Tag Archives: erasmus

Was Luther’s Bible the First German Language Bible?

A German language Bible, authorized by “Good King Wenceslas,” predated Luther’s German translation of the Bible by over one hundred years.

The story may sound familiar. Martin Luther had been condemned as a heretic and traitor, after standing before the emperor, with his legendary, “Here I stand, I can do no other” speech, at the Diet of Worms, in 1521. He managed to leave Worms, only to be abducted by friendly supporters, and hidden in the Warburg Castle, for two years. There Luther, who had taken on the name of “George,” was able to complete his translation of the New Testament in German.

Finally, the German people had a Bible, in their own language, in which they could read and study the truths contained in God’s Word…. or so, many people think. This narrative is based on the common, yet mistaken impression, that no vernacular Bibles existed in medieval Europe, prior to the Reformation. But the story is not quite that simple, and Martin Luther himself is partly to blame for this misinformation.

As evangelical apologist and theological Alister McGrath writes, “no universal or absolute prohibition of the translation of scriptures into the vernacular was ever issued by a medieval pope or council, nor was any similar prohibition directed against the use of such translations by the clergy or laity.” (The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, p. 124). Rather, the difficulty was that the medieval church frowned upon unsupervised access to the Bible in native languages.

Think of it like the challenge of making a small modification to a home in many localities in America today. Sure, you can add an extra small room to your house, but the process of getting a building permit, in some places, can be a real hassle. You originally thought that adding some lumber and drywall here and there would be no big deal. But after you have spent hours and hours, dealing with the building inspector, your homeowner’s association, etc., you begin to wonder, why bother with it? Just leave the house well enough alone!

Likewise, in the medieval period, getting access to a German language translation of the Bible could be a real pain. Unlike outright bans to vernacular Bibles in England, that even there were not always successfully enforced, you could legally get access to a German Bible, but only if the church hierarchy approved of it. Plus, there was always the de facto Bible translation of medieval Europe, the Latin Vulgate, that you could read…. assuming you had some proficiency at Latin, which was relatively rare.

The printing press revolution of using movable type changed the situation, in the decades prior to Luther’s first German New Testament. Texts like the famous Gutenberg Bible, though still in Latin, were becoming increasingly available. But some early German translations, such as the Wenceslas Bible of the 1390s, and the 1466 Mentelin Bible, were becoming more readily available, too. Some scholars say as many as 18 German translations of the Bible were available to German Christian readers before Luther.

In Luther’s characteristically immoderate, over-stated fashion, you get the idea that German Bibles before his time, as a Bible professor, were hard to come by. This may have been Luther’s personal experience, but it hardly reflected the actual facts of history, broadly across medieval Europe. Looking back on his life as a monk, in a 1538 sample of Luther’s “Table Talk,” the great Reformer claimed this:

“Thirty years ago, no-one read the Bible, and it was unknown to all. The prophets were not spoken of and were considered impossible to understand. And when I was twenty years old, I had never seen a Bible. I thought that the Gospels or Epistles could be found only in the postills [lectionaries] for the Sunday readings. Then I found a Bible in the library, when I first went into the monastery, and I began to read, re-read and read it many times over and reread the Bible many times.”

By the time Luther had finished his complete Bible, including the Old Testament, in 1534, Luther’s celebrity status had totally undercut the efforts of Rome to control “supervised” access to the German Bible. Furthermore, unlike previous German translations, that relied on translating from the Latin Vulgate to the vernacular German, Luther made use of new reference works, such as Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Luther was able, to at least partly, translate the Bible from the original languages, such as Greek, directly into German.

Luther’s campaign to “get back to the Bible,” in order to correct the contradictions of the papacy and church councils, is what generated a greater interest in reading vernacular Bibles. Luther’s “revolution” broke the default trust the average Christian had with papal and church authority, in medieval Europe. Instead, Luther encouraged Christians to read the Bible, and trust the Bible only as the authoritative source for Truth. As a result, the Reformation encouraged people to read and study the Bible for themselves, and they did so using newer, vernacular Bibles.

It is this effort to appeal to the original languages and earlier texts, driven along by Martin Luther’s popularity as a public figure, that helped Luther’s Bible to essentially become THE Bible for many German-speaking Christians. Western civilization has not been the same since.

For a rather contrarian take on Luther’s influence on the German language, and the priority of his translation, read this essay by the University of Alberta’s Albert C. Gow. A nice, 1-minute summary of Luther’s impact, through his translation of the Bible into German, is given here, in this video by the Museum of the Bible.

Erasmus and His Revolutionary Greek New Testament

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), by Holbein. Influential scholar of medieval Christian humanism (credit: Wikipedia)

As we remember the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses, to the Wittenberg church door, we must not forget the contribution of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Without Erasmus’ breakthrough in the study of the New Testament, Luther’s protest against indulgences might never have happened.

Erasmus, an illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, was a well educated young man, when his mother died. His guardians stole his inheritance, and thus, poverty forced him to enter monastic life.  It was a terrible experience, and he hated being a monk.

Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch believes that Erasmus had a same-sex, physical attraction to a fellow monk, and the frustration and moral anguish that this caused, prompted him to find some way out of the monastery. Erasmus was unusually gifted with languages, and he was able to receive a special papal dispensation, to relieve him from his monastic vows. Instead, he was able to focus all of his energies as a single man into scholarship. He became an author, widely read throughout Europe, largely due to the new invention of movable type in printing.

Adagia (1500) was a collection of ancient Latin and Greek proverbs, including memorable phrases like “to walk the tightrope,” “a necessary evil,” and “to sleep on it.” In Praise of Folly (1511) was an attack on superstitious religiosity among medieval Europeans, satirically describing various excesses of the veneration of saints and Mary, and the bizarre collections of relics. For example, did milk really ooze out of the marbled, statued breasts of the Holy Virgin, in shrines across Europe? Erasmus contemptuously thought this to be utterly ridiculous.

The last page of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. The Dutch scholar had no Greek access to the last six verses in the final chapter or Revelation, so he had to back-translate those verses from the Latin into the Greek.

Erasmus considered himself to be a humanist scholar, in the sense of wanting to recover the classics. In those days, humanism was a Christian movement. The humanist mantra during this medieval period was the Latin, ad fontes, or “back to the sources.” Erasmus’ greatest achievement, with respect to the coming Protestant Reformation, was his work on developing an authoritative Greek text of the New Testament.

Prior to the age of Erasmus, the ancient Greek sources standing behind the official Latin translation of the Bible for Western Christians, the Vulgate, were obscured in complete disarray. A Spanish project to reconstruct the original text of the Bible, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, was underway, and it inspired Erasmus to work on the New Testament. Delays in the Spanish project soon gave Erasmus the opportunity to step forward, and make his mark on history.

When he completed the first edition of Novum Instrumentum omne (1516), it became a best seller among scholars all throughout Europe. Erasmus’ work, through successive editions, was pioneering in the field of textual criticism, the study of the original text of the Bible. Novum Instrumentum omne became the basis for the textus receptus, the Greek text that nearly a century later guided the King James Version translators for the English Bible.

What jolted scholars is that Erasmus’ Greek text revealed that various errors had crept into the official Latin Vulgate. Some of these errors that Erasmus exposed had potentially explosive theological implications. Here is a sample:

  • The Vulgate used the word sacramentum to describe marriage in Ephesians 5:31-32. Erasmus thought the Greek musterion simply meant “mystery.” Perhaps, marriage was not really a “sacrament” after all?
  • For Matthew 4:17, the Vulgate read, “Do penance, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Erasmus thought that the word “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” was closer to the original Greek text.
  • Medieval theologians had argued that the Virgin Mary was a reservoir of grace, that could be tapped into as necessary. The Vulgate had read the angel Gabriel’s declaration to Mary, in Luke 1:28 as “the one who is full of grace.” Erasmus, on the other hand, had it as “the one who has found favor.”
  • Then there was the whole controversy of the Comma Johanneum, in 1 John 5:7-8, that has been discussed before here at Veracity.
Luther Discovers Erasmus

The inwardly conflicted, German theology professor, Martin Luther, bought his copy of Erasmus’ work, shortly after it was published. Luther was immediately amazed and absorbed the work of the Dutch humanist. The lack of a clear theology from the Bible, to support the medieval practice of granting indulgences, stood out for Martin Luther. For if “doing penance” was central to the doctrine of indulgences, and “do penance” was not in the Bible, as Erasmus showed in Matthew 4:17, then the theology of Rome was in serious trouble. By the end of the following year, 1517, Luther’s protest against the “sale of indulgences” would spark the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.

However, despite Luther’s debt to the work of Erasmus, the great scholar of the Netherlands would never go as far as Luther did in seeking reforms within the medieval church. Luther soon came to believe that the entire edifice of Papal Rome’s theology was built on a crumbling foundation, contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Erasmus, on the other hand, only believed that the actual practices of Christian piety, as derived from the Roman church, were being abused. He did not think that the undergirding theology of the Church had been corrupted.

Some had their suspicions of Erasmus, but throughout his whole life, this influential scholar remained in good standing with the church of Rome, despite his criticisms of excesses in various devotional practices. Erasmus would never embrace the revolutionary spirit of a Martin Luther.

Erasmus eventually came into head to head conflict with Martin Luther over the issue of predestination, Erasmus affirming a higher place for human free will, in cooperating with the grace of God, than what Luther would allow. But the Wittenberg reformer severely rebuked the Dutch humanist, thus breaking the cordiality of their relationship.

But it is difficult to imagine how Martin Luther might have gone as far as he did, without the scholarly work of Erasmus to support him. For that reason, Erasmus remains a central figure in the history of the 16th century Reformation, one of the greatest Bible scholars in the history of the Christian movement. That is pretty remarkable for someone, born out of wedlock, who was cheated out of his inheritance, and who wrestled with same-sex desire.

This blog post inspired by reading Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History.

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