Did Luther Really Nail 95 Theses to the Chapel Door on October 31st?

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.”

Source: Luthers Thesenanschlag: Alles nur ein Mythos?

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9 comments

  1. “Willi Winkler, biographer of Luther, doubts the whole story. “In any case, the hammer is a later invention,” he states. ”

    Is today Halloween or April Fools’? Hammers and related stone tools have been shown to be in use by humans as much as 2.6 million years ago. [Journal of Human Evolution, vol 45 (2003)] And considering Christ’s foster father was a carpenter, He probably used one in His time as well. The only thing missing in Luther’s day was the WalMart to pick his up.

    1. @Sean Keeler:
      I believe he means that the detail of Luther using a hammer was added to the story later, thus becoming an “invention.” I don’t recall seeing a WalMart in Wittenberg . . .

  2. Far from backing off from his claim, Erwin Iserloh wrote a full-length book about this, entitled “The Theses Were Not Posted”, in which he proved fairly conclusively that the theses were not posted (nailed) on the church door but were posted (mailed) to the archbishop. The English translation was first pubished in 1968.

  3. The Austrian ORF story quotes Wolfgang Breul. I don’t know Breul’s sources or what Iserloh stated in some other forum after 1961 or 1968, so I only have Breul’s report that he backed off. Here’s the original of yesterday’s ORF story:

    „Iserloh hat das später abgeschwächt“, sagte der Mainzer Kirchenhistoriker Wolfgang Breul zu religion.ORF.at. Iserloh erklärte später, der Thesenanschlag habe nur nicht am 31. Oktober stattgefunden. Schließlich gibt es Quellen, die Martin Luther mit den Worten „am Tage Allerheiligen, habe ich angefangen, zuerst gegen den Papst und die Ablässe zu schreiben.“ Der evangelische Kirchenhistoriker Heinrich Bornkamm klärte später auf, dass die Angabe Allerheiligen immer auch die Vigil, den Vorabend, mit einschließe.

  4. Well, true or false, it makes for a great story, a great scene in a movie, etc. Besides, wasn’t a church door a kind of “community bulletin board” back in those days, where you’d find notices of all sorts posted?

  5. As a tangent: people unfamiliar with the 27-year-old Albert von Hohenzollern (Abp-Elector of Mainz, Abp of Magdeburg, Bp of Halberstadt), might find it interesting to see his career and family background (and observe in his father, brother, nephew and nephew’s great-grandson the shift from pre-Reformation Catholicism to firm Reformation Lutheran opponent to Lutheranism to Calvinism) . . . .

    The combination of sees alone is quite a story.

  6. “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.”

    As per Thomas, a cause can be inferred from the effect. If that cause is expressed metaphorically (or not) it doesn’t take away from the observed effect.

    If it could be proved that the nailing never happened and as a result we could all shout “ollie ollie all come free”, that would be a good thing. And no, I’m not ignoring the “large differences” that exist between the expressions of faith.

    It’s amazing how, when a family member that’s antagonized you over the years goes into hospice, a deep commonality most often reveals itself after all.

  7. But Paul, is ‘concrete’ the appropriate word when the doors of Wuttemberg Castle would have surely been made of wood? But I do agree with the site to which you refer and the conclusions you draw. In between worshiping at St John’s Abbey, I’m busy immersing myself at local grass roots level in the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, for which I have extracted the name for those of us engaged in such dialogue: Catherans.

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