The ROAD TO REFORMATION
In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series continues
with major events in the life of the Reformer that took place after 1517.
Have you ever been frustrated when listening to a customer service representative, teacher, or doctor who has difficulty with the English language? You know what they have to say may be very important, but you can’t understand it. Think of how much more important it is to understand what God has to say. For most of us, that has not been a problem. From childhood we have had access to Scripture in our own language. In fact, the Bible Gateway website offers fifty-five English translations of the Bible. In our foreign mission fields, however, providing access to God’s Word in the indigenous language is critical to the work.
Luther faced a similar challenge in sixteenth century Germany. The few translations of the Bible available in German were not very complete or reliable. German states also had regional dialects that made even verbal communication difficult. Luther sought to produce a German Bible in the vernacular, the contemporary language of the common people. He wanted to liberate Germans from being subject to the elite or priestly class when it came to Bible interpretation. The Catholic Church had long been the filter through which the Word was accessed, skewing the fundamental Bible teaching of justification by faith alone.
God had prepared Luther for this work. As a youth in Magdeburg, he was one of few in Germany who had learned Greek. While hiding in the Wartburg following his being declared an outlaw heretic at the Diet of Worms, he translated the New Testament in just eleven weeks, using Erasmus’s second edition of the Greek New Testament (1519). Called the September Bibel, it was published in 1522 and sold nearly five thousand copies within the first two months. One thing that made Luther’s version superior was that he keenly observed conversations throughout the German world to capture the most precise usage of words. In fact, because of this work on the German Bible, Luther is often credited for having developed the standardized written German language.
Producing a German Old Testament proved to be a much more difficult and time-consuming task. Poor health and other responsibilities often delayed this work as well. Luther knew Hebrew, but it would require a team of linguists and experts over the course of ten years to complete the job. In May of 1528, Luther referred to the difficult work of translating Jeremiah as “giving birth.” Getting Hebrew writers of old to speak German was compared to the story of the nightingale that tried to teach her song to the cuckoo.
Luther’s Old Testament came out in parts from 1523-1532. The entire canonical Bible (as well as the Apocrypha) was published by Hans Lufft in Wittenberg in 1534. It included 117 woodcuts for illustrations, as well as introductions to the books of the Bible, and Luther’s commentary notes. During the next forty years, over 100,000 copies were made. It was read by millions. To aid those with vision problems, large print editions were produced.
Printing the Bible was a profitable business. In fact, in 1543, the three booksellers were the richest men in Wittenberg. Luther, however, did not benefit financially. He said, “For I have received it for nothing, and have given it for nothing, and also desire nothing for it. Christ my Lord has paid me for it many hundred thousand-fold.”
In the years preceding his death, Luther made numerous revisions of his translation, always striving to do better. May we all have this same attitude toward our work for the Lord!
Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.