The scandal in itself was ripe. It was aggravated by the circumstances that surrounded the indulgence sale that led to the events of 1517 and the following years. As far as the papacy was concerned, the sale of indulgences had become an important source of regular income as well as a method of levies for special purposes. In 1510, Julius II had put on sale a Jubilee Indulgence, principally in order to cover the cost of the new church of Saint Peter's. The indulgence was put on sale for Magdeburg and Mainz in 1515.
The commissioner was Albrecht of Brandenburg, a notorious pluralist, who held at the same time the archbishoprics of Magdeburg and Mainz, as well as the bishopric of Halberstadt. By a secret agreement, the proceeds from the sale were to be split fifty-fifty between the papal treasury and the Fuggers—for the latter had to be reimbursed for the sums advanced to Albrecht for the purchase of his bishoprics and for the special dispensation that permitted him to hold the three sees at once. How "secret" this agreement was is difficult to judge; for the agents of the House of Fugger accompanied the pardoners in order to split the intake on the spot.
Into this racket of international high finance, Luther blundered with his Ninety-Five Theses, "On the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences." In form and intention the Theses (in Latin) were a dry academic discussion of the theological question involved, in no way differing from hundreds of other disputations in a medieval university. As to their content, however, they hit the critical point. For Luther insisted that an indulgence can only remit an ecclesiastical penalty, not the punishment of God; in particular, an indulgence cannot remit guilt; it can, furthermore, pertain only to the living, not to souls in purgatory; and he attacked the thesaurus meritorum by insisting that the true treasure of merits is the Spirit.
The Theses immediately aroused wide interest. The University Press of Wittenberg could not provide copies fast enough. Within two weeks they were known all over Germany. A German translation had to be provided. And within a month Luther, very much to his own surprise, was a figure of European rank.