Sunday, April 08, 2007

Luther’s Preface To Parts of Esther, 1534

In making a point about the freedom of the will, Erasmus chose to quote from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus. He takes the time to explain why this book should be considered as authoritative:
“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.”
Luther responded:
“The first is that from Ecclesiasticus 15[:14–17]: “God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel. He added his commandments and precepts. If thou wilt observe the commandments and keep acceptable fidelity forever, they shall preserve thee. He hath set water and fire before thee; stretch forth thine hand for which thou wilt. Before man is life and death, good and evil; that which he shall choose shall be given him.”  Although I could rightly reject this book, 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].
It is an interesting fact though that Luther translated and placed the book of Esther with the canonical books of the Old Testament. 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.”
Yet, 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. Esther was included with the canonical books.

To make the situation even more interesting, he took the additions to Esther, which had originally been pointed out by Jerome, and placed them with the apocryphal books. The editors of Luther’s Works say, “Six additions to the book of Esther, comprising 107 verses not in the Hebrew text, were inserted into the text in the Greek Version, added on at the end in the Vulgate.” Through the centuries, Jerome’s clear delineation between the canonical and non-canonical parts of Esther was often ignored or left out in subsequent copies of the Vulgate, treating the book in its longer form as entirely canonical.

Even as early as 1521, Luther at times makes a distinction between the parts of Esther: “Queen Esther wore a precious crown upon her head, yet she said it seemed but a filthy rag in her eyes, Esther 14:16 (Apocryphal)” [LW 21:316]. Yet elsewhere from the same time period, Luther quotes from both sections of Esther and makes no such distinction (See LW 30:89, a writing from 1522).

Luther did not write a preface for the canonical Esther. In 1534 though, Luther did write a preface for the non-canonical part:
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]

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