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While researching an answer to a different question, I found that Martin Luther attempted to remove Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the Bible.

What was his purpose in removing these four books? Was it a doctrinal stance against these four books? Do these four books contain doctrines that we should, per Martin Luther, not believe?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

The key point of Luther's biblical exegesis was his conviction of Christ's being the rex scripturae.1 There is a famous passage from his preface to the "Epistel S. Jacobi und Judas" saying:

This is the right touchstone to criticize all the books: See if they preach Christ or not. […] What Christ did not teach, that is not apostolic, may it have been taught by St. Peter or Paul. And what Christ did teach, that is apostolic, may it have been taught by Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herode.2

With this key exegetical principle, that the doctrine of justification is paramount,3 Luther found a critical standard for the individual biblical writings. The Epistle of James,4 Second Maccabees, Revelation, and Esther did not meet that standard in his eyes. He was so hostile to them that he wished they didn't even exist: he wanted to "almost put them out of the bible."5

1: 40 I, 421
2: "Auch ist das der rechte prufsteyn, alle bucher zu tadelln, wenn man sihet, ob sie Christum treyben odder nit. […] Was Christum nicht lehret, das ist noch nicht apostolisch, wenns gleich S. Petrus oder Paulus lehret. Wiederum, was Christum prediget, das wäre aposolisch, wenns gleich Judas, Hannas, Pilatus oder Herodes tät", WADB 7, 384
3: And mainly the things that are taught in the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Romans, and the First Epistle of Peter.
4: There's a dinner speech where he once said: "I'm going to heat up the oven with Jeckel [=Jakob=James]." ("Ich werdem einmal mit dem Jeckel den Ofen heizen."), Ti. 5,382,17
5: "schier aus der Bibel stoßen", Ti. 5,414

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It might be much better if you re-worded your question. Luther was never seeking to change the canon. Instead, it might be better to simply say that Luther was seeking to find the canon. Very early in the Christian church there were false-teaching men who pretended to be Christians, but clearly did not teaching and preach what was handed down to the apostles by Jesus (Valendinius, Cerinthus, Arius, et multa.) As a result of these false teachers there were different categories of books floating around the Mediterranean world. I will explain them as follows:

  • Homologumena. These are the books that are clearly written by the apostles and belong in the bible. Schaff has this able description of them:

The principal books of the New Testament, the four Gospels, the Acts, the thirteen Epistles of Paul, the first Epistle of Peter, and the first of John, which are designated by Eusebius as “Homologumena,” were in general use in the church after the middle of the second century, and acknowledged to be apostolic, inspired by the Spirit of Christ, and therefore authoritative and canonical. This is established by the testimonies of Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, of the Syriac Peshito (which omits only Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Revelation), the old Latin Versions (which include all books but 2 Peter, Hebrews, and perhaps James and the Fragment of Muratori

Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity (History Of The Christian Church 2; Accordance electronic ed. 8 vols.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), n.p.

  • Antilegomena. These are the books that are spoken against. Now, here the important detail to understand is that they were not spoken against because they didn't belong in the bible. They did belong in the bible. But there was a question as to why they belonged in the bible. Revelation, with its vision-filled content, Hebrews, with its unknown author—these were spoken against because there were details they wanted to know about them. But it was clear that they were part of the canon already. Again, Schaff:

Concerning the other seven books, the “Antilegomena” of Eusebius, viz. the Epistle to the Hebrews,943 the Apocalypse,944 the second Epistle of Peter, the second and third Epistles of John, the Epistle of James, and the Epistle of Jude, — the tradition of the church in the time of Eusebius, the beginning of the fourth century, still wavered between acceptance and rejection. But of the two oldest manuscripts of the Greek Testament which date from the age of Eusebius and Constantine, one — the Sinaitic — contains all the twenty-seven books, and the other — the Vatican — was probably likewise complete, although the last chapters of Hebrews (from Heb. 11:14), the Pastoral Epistles, Philemon, and Revelation are lost.

Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity (History Of The Christian Church 2; Accordance electronic ed. 8 vols.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), n.p.

  • Pseudepigrapha: These are the falsely-attested writings. In other words, many non-Christian writers wanted to spread their beliefs so they attached the name of an apostle to their writings to give them credence. The most notable in this category today are the Gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary.

All of this is vitally important to know in answering your question, Richard, because, by the time Luther came along, the western church had added many books to the bible that the church had never considered part of the bible. And Luther faced the difficult task of testing them to see if they belonged in the bible or not. Some of the apocryphal books (e.g. Maccabees), he considered interesting and useful in some contexts, but not part of the bible. The last group he wrestled with was the antilegomena. His struggle with James is well-known. But where he ended up is clear. In his prefaces to the books of the bible, in the beginning, he had no use for James. But in prefaces to his final editions, before his death, he admitted that it belonged in the bible.


Luther never changed the canon. Instead, it would be better to say that he rediscovered it. And he rediscovered it not by taking out a blow-torch and a machete and cutting out parts the bible, but instead studying the bible and comparing the books of the bible with themselves first of all. Then he looked at what the early Christian church used and how they evaluated the books that were in the bible and the books that were outside of the bible.

Pastor Steve Bauer (

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This answer would be better if it focused more closely on the specifics of what objections Luther had to each of the books mentioned in the question. The material on the other books is interesting, but not particularly relevant. – Nathaniel Dec 5 '15 at 22:03
With respect, in this area I'm going to have to stick to my guns. It is true that, as Mr. Bultitude points out, the primary filter for what makes it in and out of the bible is how it speaks of Jesus. Well spoken! But in these antilegomena, Luther had the same difficulties and same objections as Christians in the early Christian church had. Canonicity is an immensely intricate topic. And unless one knows about these main categories (homolegoumena, pseudepigrapha, antilegomena, and even apocryphal and deuterocanonical) he will be lost as he tries to sort through the mess in Luther's day. – Steve Bauer Dec 5 '15 at 22:54
+1 for an interesting answer. Well written. However, saying that he wasn't trying to "change" the canon but trying to "find" the canon is a bit...biased. It's like renaming the American Civil War to "The war of Northern Aggression". It's only viewing things from a specific viewpoint that may or may not be accurate. The fact of the matter was that there was a canon before Luther was born and he was attempting to remove books. Nonetheless, that is a minor point of your answer. This doesn't address the question directly, but is still a nice supplement to the other answer. +1 – Richard Dec 6 '15 at 14:12
If I'm told that I'm biased, then I willingly admit it—especially in this area. But I would also say that all people are biased in this area. If we ask why Luther changed the canon by taking away books, we could just as easily ask the question, 'why did the western church add so many books that were not canonical in the early church?' One could not attempt to answer that question without a hint of bias. The point of the answer was to account for the fact that Luther looked to both internal testimony and external testimony in determining the canon. – Steve Bauer Dec 7 '15 at 0:23
oops, tried to edit my comment and it was after 5 minutes. Please edit the last sentence to read: "Luther looked especially to internal evidence in determining the canon. But he also looked to external evidence." Sorry for the piling up of comments. – Steve Bauer Dec 7 '15 at 0:47

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