrated Luther clearly valued Ecclesiastes. One can read Luther’s extensive exposition of it in LW 15 in which he says, “To reiterate, the point and purpose of this book is to instruct us, so that with thanksgiving we may use the things that are present and the creatures of God that are generously given to us and conferred upon us by the blessing of God” (LW 15:10). Luther finds this book so important that it “…deserves to be in everyone’s hands and to be familiar to everyone, especially to government officials because of its graphic and unique description of the administration of human affairs both private and public…” (LW 15:7).

In regards to authorship, Luther did find Solomon to be its author, but not its writer. In Luther’s Preface To Ecclesiastes he says:
Now this book was certainly not written or set down by King Solomon with his own hand. Instead scholars put together what others had heard from Solomon’s lips, as they themselves admit at the end of the book where they say, “These words of the wise are like goads and nails, fixed by the masters of the congregation and given by one shepherd” [Eccles. 12:11]. That is to say, certain persons selected by the kings and the people were at that time appointed to fix and arrange this and other books that were handed down by Solomon, the one shepherd. They did this so that not everyone would have to be making books as he pleased, as they also lament in that same place that “of the making of books there is no end” [Eccles. 12:12]; they forbid the acceptance of others. These men here call themselves “masters of the congregation” [Eccles. 12:11], and books had to be accepted and approved at their hands and by their office. Of course the Jewish people had an external government that was instituted by God, which is why such a thing as this could be done surely and properly. In like manner too, the book of the Proverbs of Solomon has been put together by others, with the teaching and sayings of some wise men added at the end. The Song of Solomon too has the appearance of a book compiled by others out of things received from the lips of Solomon. For this reason these books have no particular order either, but one thing is mixed with another. This must be the character of such books, since they did not hear it all from him at one time but at different times.
The Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament published an article in 2014 entitled, Solomon’s Table Talk: Martin Luther on the Authorship of Ecclesiastes. The author argues in-part that some of the Table Talk utterance does apply to Ecclesiastes, but not in  regard to authorship. The thesis of the article states,
Martin Luther’s comments in a section of Table Talk continue to be used as evidence that he denied the Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes. A comparison of the passage with Luther’s “Preface” to Jesus Sirach demonstrates that the majority of Luther’s comments in that section of Table Talk pertain to Sirach. However, the passage also has clear parallels in Luther’s “Preface to Solomon’s ‘The Preacher,’” suggesting that it is a mixture of Luther’s comments on Ecclesiastes and Sirach. The portions of Table Talk which do pertain to Ecclesiastes have commonly been misinterpreted. Luther does not deny that Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes; he denies that Solomon was the scribe. He thought that Ecclesiastes was written down by students on the basis of the oral teachings of their master, much like his own Table Talk.

In fairness to Rome's defenders, the Table Talk text does say, "the book of Solomon, the preacher, Ecclesiastes." If this is an error (which I believe it is), it has a long textual history. Here's a text from 1700 that still said  Ecclesiastes. Here's a text from 1574 that says the same. Here's one from 1569. Here's one from 1567. Here's one from 1566. One could argue that Hamilton, a philosopher affiliated with the Protestant Church of Scotland, may be guilty for introducing the quote originally into the English literary world, but let's be fair to Hamilton as well: it's not that difficult to understand why it actually happened when the textual tradition is in view. If there's any guilt in the use of this quote, it would be with Rome's modern defenders (or anyone) who uses the quote without actually researching it. The quote serves as an excellent example as to the tenuous nature of the Table Talk.

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2007. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.


drhill said...

Hi - I am working my way through Ecclesiastes, and was hoping for some insight from Luther, as he is one who I think often hits good views on scripture. I want to thank you fro putting this up. Kind Regards,

James Swan said...


For a good reference to what Luther says on...this or that...

Pick up, What Luther Says by Ewald Plass.

It's a topical anthology of Luther quotes on various subjects and topics