What we do know is that the were printed and circulated around Europe within a period of two months.
We also know that Luther sent a copy to Albrecht of Mainz, who now held the most important ecclesiastical position in the empire.
Indeed, there does not ever seem to have been an academic disputation in Wittenberg as would normally have followed the proposal of such theses.
Most striking of all, Luther took the extraordinary step of sending the to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the leading church authority in Germany, and exhorting him in no uncertain terms to restrain the indulgence preachers.
In subsequent theses, Luther questioned the ethics of encouraging peasants to buy indulgences rather than give alms or buy food for their family.
He also questioned the authority of the Church to forgive sins, a right that surely belonged to God alone.
Eventually, recognizing in indulgences a potentially immense source of revenue, later popes began offering them for money more often than for good deeds, and needing to continue to expand the market to keep the revenues flowing, they started allowing the faithful to buy indulgences for their dead relatives already in purgatory.
Johann Tetzel’s indulgence campaign that prompted Luther’s protest in 1517, though, was an extraordinary illustration of the corruption that came from mixing such absolute spiritual power with the wide-reaching worldly power of the late medieval church.
The document itself, however, is an unlikely candidate for the role of revolutionary text or Protestant manifesto: composed chiefly for an academic disputation on a practice now long-forgotten and scarce understood, the theses are a bit bewildering to the modern reader looking for familiar Reformation slogans.
Indeed, neither of Luther’s two great principles—justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture alone—are to be found in these pages, even though the former had already begun to influence Luther’s thinking and underlies several of his concerns in the are fairly conservative, and Luther hardly expected them to unleash a full-scale reconception of Christian theology and division of the church.