Thursday, April 8, 2010

Luther and Rabbinic Interpretation.

In dealing with the Old Testament in general and Genesis in particular, Luther frequently makes reference to Nicholas of Lyra. Lyra was a Jew who had been converted to Christianity and became a Franciscan. He was knowledgeable about rabbinical interpretation and also the Hebrew language.

Ironically, although Luther is very critical of rabbinical interpretation of the OT, he frequently accepts certain aspects of it. For example, like the rabbis, Luther hold that Melchizedek is the patriarch Shem. Conversely, although Luther knew the Church Fathers, he very infrequently considered their readings of much value. Again, this is ironic in light of the fact that Luther said in The Last Words of David, that although the Jews had grammar, the Church Fathers (particularly Augustine) had a better interpretation of the OT because they had Christ. In practice though, Luther does not seem to follow them much.


  1. The first volume in the new series of Luther's Works is replete with footnotes showing Luther's use of Lyra. Very interesting stuff!

  2. Pr. McCain- I look forward to reading the new Luther volume some time in the future. I'm particularly interesting in the sources and traditions behind Luther's exegesis.

  3. Jack, I look forward to your continued reflections on the background of Luther's exegesis! Now, a biographical note on Lyra. Although he likely studied with Jews in Evreux, I'm pretty sure he himself was not Jewish. However, another famous Medieval exegete, Paul of Burgos, was. Paul of Burgos' (or Burgensis') commentary on Scripture was printed sometimes together with Lyra. Take a look at the bibliography at the back of the Gerhard's "Commonplaces."

    Also, since we're talking about Lyra, I can't fail to mention his relation to the great reformer of the Church: "Si Lyra non lyrasset, Lutherus non saltasset." "If Lyra hadn't played his lyre, Luther wouldn't have danced."

  4. Ben- There are conflicting opinions about whether or not Lyra was a Jew. The tradition goes back to the 15th century. Some people consider this to be too late. I am personally inclined to think that Lyra was a Jew. It would explain his preoccupation with their conversion.

    You are also correct about Paul of Burgos. Luther certainly drew on both of these exegetes. His historicist reading of Revelation and also his interpreation of Islam are highly dependent on both of them.