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.