Facebook Twitter

Martin Luther’s history-changing translation of the Bible

SHARE Martin Luther’s history-changing translation of the Bible

Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/faith.

The oldest known translation of any part of the Bible into German — strictly, into Old High German — was done between the mid-eighth and the early ninth centuries at Mondsee Abbey, in today’s Upper Austria. Then, in the early 11th century, a Benedictine monk named Notker Labeo translated the several texts, including the Psalter, or Pslams, into Old High German. From the 11th century on, a number of partial and complete Bible translations occurred into various spoken European languages.

Most medieval Europeans, of course, could neither read nor write. They had little incentive to become literate, though, because both books and writing materials remained very expensive and, therefore, rather rare. However, copies of the so-called “Biblia pauperum,” “the Bible for paupers” — books in which short biblical texts were abundantly illustrated — began to be produced in Germany and the Netherlands as early as the ninth century.


Visitors walk behind a first small model design (1858) for the Luther monument in Worms during the press preview of the national special exhibition 'Luther and the Germans' at the Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament to German, in Eisenach, Germany, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. The exhibition presents around 300 exhibits from the Wartburg Foundation collection or on loan from other German and international institutions. The exhibition starts on May 4, 2017 and lasts until Nov. 11, 2017. | Jens Meyer, Associated Press

Still far too expensive for peasants to buy, they were probably used by clergy to teach illiterate parishioners. By the middle of the 14th century, they were appearing in dual-language Latin/German forms, and sometimes solely in German. Moreover, paper, which was much cheaper than parchment, was coming into widespread use.

In 1452-55, in Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg used moveable type for the first time to publish a complete Bible in Latin. Shortly thereafter, in 1466, Johannes Mentelin printed the first German Bible in Strasbourg. Finally, printing made relatively cheap Bibles available to broad audiences — which can be viewed as an essential factor in the German Reformation. That epochal event began just a half century later, when Martin Luther famously issued his “95 Theses” — 500 years ago in 1517.

In 1521, Luther was summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to appear before a “diet,” a “Reichstag” or imperial deliberative assembly, in the German city of Worms. (In English, this historic assembly bears the unfortunate title of the “Diet of Worms.”) There, the former Augustinian monk was invited to renounce his views. Later tradition reports that Luther responded by declaring, "Here I stand, I can do no other," and concluded with "God help me. Amen." It’s doubtful that he spoke those actual words, but, effectively, that’s what he told the emperor and the imperial court.

Although Luther was guaranteed 21 days for safe passage back to his home in Wittenberg, Pope Leo X had excommunicated him and the famous Edict of Worms would soon declare him a heretic, calling for his arrest and punishment. Privately, it may even have been suggested that anybody who killed him along the road would be doing the emperor a favor.

To prevent this, Frederick III, the sympathetic prince-elector of Saxony (also known as “Frederick the Wise”), staged a kidnapping of Luther on the road from Worms back to Wittenberg. He hid Luther at his impressive Wartburg Castle from May 1521 until March of the following year.

It was during this period of enforced inactivity that Luther, concealed under the pseudonym of “Junker Joerg” (or “the Knight George”), translated the New Testament from ancient Greek into a contemporary form of German. He accomplished the task in just 10 weeks, and it was published in 1522, six months after he left the Wartburg.


Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament to German, in Eisenach, Germany. | Shutterstock

Twelve years later, Luther’s translation of the entire Bible — taken from the original Hebrew and Greek rather than the Catholic Church’s official Latin Vulgate version — was published.

While translating, Luther is said to have walked about in nearby towns and markets, listening to the people as they spoke. He wanted them to understand. He continued to tinker with it and to revise it until his death in 1546, even issuing a large-print edition for readers with poor eyesight.

Luther’s wasn’t the first German translation of the Bible, but, because of its excellence, the new technology of printing, and the rapid spread of Lutheranism, it rapidly became the best known, most widely circulated, and by far most influential. It contributed enormously to the development of Modern High German, to creating a unified German culture extending well beyond the political boundaries of today’s Germany, and is considered, in its own right, one of the foremost achievements of German literature. In Germany, it has played a role similar to that of the King James Bible in the English-speaking world.

Of particular interest to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than three centuries after the appearance of the Luther Bible, the Prophet Joseph Smith remarked that “I find it to be the most correct that I have found.”

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.