Martin Luther

theologian and Reformer, 1483-1546

The Augustinian monk and professor of theology Martin Luther was a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. Ordained to the priesthood in 1507, he came to reject several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther proposed an academic discussion of the practice and efficacy of indulgences in his 95 Theses of 1517. His theology challenged the authority and office of the Pope by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge. His translation of the Bible into the German vernacular made it accessible to the laity, an event that had a tremendous impact on both the church and German culture. It fostered the development of a standard version of the German language.


Luther, Martin

Theologe und Reformator (1483-1546). Autograph letter signed ("Martinus LütheR D"). [Wittenberg. 2 SS. auf einem Folioblatt (200:307 mm). Deutsche Handschrift (braune Tinte) auf Papier (Wasserzeichen: zweistrichige Antiquaversalie F im Rund).
$ 379,050 / 350.000 € (72913/BN47014)

An extensive, uncommonly well-preserved letter to Georg Buchholzer (1503-66), Provost of St Nikolai in Berlin, regarding the latter’s altercation with the Brandenburgian court preacher Johann Agricola from Eisleben (1492-1566, also known as “Magister Eisleben”) about the treatment of the local Jews. Prince Elector Joachim II, who in 1539 had introduced the Reformation to Brandenburg and whose tolerant politics toward Jews enraged the population, had long desired a reconciliation between Luther and his former disciple Agricola, and he must have suspected that Provost Buchholzer was poisoning Luther’s mind against his court preacher.

Buchholzer therefore wrote to Luther requesting an interpretation of some Biblical verses by which Agricola justified his pro-Jewish stance, and in his answer Luther insists that Buchholzer has done well to preach against the Jews and shall continue to do so, ignoring the habitual liar Agricola: “Grace and Peace. My dear Provost! I must be brief with writing, for the sake of my weak head. You are aware that you have no previous association with me, nor I with you, other than that you recently wrote to me asking for an explanation regarding several statements. And even if you were to write me many things about M. Eisleben, how could I believe you alone? For whoever says that you or anyone in Berlin or in all of Brandenburg is inciting me against Eisleben, if he says so unwittingly, may God forgive him, but if he says it knowingly, then he is a roguish liar, as well as M. Eisleben himself has lied frequently, here in Wittenberg. M. Eisleben needs nobody to incite me against him; he himself is much better at that, much better than anyone whom he might suspect of such dealing. He knows that full well. [...] In my opinion, he will give up his life before he gives up his lying. – You have preached against the Jews and fought serious battles over that with the Margrave. [...] And you were quite right to do so. Stand fast and persevere! The words against you which you quoted to me, allegedly protecting the Jews, I will not hope to be true, nor shall I believe that M. Eisleben ever will preach or ever has preached such. I do not yet consider him so deeply fallen. May God prevent him! [...] For then M. Eisleben would not be the Elector’s preacher, but a true devil, letting his sayings be so shamefully misused to the damnation of all those who associate with Jews. For these Jews are not Jews, but devils incarnate who curse our Lord, who abuse His mother as a whore and Him as Hebel Vorik and a bastard, this is known for certain. And anyone who is capable of eating or drinking or associating with such a foul mouth is a Christian as well as the devil is a saint. [...] You may show this letter to whomever you wish. I do not know, nor do I care, who wrote the other three letters from Wittenberg to Berlin. You will undoubtedly confess this to be the first letter you ever received from me. For your name and person were previously unknown to me [...]” (translated). - Luther had apparently forgotten that several years previously, in late 1539, he had answered a letter of Buchholzer’s inquiring about Catholic rites still in use in Reformed Brandenburg. More notably, although Luther is writing to a fellow scholar, this letter is written in German so as that the recipient may show it “to whomever he wishes” – that is to say, to the Elector himself, thus providing Buchholzer with a writ of protection against any suspicion which Joachim may harbour against him. - The Hebrew words “Hebel Vorik” (vanity and emptiness) are taken from Isaiah 30:7. They were part of a Jewish prayer in which Jews thanked God for having made them different from those peoples who worshipped “Hebel Vorik”, though Luther construed the words as a code for Jesus Christ. - Luther’s anti-Judaism had not always been this rabid – as a young man he had spoken out judiciously against the traditional defamation of Jews and against all forms of forcible conversion – but he soon grew increasingly bitter, and by 1543 his attitude was one of undisguised loathing. His most notorious antisemitic pamphlet, “On the Jews and Their Lies”, was published only months before the present letter was written. With the same rhetorical skill with which he had previously ridiculed the papacy he now invoked a grotesque abhorrence of Judaism. As an embodiment of his sentiments in his later years, demonstrating how precisely the antisemitic church politics and discourse of the 1540s matched Luther’s instructions, the letter has been quoted or paraphrased by several important biographies of the Reformer (cf. M. Brecht, Luther, vol. 3 [1987], p. 344; most recently: L. Roper, Luther [2016], p. 532 n. 33). - Less than two years later, in a letter dated March 9, 1545, Luther would write to Elector Joachim II directly, warning him against the “tricks” of the Jews, in whom he is said to have too much confidence, adding that he is “glad that the Provost [Buchholzer] is so severe on those Jews, which is a proof of his loyalty to your Grace; and I encourage him to continue in the path he has chosen”. - Condition report: several corrections in the text by Luther’s own hand. Date of receipt noted by Buchholzer at the foot of the verso page: “Received by me in Berlin on Wednesday after St Egyd [5 September] anno etc. 43.” Slightly browned and brownstained throughout; traces of contemporary folds. Not noticeably wrinkled; no significant edge tears; a beautifully preserved specimen. - Provenance: before 1914 nothing more of the letter was known than the words branding Agricola an incorrigible liar (“will give up his life before he gives up his lying”), which Buchholzer had hurled at his adversary during a disputation as late as 1562, offering to show him the passage in Luther’s letter. In the early 19th century, the editors of Agricola’s writings confessed that such a letter could not be found (cf. B. Kordes, Agricola’s Schriften möglichst vollständig verzeichnet [Altona 1817], p. 393: “To my knowledge, this letter does not exist”). Only in 1914 was it discovered in the collection of Baron Heinrich von Hymmen (1880–1960), and in the same year the theologian G. Kawerau published it in the appendix to volume 15 of Luther’s letters. It was still in the Hymmen collection in 1947 when the critical Weimar edition published it, based on a photograph. The Hymmen family is known to have supported the Protestant cause: during the Nazi era, Heinrich placed his Unterbach castle at the disposal of the illegal Confessing Church; the theologian Johannes Hymmen was Vice President of the “Evangelischer Oberkirchenrat” from 1936. The letter first surfaced in the trade more than three decades ago (Stargardt 630 [1983], lot 1238: DM 172,270 including premium and taxes; remarkably, that same year a four-page Luther manuscript [Z&K 2/II, 1856] commanded no more than DM 10,000). The letter has since rested in the private collection from which we recently acquired it..

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