As religion.ORF reports from Austria, doubts first arose in 1961 as to whether the Catholic monk Luther really nailed a manifesto to the chapel door of a Castle in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Catholic historian Erwin Iserloh, drawing on the doubts of Lutheran historian Hans Volz, stated in a lecture in Mainz in 1961 that the nailing of the Theses never happened. And the debate began to rage.
Iserloh later backed off from his claim. It is true that Luther himself wrote, “On the day of All Saints I first began to write against the Pope and indulgences.” But this is no argument against October 31 – the feast was always understood to include the vigil on the previous day.
It is certain that Luther sent his 95 Theses to 27-year-old Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg on October 31. Albrecht was responsible for the sale of indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In a letter Luther admonished that the sale of indulgences be examined. An original of this letter is extant, but not of the 95 Theses. Historians are not agreed as to whether he also nailed the theses to the church door on this day. The available sources are not entirely clear.
Philipp Melanchthon reported that Luther did nail the theses to the church publicly. But Melanchthon could not have witnessed this, for he arrived in Wittenberg only a year later. And he wrote his report after the death of Luther in 1546.
A confidant of Luther, Georg Rörer, wrote of him nailing theses to several church doors. But he arrived even later than Melanchthon in Wittenberg – in 1522. He may well have been drawing on Melanchthon in his account.
Willi Winkler, biographer of Luther, doubts the whole story. “In any case, the hammer is a later invention,” he states. In the first centenary of the Reformation in 1617, it was a simple feather pen with which Luther wrote on the chapel door.
According to the most current research, Luther never spoke of nailing the theses to the church door. However, at the time it would have been quite customary to post scholarly theses on church doors, and perhaps not worthy of note.
A reason to doubt the legend is that Luther did not set out to be a revolutionary, but rather hoped to reform the church by the sending of letters. But perhaps he nailed the theses to the door at a later date, or had someone else do so.
Lutheran Bishop Michael Bünker of Austria thinks it best not to keep transmitting the tale of a lonely monk whose hammer strikes were heard all the way to Rome. He wouldn’t be entirely opposed if some children here and there heard the beloved story. “After all, it’s not entirely debunked, but neither is it proven,” he said.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to Bischop Bünker whether four nails were pounded into a door. But this is clear to him: “Theologically, the theses were hammer strikes.”