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Luther’s Translation of the Bible, by Philip Schaff

September 23, 2013

The following is a chapter taken from Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910).

Luther’s Translation of the Bible

The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure in the Wartburg, and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and heart of the Germans in life-like reproduction. It was a republication of the gospel. He made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house. If he had done nothing else, he would be one of the greatest benefactors of the German-speaking race. (1)

His version was followed by Protestant versions in other languages, especially the French, Dutch, and English. The Bible ceased to be a foreign book in a foreign tongue, and became naturalized, and hence far more clear and dear to the common people. Hereafter the Reformation depended no longer on the works of the Reformers, but on the book of God, which everybody could read for himself as his daily guide in spiritual life. This inestimable blessing of an open Bible for all, without the permission or intervention of pope and priest, marks an immense advance in church history, and can never be lost.

Earlier Versions

Luther was not the first, but by far the greatest translator of the German Bible, and is as inseparably connected with it as Jerome is with the Latin Vulgate. He threw the older translation into the shade and out of use, and has not been surpassed or even equaled by a successor. There are more accurate versions for scholars (as those of De Wette and Weizsäcker), but none that can rival Luther’s for popular authority and use.

The civilization of the barbarians in the dark ages began with the introduction of Christianity, and the translation of such portions of the Scriptures as were needed in public worship.

The Gothic Bishop Wulfila or Wölflein (i.e., Little Wolf) in the fourth century translated nearly the whole Bible from the Greek into the Gothic dialect. It is the earliest monument of Teutonic literature, and the basis of comparative Teutonic philology. (2)

During the fourteenth century some unknown scholars prepared a new translation of the whole Bible into the Middle High German dialect. It slavishly follows the Latin Vulgate. It may be compared to Wiclif’s English Version (1380), which was likewise made from the Vulgate, the original languages being then almost unknown in Europe. A copy of the New Testament of this version has been recently published, from a manuscript in the Premonstratensian convent of Tepl in Bohemia. (3) Another copy is preserved in the college library at Freiberg in Saxony. (4) Both are from the fourteenth century, and agree almost word for word with the first printed German Bible, but contain, besides the New Testament, the apocryphal letter of St. Paul to the Laodiceans, which is a worthless compilation of a few sentences from the genuine writings of the apostle. (5)

After the invention of the printing-press, and before the Reformation, this mediaeval German Bible was more frequently printed than any other except the Latin Vulgate. (6) No less than seventeen or eighteen editions appeared between 1462 and 1522, at Strassburg, Augsburg, Nürnberg, Cöln, Lübeck, and Halberstadt (fourteen in the High, three or four in the Low German dialect). Most of them are in large folio, in two volumes, and illustrated by wood-cuts. The editions present one and the same version (or rather two versions,–one High German, the other Low German) with dialectical alterations and accommodations to the textual variations of the MSS. of the Vulgate, which was in a very unsettled condition before the Clementine recension (1592). The revisers are as unknown as the translators.

The spread of this version, imperfect as it was, proves the hunger and thirst of the German people for the pure word of God, and prepared the way for the Reformation. It alarmed the hierarchy. Archbishop Berthold of Mainz, otherwise a learned and enlightened prelate, issued, Jan. 4, 1486, a prohibition of all unauthorized printing of sacred and learned books, especially the German Bible, within his diocese, giving as a reason that the German language was incapable of correctly rendering the profound sense of Greek and Latin works, and that laymen and women could not understand the Bible. Even Geiler of Kaisersberg, who sharply criticised the follies of the world and abuses of the Church, thought it “an evil thing to print the Bible in German.”

Besides the whole Bible, there were numerous German editions of the Gospels and Epistles (Plenaria), and the Psalter, all made from the Vulgate. (7)

Luther could not be ignorant of this mediaeval version. He made judicious use of it, as he did also of old German and Latin hymns. Without such aid he could hardly have finished his New Testament in the short space of three months. (8) But this fact does not diminish his merit in the least; for his version was made from the original Hebrew and Greek, and was so far superior in every respect that the older version entirely disappeared. It is to all intents a new work.

Luther’s Qualifications

Luther had a rare combination of gifts for a Bible translator: familiarity with the original languages, perfect mastery over the vernacular, faith in the revealed word of God, enthusiasm for the gospel, unction of the Holy Spirit. A good translation must be both true and free, faithful and idiomatic, so as to read like an original work. This is the case with Luther’s version. Besides, he had already acquired such fame and authority that his version at once commanded universal attention.

His knowledge of Greek and Hebrew was only moderate, but sufficient to enable him to form an independent judgment. (9) What he lacked in scholarship was supplied by his intuitive genius and the help of Melanchthon. In the German tongue he had no rival. He created, as it were, or gave shape and form to the modern High German. He combined the official language of the government with that of the common people. He listened, as he says, to the speech of the mother at home, the children in the street, the men and women in the market, the butcher and various tradesmen in their shops, and, “looked them on the mouth,” in pursuit of the most intelligible terms. His genius for poetry and music enabled him to reproduce the rhythm and melody, the parallelism and symmetry, of Hebrew poetry and prose. His crowning qualification was his intuitive insight and spiritual sympathy with the contents of the Bible.

A good translation, he says, requires “a truly devout, faithful, diligent, Christian, learned, experienced, and practiced heart.”

Progress of his Version

Luther was gradually prepared for this work. He found for the first time a complete copy of the Latin Bible in the University Library at Erfurt, to his great delight, and made it his chief study. He derived from it his theology and spiritual nourishment; he lectured and preached on it as professor at Wittenberg day after day. He acquired the knowledge of the original languages for the purpose of its better understanding. He liked to call himself a “Doctor of the Sacred Scriptures.”

He made his first attempt as translator with the seven Penitential Psalms, which he published in March, 1517, six months before the outbreak of the Reformation. Then followed several other sections of the Old and New Testaments,–the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer of King Manasseh, the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary, etc., with popular comments. He was urged by his friends, especially by Melanchthon, as well as by his own sense of duty, to translate the whole Bible.

He began with the New Testament in November or December, 1521, and completed it in the following March, before he left the Wartburg. He thoroughly revised it on his return to Wittenberg, with the effectual help of Melanchthon, who was a much better Greek scholar. Sturz at Erfurt was consulted about coins and measures; Spalatin furnished from the Electoral treasury names for the precious stones of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21). The translation was then hurried through three presses, and appeared already Sept. 21, 1522, but without his name. (10)

In December a second edition was required, which contained many corrections and improvements. (11)

He at once proceeded to the more difficult task of translating the Old Testament, and published it in parts as they were ready. The Pentateuch appeared in 1523; the Psalter, 1524.

In the progress of the work he founded a Collegium Biblieum, or Bible club, consisting of his colleagues Melanchthon, Bugenhagen (Pommer), Cruciger, Justus Jonas, and Aurogallus. They met once a week in his house, several hours before supper. Deacon Georg Rörer (Rorarius), the first clergyman ordained by Luther, and his proof-reader, was also present; occasionally foreign scholars were admitted; and Jewish rabbis were freely consulted. Each member of the company contributed to the work from his special knowledge and preparation. Melanchthon brought with him the Greek Bible, Cruciger the Hebrew and Chaldee, Bugenhagen the Vulgate, others the old commentators; Luther had always with him the Latin and the German versions besides the Hebrew. Sometimes they scarcely mastered three lines of the Book of Job in four days, and hunted two, three, and four weeks for a single word. No record exists of the discussions of this remarkable company, but Mathesius says that “wonderfully beautiful and instructive speeches were made.”

At last the whole Bible, including the Apocrypha as “books not equal to the Holy Scriptures, yet useful and good to read,” was completed in 1534, and printed with numerous woodcuts.

In the mean time the New Testament had appeared in sixteen or seventeen editions, and in over fifty reprints. (12)

Luther complained of the many errors in these irresponsible editions.

He never ceased to amend his translation. Besides correcting errors, he improved the uncouth and confused orthography, fixed the inflections, purged the vocabulary of obscure and ignoble words, and made the whole more symmetrical and melodious.

He prepared five original editions, or recensions, of his whole Bible, the last in 1545, a year before his death. (13) This is the proper basis of all critical editions. (14)

The edition of 1546 was prepared by his friend Rörer, and contains a large number of alterations, which he traced to Luther himself. Some of them are real improvements, e.g., “Die Liebe höret nimmer auf,” for, “Die Liebe wird nicht müde” (1 Cor. 13:8). The charge that he made the changes in the interest of Philippism (Melanchthonianism), seems to be unfounded.

Editions and Revisions

The printed Bible text of Luther had the same fate as the written text of the old Itala and Jerome’s Vulgate. It passed through innumerable improvements and mis-improvements. The orthography and inflections were modernized, obsolete words removed, the versicular division introduced (first in a Heidelberg reprint, 1568), the spurious clause of the three witnesses inserted in 1 John 5:7 (first by a Frankfurt publisher, 1574), the third and fourth books of Ezra and the third book of the Maccabees added to the Apocrypha, and various other changes effected, necessary and unnecessary, good and bad. Elector August of Saxony tried to control the text in the interest of strict Lutheran orthodoxy, and ordered the preparation of a standard edition (1581). But it was disregarded outside of Saxony.

Gradually no less than eleven or twelve recensions came into use, some based on the edition of 1545, others on that of 1546. The most careful recension was that of the Canstein Bible Institute, founded by a pious nobleman, Carl Hildebrand von Canstein (1667-1719) in connection with Francke’s Orphan House at Halle. It acquired the largest circulation and became the textus receptus of the German Bible.

With the immense progress of biblical learning in the present century, the desire for a timely revision of Luther’s version was more and more felt. Revised versions with many improvements were prepared by Joh.- Friedrich von Meyer, a Frankfurt patrician (1772-1849), and Dr. Rudolf Stier (18001862), but did not obtain public authority.

At last a conservative official revision of the Luther Bible was inaugurated by the combined German church governments in 1863, with a view and fair prospect of superseding all former editions in public use. (15)

The Success

The German Bible of Luther was saluted with the greatest enthusiasm, and became the most powerful help to the Reformation. Duke George of Saxony, Duke William of Bavaria, and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria strictly prohibited the sale in their dominions, but could not stay the current. Hans Lufft at Wittenberg printed and sold in forty years (between 1534 and 1574) about a hundred thousand copies,–an enormous number for that age,–and these were read by millions. The number of copies from reprints is beyond estimate.

Cochlaeus, the champion of Romanism, paid the translation the greatest compliment when he complained that “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.” (16)

The Romanists were forced in self-defense to issue rival translations. Such were made by Emser (1527), Dietenberger (1534), and Eck (1537), and accompanied with annotations. They are more correct in a number of passages, but slavishly conformed to the Vulgate, stiff and heavy, and they frequently copy the very language of Luther, so that he could say with truth, “The Papists steal my German of which they knew little before, and they do not thank me for it, but rather use it against me.” These versions have long since gone out of use even in the Roman Church, while Luther’s still lives. (17)


NOTE

The Pre-Lutheran German Bible

According to the latest investigations, fourteen printed editions of the whole Bible in the Middle High German dialect, and three in the Low German, have been identified. Panzer already knew fourteen; see his Gesch. der nürnbergischen Ausgaben der Bibel, Nürnberg, 1778, p. 74.

The first four, in large folio, appeared without date and place of publication, but were probably printed: 1, at Strassburg, by Heinrich Eggestein, about or before 1466 (the falsely so-called Mainzer Bibel of 1462); 2, at Strassburg, by Johann Mentelin, 1466 (?); 3, at Augsburg, by Jodocus Pflanzmann, or Tyner, 1470 (?); 4, at Nürnberg, by Sensenschmidt and Frissner, in 2 vols., 408 and 104 leaves, 1470-73 (?). The others are located, and from the seventh on also dated, viz.: 5, Augsburg, by Günther Zainer, 2 vols., probably between 1473-1475. 6, Augsburg, by the same, dated 1477 (Stevens says, 1475?). 7, The third Augsburg edition, by Günther Zainer, or Anton Sorg, 1477, 2 vols., 321 and 332 leaves, fol., printed in double columns; the first German Bible with a date. 8, The fourth Augsburg edition, by A. Sorg, 1480, folio. 9, Nürnberg, by Anton Koburger (also spelled Koberger), 1483. 10, Strassburg, by Johann Gruninger, 1485. 11 and 12, The fifth and sixth Augsburg editions, in small fol., by Hans Schönsperger, 1487 and 1490. 13, The seventh Augsburg edition, by Hans Otmar, 1507, small folio. 14, The eighth Augsburg edition, by Silvan Otmar, 1518, small folio.

The Low Dutch Bibles were printed: 1, at Cologne, in large folio, double columns, probably 1480. The unknown editor speaks of previous editions and his own improvements. Stevens (Nos. 653 and 654) mentions two copies of the O. T. in Dutch, printed at Delf, 1477, 2 vols. fol. 2, At Lübeck, 1491 (not 1494), 2 vols. fol. with large woodcuts. 3, At Halberstadt, 1522.

Comp. Kehrein (I.c.), Krafft (l.c., pp. 4, 5), and Henry Stevens, The Bibles in the Caxton Exhibition, London, 1878. Stevens gives the full titles with descriptions, pp. 45 sqq., nos. 620 sqq.

Several of these Bibles, including the Koburger and those of Cologne and Halberstadt, are in the possession of the Union Theol. Seminary, New York. I examined them. They are ornamented by woodcuts, beginning with a picture of God creating the world, and forming Eve from the rib of Adam in Paradise. Several of them have Jerome’s preface (De omnibus divinae historiae libris, Ep. ad Paulinum), the oldest with the remark: “Da hebet an die epistel des heiligen priesters sant Jeronimi zu Paulinum von allen gottlichen büchern der hystory. Das erst capitel.”

Dr. Krafft illustrates the dependence of Luther on the earlier version by several examples (pp. 13-18). The following is from the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:21-27:–

The Ninth Bible, 1483

Habt ir gehört, das gesaget ist den alten. Du solt nit tödten, wellicher aber tödtet. der wird schuldig des gerichts. Aber ich sag euch, daz ein yeglicher der do zürnet seinem bruder. der wirt schuldig des gerichts. Der aber spricht zu seinem bruder. racha. der wirt schuldig des rats. Und der do spricht. tor. der wirt schuldig des hellischen fewrs. Darum ob du opfferst dein gab zu dem attar. und do wirst gedenckend. daz dein bruder ettwas hat wider dich, lasz do dein gab vor dem altar und gee zum ersten und versüne dich mit deim bruder und denn kum und opffer dein gab. Bis gehellig deim widerwertigen schyer. die weyl du mit im bist him weg. das dich villeycht der widersacher nit antwurt den Richter. und der Richter dich antwurt dem diener und werdest gelegt in den kercker. Fürwar ich sag dir. du geest nit aus von dannen. und das du vergeltest den letzten quadranten.

Luther’s New Testament, 1522

Ihr habt gehortt, das zu den alten gesagt ist, du sollt nit todten, wer aber todtet, der soll des gerichts schuldig seyn. Ich aber sage euch, wer mit seynem bruder zurnit, der ist des gerichts schuldig, wer aber zu seynem bruder sagt, Racha, der ist des rads schuldig, wer aber sagt, du narr, der ist des hellischen fewers schuldig. Darumbwenð du deyn gabe auff den altar opfferst, un wirst alda eyngedenken, das deyn bruder ettwas widder dich hab, so las alda fur dem altar deyn gabe, unnd gehe zuvor hyn, unnd versune dich mitt deynem bruder, unnd als denn kom unnd opffer deyn gabe. Sey willfertig deynem widersacher, bald, dieweyl du noch mit yhm auff dem wege bist, auff das dich der widdersacher nit der mal eyns ubirantwortte dem richter, unð d. richter ubirantworte dich dem diener, unð werdist ynð den kerccker geworffen, warlich ich sage dyr, du wirst nit von dannen erauze komen, bis du auch den letzten heller bezealest.

To this I add two specimens in which the superiority of Luther’s version is more apparent.

Gen. 1:1-3

The Koburger Bible of Nürnberg, 1483

In dem anfang hat got beschaffen hymel und erden. aber dye erde was eytel und leere. und die vinsternus warn auff dem antlitz des abgrunds. vnd der geist gots swebet oder ward getragen auff den wassern. Unð got der sprach. Es werde dz liecht. Un das liecht ist worden.

Luther’s Bible, ed. 1535

Im anfang schuff Gott himel und erden. Und die erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auff der tieffe, und der Geist Gottes schwebet auff dem wasser. Un Gott sprach. Es werde liecht. Und es ward liecht.

1 Cor. 13:1, 2

The Strassburg Bible Of 1485

Ob ich rede inn der zungen der engel vnd der menschen; aber habe ich der lieb nit, ich bin gemacht alls ein glockenspeyss lautend oder alls ein schell klingend. Vnd ob ich hab die weissagung und erkenn all heimlichkeit vnd alle kunst, und ob ich hab alten glauben, also das ich übertrag die berg, habe ich aber der lieb nit, ich bin nichts.

Luther’s New Testament, 1522

Wenn ich mit menschen und mit engelzungen redet und hette die (18) liebe nit, (19) so wäre ich ein tönend ertz oder ein klingende schell. (20) Und wenn ich weissagen kündt, vnnd wüste alle geheymnuss vnd alle erkantnüss, vnd hette alten glauben, also das ich berg versetzete, und hett der liebe nicht, so were ich nichts.

The precise origin of the mediaeval German Bible is still unknown. Dr. Ludwig Keller of Münster first suggested in his Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien, Leipzig, 1885, pp. 257-260, the hypothesis that it was made by Waldenses (who had also a Romanic version); and he tried to prove it in his Die Waldenser und die deutschen Bibelübersetzungen, Leipzig, 1886 (189 pages). Dr. Hermann Haupt, of Würzburg, took the same ground in his Die deutsche Bibelübersetzung der mittelalterlichen Waldenser in dem Codex Teplensis und der ersten gedruckten Bibel nachgewiesen, Würzburg, 1885 (64 pages); and again, in self-defense against Jostes, in Der waldensische Ursprung des Codex Teplensis und der vor-lutherischen deutschen Bibeldrucke, Würzburg, 1886. On the other hand, Dr. Franz Jostes, a Roman Catholic scholar, denied the Waldensian and defended the Catholic origin of that translation, in two pamphlets: Die Waldenser und die vorlutherische Bibelübersetzung, Münster, 1885 (44 pages), and Die Tepler Bibelübersetzung. Eine zweite Kritik, Münster, 1886 (43 pages). The same author promises a complete history of German Catholic Bible versions. The question has been discussed in periodicals and reviews, e.g., by Kawerau in Luthardt’s “Theol. Literaturblatt,” Leipzig, 1885 and 1886 (Nos. 32-34), by Schaff in the New York “Independent” for Oct. 8, 1885, and in the “Presbyterian Review” for April, 1887, pp. 355 sqq.; by Kolde, in the “Göttinger Gelehrte Anzeigen,” 1887, No. I.; by Müller in the “Studien und Kritiken,” 1887, No. III.; and Bornemann, in the “Jahrb. f. Prot. Theol.,” 1888, 67-101.

The arguments for the Waldensian origin are derived from certain additions to the Codex Teplensis, and alleged departures from the text of the Vulgate. But the additions are not anti-Catholic, and are not found in the cognate Freiberger MS.; and the textual variations can not be traced to sectarian bias. The text of the Vulgate was in greater confusion in the middle ages than the text of the Itala at the time of Jerome, nor was there any authorized text of it before the Clementine recension of 1592. The only plausible argument which Dr. Keller brings out in his second publication (pp. 80 sqq.) is the fact that Emser, in his Annotations to the New Test. (1523), charges Luther with having translated the N. T. from a “Wickleffisch oder hussisch exemplar.” But this refers to copies of the Latin Vulgate; and in the examples quoted by Keller, Luther does not agree with the Codex Teplensis.

The hostility of several Popes and Councils to the circulation of vernacular translations of the Bible implies the existence of such translations, and could not prevent their publication, as the numerous German editions prove. Dutch, French, and Italian versions also appeared among the earliest prints. See Stevens, Nos. 687 and 688 (p. 59 sq.). The Italian edition exhibited in 1877 at London is entitled: La Biblia en lingua Volgare (per Nicolo di Mallermi). Venetia: per Joan. Rosso Vercellese, 1487, fol. A Spanish Bible by Bonif. Ferrer was printed at Valencia, 1478 (see Reuss, Gesch. der heil. Schr. N. T., II. 207, 5th Ed.).

The Bible is the common property and most sacred treasure of all Christian churches. The art of printing was invented in Catholic times, and its history goes hand in hand with the history of the Bible. Henry Stevens says (The Bibles in the Caxton Exhibition, p. 25): “The secular history of the Holy Scriptures is the sacred history of Printing. The Bible was the first book printed, and the Bible is the last book printed. Between 1450 and 1877, an interval of four centuries and a quarter, the Bible shows the progress and comparative development of the art of printing in a manner that no other single book can; and Biblical bibliography proves that during the first forty years, at least, the Bible exceeded in amount of printing all other books put together; nor were its quality, style, and variety a whit behind its quantity.”


A Critical Estimate of Luther’s Version

Luther’s version of the Bible is a wonderful monument of genius, learning, and piety, and may be regarded in a secondary sense as inspired. It was, from beginning to end, a labor of love and enthusiasm. While publishers and printers made fortunes, Luther never received or asked a copper for this greatest work of his life. (21)

We must judge it from the times. A German translation from the original languages was a work of colossal magnitude if we consider the absence of good grammars, dictionaries, and concordances, the crude state of Greek and Hebrew scholarship, and of the German language, in the sixteenth century. Luther wrote to Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1522, that he had undertaken a task beyond his power, that he now understood why no one had attempted it before in his own name, and that he would not venture on the Old Testament without the aid of his friends. (22) He felt especially how difficult it was to make Job and the Hebrew prophets speak in barbarous German. (23) He jocosely remarked that Job would have become more impatient at the blunders of his translators than at the long speeches of his “miserable comforters.”

As regards the text, it was in an unsettled condition. The science of textual criticism was not yet born, and the materials for it were not yet collected from the manuscripts, ancient versions, and patristic quotations. Luther had to use the first printed editions. He had no access to manuscripts, the most important of which were not even discovered or made available before the middle of the nineteenth century. Biblical geography and archaeology were in their infancy, and many names and phrases could not be understood at the time.

In view of these difficulties we need not be surprised at the large number of mistakes, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies in Luther’s version. They are most numerous in Job and the Prophets, who present, even to the advanced Hebrew scholars of our day, many unsolved problems of text and rendering. The English Version of 1611 had the great advantage of the labors of three generations of translators and revisers, and is therefore more accurate, and yet equally idiomatic.

The Original Text

The basis for Luther’s version of the Old Testament was the Massoretic text as published by Gerson Ben Mosheh at Brescia in 1494. (24) He used also the Septuagint, the Vulgate of Jerome (25) (although he disliked him exceedingly on account of his monkery), the Latin translations of the Dominican Sanctes Pagnini of Lucca (1527), and of the Franciscan Sebastian Münster (1534), the “Glossa ordinaria” (a favorite exegetical vade-mecum of Walafried Strabo from the ninth century), and Nicolaus Lyra (d. 1340), the chief of mediaeval commentators, who, besides the Fathers, consulted also the Jewish rabbis. (26)

1 John 5 in the edition of 1545The basis for the New Testament was the second edition of Erasmus, published at Basel in Switzerland in 1519. (27) His first edition of the Greek Testament had appeared in 1516, just one year before the Reformation. He derived the text from a few mediaeval MSS. (28) The second edition, though much more correct than the first (“multo diligentius recognitum, emendatum,” etc.), is disfigured by a large -number of typographical errors. (29) He laid the foundation of the Textus Receptus, which was brought into its mature shape by R. Stephen, in his “royal edition” of 1550 (the basis of the English Textus Receptus), and by the Elzevirs in their editions of 1624 and 1633 (the basis of the Continental Textus Receptus), and which maintained the supremacy till Lachmann inaugurated the adoption of an older textual basis (1831).

Luther did not slavishly follow the Greek of Erasmus, and in many places conformed to the Latin Vulgate, which is based on an older text. He also omitted, even in his last edition, the famous interpolation of the heavenly witnesses in 1 John 5:7, which Erasmus inserted in his third edition (1522) against his better judgment. (30)

The German Rendering

The German language was divided into as many dialects as tribes and states, and none served as a bond of literary union. Saxons and Bavarians, Hanoverians and Swabians, could scarcely understand each other. Each author wrote in the dialect of his district, Zwingli in his Schwyzerdütsch. “I have so far read no book or letter,” says Luther in the preface to his version of the Pentateuch (1523), in which the German language is properly handled. Nobody seems to care sufficiently for it; and every preacher thinks he has a right to change it at pleasure, and to invent new terms.” Scholars preferred to write in Latin, and when they attempted to use the mother tongue, as Reuchlin and Melanchthon did occasionally, they fell far below in ease and beauty of expression.

Luther brought harmony out of this confusion, and made the modern High German the common book language. He chose as the basis the Saxon dialect, which was used at the Saxon court and in diplomatic intercourse between the emperor and the estates, but was bureaucratic, stiff, heavy, involved, dragging, and unwieldy. (31) He popularized and adapted it to theology and religion. He enriched it with the vocabulary of the German mystics, chroniclers, and poets. He gave it wings, and made it intelligible to the common people of all parts of Germany.

He adapted the words to the capacity of the Germans, often at the expense of accuracy. He cared more for the substance than the form. He turned the Hebrew shekel into a Silberling, (32) the Greek drachma and Roman denarius into a German Groschen, the quadrans into a Heller, the Hebrew measures into Scheffel, Malter, Tonne, Centner, and the Roman centurion into a Hauptmann. He substituted even undeutsch (!) for barbarian in 1 Cor. 14:11. Still greater liberties he allowed himself in the Apocrypha, to make them more easy and pleasant reading. (33) He used popular alliterative phrases as Geld und Gut, Land und Leute, Rath und That, Stecken und Stab, Dornen und Disteln, matt und müde, gäng und gäbe. He avoided foreign terms which rushed in like a flood with the revival of learning, especially in proper names (as Melanchthon for Schwarzerd, Aurifaber for Goldschmid, Oecolampadius for Hausschein, Camerarius for Kammermeister). He enriched the vocabulary with such beautiful words as holdselig, Gottseligkeit.

Erasmus Alber, a contemporary of Luther, called him the German Cicero, who not only reformed religion, but also the German language.

Luther’s version is an idiomatic reproduction of the Bible in the very spirit of the Bible. It brings out the whole wealth, force, and beauty of the German language. It is the first German classic, as King James’s version is the first English classic. It anticipated the golden age of German literature as represented by Klopstock, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller,–all of them Protestants, and more or less indebted to the Luther-Bible for their style. The best authority in Teutonic philology pronounces his language to be the foundation of the new High German dialect on account of its purity and influence, and the Protestant dialect on account of its freedom which conquered even Roman Catholic authors. (34)

The Protestant Spirit of Luther’s Version

Dr. Emser, one of the most learned opponents of the Reformation, singled out in Luther’s New Testament several hundred linguistic blunders and heretical falsifications. (35) Many of them were silently corrected in later editions. He published, by order of Duke George of Saxony, a new translation (1527) for the purpose of correcting the errors of “Luther and other heretics.” (36)

The charge that Luther adapted the translation to his theological opinions has become traditional in the Roman Church, and is repeated again and again by her controversialists and historians. (37)

The same objection has been raised against the Authorized English Version. (38)

In both cases, the charge has some foundation, but no more than the counter-charge which may be brought against Roman Catholic Versions.

The most important example of dogmatic influence in Luther’s version is the famous interpolation of the word alone in Rom. 3:28 (allein durch den Glauben), by which he intended to emphasize his solifidian doctrine of justification, on the plea that the German idiom required the insertion for the sake of clearness. (39) But he thereby brought Paul into direct verbal conflict with James, who says (James 2:24), “by works a man is justified, and not only by faith” (“nicht durch den Glauben allein“). It is well known that Luther deemed it impossible to harmonize the two apostles in this article, and characterized the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw,” because it had no evangelical character (“keine evangelische Art“).

He therefore insisted on this insertion in spite of all outcry against it. His defense is very characteristic. “If your papist,” he says, (40) “makes much useless fuss about the word sola, allein, tell him at once: Doctor Martin Luther will have it so, and says: Papist and donkey are one thing; sic volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. For we do not want to be pupils and followers of the Papists, but their masters and judges.” Then he goes on in the style of foolish boasting against the Papists, imitating the language of St. Paul in dealing with his Judaizing opponents (2 Cor. 11:22 sqq.): “Are they doctors? so am I. Are they learned? so am I. Are they preachers? so am I. Are they theologians? so am I. Are they disputators? so am I. Are they philosophers? so am I. Are they the writers of books? so am I. And I shall further boast: I can expound Psalms and Prophets; which they can not. I can translate; which they can not …. Therefore the word allein shall remain in my New Testament, and though all pope-donkeys (Papstesel) should get furious and foolish, they shall not turn it out.” (41)

The Protestant and anti-Romish character of Luther’s New Testament is undeniable in his prefaces, his discrimination between chief books and less important books, his change of the traditional order, and his unfavorable judgments on James, Hebrews, and Revelation. (42) It is still more apparent in his marginal notes, especially on the Pauline Epistles, where he emphasizes throughout the difference between the law and the gospel, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone; and on the Apocalypse, where he finds the papacy in the beast from the abyss (Rev. 13), and in the Babylonian harlot (Rev. 17). (43) The anti-papal explanation of the Apocalypse became for a long time almost traditional in Protestant commentaries.

On the other hand, the Roman Catholic translators used the same liberty of marginal annotations and pictorial illustrations in favor of the doctrines and usages of their own church. Emser’s New Testament is full of anti-Lutheran glosses. In Rom. 3:28, he protests on the margin against Luther’s allein, and says, “Paul by the words ‘without works of the law’ does not mean that man is saved by faith alone, without good works, but only without works of the law, that is, external circumcision and other Jewish ceremonies.” He therefore confines the “law” here to the ritual law, and “works” to Jewish works; while, according to the best modern commentators, Paul means the whole law, moral as well as ceremonial, and all works commanded by the law. And yet even in the same chapter and throughout the whole Epistle to the Romans, Emser copies verbatim Luther’s version for whole verses and sections; and where he departs from his language, it is generally for the worse.

The same may be said of the other two German Catholic Bibles of the age of the Reformation. They follow Luther’s language very closely within the limits of the Vulgate, and yet abuse him in the notes. Dr. Dietenberger adds his comments in smaller type after the chapters, and agrees with Emser’s interpretation of Rom. 3:28. (44) Dr. Eck’s German Bible has few notes, but a strongly anti-Protestant preface. (45)

To be just, we must recognize the sectarian imperfections of Bible versions, arising partly from defective knowledge, partly from ingrained prejudices. A translation is an interpretation. Absolute reproduction is impossible in any work. (46) A Jew will give a version of the Old Testament differing from that of a Christian, because they look upon it in a different light,–the one with his face turned backward, the other with his face turned forward. A Jew cannot understand the Old Testament till he becomes a Christian, and sees in it a prophecy and type of Christianity. No synagogue would use a Christian version, nor any church a Jewish version. So also the New Testament is rendered differently by scholars of the Greek, Latin, and Protestant churches. And even where they agree in words, there is a difference in the pervading spirit. They move, as it were, in a different atmosphere. A Roman Catholic version must be closely conformed to the Latin Vulgate, which the Council of Trent puts on an equal footing with the original text. (47) A Protestant version is bound only by the original text, and breathes an air of freedom from traditional restraint. The Roman Church will never use Luther’s Version or King James’s Version, and could not do so without endangering her creed; nor will German Protestants use Emser’s and Eck’s Versions, or English Protestants the Douay Version. The Romanist must become evangelical before he can fully apprehend the free spirit of the gospel as revealed in the New Testament.

There is, however, a gradual progress in translation, which goes hand in hand with the progress of the understanding of the Bible. Jerome’s Vulgate is an advance upon the Itala, both in accuracy and Latinity; the Protestant Versions of the sixteenth century are an advance upon the Vulgate, in spirit and in idiomatic reproduction; the revisions of the nineteenth century are an advance upon the versions of the sixteenth, in philological and historical accuracy and consistency. A future generation will make a still nearer approach to the original text in its purity and integrity. If the Holy Spirit of God shall raise the Church to a higher plane of faith and love, and melt the antagonisms of human creeds into the one creed of Christ, then, and not before then, may we expect perfect versions of the oracles of God.

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