Luther's German Bible

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The German Bible made Sola Scriptura a reality for all believers.

September 21, 1522.

At first, the Frankfurt Book Fair in September 1522 seemed like any other book fair. The event had been held as far back as 1478, while hand-copied books had been sold in Frankfurt for much longer. But by its end, this book fair would spark a cultural and theological upheaval because of one new book. That book was a German New Testament translation, available for the first time for individual use by the common German people. Martin Luther had translated the New Testament in less than one hundred days while hiding out in the Wartburg after delivering his famous "Here I Stand" speech. After returning home to Wittenberg, he rushed it to the printer so that it could be printed in time for the book fair.

Translated from Greek

Luther's translation was from Greek, specifically from the second edition of Erasmus of Rotterdam's Greek New Testament. Erasmus's first edition had just come out a few years before, and Luther had used that for his early lectures on Romans. Other earlier translations of the Bible into German were translated from Latin. The Latin was from Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation, generally a very able work of genius, but with some renderings that led to imperfect understandings when they were pressed in the wrong way. Luther's fresh translation from Greek allowed him to see that certain prooftexts did not support the positions were trying to prove. For example, the Greek term for "repent" had been rendered in Latin by Jerome to mean "do penance," while in Greek, the term points to a "change of mind." Perhaps Jerome thought theologians would understand this translation to mean "be penitential," that is, "sorry." But instead, many thought they were being commanded to follow the penitential system that only developed after the New Testament, with priests assigning duties to penitents. Whatever the intention, a layer of faulty understanding was connected to the Vulgate. Luther wanted to put a fresh new translation into the hands of ordinary laymen and see what would happen when they encountered words translated specifically to their habits of speech.

German Translation

While there had been some German Bible translations before Luther's time, they were not widely available. It's possible that Luther may have sometimes heard portions of the Bible read from one of these in German after it was read in Latin.

When Luther translated the Greek New Testament into German, he hoped his Bible would speak good German, using expressions that German speakers would use. He had such a strong sense of the language spoken around him that his translation was formative on the German language itself, unifying it so that those who bought and read his Bible spoke more like each other afterward. He would visit the butcher shop or examine the elector of Saxony's court jewels to learn the right German terms for items he was translating. [1] But in addition to being true to the original language, he wanted his version to speak to people where they were. He leaned toward what we would now probably term a dynamic equivalent translation philosophy, which he described in a piece titled "On Translating: An Open Letter." [2]

Written for Lay People

Luther said that his personal exposure to the Scriptures had been quite limited during his youth. He did not get to handle and read his own Bible. There are some conflicting accounts, but it's likely he did not see a complete Bible until he was at least fourteen years old, or possibly even twenty. He would have heard the Bible consistently read in Latin. Psalms were also commonly sung in church services. While there was public, corporate exposure to Scripture, Luther stated students were so often exposed to a smaller collection of passages that when he saw a complete Bible, its size surprised him. He was delighted when he had the opportunity to read more of the Scriptures than whatever the church chose for him to read.

Luther's Bible influenced our own English translations through William Tyndale. It helped form the modern German language. It prompted educational reforms that advanced literacy.

In the Black Cloister monastery, which Luther entered in 1504, the monks gave him his own Bible, bound in red leather [3]. Luther devoured it.

Luther wanted all church parishioners to have access to the Bible. He not only rushed to get his New Testament out at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but throughout his lifetime, Luther also pushed for an educational program that had a far-reaching impact on literacy. In fact, The WEIRDest People in the World, charts how you could use distance from Wittenberg in the century after Luther as a measure of literacy in Germany. The closer to Wittenberg, the more literate the populace. Luther wanted everyone to have access and the ability to read the Scriptures for themselves. He did not want them held captive to a church that could pick and choose through Scripture. He trusted in the perspicuity of Scripture to teach people the text's clear meaning.

Luther's German New Testament led to the creation of a complete German Bible in 1534. The impact this had on the world is incalculable. Luther's Bible influenced our own English translations through William Tyndale. It helped form the modern German language. It prompted educational reforms that advanced literacy. The language has been carried over into works by composers like J.S. Bach and Johannes Brahms. Translation of the Bible into the vernacular became standard practice on the mission field, often leading to the preservation of languages that would have likely otherwise been lost. But perhaps most personally impactful, Luther's Bible helped to carry the ideas of the Protestant Reformation to laymen. No longer did people have to simply trust that whatever ideas their priests were giving them were the true faith. Now they had a way to check for themselves.

The German Bible made Sola Scriptura a reality for all believers. Without having the Scriptures in their hands, lay people would have never been able to know whether what they were hearing conformed to the Scriptures or not. People arrived at that book fair on that September day hoping to have another volume to keep them occupied. They left the book fair armed for battle.