Why did Martin Luther reject Esther?
As we saw, Martin Luther did not especially single out Esther from other O.T. books which had been historically accepted and used by the Church. He in fact rejected several books in one fell sweep, including the Apocrypha, the Song of songs, and Ecclesiasticus.
Old Church Canon versus Jewish Canon
Some may think that Luther simply rejected books not found in the Jewish canon, i.e., books that the Jews had not officially recognized as Holy Scripture.
For instance, the Church had adopted the Greek O.T. (called the Septuagint or LXX), apparently because the Jewish people in the diaspora had translated it already and Jesus and the Apostles quoted from it. This translation was already circulating throughout the Roman Empire, in the common language, Greek.
But the Greek O.T. also contained books not found or used by Palestinian Jews who continued to work in Hebrew and Aramaic, and these books were not accepted as Holy Scripture by the Rabbis.
Thus Martin Luther did reject books that had been traditionally accepted by the Church as part of the O.T., but not recognized by non-converting Jews.
Rejection of the Apocrypha by Jerome
The early Christians had been aware of this since the time of Origen (c. 200 A.D.), who carefully compared the Hebrew and Greek versions in his Hexapla (a 6-column parallel O.T.). But the Church continued to keep the translation and canon given to them by the Apostles.
It was not until Jerome (c. 400 A.D.) that the Apocrypha, the disputed books were openly rejected, or separated and set to a lower value in the opinion of this father.
In Jerome's preface to Samuel and Kings, he says:
Augustine (c. 400 A.D.) and Thomas Aquinas (13th cent.) accepted the other Apocryphal books as Holy Scripture:
"...The first class:...five books of Moses, they formally call 'Torah', that is law.
...The second class is composed of the Prophets, ...
... To the third class belong the Hagiographa ['writings', histories]....
...And so there are also 22 books of the Old Testament; that is, five of Moses, eight of the prophets, nine of the Hagiographa, though some also include Ruth and Kinoth (Lamentations) amongst the Hagiographa, and think that these books ought to be reckoned separately; we should thus have 24 books of the Old Testament. ...
This preface to the Scriptures may serve as a " helmeted " introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so that we may be assured that what is not found in our list must be placed amongst the Apocryphal writings. Wisdom, therefore, which generally bears the name of Solomon, and the book of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, and Judith, and Tobias, and the Shepherd are not in the [Jewish] canon. The first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style. Seeing that all this is so, I beseech you, my reader, not to think that my labours are in any sense intended to disparage the old translators. For the service of the tabernacle of God each one offers what he can; some gold and silver and precious stones, others linen and blue and purple and scarlet; we shall do well if we offer skins and goats' hair. And yet the Apostle pronounces our more contemptible parts more necessary than others. Accordingly, the beauty of the tabernacle as a whole and in its several kinds (and the ornaments of the church present and future) was covered with skins and goats'-hair cloths, and the heat of the sun and the injurious rain were warded off by those things which are of less account."
"Jerome designates a fourth division of books, namely the apocrypha. Apocrypha is named from 'apo', which means 'very', and 'cryphon', which means obscure, because their teachings and authors are in doubt. But the catholic church has received these books in the category of holy scriptures, whose teachings are not in doubt, though its authors are; not because the authors of these books are unknown, but because these men were not of known authority. Hence the books have their power not from the authority of the authors, but rather from the reception of the church."
(Thomas Aquinas, Principium Biblicum, Opera Omnia (Index Thomisticus), vol. 3, p. 647. Translation by Dr. Michael Woodward).
The Western Church
"In the Western Church, opinions among theologians varied on the extent of the canon and the status of the Apocrypha. Some followed Augustine while others followed Jerome. Cassiodorus, the sixth century Roman writer, statesman, and monk, related the opinion of both Augustine and Jerome without rendering a judgment as to which was correct. But an examination of the historical record reveals that though some followed Augustine, and the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, the majority followed the judgment of Jerome."(W. Webster, The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha Part 3: From Jerome to the Reformation)
Martin Luther was plainly influenced by the opinion of Jerome, who had translated the O.T. from the Hebrew and the N.T. from the Greek into Latin afresh, creating the Latin Vulgate. Jerome had also noted the lack of some books and portions of books (e.g. the extra chapters of Daniel in the Greek), and had put them aside as separate.
Martin Luther's Idea of "Canon"
But this was not all that was going on in the head of Martin Luther. He had also noticed the attitude toward certain canonical books expressed by Erasmus, the liberal humanist who had published the Greek New Testament and gave his own parallel Latin translation, corrected more closely to the Greek text.
Luther also wrote in Bondage of the Will:
When we look again at this quote, we see that two actual canonical books are also being de-rated as "Apocryphal" by Erasmus, duly noted without objection by Luther, and used to bolster his own dismissal of Esther, also a canonical book accepted as Scripture by the Jewish canon."Though I could rightly reject this book [Ecclesiasticus], for the time being I accept it so as not to waste time by getting involved in a dispute about the books received in the Hebrew canon. For you poke more than a little sarcastic fun at this when you compare Proverbs and The Song of Solomon (which with a sneering innuendo you call the “Love Song”) with the two books of Esdras, Judith, the story of Susanna and the Dragon, and Esther (which despite their inclusion of it in the canon deserves more than all the rest in my judgment to be regarded as noncanonical).
We see here then a total of three Canonical books, judged by Luther (and Erasmus) as not worthy of canonical status.
It should be noted that neither Erasmus nor Luther had any warrant from Jerome for doubting the status or canonicity of these particular books. Jerome had noted that two canonical books had been variously classed (he does not give the basis for this) but these were the books of Ruth and Lamentations. Nor had Jerome cast any doubt upon their canonicity, only their relative position in the three sub-classes, Torah, Prophets, Writings.
Erasmus and Luther were indeed up to something novel in regard to the canon.
Dave Armstrong explains this as follows:
"The example of Esther is thus seen as merely one example of many, of biblical books that Luther felt free to judge wholly based on his subjective opinion. This folly flows from his prior erroneous presupposition, as described by the respected Lutheran scholar and Luther expert Paul Althaus:
He thereby established the principle that the early church's formation and limitation of the canon is not exempt from re-examination . . . the canon is only a relative unity, just as it is only relatively closed. Therewith Luther has in principle abandoned every formal approach to the authority of the Bible. It is certainly understandable that Luther's prefaces were no longer printed in German Bibles.One may characterize his attitude in this way: The canon itself was, as far as Luther was concerned, a piece of ecclesiastical tradition and therefore subject to criticism on the basis of God's word.
(The Theology of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 85, 336)
(to be continued...)