Saturday, November 19, 2016

Luther: "The book of Esther I toss into the Elbe..."

Allegedly Luther stated, "The book of Esther I toss into the Elbe. I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much and has in it a great deal of heathenish naughtiness . . ." What are the implications of this brief snippet? Did Luther denigrate a book of Sacred Scripture? Did Luther deny the book of Esther to be Holy Scripture?

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." The quote also made it's way on to Luther, Exposing the Myth. says the quote displays Luther's "contempt for Holy Scripture." Examples could easily be multiplied. We'll see there's a case to be made that this quote doesn't prove Luther was a narcissist an enemy of the Bible, or holding Scripture in contempt. I'll demonstrate below this isn't one quote, it's actually two different quotes put together from an unreliable source. The first sentence is not about the book of Esther at all.

Documentation: Secondary Source, 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." "The book of Esther I toss into the Elbe. I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much and has in it a great deal of heathenish naughtiness." "The history of Jonah is so monstrous that it is absolutely incredible." "The first book of the Maccabees might have been taken into the Scriptures, but the second is rightly cast out, though there is some good in it." (p.207-208, p.202 Tan)
O'Hare does not say where he took this material from (his documentation is often sketchy). The trail does not stop here. These quotes had been circulating in English for quite some time previous to The Facts About Luther.

Documentation: Secondary Source, Sir William Hamilton
There were a number of English sources previous to Father O'Hare presenting versions of this quote. One of the closest English translations previous to O'Hare is from an 1865 work:
"The book of Esther," he exclaims, "I toss into the Elbe! I am such an enemy to the book of Esther, that I wish it did not exist; for it judaizes too much, and has in it a great deal of heathenish naughtiness" [link].
I mention this source because there are striking similarities with it and some of O'Hare's other Luther quotes (O'Hare appears to have borrowed from this source). This 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 explore Luther's views and contemporary Lutheran orthodoxy and heterodoxy. 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,
"The book of Esther, I toss into the Elbe. I am so an enemy to the book of Esther that I would it did not exist; for it Judaises too much, and hath in it a great deal of heathenish naughtiness" [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.

Documentation: Primary Sources
In response to a critic, Sir Hamilton revised his article and included documentation: "Colloquia c. lx.§ 10." "Colloquia" refers to Luther's Table Talk. His documentation though is less than adequate. Which version of "Colloquia" was being used? Hamilton doesn't say. In this revised version, buried in a footnote, he does say in passing that originally he "copied...Walch from whom... I translated." "Walch" refers to the German edition of Luther's works compiled by Johann Georg Walch between 1740-1753. This was one of the standard sets used by academics in the early nineteenth century. The actual text Hamilton probably used originally was page 2079 from Walch 22 (1743). The text reads, "Esther",

The documentation Hamilton added does not match up to this edition. Later editions of Walch's text correct the  Esther / Esdras error. For instance, in Dr. Martin Luther's sämmtliche Werke, Volumes 60-62 (1854) states,

The same corrected text is found in WA TR 1:208. This text only accounts for the first sentence used by Hamilton ("The book of Esther, I toss into the Elbe").  This utterance was not translated into English in LW 54. However, an English translations was provided in William Hazlitt's edition of the Table Talk:
The third book of Esdras I throw into the Elbe; there are, in the fourth, pretty knacks enough; as, “The wine is strong, the king is stronger, women strongest of all; but the truth is stronger than all these." 
The rest of the quote used by Hamilton is from a different Table Talk utterance. Hamilton originally took it from page 2080 from Walch 22.  In a later edition of Walch (Dr. Martin Luther's sämmtliche Werke, Volumes 60-62, 1854), the text reads,

This text can be also be found in WA TR 1:208. An English translation was provided by Sir Hamilton in his revised article. There is also a corrupted English translation in Hazlitt's edition of the Table Talk (link).
Hamilton's Translation: And when the doctor was correcting the second book of the Maccabees, he said: I am so an enemy to the book of Esther, that I would it did not exist; for it Judaizes too much, and hath in it a great deal of heathenish naughtiness. Then said Magister Foerster," — "The Jews rate the book of Esther at more than any of the prophets; the prophets Daniel and Isaiah they absolutely contemn. Whereupon Dr. Martinus:—It is horrible that they, the Jews, should despise the noblest predictions of these two holy prophets; the one of whom teaches and preaches Christ in all richness and purity, while the other pourtrays and describes, in the most certain manner, monarchies, and empires along with the kingdom of Christ.
Hazlitt's Translation: I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalitiesThe Jews much more esteemed the book of Esther than any of the prophets; [though they were forbidden to read it before they had attained the age of thirty, by reason of the mystic matters it contains]. They utterly condemn Daniel and Isaiah, those two holy and glorious prophets, of whom the former, in the clearest manner, preaches Christ, while the other describes and portrays the kingdom of Christ, and the monarchies and empires of the world preceding it. Jeremiah comes but after them.
Hazlitt was probably working from the same text as Hamilton. One noticeable difference is Hazlitt's addition of the phrase highlighted in red lettering,  "though they were forbidden to read it before they had attained the age of thirty, by reason of the mystic matters it contains." I highlighted this phrase because it is not in the context of the German text cited above. It appears Hazlitt made a copyist error and took this partial sentence from a different Table Talk comment that occurs in the same section in which Luther is said to have explained that Genesis 1 was forbidden until age thirty:

There is clearly a variant in the first Table Talk statement used by sir Hamilton therefore discounting it as evidence on Luther's view of Esther. This mistake of Esther for Esdras dates back to the sixteenth century (for instance, here is the same variant in a 1567 edition). There does not appear to be any similar variant in the second Table Talk utterance. Below in Addendum #2 there is some evidence presented in regard to Forster's recorded complaint that the Jews esteemed Esther higher than some of the other Old Testament books. Luther's recorded response to Forster isn't necessarily about the book of Esther.

There is though some evidence in this second comment in regard to Luther's view of Esther. Luther calls himself an "enemy" of the book of Esther, wishing that it did not exist due to "heathenish" attributes. What exactly does this mean? To my knowledge, there is no text from Luther clarifying his meaning. The closest explanation I could locate comes from late in Luther's life in his book, The Jews and Their Lies:
They are real liars and bloodhounds who have not only continually perverted and falsified all of Scripture with their mendacious glosses from the beginning until the present day. Their heart’s most ardent sighing and yearning and hoping is set on the day on which they can deal with us Gentiles as they did with the Gentiles in Persia at the time of Esther.  Oh, how fond they are of the book of Esther, which is so beautifully attuned to their bloodthirsty, vengeful, murderous yearning and hope.[LW 47:156]. 
This explanation though is purely speculative. This is one of the main problems with the Table Talk: devoid of a broader context and historical setting, the statements contained therein are open to interpretation. This Table Talk utterance stands as the only purely negative comment Luther is said to have about the book Esther. The Table Talk is a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends and students, published after his death. It often appears to fall on deaf ears when I point out to the defenders of Rome that Luther didn't write the Table Talk. Since the statements contained therein are purported to have been made by Luther, they should serve more as corroborating second-hand testimony to something Luther is certain to have written (this will be explored in addendum #1). As it stands, neither Table Talk utterance proves conclusively that Luther was a narcissist, an enemy of the Bible, or holding sacred scripture in contempt.

Addendum #1: Luther on the Canonicty of Esther
 A basic search of his writings reveals that Luther freely quoted from the book of Esther, assuming it's value in the Bible. There is at least one instance though in which Luther seems to speak negatively about its canonicity.  Erasmus had used a passage from the book of Ecclesiasticus in defense of the freedom of the will,
I do not think anyone will object against the authority of this work that it was not, as Jerome points out, regarded as canonical by the Hebrews, since the Church of Christ has received it by common consent into its canon; nor do I see any reason why the Hebrews felt they must exclude the book from theirs, seeing they accepted the Proverbs of Solomon and the Love Song. As to the fact that they did not receive into their canon the last two books of Esdras, the story in Daniel about Susanna and Bel the dragon, Judith, Esther, and several others, but reckoned them among the hagiographa, anyone who reads those books carefully can easily see what their reasons were. But in this work there is nothing of that kind to disturb the Reader. [Erasmus, The Diatribe, as cited in Luther's Works 33:110]
In De Servo Arbitrio, Luther responded to Erasmus:
“...[T]hough I could rightly reject this book [Ecclesiasticus], for the time being I accept it so as not to waste time by getting involved in a dispute about the books received in the Hebrew canon. For you poke more than a little sarcastic fun at this when you compare Proverbs and The Song of Solomon (which with a sneering innuendo you call the “Love Song”) with the two books of Esdras, Judith, the story of Susanna and the Dragon, and Esther (which despite their inclusion of it in the canon deserves more than all the rest in my judgment to be regarded as noncanonical)." [LW 33:110]
"Though I might with justice repudiate this book [Ecclesiasticus], yet for the present I receive it, so as not to lose time by entangling myself in a dispute about books received into the Jewish canon. You are somewhat biting and derisive yourself about that canon, when you compare the Proverbs of Solomon and the Love-song (as with a sneering innuendo you term it) to the two books of Esdras and Judith, and the History of Susanna and of the Dragon, and the book of Esther (though they have this last in their canon; in my opinion, however, it is less worthy to be held canonical than any of these)." [The Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), Reprint October 1999, 143].
In this comment, Luther appears to assume that Esther was not in the Jewish canon, therefore non-cannonical. But in his translation of the Bible, Luther translated and included Esther (as early as 1524). He did not offer any negative criticism as to its non-canonicity in his Bible prefaces (Luther did not write a preface for the canonical Esther). He translated it, not with the apocryphal books, but rather with the canonical books. If he considered it apocryphal, why didn't he translate it with apocrypha? Why didn't he place it with the apocrypha when he placed the Biblical books in order? In his Bible prefaces, Luther distinguishes the particular non-canonical parts of Esther, and place them with the other apocryphal writings:
Preface to Parts of Esther and Daniel 1534
Here follow several pieces which we did not wish to translate [and include] in the prophet Daniel and in the book of Esther. We have uprooted such cornflowers (because they do not appear in the Hebrew versions of Daniel and Esther).  And yet, to keep them from perishing, we have put them here in a kind of special little spice garden or flower bed since much that is good, especially the hymn of praise, Benedicite,  is to be found in them. But the texts of Susanna, and of Bel, Habakkuk,  and the Dragon, seem like beautiful religious fictions, such as Judith and Tobit,  for their names indicate as much. For example, Susanna means a rose,  that is, a nice pious land and folk, or a group of poor people among the thorns; Daniel means a judge,  and so on. Be the story as it may, it can all be easily interpreted in terms of the state, the home, or the devout company of the faithful.[LW 35:353]
The editors of Luther’s Works state,
Luther’s ordering of the apocryphal books is his own. It does not follow the sequence in which they appeared either in the Vulgate or in the Septuagint where they were interspersed among the canonical books in positions which varied with the different manuscripts. In the older German Bibles, Judith had followed Tobit and preceded Esther; Wisdom had followed Song of Solomon and preceded Ecclesiasticus [LW 35:339, fn 9 ].
Luther abandoned the ordering of the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the older German Bibles. He placed the apocryphal books at the end of his Old Testament translation, clearly separating them from those Old Testament books he considered canonical. He included Esther with the canonical books. Roger Beckwith (author of The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church) has said, “It is sometimes said that Luther, following certain of the Fathers, denied the canonicity of Esther, but Hans Bardtke has questioned this, as not taking into account of all the evidence (Luther und das Buch Esther, Tubingen Mohr, 1964)” (Beckwith, p.1), Bardke assembled around seventy instances in which Luther referred to Esther (see pages 88-90).

Addendum #2: The Debate Between William Hamilton and Julius Charles Hare
Sir William Hamilton 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. On the quote in question, Hare states:
...[W]hen our eyes run through the Reviewer's anthology, one of the most startling sentences is this: "The book of Esther I toss into the Elbe." If a person familiar with Luther's style lights upon this sentence, he will recognize the great Reformer's unmistakable mark in the words, I toss into the Elbe; and it will be a pang to him to find Luther applying such rude words to any book, even the least important, in the Holy Scriptures. But he did not. The Reviewer asserts that he gives us Luther's "own words literally translated: "Mr Ward asserts that the Reviewer's name is "a sufficient voucher for the accuracy of his quotations:" and yet Luther never said anything of the sort about the book of Esther. The original of this "literal translation" is plainly the following sentence in Luther's Tabletalk; Das dritte Buch Esther werfe ich in die ElbeThe third boot of Esther I toss into the Elbe. Why the Reviewer left out the word third in his "literal translation," it is for him to explain. Were one to follow the example he sets in imputing the vilest motives to all persons in authority in the University of Oxford, one should call this a fraudulent imposition. Was he puzzled to make out what could be meant by the third book of Esther and did he intend tacitly to correct the text? When words are made the ground of an accusation, they should be examined with scrupulous care; and if it appear requisite to alter them, this should be expressly stated. Here the next sentence plainly shews that a totally different correction is needed. "In the fourth book; in that which Esther dreamt, there are pretty, and also some good sayings, as, Wine is strong, the king stronger, women still stronger, but truth the strongest of all." I quote from Walch's edition, Vol. xxii 2079, and have no means of examining older copies of the Tischreden; but the old English translation speaks of the third book of Hester. So that the errour, gross as it is, seems to have belonged to the original text. For there can be no question that Luther had been talking, not of a nonexistent third and fourth book of Esther, but of the books of Ezra or Esdras; though there is still much confusion in the report of his words, since the argument about strength does not stand in the fourth book, but in the third, the first of the apocryphal ones; those of Ezra and Nehemiah being numbered as the first two. Thus Luther's words are nothing but a Lutheran mode of saying what Jerome actually did, when he cast these apocryphal books out of his Version, as he says in his Preface to the book of Ezra: "Nee quemquam moveat quod unus a nobis editus liber est; nee apocryphorum tertii et quarti somniis delectetur; quia et apud Hebraeos Ezrae Neemiaeque sermones in unum volumen coarctantur, et quae non habentur apud illos, nee de viginti quatuor senibus sunt, procul abjicienda." Nor can anything well go beyond Jerome's contemptuous expressions about the same books in his pamphlet against Vigilantius. Assuredly too the next sentence quoted by the Reviewer,—" I am so an enemy to the book of Esther that I would it did not exist; for it Judaizes too much, and hath in it a great deal of heathenish naughtiness,"—though here again the English Translation agrees with Walch in applying Luther's words to the Book of Esther, was in fact spoken of the apocryphal books of Esdras. For the whole passage in the Tabletalk is as follows: "When the Doctor was correcting the translation of the second Book of the Maccabees, he said, I dislike this book and that of of Esther so much, that I wish they did not exist; for they Judaize too much, and have much heathenish extravagance. Then Master Forster said, The Jews esteem the book of Esther more than any of the prophets." The combination of the book with that of the Maccabees,—which the Reviewer ought not to have omitted,—as well as Forster's remark, leaves no doubt that Luther spoke of the book of Esdras. These blunders shew how unsafe it is to build any conclusions on the authority of the Tabletalk [link].
Seemingly provoked by Hare, some years later Hamilton republished his article and added lengthy clarifications and retractions of his Luther material. In regard to this quote, he extended it and added documentation:
"The book of Esther, I toss into the Elbe" [Colloquia c. lx.§ 10].  —["And when the doctor was correcting the second book of the Maccabees, he said:—] I am so an enemy to the book of Esther, that I would it did not exist; for it Judaizes too much, and hath in it a great deal of heathenish naughtiness. [Then said Magister Foerster," (the great Hebrew professor):— "The Jews rate the book of Esther at more than any of the prophets; the prophets Daniel and Isaiah they absolutely contemn. Whereupon Dr. Martinus:—It is horrible that they, the Jews, should despise the noblest predictions of these two holy prophets; the one of whom teaches and preaches Christ in all richness and purity, while the other pourtrays and describes, in the most certain manner, monarchies, and empires along with the kingdom of Christ [Colloquia c. lx.§ 10] [link].
It's obvious that the extension and documentation of this quote was the result of Hare's critique. Hamilton went on to give the following response to Hare:
Soon after the publication of this article, I became aware, that Esther was a mistake for Esdras; and this by the verse quoted. The error stands in all Aurifaber's editions of the Table Talk, and from him is copied by Walch, from whom again I translated. It is corrected, however, in the recensions by Stangwald and Selneccer, and, of course, in the new edition by Bindseil. It was therefore without surprise, that I found Mr. Hare for once to be not wrong in finding me not right. In excuse, I can only say, that at the time of writing the article, not only was I compelled to make the extracts without any leisure for deliberation; but I recollected, though the book was not at hand, that Luther, in his work on the Bondage of the Will, had declared that Esther ought to be extruded from the canon—a judgment indeed familiar to every tyro even in biblical criticism. His concluding words are:—"dignior omnibus, me judice, qui extra Canonem haberetur." (Jena Latin, iii. 182.) Esther, I thus knew, was repudiated by Luther, and among his formulae of dismissal the preceding recommended itself as at once the most characteristic and the shortest. Mr. Hare speaks of Luther as "a dear friend." But it appears from his general unacquaintance with even this, the Reformer's favorite, and perhaps most celebrated book, certainly from its two recent translations into English by two Anglican clergymen, the book of his best known in this country—that Luther, instead of being "a dear friend," is almost an utter stranger to the Archdeacon. For Mr. Hare knows nothing (even at second hand), of Luther's famous repudiation of Esther, in his most famous work.—As for myself, I relied also on the following testimony; and which, had we nothing else, would be alone decisive in regard to Luther's rejection of Esther [link].
On this Mr. Hare, inter alia, remarks: "The combination of the book with that of the Maccabees—which the Reviewer ought not to have omitted—as well as Forster's remarks, leaves no doubt that Luther spoke of the book of ESDRAS." I have now given the whole relative context; and had Mr. Hare possessed the sorriest smattering of the Rabbinic lore which he affects—had he, in fact, not been unread even in the most notorious modern works on biblical criticism, he would certainly have had "no doubt," but no doubt that Luther spoke, and could speak only of the book of Esther. I shall simply quote the one highest Jewish authority in regard to the comparative estimation among the Jews, of Esther and the Prophets; while, as for Christian testimonies, I may refer to almost every competent inquiry into the canonicity of the books of the Old Testament. Let us listen then to the "Rabbi of Rabbis," Rambam, Moses Ben Maimon, Moses Maimonides; to him whom the learned Hebrews delight to honor with every title of Oriental admiration; and who, by the confession of the two greatest among Christian scholars,
"Solus nugari Judaeos desiit inter." 
"All the Prophetic books, and all the [HagiographicWritings are of the things to be abolished in the days of the Messiah, saving alone the roll of Esther. For, lo, this endureth, like the Law of Pentateuch and the Oral Law [Talmud]; and these, they shall not cease, even unto eternity. For howbeit the memory of all other persecutions shall die out; . . . . yet, as it is written,'the days of Purim shall not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed. [Esther, ix 28."] (Yad Chasaka, B. iii. tr. x., Hilchot Meghilla, c. 2, § 18; and passages to the same effect are to be found in his Ikkarim. Compare also the Midrasch Meghilla; and the margin of the Jerusalem Talmud, where, among the commentators, the Rabbi Jochanan and the Rabbi Resch-Lakisch, from the texts, of Deut. v. 22; and Esth. ix. 28, deduce the same result, by a marvelous and truly Jewish reasoning.) On the other hand, who has ever heard, as Mr. Hare assumes, and would have it understood, that Esdras was, at any time, not to say always, held, even as a prophet, in any special estimation among the Israelites? Besides these, there are sundry elementary errors in Mr. Hare's relative observations on this book; but these, as they do not directly concern the question, may pass. Traveled in the Ghemara, and stumbling on his own Church's threshold ! [link].
Addendum #3
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2006. 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.

I've been examining Luther's opinion on Esther for over ten years. In that time, I've interacted with Rome's defenders on this subject. The following are a record of some of those encounters:

Luther & Esther: Response to a Defender of Rome

Luther and Esther: Another Response To a Defender of Rome

Luther’s Preface To Parts of Esther, 1534

Luther's View of Esther: A Response to "Nazaroo"

Tossing Blog Comments into the Elbe, Save One (The Book of Esther)

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