What Erasmus Thought of the First of Luther’s 95 Theses

by Oct 28, 2017NTScholarship

The first of Luther’s 95 Theses was basically a critique of Jerome’s translation of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Jerome had translated this poenitentiam agite, which renders something like “Do penance.” Luther, just a few months after writing the 95 Theses, wrote to Staupitz,

I became so bold as to believe that they were wrong who attributed so much to penitential works that they left us hardly anything of poenitentia, except some trivial satisfactions on the one hand and a most laborious confession on the other. It is evident that they were misled by the Latin term, because the expression poenitentiam agere suggests more an action than a change in disposition; and in no way does this do justice to the Greek metanoein.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 48: Letters I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 67–68.

I was curious to see what Erasmus did with this word in his Novum Instrumentum—because it includes a fresh Latin translation of the New Testament. Sure enough, Dan Wallace’s Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts has nice shots of Erasmus’ text, and Erasmus apparently saw a similar problem with Jerome’s rendering. He opted for:

My Latin is a bit rusty, but that looks like a reflexive to me—“Repent yourselves.” That’s exactly what Spanish would do (arrepiéntanse). But a quick check of two Latin grammars did not confirm my read. I am not sure what the uos is doing there, and I’m interested to know if any readers can tell me.

Erasmus’ NT came out in 1516, so the title of this post is, of course, a bit misleading: it’s not what Erasmus thought of Luther but how Luther was perhaps influenced by Erasmus. And I don’t know that about this particular point of translation. I’m simply pointing out both men saw the same problem in Jerome’s rendering.

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