The Anabaptists and the Jews: The Case of Hatzer, Denck and the Worms Prophets

By Beck, James | Mennonite Quarterly Review, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Anabaptists and the Jews: The Case of Hatzer, Denck and the Worms Prophets


Beck, James, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: This paper initiates study of the larger question of contact between Anabaptists and Jews by analyzing the degree and nature of Jewish influence on Ludwig Hatzer and Hans Denck's German translation of the Old Testament Prophets known as the Worms Prophets (Wormser Propheten). The first part of the study surveys the Jewish and Anabaptist communities of Worms in order to identify precedence for such contact. The final section offers a detailed analysis of the annotations of the Worms Prophets and an introduction to a rare publication by Hatzer from 1528. The evidence reveals that Hatzer and Denck depended much more heavily on the Jewish interpretive tradition than on the Christian tradition. This tradition was likely communicated to Hatzer and Denck by one or more of the rabbis of Worms. Two significant consequences of this Jewish influence are the linguistic accuracy and the non-Christological tone of the translation. (1)

INTRODUCTION

On April 13, 1527 in the city of Worms, Ludwig Hatzer, assisted by Hans Denck, published the first translation of the Old Testament Prophets from Hebrew into German, popularly titled the Worms Prophets. (2) Martin Luther criticized the translation as being overly influenced by the Jews. In a May 1527 letter to his friend and colleague at Wittenberg, Wenceslas Link, Luther made no mention of the Jews in his assessment of the new translation: "I do not condemn the German translation of the prophets published in Worms, except that the German is quite confusing, perhaps due to the local dialect. The translators were diligent, but who can manage to do everything?" (3) Several years later, however, in an open letter on translating, dated 1530, Luther expressed a rather different opinion of the Worms translation: "It has been carefully done and approaches my German very closely. But Jews had a hand in it, and they do not show much reverence for Christ. Apart from that there is plenty of skill and craftsmanship there." (4) Evidently as Luther worked on the Prophets with the Worms translation in hand he became more impressed with the Hebrew translation skills of Hatzer and Denck, but at the same time less enamored of the translation itself because of its perceived Jewish influence. (5) To date no effort has been made either to confirm or refute Luther's opinion. Was Luther accurate in his assessment of the Worms Prophets (and not just conflating two of the most common targets of his hostility--Anabaptists and Jews)? If Jews were indeed involved in the translation, what exactly was the nature and degree of their influence on the translation? And, perhaps most important, can answering these questions provide any insight into the larger question of Anabaptist encounters with and attitudes toward their Jewish contemporaries?

I propose at least a preliminary answer to these questions by a study of both external and internal evidence. The external evidence comes from an examination of the history of the relationship of the Jews of Worms with Christian Hebraists in the latter half of the fifteenth century and the first part of the sixteenth century, accompanied by an assessment of the nature of the Anabaptist community in Worms. The internal evidence derives from a detailed analysis of the annotations of the Worms Prophets as well as Hatzer's foreword to his translation of three of the apocryphal books published in 1528. Such an investigation will begin to address the larger question of the Anabaptists' contacts with and attitudes toward the Jews. The evidence of my research suggests that Hatzer and Denck made use of Jewish expertise and the long tradition of rabbinic biblical scholarship to aid in their translation and that the source of that information was most likely one or more of the rabbis of Worms. Given the nature of the translation, this contact enhanced the quality of the translation and may have reinforced the incipient inclinations of Hatzer, and Denck, away from Christian orthodoxy and toward anti-Trinitarianism. …

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