III. MARTIN LUTHER'S USE OF HEBREW

Martin Luther's schooling began in Magdeburg and Eisenach (1487 to 1500). He matriculated at the University of Erfurt (May, 1501) and received his Bachelor of Arts (1502) and his Master of Arts (1505).
In Erfurt Luther had his "Thunderstorm" experience, which led him to enter the Augustinian cloister (1505).
In Erfurt Luther obtained a copy of "de rudimentis hebraicis" by Johannes Reuchlin and began his study of the Hebrew Language. 13
Luther had begun to master the Hebrew language, which he used during his lecture on Psalms at the University of Wittenberg in 1513.
In this interesting period 1506-1513 Luther had received some instruction in the Hebrew language. 14
Luther made detailed notes in the margin of his Vulgate Bible of references he had found in "de rudimentis hebraicis".He was making detailed comparisons of the words and explanations he found in Reuchlin with the Vulgate text.15
Luther's involvement with the Hebrew language was to continue throughout his career, especially in his translations of the Bible. Luther constantly strove to find the original meaning - he was always seeking the source of the biblical materials. That meant that he needed to find the most original, the most reliable Hebrew source for his Old Testament. This quotation from his "Table Talk" is revealing about his passion:

"If I were younger I would want to learn this language [i.e. Hebrew], for without it one can never properly understand the Holy Scripture…. For that reason they have said correctly:

'The Jews drink out of the original spring, The Greeks drink out of the stream flowing out of the stream, The Latins, however, out of the puddle.'"16

When Luther spoke of his own ability with Hebrew he was sometimes disparaging.
"I can do neither Hebrew nor Greek…"17
But those words must be held against comments like these:
"I am no Hebraist according to the grammar and rules, for I never allow myself to be bound, but go freely through it. If a person has the gift of languages, and understand them, he cannot, just on that account, bring one into the other and translate well. Translation is a peculiar grace and gift of God."18
Johann Forster, one of Luther's highly esteemed Hebrew experts, ventured the opinion that the best way to learn Hebrew is by means of a Hebrew Grammar. Luther contradicted Forster:
"The phrases and manner of speaking, and construction, how one should connect and express the words, that one cannot give nor teach, for the construction often changes the meaning of the words… I have learned more Hebrew whenever I, while reading, held one passage and saying against another, than whenever I have judged it only according to the grammar." 19
The meaning I take from Luther's remarks is that he thought it important to learn a language "in context". He preferred deriving the meaning of a word from the way it is used in several passages rather than to be satisfied with a "definition" of the word.20
Some writers on this subject have seen indications of Luther's gradually increasing ability with Hebrew during the period from 1513 to 1519. It appears that in his early exegetical work (1513) Luther was almost entirely dependent for Hebrew source materials upon Latin and Greek translations. As his ability with Hebrew increased and the Hebrew texts became available, Luther turned to the source material.21
Luther became aware of the Rabbis Moses and David Kimhi. April 13, 1519 he sent a copy of the Hebrew Grammar of Moses Kimhi to his friend Johann Lang.22
In the 1530's Luther said: "Lyra has been for others the best Hebraist and an industrious translator of the Old Testament. If I wanted again to study in the Hebrew language, I would want to take for myself and read the purest and best grammars, as David Kimhi, Moses Kimhi, which are the purest;…23
How Luther expected to read Moses and David Kimhi's grammars without the use of something like "de rudimentis hebraicis" by Johannes Reuchlin is difficult to say. The purpose of "de rudimentis hebraicis" was to give Christian scholars and interpreters an introduction to the Hebrew language - a language entirely foreign to their way of thinking and understanding. Reuchlin used novel devices, such as his introductory poem, to begin to present the gulf in approach and understanding between Hebrew and their primarily scholarly language, Latin.
However the description of Hebrew was almost entirely in the Latin language and it was impossible to instruct in Hebrew without bringing a Latin understanding of Hebrew. For example, Reuchlin used Latin grammatical terms to describe Hebrew: "Genetivo, Dativo, Accusativo and Ablativo". These terms appear nowhere in David or Moses Kimhi's writings.24
The mere presentation of instruction in the Hebrew language written primarily in Latin gave a 'Latin cast' to the study of Hebrew.
It is difficult to understand the source of Luther's statement in which he praises the Hebrew grammars of Moses and David Kimhi. How would he have seen a copy of David Kimhi's Sefer Miklol? I believe that Sefer Miklol was first printed in 1525. It is possible to believe that Luther might have seen a manuscript version. It is hard for me to imagine that Luther could decipher the extremely complicated unvocalized text of the Sefer Miklol, which, without the lexical portion is over 160 pages in length.
It is more understandable how Luther might have seen a copy of Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile Hadaat. This printed version of this was available from 1508 (Pesaro edition).
Regarding the exegetical writings of David Kimhi, while preparing his commentary on Psalm 127, Luther wrote:
Rabbi Kimchi is the god of the Rabbis 25

Beside Psalm 98 Luther remarked:
Kimchi is young. Lyra did not see him. Rabbi Solomon (i.e. Rashi) he had seen. Is the best." [Luther drew an arrow to point to Kimchi as "the best"] 26

The editors of the Weimar Edition comment upon this passage as if Luther is referring to the grammatical works of Kimhi. I would choose to consider that Luther is referring to the exegetical excellence of the Kimhis, particularly as the comparison is to Rashi, who is known for his exegetical, not grammatical, writings.

Luther referred to the writings of the Rabbis in his effort to determine the best possible interpretation of Old Testament passages. As with all other source materials, he did not accept the views of the Rabbis unquestioningly, but with great vigilance lest what he considered errors of the past might be included in his new translations.

His authority was the biblical text itself in as original a form as possible.

In 1533 Luther comments on his relation to the works of the Rabbis. He is concerned that many readers might feel that the Psalter of 1531 shows a carelessness of translation:
"…that we have departed from the letter of the text so freely to remain to another understanding than the Jewish Rabbis and grammarians teach, we want to herewith indicate reasons and explain, with some examples, in order that they see how we have proceeded to translate, not out of lack of understanding of the languages, nor out of ignorance of the commentaries of the Rabbis, but knowingly and intentionally." 27

What were Luther's sources for the interpretations of the Rabbis? These were available in secondary sources, in Latin, such as in the commentaries of Nicolaus von Lyra who quoted Rashi extensively. 28

The writings of the Rabbis were also available in the early printing of Jewish books. Rabbi David Kimhi's commentary on the book of Psalms was printed in 1477. Other commentaries followed, as indicated by the table: Commentaries of the Kimhis Available During the Reformation

If Luther were to attempt to read a Jewish commentary in one of these early printings, he would require considerably more than an introductory knowledge of Hebrew. For example, in the 1477 printing of the Psalms with the commentary of Rabbi David Kimhi, the biblical text is printed in bold unvocalized Hebrew letters and Kimhi's commentary is in the small unvocalized rabbinical script. 29

It would be extremely difficult for anyone relatively new to the Hebrew language to make any sense out of this text. Of course, it is possible that Luther would enlist the aid of Christian Hebrew scholars, or possibly a Jewish scholar.

Even if one could decipher the rabbinical script, one would be faced with the rabbinical abbreviations. These problems were not insoluble for Christian scholars. I am surprised how early Christians provided other Christians with aids for reading directly the Jewish commentaries. For example:

Capito provides 64 rabbinical abbreviations, such as idiomatic phrases, and references to particular authors. Cellarius provides 36 abbreviations.

Could Luther have read the Rabbis directly? This question was the subject of a written debate between Dr. Moritz Freier, writing in 1918 and Theodor Pahl, writing in 1931.

Freier studied Luther's commentaries on the Psalms and by comparing them with Jewish sources found enough striking parallels to proclaim it was time for a reorienting of the study of Luther sources. What Freier was suggesting was an enhanced understanding of Luther's own use of the Hebrew language and his reading of Jewish sources directly. 31

Thirteen years later Theoldor Pahl challenged Freier's thesis, by using the following work method: he attempted to duplicate Luther's own work method of "holding one passage against another".19 As source materials he used commentaries and translations in Latin and German, together with excerpts from Reuchlin's "de rudimentis hebraicis". 32

Pahl claimed that he could easily explain the passage which Freier had presented as "striking proof" by ways others than by the direct use of Jewish commentaries. 33

I pause at this midpoint. I hope to be adding more progressively. gl
If you are interested in the story of how my Quest unfolded, please read:

Martin Luther leads to David Kimhi


Updated June 17, 1998 - Gordon Laird

Questions or comments E-Mail: glaird@istar.ca

"The Kimhis and the Reformers"
Introductory Remarks
I.    The Kimhi Family - the emergence of their writings in the Reformation
II.   Transmission of the writings of the Kimhis in the Middle Ages
III.    Martin Luther's Use of Hebrew
IV Eli Levita - Interpreter of Kimhi Grammars
Reference Notes
KIMHI SOURCE DOCUMENTS
R. David Kimhi's Sefer Miklol R. Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile De-daat
HEBREW GRAMMARS OF THE REFORMATION
GRAMMARS 1475-1528 Pellican's de modo legendi et intelligendi 1504 Reuchlin's de rudimentis hebraicis 1506
KIMHI WRITINGS PRINTED 1469-1545
Grammars - 1469-1545 Commentaries - 1477-1531 Psalms 1477-1517 1st Rabbinic 1517 Special Page

© copyrighted August 15, 1999, Gordon Laird


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