Rediscovering The Scholarly Gems In Luther's Table Talk

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Luther's Table TalkI have long been a fan of Luther’s Table Talk, those conversations which were recorded by students staying at the Black Cloister with the Luther family. Up till now, my main source has been volume 54 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works, whose nearly 500 pages include the story of the dog who was Lutheran, which I once read aloud to the adult Sunday School I was teaching, among others. I still recommend this version as the first version anyone should get in English. It is scholarly, and not so pious in its selection. If you want raw Luther, it is probably your only real chance to find him, as most collections are made by those who feel some inner need to clean him up and make him respectable company for old ladies. I also like knowing the dates, and who took down the notes, and the American Edition will let you know whether it was Veit Dietrich or Anthony Lauterbach or another.

But despite strong preferences for having all that the American Edition offered, I recently decided to order another version of the Table Talk. I just wanted more. The one I settled on was by Captain Henry Bell and published in 1840. The title is Colloquia Mensalia, or the Familiar Discourses. My two volume set was printed by some outfit in India, with pages that are not so well aligned, which is annoying, but not fatal. I wondered when I saw them whether to fall into a deep state of buyer’s remorse. But when I opened and began to read, I immediately found something worth reading:

Two hundred forty-one years before the humanity of Christ, the five books of Moses and the Prophets, were translated out of the Hebrew into the Greek tongue, by the Septuagint Interpreters, the seventy doctors of learned men at Jerusalem, in the time of Eleazer the high-priest, at the request of Ptolemeus Philadelphus, King of Egypt; which king allowed great changes and expences for the translating of the same.

Then, one hundred twenty-four years after the birth of Christ his death and passion, the Old Testament was translated out of Hebrew into Greek by a Jew, named Aquila (being converted to the Christian faith), in the time of Adrian the emperor.

Fifty and three years after this Aquila, the Bible was also translated by Theodosius.

In the three and thirtieth year after Theodosius, it was translated by Symmachus, under the emperor Severus.

Eight years after Symmachus, the Bible was also translated by one (whose name is unknown), and the same is called the fifth translation.

Afterwards, the Bible was translated by Hieronymus (who first mended and corrected the seventy interpreters) out of Hebrew into the Latin tongue, which translation we use to this day in the church. And truly (said Luther), he did enough for one man; Nulla enim privata persona tantum efficere potuisset. But he had not done amiss if he had taken one or two learned men to his translation beside himself, for then the Holy Ghost would more powerfully have been discerned, according to Christ's saying: "Where two or three be gathered together in my name, there will I be in the midst of them." And indeed (said Luther), translators or interpreters ought not to be alone, for good and apt words do not always fall to one single man. And so long as the Bible was in the church of the Gentiles, it was never yet in such perfection, that it could have been read so exactly and significantly without stop, as we have prepared the same here at Wittemberg, and (God be praised) have translated it out of Hebrew into the high German tongue.

Colloquia Mensalia, or The Divine Discourses, by Martin Luther, trans. by Henry Bell, pp. 2-3.

The archaic language and names may take some getting used to. Hieronymus for Jerome? Expences? Wittemberg? But this passage alone might have justified the purchase. I've read various accounts of Septuagint translations. This one makes me want to look into the matter again.