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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

Luther's Bible

Illustrations of the Apocalypse from a Low German Luther BibleIllustrations of the Apocalypse from a Low German Luther BibleIllustrations of the Apocalypse from a Low German Luther BibleIllustrations of the Apocalypse from a Low German Luther BibleSola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’) was one of the founding tenets of the Protestant Reformation. Reformers such as Martin Luther (14831546) believed that the Bible was the one true source of our knowledge of God’s will and that no interpreter, papal or otherwise, was entitled to stand between the word of God and the individual Christian soul. Nor should there be any linguistic barrier to access for all to God’s word.

Luther laid down two fundamental requirements for an adequate German Bible: that it should be based on the original Hebrew and Greek texts, rather than on the Latin Vulgate, and that it should be written in a German that was understandable to all. As none of the German Bibles available met these conditions, in 1521 Luther set about making a fresh translation himself.

By September 1522 copies of Luther’s New Testament (the so-called September testament) were rolling off Melchior Lotther’s press at Wittenberg. Work on the Old Testament and Apocrypha was variously delayed, however, by illness and the many other demands on Luther’s time, leading him to accept the assistance of other scholars, such as Philip Melanchthon; the Old Testament and Apocrypha appeared in instalments between 1523 and 1534.

Luther was a tireless reviser and improver, who strove ‘to make a good one better’, and with each new edition he introduced corrections and changes. Between 1534 and his death in 1546 no fewer than eleven folio editions of the complete German Bible were printed, as well as numerous quarto or octavo editions of specific portions of the Bible – the New Testament, the Psalms, the ‘Wisdom’ books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon). Luther’s translation was immediately popular and publishers struggled to meet the huge demand for copies.

Luther’s translation used what is generally known as Middle German. Editions produced for speakers of High German (the German spoken in southern Germany and Austria) included glossaries of unfamiliar words, while for Low German speakers (those living in the north of the country) fresh translations were made from Luther’s version.

An example of a Low German Luther Bible is shown here. It was printed in 1578 at Magdeburg, a centre of Low German printing, and includes woodcuts, including these striking illustrations of the Apocalypse, taken from the first complete Low German Luther Bible of 1534.

Luther’s translation of the Bible has immense literary, historical and theological significance. It has been described by Hans Volz as ‘far more than a translation ... the first work of art in German prose.’ Luther was a fine scholar but he was also a poet of genius and it was the linguistic vigour and beauty of his rendering which gave it, like the King James Bible, a lasting place in the human heart.

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