October 31 isn’t just Halloween, it’s also Reformation Day—the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany in 1517. His theses challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, and sparked the historic split in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation. But 500 years later, scholars aren’t sure that the most dramatic part of the tale is true.
The new consensus is that he mailed his theses to an archbishop on October 31, but he probably didn’t nail them to the door to drive the point home.
The reason this is such a big deal is because the image of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door is one of the main historical events people associate with the Reformation. Yet in a recently published book, 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation, Reformation historian Peter Marshall argues that Luther probably didn’t deliver his theses so theatrically. And according to Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article on Martin Luther’s influence, much of the latest scholarship agrees that the event likely didn’t happen.
“Not only were there no eyewitnesses; Luther himself, ordinarily an enthusiastic self-dramatizer, was vague on what had happened,” Acocella writes. “He remembered drawing up a list of ninety-five theses around the date in question, but, as for what he did with it, all he was sure of was that he sent it to the local archbishop.”
The fact that he might’ve mailed his theses rather than nailing them to the church door, while perhaps a bit disappointing, doesn’t change their impact. In the theses, Luther condemned the church’s selling of “indulgences,” which was based on the the idea that people could buy forgiveness for their sins. Instead, he argued that humans could only reach salvation through faith, and that the Bible, not the clergy, was the foremost religious authority. These ideas shaped a new branch of Christianity, called Protestantism. Broadly defined, Protestants make up 37 percent of the world’s 2.18 billion Christians, according to the Pew Research Center.
True or not, the iconic image of Luther defiantly nailing his theses to a church door continues to reverberate as a symbol of religious freedom. In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed its symbolic power by placing a list of his demands on the door of the Chicago City Hall. It’s even become something of a meme: The Simpsons once aired a Halloween episode in which Lisa accidentally creates a functioning society in a petri dish, and excitedly observes that “one of them is nailing something to the door of the cathedral.”
The delivery method of the 95 Theses is not the only aspect of Luther’s life that scholars are reexamining. Historians have also been delving into his brutal anti-Semitism. In addition to the theses, Luther wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he posited that Jews were a menace to Germany. Scholar Dietz Bering, whose new book explores Luther’s anti-Semitism, told Public Radio International that Luther advocated burning Jewish synagogues and homes, confiscating Jewish money, forcing Jewish people into servitude, and expelling Jewish people from Germany.
Many of his fellow Protestants rejected these ideas at the time, but in the early 20th century, the Nazi Party would use them to demonstrate that anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany. Speaking on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that Luther’s anti-Semitism is part of his theological legacy, and should never be glossed over, reports the Times of Israel.
“That is, for me,” Merkel said, “the comprehensive historical reckoning that we need.”