Martin Luther’s View of the Book of Esther

Martin Luther’s View of the Book of Esther August 20, 2011
Anti-Catholic Attempts to Blame Catholics for a Questionable Luther Citation Passed Down by Three Admiring Protestants
Photograph by “Bernd1968” [public domain / Pixabay]
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I wrote a paper on Luther’s view of the book of Esther (24 March 2007). In it I explained (right at the top) that I had made an honest mistake, and was correcting it (unfortunately, it made it into my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, completed in 1996 and “officially” published in 2003: p. 261, but was not included in my 2008 book on Luther: ch. 3 on the biblical canon).

We all make mistakes, and we all know it (well, most of us know that . . .). It’s no big deal: part of being human. Heaven knows that we apologists, who are dealing with hundreds of arguments and counter-arguments and facts all the time, will inevitably make mistakes, including some botched citations. I’ve retracted things many times when it was my duty to do so, after receiving additional relevant information.

But there are such things as an honest mistake and on the other hand, an inexcusable mistake, that suggests incompetence and excessive ignorance. Mine was clearly an honest one, and as I already showed in my linked paper above, it was based on past initial, “primary research” errors of Protestants who were passing on Luther’s writings (and obviously not critics of him), not Catholics seeking to discredit Protestantism by deliberately distorting his words.

As I wrote in my paper on Luther and Esther:

. . . the error is a result, not of sinister “anti-Luther” Catholics, but of Joannes Aurifaber and Johann Georg Walch: respectively the Protestant writer and later compiler of Table-Talk. . . . a mistake somewhere along the line in the transmission of Table-Talk.

Aurifaber (1519-1575) was a Luther disciple and contemporary; lived with him as his secretary, was present when he died, and later compiled his letters and the Table-Talk. Thus, if the mistake was his fault originally, obviously it was not based on any “anti-Luther” motivation. Likewise, this holds for Walch (1693-1775), a Lutheran theologian, who oversaw a famous edition of Luther’s works in German, in 24 volumes (1740–1752). Walch incorporated Aurifaber, and Hamilton translated Walch/Aurifaber.

This is apparently the English source that made it into Patrick O’Hare’s The Facts About Luther in 1916, where I first saw the quote. O’Hare was merely citing what he had seen in English, since at that time, most of Luther’s works were available only in German, and the English-only reader had to look around quite a bit to find his citations in English at all. The major sets of Luther’s writings in English were to arrive only as late as 1940 (six-volume “Philadelphia” edition) and 1955 (standard 55-volume edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan).

Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856) was an eminent Scottish philosopher, and also not a Catholic. He was no “Luther hater” either, as can be plainly observed in Memoir of Sir William Hamilton, Bart., by John Veitch (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1869), pp. 331 ff.. The above remarks come from Life of Martin Luther (New York: Delisser and Procter, 1859), by Christian Karl Josias (Chevalier de) Bunsen (1791-1860), with “an estimate of Luther’s character and genius,” by Thomas Carlysle (1795-1881), and an appendix by Hamilton, entitled, “Reverse-Side of the Picture” (pp. 221- 250), about Luther’s shortcomings (within an overall stance of admiration for him).

Carlyle’s section (“Spiritual Portrait of Luther”) runs from pp. 183-219. Then we have Hamilton’s portion, where he retracts some earlier errors he had made:

Soon after the publication of this article, I became aware , that Esther was here a mistake for Esdras; and this by the verse quoted. The error stands in all Aurifaber’s editions of the Tabletalk; his text is taken by Walch, and from Walch I translated. It is corrected, however, in the recensions by Stengwald and Selneccer, and, of course, in the new edition of the Colloquia by Bindseil. (p. 242)

This all occurred in the Protestant theological and literary world, and had nothing to do with Catholic polemics (much as anti-Catholics would love this to be the case). Wishing and hoping doesn’t make a thing come true. Aurifaber’s version of Table-Talk dated from 1566 [source], whereas Selneccer’s was from 1577, Stengwald’s (or Stangwald’s) from 1571 and a second edition in 1591, and Bindseil’s and Fortsemann’s from 1848 (after Hamilton wrote his initial article). [source: Preserved Smith, Luther’s Table-Talk: A Critical Study, 1907, pp. 62-66] There were other changes and refinements after that, with modern critical textual research on the Table-Talk. [Smith, 66 ff.]

There is obviously textual confusion to some extent, then, in the Table-Talk (which was recorded and compiled by several people in the first place), and reasonable men can differ, without bringing in self-serving conspiracy theories of Catholic polemical mischief and “Luther-hating.” 1916, when O’Hare wrote, is not long after all these developments, and he can surely be excused for his mistake regarding “Esther” rather than “Esdras.” It’s no capital crime, let alone a deliberate botching of a Luther citation to make him appear worse than he actually was.

Now, getting back to Hamilton, the “article” he refers to is one having to do with “Admission of Dissenters to the Universities,” published in the Edinburgh Review in October 1834 (pp. 202-230). Any doubt as to his authorship of the then-anonymous article is removed in his own book, entitled, Discussions on Philosophy and Literature, Education and University Reform: Chiefly from the Edinburgh Review (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1858): see p. 458 ff.

Here is how Hamilton translated into English the disputed passage in question (pp. 492-496) — all ellipses are Hamilton’s own, except the ones before the second paragraph, which are my own; bolding is mine.

Biblical Criticism.—(1) “The books of the Kings are more worthy of credit than the books of the Chronicles.”- [Colloquia, c. lix. r 6.]—(2) “Job spake not, therefore, as it stands written in his book, but hath had such cogitations . . . It is a sheer argumentum fabulae. . . . It is probable that Solomon made and wrote this book.” [Ib.]—(3) ” 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, from the Library of King Ptolemy Euergetes.—(4) So also have the Proverbs of Solomon been collected by others [caught up from the King’s mouth, when he spake them at table or elsewhere: and those are well marked, wherein the royal majesty and wisdom shine conspicuous.” (Ib.)]—(5) “The book of Esther, I toss into the Elbe.” [Ib.] [“And when the Doctor was correcting the second book of 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. . . .

(6) “Isaiah hath borrowed his whole art and knowledge from David out of the Psalter.”1 [Ib. c. lx. 10.]—(7) “The history of Jonah is so monstrous, that it is absolutely incredible.'” [Ib.]—(8) “That the Epistle to the Hebrews is not by Saint Paul; nor indeed by any apostle, is shown by chap. ii. 3 . . . It is by an excellently learned man, a disciple of the Apostles . . . It should be no stumbling-block if there be found in it a mixture of wood, straw, hay.” [Standing Preface in Luther’s Version.]—(9) “The Epistle of James, I account the writing of no apostle.” [Standing Preface.] “St. James’s Epistle is truly an Epistle of straw [in contrast to them,” (” the right and noblest books of the New Testament”) “for it hath in it no evangelical character.'” (Fragmentary Preface to the New Testament, 1524.)]—(10) “The Epistle of Jude is an abstract or copy of St. Peter’s second; . . . and allegeth sayings and stories which have no place in Scripture.” [Standing Preface, etc]—(11) “In the Revelation of John much is wanting to let me deem it either prophetic or apostolical I can discover no trace that it is established by the Holy Spirit.” [Preface of 1522.]’

All of this is a compilation of a Scottish philosopher: Sir William Hamilton: an admirer of Luther and assuredly no Catholic. This appears to be the origin.
Julius Charles Hare’s 1855 book, Vindication of Luther, issued the correction to Hamilton’s (actually Aurifaber’s and Walch’s) mistake of changing “Esdras” to “Esther.” This in turn goes back to an earlier 1844 tract from Hare: see “Note W” (pp. 817 ff.): ten years after Hamilton’s original article.

Hamilton’s replied to Hare, in the elaborating and clarifying footnotes of his Discussions on Philosophy from 1858. In those, Hamilton contends exactly as I did in my Esther paper: he admitted the one textual mistake, but argued that Luther, nonetheless, was still quite hostile to Esther, based on texts that are not disputed. Here are two Protestants arguing with each other over the proper text, and Luther’s view of Esther. Catholics had nothing to do with it. 

One Protestant cited two others who were (so the prevailing textual theory would have it) wrong about Luther’s words. A fourth Protestant comes along and corrects the third one who had erroneously cited the first two, and these two (third and fourth) Protestants disagree with each other as to what Luther thought of Esther. Several other Protestants pass down and comment on alternate renderings of Table-Talk (other than Aurifaber’s version). Aurifaber is the original culprit back in 1566 (or so it seems, anyway: for all we know, he accurately transcribed Luther’s words and the others did not). This is no Catholic conspiracy to smear Luther and botch his words for polemical purposes. 

As far as I can tell, Hamilton introduced the Esther and similar “hostile to various books of the Bible” Luther quotes, into English language awareness, in his article of October 1834. This was corrected, as to Esther-Esdras, in 1844 by Julius Hare, and later in an 1855 book. Hamilton in turn recognized his error about Esther, but disagreed with most particulars and the overall thrust of Hare’s critique, in 1858. But is that the end of it in the Protestant world? No. We have the 1834 documentation from Hamilton and other instances of the quote are easily accessed in Google Books:

1) John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature (1845) cites (on p. 663) the two Hamilton Esther quotes word for word, with complete documentation, including page number (p. 228).

2) A skeptical book by John Shertzer Hittell, The Evidences Against Christianity, Volume 2 (1857), cites Hamilton’s translation of Luther’s words at length on p. 271, without documentation.

3) The 1865 Catholic book, Points of Controversy, by Cornelius Francis Smarius, cites Hamilton at length, with slightly changed words (pp. 55-56). He notes the source on p. 56 as “Edinburgh Review, No. 121” and compresses of the two Luther/Hamilton statements on Esther, cutting out what was in between but not noting it (which is not good). He substituted “such” for Hamilton’s “so”, “wish” for his “would”, and “has” for “hath”.

4) William McDonnell, in his 1873 volume, Exeter Hall: A Theological Romance, cites Hamilton’s words at great length, without attribution, on page 111.

5) A History of the English Church from its Foundation to the Reign of Queen Mary (1875), by Mary Charlotte Stapley, includes the statement (p. 431), that Luther “wished the Book of Esther were tossed into the Elbe.” 

6) Another skeptical book, The Bible, Whence and What? (1882), by Richard Brodhead Westbrook, echoes Hamilton’s translation at length without giving the source, on p. 195.

7) The Literary Churchman and Church Fortnightly (23 November 1883, p. 511) parrots the same sentiment: “‘Esther’ he would like to toss into the Elbe.”

8) In 1912, Catholic Everett Pomeroy published the book, “The Great Reformation”: A Great Mistake. He followed (on p. 120) all four of Smarius’ changes from Hamilton, regarding the “Esther” quotations, but adds a second deletion and compression, as well: omitting Hamilton’s “I am so an enemy to the book of Esther, that . . .”.

9) Catholic polemicist and apologist Patrick F. O’Hare is a latecomer to this scene. His book, The Facts About Luther is from 1916, and he (somewhat loosely) cites Hamilton, too, without attribution, on pp. 207-208 (my bolding):

[complete] 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.”

O’Hare’s “version” is word-for-word identical to that of the Catholic Smarius’ section on Esther. The fact that O’Hare follows him in all three word changes and the compression into one statement, is virtual proof that he was directly citing (in his “Esther section”) Smarius and not, e.g., Pomeroy, who apparently followed Smarius, with one section deleted. So the citation trail to the present usual Internet form appears to be:

1) Protestant Sir William Hamilton: 1834.

2) Catholic  Cornelius Francis Smarius: 1865 (attributed), with three word changes and compression of the original statement.

3) Catholic Patrick F. O’Hare: 1916 (not attributed), drawing word-for-word from Smarius.

 4) Yours truly, in 1996 or earlier research, citing O’Hare and passing it onto the Internet after 1997, with a retraction in 2007. I have long since almost totally ceased to utilize O’Hare, because of his strong anti-Luther bias, his sloppiness — of which the present example is rather typical –, and the finding of much better sources these past twenty years since I have been doing Catholic apologetics.

We see, then, that Catholics did get in on the “Hare/O’Hare game” eventually,  but it was not only Catholics by a long shot, and all the original and primal errors involved, culminating with Hamilton in 1834, came from Protestants, without exception, and many Protestants followed it, even after it was shown to be in error as early as 1844. Catholics merely followed the Protestant 1834 source, and hence are not responsible for its origin; also it is routine that folks will cite arguments from the opposing party, to avoid the charge of partisan bias, so we would fully expect that Catholics would cite Protestant sources, in arguing their case. At best, one can say that people on both sides were not aware of either the origin or later correction of the passage.

The non-Catholic philosopher by trade, Sir William Hamilton (by all indications) is the person who brought this particular Luther “citation trail” into being, from German to English, in 1834. I grant that there is a lot of sloppiness in citation to be found (among scholars and non-scholars alike), but that is by no means exclusive to Catholic apologists online. 

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Further comments of mine, in reply:

Brigitte (Lutheran):
Amazing. It says: “Das dritte Buch Esdrae.”
(8-23-11 on an anti-Catholic blog)

What’s so amazing? The standard 18th-century edition of Luther’s works (Walch) had “Esther,” not “Esdras.” That’s the root of the “mistake” — going back to Aurifaber’s Table-Talk in 1566. WA reads differently. But if we want to understand the basis of this textual strain, it goes back to Protestant Sir William Hamilton, citing Lutherans Walch/Aurifaber in 1834. (8-24-11 on Brigitte’s blog)

Yet somehow, all this Protestant internal disagreement is supposedly the fault of evil Catholics who merely cited official Lutheran collections of Luther’s writings? I don’t think so . . .(8-24-11 on Brigitte’s blog, Thoughts)

Brigitte: . . . even if Luther had said that he would throw “Esther” in the Elbe, we understand that this would be in line with others in history who have questioned Esther’s authoritativeness. In any case, the story is nice and instructive and the providence of God can be seen and appreciated. It does not have anything about Christ, and that’s limits its usefulness and authority. Anybody could write a story about God’s providence. I could write one. You might look over this list of links regarding the “anti-legoumena”. (8-24-11)

Hi Brigitte,

I was simply noting that authoritative Lutheran sources had “Esther” and that this was why Catholics later cited it. All of the original material with “Esther” was Protestant (Aurifaber, Walch, and Hamilton). In 1834, Walch was the state of the art in primary Luther material.

What I get sick and tired of is [anti-Catholics] insinuating that these things are due to deliberate Catholic dishonesty. That is not the case at all here (it’s merely a textual variant in Luther collections), and in many other instances where he implies it.

I have also defended Luther on many occasions where I thought he was getting a bad rap or being lied about. I’m not “anti-Luther.” I am “pro-truth” wherever it lies. I like historical facts: best as they can be ascertained. (8-24-11)

Turretinfan (TAO): Clearly, it is the fault of Protestants when Romanists do lousy research. It is probably also the fault of Protestants when banned Romanists ignore the rules and post where they are unwelcome. It’s all Bush’s fault. (8-24-11)

Clearly it is the fault of “Romanists” when “Wittenbergians” (folks like Aurifaber, Walch, and Hamilton) can’t figure out in their conflicting texts whether Luther wanted to toss Esther or Esdras into the river . . . who could doubt it? If a Catholic citing the most authoritative Luther primary source (Walch), passed along by a Protestant in 1834 (Hamilton) is “lousy research” — so be it. But then what does that say about Walch?

I think you may be the only anti-Catholic left who doesn’t routinely delete, ban, and close comment threads whenever a Catholic who is able to put up a decent fight shows up. Kudos to you for that. You don’t have to be a clone of all your buddies and comrades-in-arms. (8-24-11 on another anti-Catholic blog; later deleted)

[Oops; this isn’t true, I’m afraid, since Paul Hoffer (below) has informed me that TAO has deleted Paul’s posts on his own blog when he couldn’t refute them, and even links to posts, in order to cover up his bankruptcy of reply. So now I know of no major anti-Catholic online, who doesn’t engage in these cowardly tactics.]

Paul Hoffer (Catholic friend of mine): Hello all,

Mr. Fan blames “lousy” Catholic research for promulgating a spurious Luther quote when in truth the source for that research comes from Protestant translations of that quote made by Joannes Aurifaber and Johann Walch: a fact pointed out in Mr. Armstrong’s article on his Biblical Evidence for Catholicism blog. So if I understand this correctly, Mr. [So-and-So] and Mr. Fan are criticizing Catholic apologists who used famous, popular Protestant compilations of Luther’s works which may or may not be refuted by other Protestant translations of Luther’s works which Mr. [So-and-So] has arbitrarily chosen to use because those alternate versions show that some Catholics “got it wrong.” And then on top of that, after defaming Mr. Armstrong, you then deleted his responses he proffered to defend himself. I must wonder, has Mr. [So-and-So] travelled to Germany and viewed the actual autographs to determine which version is accurate before opining here?

And to top it off, all this huffing and puffing is over a quote that probably accurately reflects Luther’s disdain for Esther even if the quote itself is inaccurate.

I find the fact that you chose to attack Mr. Armstrong’s character and his work and then refuse to allow him to defend himself in an open forum to be distasteful as well as un-Christian. Furthermore, I see such nitpicking to be rather Pharisaic and petty, wouldn’t you agree?

Mr. [So-and-So] would have done the world a favor by pointing out the facts that the quote has been mistranslated for years by both Protestants and Catholics and offer a correction. It is disappointing that Mr. [So-and-So] chose to slog through the sewer rather than taking the high road. It is too bad that Turretinfan decided to dive in the cesspool after him.

Mr. Fan then makes a funny with the comment “It’s all Bush’s fault” to gloss over the fact that two well-known and famous compilers of Luther’s works are to blame. The only thing that one can “fault” a Catholic apologist for is trusting the accuracy of historically famous Protestant compilations of original works from the Reformation period.

God bless! (8-24-11 on an anti-Catholic blog; later deleted because he dared to utter my name)

Turretinfan (TAO):  Mr. Hoffer:

Are you suggesting that the research wasn’t lousy, or that it really is the fault of Protestants that it was lousy, or some third thing? I got a little distracted by your colorful “cesspool” metaphor and perhaps missed where you actually explained what was wrong with what I actually said as opposed to arguing points I never disputed.

Also, while we are at it, do you think it is my or Mr. [So-and-So’s] fault that your friend posts despite knowing he’s unwelcome here? (8-24-11; same place; later self-deleted because it was a reply to the deleted Hoffer post above)


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