Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Luther's Bible translation

Today (Sept. 21, 2004) marks the 482nd anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament, which appeared on Sept. 21, 1522. Luther's subsequent translation of the Old Testament led to the appearance of the Luther Bible in 1534. A common assumption among Lutherans and other Protestants is that Luther (pictured right) was the Reformer, more than any other, who is to be credited with making the Bible available in the common language. Some may tip their hats to "pre-Reformation Protestants," such as John Wycliffe or John Huss; but nearly everyone seems to think we owe it to Luther, above anyone else, that we have the Bible today as an "open book" available to all. This assumption is so pervasive that it hardly bears repeating.

What is not generally known is that there were 18 Catholic translations of the whole Bible into German before Luther's translation saw the light of day. According to the 15-volume Catholic Encyclopedia, "these included five complete folio editions printed before 1477, nine from 1477 to 1522, and four in Low German, all prior to Luther's New Testament in 1522." (See for yourself: Click on the following link to the Catholic Encyclopedia and scroll down to "German versions.") There were also Catholic translations of the Bible into many other languages over the centuries well before the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the Latin Vulgate itself was a translation into the vernacular Latin tongue of the day: hence it was called "Vulgate" -- a reference to the "vulgar" (or common) tongue. Much of this is explored in detail by Henry G. Graham in Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church (pictured left).

It is also not generally known that Luther's celebrated translation of the Bible, famous for the formative influence it had on the German language, may not have been entirely original. The Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, is quoted as having declared to Luther:
"You are unjust in putting forth the boastful claim of dragging the Bible from beneath the dusty benches of the schools. You forget that we have gained a knowledge of the Scriptures through the translations of others. You are very well aware, with all your blustering, that previously to your time there existed a host of scholars who, in biblical knowledge and philological attainments, were incomparably your superiors." [Alzog. III, 49, quoted in Patrick F. O'Hare, The Facts about Luther (pictured right) (Rockford, IL: Thomas A. Nelson Publishers, Inc., 1987), p. 191]
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