Luther’s Marginal Thoughts on Erasmus

Zachary Purvis
Saturday, January 1st 2022
Jan/Feb 2022

The University Library of Groningen in The Netherlands possesses a remarkable book previously owned by Martin Luther: a 1527 edition of the New Testament by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus’s New Testament, first published in 1516, contained the Greek text, Erasmus’s own translation into Latin, and his technical commentary, which justified the choices he had made. It was a signal achievement: the first Greek New Testament accessible to many in Western Europe by means of the printing press and a new Latin form to improve on Jerome’s Vulgate.

Luther’s general antipathy to Erasmus, the preeminent Renaissance scholar north of the Alps, is well known. Luther would call him “Christ’s chief enemy in a thousand years.”[2] Luther’s book promises more illumination, for he filled it with the distinctive chicken scratches of his marginalia. More than two hundred handwritten notes, in both Latin and German, reveal his opinion on what he read.[3] When Luther acquired it, probably in 1528, he had already engaged in brutal controversy with Erasmus on free will and salvation and the means to reform the church. What drew Luther’s ire was not Erasmus’s humanist scholarship—his interest in languages, rhetoric, history, poetry, and the return to classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, Luther himself qualified as a humanist, or at least a great friend of humanists, under any sane definition of the term. He had even used an earlier edition of Erasmus’s work when he made his own translation of the New Testament into German in 1522. Yet he remained forever suspicious that Erasmus hid behind his sophisticated literary abilities to mask a lack of trust in Scripture.

Luther was quick to sniff out what he held to be Erasmus’s disingenuousness—sometimes in unusual passages. When Erasmus came to Ephesians 1:23, he pointed out two possible meanings of a Greek verbal form.[4] Luther read this as an attempt not to understand but to undermine the text: the style in which Erasmus wrote seemed to put philology in the service of skepticism. So, Luther jotted down what he took to be Erasmus’s real intent: “And therefore one should not believe anything of Paul and the entire gospel. What else does Epicurus say, who does not know Christ, indeed who considers it a fairy tale?”[5] More striking is the battle waged over 1 Corinthians 7:39: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” Erasmus’s annotation ran to some ten pages—the longest in his book. He argued every side of the question of divorce and remarriage and heaped up citations from every church father. Finally, he expressed doubt whether the church could ever be free of errors. Luther responded: “Erasmus is a skeptic and he always has doubts about everything.”[6]

At other places, Luther detected the voice of a biting humorist. In notes on Ephesians 1:13 and 4:8, he thought Erasmus proudly satirized the text. Thus Luther wrote in the margin, “Laugh” and “Laugh please.”[7] In another passage—again, 1 Corinthians 7:39—Erasmus referred to the practice of indulgences with sharp irony: if the pope had mercy on souls in purgatory, then why not on souls on earth? Surely, Luther agreed. But an edition of the New Testament was no place for idle wisecracks. He responded, pen in hand, “Do not laugh yourself to death.”[8] At the Wittenberg dinner table, Luther summed up this complaint about Erasmus, “If he can joke about just one letter, he will do so.”[9] True, Luther believed in humor as much as he did in grammatical knowledge about the Bible. “Where there is faith, one should laugh,” he admitted.[10] “But God does not allow himself and his greatness to be mocked.”[11]

Whether Luther read Erasmus with precision on every point is arguable.[12] Of course, Luther was aware of this. He read critically, intentionally, even with hostility. When Erasmus suggested, with a playful, cavalier tone, how to punctuate Luke 2:13–14 and begged the benevolence of his “kind reader” to agree with him, Luther lost his patience: “I am not a kind reader,” he scribbled on the page, “and you are not a kind writer.”[13] In any case, it is clear that Luther regarded Erasmus as evasive and ambivalent, as someone who took Scripture less seriously than his own skill and wit. It turns out that marginal comments are not so marginal after all.

Zachary Purvis (DPhil, University of Oxford) is lecturer of church history at Edinburgh Theological Seminary. He is the author of Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford University Press, 2016), and his articles have appeared in such venues as Journal of the History of Ideas, Church History, and Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

1. The book is in two parts: Novum Testamentum, ex Erasmi Roterodami recognitione . . . (Basel: J. Froben, 1527); and Des. Erasmi Roterodami in Novum Testamentum annotationes . . . (Basel: J. Froben, 1527); Groningen University Library, Special Collections, HS 494.
2. Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Tischreden, 6 vols. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1912–21), 1:407, no. 837.
3. Martin Luther, D. Martin Luther’s Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, vol. 60 (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1980), 193–228.
4. πληρουμένων as passive or middle.
5. Luther, marginal note on Des. Erasmi Roterodami in Novum Testamentum annotationes, 533: “Ideo nihil est credendum Paulo et toti Evangelio. Quid Epicurus aliud diceret, qui Christum nescit, imo pro fabula habet.”
6. Luther, marginal note on Des. Erasmi, 432: “Erasmus scepticus est et dubitat semper et in omnibus.”
7. Luther, marginal note on Des. Erasmi, 541: “Ride”; 532, “Ride q[uae] so.”
8. Luther, marginal note on Des. Erasmi, 431: “Lache dich nicht zu Tod.”
9. Luther, Tischreden, 5:220, no. 5535.
10. Luther, Tischreden, 1:391, no. 813.
11. Luther, Tischreden, 3:214, no. 3186a.
12. See, e.g., Arnoud Visser, “Irreverent Reading: Martin Luther as Annotator of Erasmus,” Sixteenth Century Journal 48 (2017): 87–109; J. Kingma, De Groningse Luther-Bijbel. Tentoonstelling rond Luthers exemplaar van Erasmus’ Nieuwe Testament, Basel 1527 (Groningen: Universiteitsbibliothek,1983).
13. Luther, marginal note on Des. Erasmi, 156: “ego non sum candidus lector, nec tu candidus scriptor.”
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Zachary Purvis
Zachary Purvis (MAHT, Westminster Seminary California; DPhil, University of Oxford) teaches church history and theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary.
Saturday, January 1st 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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