On May 4, 1521, as Martin Luther was making his way home to Wittenberg from the Diet of Worms, he was abducted by a mysterious group of armed, masked riders. His traveling companions feared the abductors were either under authority from the Emperor Charles V or from the Roman Church itself. Since Luther had just been condemned by both the Pope and the Emperor at the Diet of Worms as a heretic, their fears were probably justified.
In fact, Luther had been taken by soldiers of Elector Frederick of Saxony, who rushed him in secrecy to Frederick’s own Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. Luther’s whereabouts was kept a secret for almost a year. Even a few letters sent to friends by Luther during this time never identified his location. While much is unknown about the reasons for Frederick’s actions, it clearly was intended to protect Luther, since the dual condemnations against him at the Diet made him a wanted man with a price on his head. It is also unclear if Luther was initially a part of this plot. Whether he was or not, he made good use of his eleven months in hiding.
According to Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Luther at first spent his time reading and writing, finishing several tracts and papers on various topics and beginning others, and also continuing work on his notes on the Psalms. By some means he gained access to the recently published second edition (1519) Greek & Latin New Testament created by Catholic scholar Erasmus. This bilingual New Testament was a great blessing for several reasons:
- It was the first available Greek New Testament in print.
- The Latin text was a “critical text” in that Erasmus used several different Latin manuscripts to produce one new version eliminating as many mistakes, errors and scribal modifications as possible.
- The Greek text was also a “critical text,” based on comparing as many different Greek manuscripts as Erasmus could access, then creating a new version which eliminated as many mistakes and errors as possible introduced by the various scribal copyists.
- The Greek and Latin texts were printed in two columns, side by side, so a comparison could be made of the faithfulness and accuracy of the Latin translation to the Greek.
- This was most valuable since the Greek text represented the transmission through time of the original New Testament text, while the Latin was based on a translation from the Greek over 1,000 years before by Jerome. This Latin Vulgate was the basis for almost all of the Roman Church’s teaching and doctrine.
According to Luther’s own notes, in November 1521 he began translating the Greek New Testament into German. He completed the majority of the task in eleven weeks! This would represent translating about 3 chapters per day. And the German vernacular he used was called High German, the version most easily understood by all Germans. Scholars even today refer to his work as elegant,of high literary quality and more accurate since it was based on the Greek text and not the Latin. Luther would continue to “fine tune” his translation until his departure from the Wartburg in April 1522.
Why would Martin Luther want to create a German New Testament? Remember that he had already taken a stand at the Diet of Worms claiming his beliefs, teachings and writings were based on the Word of God and not papal decisions or church councils. How could the majority of German people know whether what either Luther or the Roman Church was saying was true according to Scripture if they had no access to them in a language they understood?
Martin Luther leaves Eisenach in April 1522 for Wittenberg. There he begins work with his good friend and Greek scholar Philip Melanchthon to complete the new translation. By September 1522 the first edition of some 3,000 copies was printed. It was an immediate bestseller, with all copies sold within three months. This despite the cost of a copy being roughly two months salary for a schoolmaster! A corrected and improved second edition was then printed in December 1522.
Additional corrections and revisions would continue as Luther and a team of other scholars also began work on the Old Testament. Luther himself said later that he never asked for or took any money for this translation work, trusting only that it would accomplish God’s work. Soon other printers across Germany were publishing their own reprints of Luther’s German New Testament, most without permission. And the price per copy no doubt quickly dropped. Several sources estimate that by 1534, 87 editions of the New Testament by Luther had been printed in High German, and 17 in Low German. The total number of copies printed are thought to have been 200,000 to 300,000!
Then in 1534 the Old Testament was printed for the first time, and the public could now read the entire Bible in their own language! Again, until his death in 1546 Luther continued to revise and update the Bible to make it as accurate and true to the original Greek as possible.
The translation and publication of the Bible in the German language by Luther was perhaps the most significant thing he did to give impetus to his ideas. It allowed common people as well as political and religious leaders to judge for themselves what the Word of God said. As one of his Catholic critics wryly commented: “Luther’s New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.” (Quoted from Cochlaeus in History of the Christian Church)
There is much more to the story of Martin Luther translating the Bible into German, so I will provide links to a few online resources here:
- History of the Christian Church, by Philip Schaff – this is a reprint online of Schaff’s chapter on the German Reformation 1521-1525.
- www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther – a biography of Martin Luther, including the Diet of Worms and his translation of the Bible.
- Wikipedia articles on Martin Luther, Luther’s Bible, and the Latin Vulgate.
- An 1888 reproduction of the original 1522 “September Bible” of Martin Luther.
- “An Open Letter on Translating,” (1530) written by Martin Luther. Here Luther explains some of his choices in translating as well as defends himself against his critics.
- An article by John Bechtel on Luther’s principles of translation.
- “Luther, the Translator,” by Susan Reed, Lead Curator of Germanic Collections, British Library.
- “Martin Luther – A Short History of the Life of Luther Leading to the Completion of the German Bible.”
Our image comes from the Insight of the King website, which hosts a Historical Bible Exhibit, including pictures of early editions of Luther’s German Bible. Our image is of the beginning of the Book of Revelation in the September 1522 German New Testament.