By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Martin Luther's history-changing translation of the Bible
One of the great achievements of German literature is the Luther Bible, which arose out of political drama and transformed the history of Europe and the world. - photo by Deseret Connect
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 todays 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.

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." Its doubtful that he spoke those actual words, but, effectively, thats 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.

Twelve years later, Luthers translation of the entire Bible taken from the original Hebrew and Greek rather than the Catholic Churchs 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.

Luthers wasnt 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 todays 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.
Sign up for our E-Newsletters