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July 5, 2009 / vivator

Luther and the book of Judith

Luther wrote his preface to deuterocanonical (or apocryphal, in Protestant’s terminology) books in 1534.  About the Book of Judith while he admitted its historical problems are irreconcilable he considered it to be religious fiction of which errors were deliberately (and painstakingly) inserted by the person who wrote it.  Interestingly he still considered Judith to be a fine, good, holy, useful book, well worth reading and inspired.  In his own words (emphasis in bold is added and non-italic words inside brackets are taken from footnotes)

If one could prove from established and reliable histories that the events in Judith really happened, it would be a noble and fine book, and should properly be in the Bible. Yet it hardly squares with the historical accounts of the Holy Scriptures, especially Jeremiah and Ezra. For these show how Jerusalem and the whole country were destroyed, and were thereafter laboriously rebuilt during the time of the monarchy of the Persians who occupied the land.

Against this the first chapter of Judith claims that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was the first one to set about conquering this territory; it creates the impression that these events took place before the captivity of the Jews, and before the rise of the Persian monarchy. Philo, on the contrary, says that they happened after the release and return of the Jews from Babylon under King Ahasuerus, at which time the Jews had rebuilt neither the temple nor Jerusalem, and had no government. Thus as to both time and name, error and doubt are still present, so that I cannot reconcile [the accounts] at all.

Some people think this is not an account of historical events [Geschichte] but rather a beautiful religious fiction [Gedicht] by a holy and ingenious man who wanted to sketch and depict therein the fortunes of the whole Jewish people and the victory God always miraculously granted them over all their enemies. This would be similar to the way Solomon in his Song poetizes and sings of a bride, vet means thereby not some specific person or event but the whole people of Israel. St. John, in his Apocalypse, and Daniel likewise sketch many pictures and beasts; yet these pertain not to specific persons but to the totality of Christian churches and [to the various] empires. And Christ our Lord himself likes to make use of parables and fictions like this in the gospel. He compares the kingdom of heaven to ten maidens [Matt. 25:1–13], or to a merchant and pearls [Matt. 13:45], a baker woman [Matt. 13:33], a grain of mustard seed [Matt. 13:31–32], or to fishermen and nets [Matt. 13:47–49], or to shepherds and sheep [Matt. 18:12–14], and the like.

Such an interpretation strikes my fancy, and I think that the poet deliberately and painstakingly inserted the errors of time and name in order to remind the reader that the book should be taken and understood as that kind of a sacred, religious, composition.

Now the names fit into this sort of an interpretation extraordinarily well. Judith means Judea [The Latin word Judaea used here can mean either a Jewish woman (Jewess) or the land of Judah. Luther uses it in the latter sense. The Hebrew Yehudith means simply “Jewess” and then by allegory the Jewish people. It should be noted, however, that it is the personal name of Esau’s wife who was not a Jew but a Hittite (Gen 26:34)], (that is) the Jewish people. She is a chaste and holy widow; that is, God’s people is always a forsaken widow who is nevertheless chaste and holy, remaining pure and holy in the Word of God and in the true faith, mortifying herself and praying. Holofernes means worldly leader or governor, a heathen, godless, or un-Christian lord or prince—as all enemies of the Jewish people are. Bethulia (a city nobody knows) means a virgin [Luther connects the name of the city with the Hebrew bethulah, meaning virgin], indicating that at that time the believing and devout Jews were the pure virgin, free from idolatry and unbelief, as described in Isaiah [37:22] and Jeremiah [14:17; 18:13; 31:4], which is also why they remained unconquerable, though they were in distress.

It may even be that in those days they dramatized literature like this, Just as among us the Passion and other sacred stories are performed. In a common presentation or play they conceivably wanted to teach their people and youth to trust God, to be righteous, and to hope in God for all help and comfort, in every need, against all enemies, etc.

Therefore this is a fine, good, holy, useful book, well worth reading by us Christians. For the words spoken by the persons in it should be understood as though they were uttered in the Holy Spirit by a spiritual, holy poet or prophet who, in presenting such persons in his play, preaches to us through them. Next after Judith, therefore [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. Reu, Luther’s German Bible, p. 36.], like a song following a play, belongs the Wisdom of Philo [i.e. Wisdom of Solomon], a work which denounces tyrants and praises the help which God bestows on his people. The song [that follows] may well be called an illustration of this book [of Judith].

Luther’s Works Vol. 35, III-339



Leave a Comment
  1. luciasclay / Jul 7 2009 11:12 am

    Having been reading the prefaces of Luther this week, from the volume you cite I find his sentiments ironic at best.

    For instance he declares that just as 1 Maccabees should be counted among scripture 2 Maccabees shouldn’t. ( This is in the preface to 2 Macc ). He declares the Revelation of St. John to not be by the apostle and of an unknown source etc in his first preface then 8 years later still holding to the “we dunno who wrote it” proceeds to build a blistering attack on the Church with it where he holds, among other things, the Church and Islam on equal footing against what he calls “christianity”.

    My opinion of Luther is quite low and I feel that what he lacked in intelligence he made up for in verbosity and pompous language.

    BTW: Did you transcribe the above or did you happen to find a digital version ? I have the bound volume only.


    • vivator / Jul 7 2009 8:15 pm

      I have CD of Luther’s Works – all 55 volumes in one CD. It is the source of all my posts related to Luther. It is just a matter of copy and paste with the search capability to find particular words or phrases.

  2. modsynth / May 28 2010 10:28 am

    Thanks for posting this preface. I linked to this in a post on my blog about Judith. I appreciate your research on this blog. Thanks again.

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