Nov 3rd 2017

How Martin Luther gave us the roots of the Protestant work ethic

by Iona C Hine

Researcher in English and Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield
The posting of 95 theses is not the only act for which Martin Luther is famed. In 1522, he began the work that would last a lifetime: translating the Bible. This was not a neutral act. If we can trace society’s influence on tales of his theses’ posting, we can also see similar factors at work as Luther deliberated over what a German Bible should say.

File 20171031 18693 m1uhea.png?ixlib=rb 1.1 William de Brailes, circa 1250AD Iona C Hine, University of Sheffield

Luther’s was not the first German Bible translation. When he translated the New Testament, there were already 18 German Bibles in print. What was different about Luther’s text? Partly the source – older Bibles were based on the traditional Latin text attributed to Jerome (circa 400AD). Inspired by humanist scholars such as Erasmus, Luther translated from Greek and Hebrew – the original biblical languages.

He was also determined to communicate God’s word in a way that would strike people afresh. Like William Tyndale in English, Luther coined new words and deliberately reworded well-known texts. Christians who had been used to “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary) now heard an angel give her “Greetings”. A natural translation, Luther argued, would be simply “Liebe”, that is “Dear…” Mary.

But Luther well knew that in rewording this New Testament dialogue, he was undermining centuries of “Hail Mary” penance. Jesus’ command to repent – “poenitentiam agite” – interpreted in the medieval church as “do penance” through ritual actions, provided the starting point for Luther’s 95 theses, because of his distaste for indulgences, which he saw as a corrupt form of repentance. In Luther’s view this – and the notion that Jesus’ mother had power over Christians’ destiny – were flawed.

A new understanding

If the changes Luther introduced were sometimes visibly doctrinal, there were other concerns at work, too. Translating the Bible into everyday language involved deciding how to frame a text that would shape everyday life.

Though the New Testament was complete in 1522, a full Wittenberg edition of Luther’s Bible did not appear until 1534. By that point, other reformers – most notably Ulrich Zwingli and colleagues in Zurich – had completed alternative translations from the original languages.

Why were they ahead? Luther’s work seems to have stalled in 1525. That year, tens of thousands died during the German Peasants’ War, an uprising prompted in large part by the notion that the Bible (and God) supported the cause of the lowliest in society. In the aftermath, Luther became more reticent about who should read the Bible and when.

Evidence of this rethinking can be seen in the book of Ruth, the story of a widow who emigrates with her widowed mother-in-law, marries Boaz – a relative of her late husband – and so becomes the great grandmother of King David. Luther first translated this short Hebrew text in 1524, revising it very slightly for a 1525 reprint (the speed of reprinting is itself an indication of how eagerly his work was received).

Ruth: the ‘proper’ woman

By 1540, Luther was once again revising the Bible. This time he worked with a team of colleagues. The records of this work include notes taken by one of the team and marginal annotations that Luther himself made in a copy of the Bible, along with the published revision. They got to Ruth on April 7 1540. There was not much to edit here, but Ruth 2:7 presented a particular challenge.

 
The original text of the story of Ruth in Luther’s translation. Martin Luther University

Scholars today are uncertain how to fit together the last Hebrew words of this verse, which are: “this”, “rest” (or “stay”), “the house” and “little”. The landowner (Boaz) has asked his harvest manager about a strange young woman (Ruth). The manager’s answer seems staccato, words piled together without due grammatical attention. Some have suggested this is stylistic – that we are meant to imagine the manager stammering his response.

Ruth has arrived at the field, hoping to gather leftover grain after the harvesters. But has she been stood waiting for an answer, an example of patience? Was she on the verge of giving up and going home, heightening the drama of Boaz’s sudden arrival? Can Boaz see her sitting indoors? One scholar traced 18 different ways of translating the passage, gathering together Greek, French, English and German texts through to the present day.

The 1540 records show Luther and his fellows agreeing first that Ruth is a “fromm” – that is a “proper” or “pious”, woman. This opinion intrudes upon the biblical text in chapter one, and recurs as a remark on Ruth 2:10. Right after that note, the discussion turns back to verse 7: “Her stay in the house is little”, the minute-taker writes in Latin. “A comment on her habits”. In Luther’s own handwriting we learn that Ruth is not like other women, accustomed to lounging around at home.

Sleeping Venus: how artists in Luther’s day were inclined to picture women. Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco

Midway through this remark, he switches from Latin – the language of scholarly discourse – to the language of his target audience. In the printed German Bible of 1541 and its successors, the whole sentence appears in the margin.

 
Luther’s marginalia. Author provided

Difficult Hebrew words are taken out of context and turned into a commentary upon her whole character. Luther is convinced that Ruth is a decent woman. The textual uncertainty is determined by her model status: modelling the best of possible female behaviour.

In Ruth, the ready and willing worker, we sense the beginnings of what Weber would term the Protestant work ethic. That ethic is normally associated with the later Reformer, John Calvin, whose teaching about predestination created an anxiety that drove Protestants to ensure they spent their time well. But in the margins of the 1541 Luther Bible and its successors, we can see that concern already at hand. Good women should not be idle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 10th 2019

 

The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own.