What is the Luther Bible?

Luther Bible
Question: "What is the Luther Bible?"

Answer:
The Luther Bible is a German-language Bible translated from Hebrew and ancient Greek by Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and many other assistants. Like all the Reformers, Luther believed that the Bible was the one true source of our knowledge of God’s will and that God’s Word should be made available to everyone in a language they could understand. The New Testament of the Luther Bible was published in 1522, and the entire Bible was released in 1534.

Luther had studied at the University of Erfurt, where he gained a good knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He also had an in-depth knowledge of the German language in its political or diplomatic use. However, when seeking to find the correct way to translate a phrase from the ancient languages into everyday German, Luther would often spend time among the locals and listen to them speak. Luther wrote of his method: “Listening to them teaches one how to speak and how to translate—then they will understand you and know how to speak your language” (An Open Letter on Translating, 1530). Like any translator, Luther faced a challenging task. In order to remain true to what he was called to do, he stayed as close as possible to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek, and he was also keenly aware of the biblical text’s poetry and musicality.

As early as 1517, Luther had already translated some parts of the Bible, such as the penitential psalms, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Magnificat. On May 4, 1521, Frederick the Wise brought Luther to the Wartburg Castle for his own safety, hoping to thwart the plans of those seeking Luther’s death by taking Luther out of the limelight. During his time in seclusion, Luther devoted himself to the task of translating the New Testament, which he based on Erasmus’s second-edition Greek text (1517) and finished in eleven weeks. This translation was later edited by Melanchthon and other specialists and printed in Wittenberg on September 21, 1522. The Das Newe Testament Deutzsch was tremendously popular in Protestant areas. The September Bibel (“September Bible”), as it was also called, sold an estimated five thousand copies in the first two months alone.

In 1523 Martin Luther translated the Pentateuch into German, and in 1524 the Psalms, based on the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek Septuagint. Then, with a group of translators who met weekly, Luther translated all the other books in the Old Testament, as well as the deuterocanonical books. The full Bible was completed in 1534. The first edition of the Luther Bible soon sold out, but many more editions followed during Luther’s lifetime.

The publication of the Luther Bible was considered a typographical masterpiece, with some editions containing woodcuts from Lucas Cranach’s workshop and selections from Albrecht Durer’s famous Apocalypse series. In 1546, a half a million copies of the Luther Bible, published in 93 cities, were in circulation. The average cost was 2 florins, approximately US$24.00 in today’s currency.

The Luther Bible was a great success and was vital to the spread of the Reformation in German-speaking countries as more and more people could read for themselves what God had said. Luther’s work also had a considerable impact on the transformation of German into the modern, unified language we see today. Although Luther’s 1534 translation has been extensively revised, the version in current use by German speakers today still largely reflects the Reformer’s theology.

Recommended Resource: How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions by Gordon D. Fee & Mark L. Strauss

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