500 Years Since the Beginning of the Reformation - 500 Years Proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The Translation of the Bible

Martin Luther Translating the Bible (Eugène Siberd, 1898).

by Mathew Block

As far as Martin Luther was concerned, the Wartburg castle was more a prison than anything else. He had been spirited away to this place in May 1521 following his appearance at the Diet of Worms. This was a subterfuge of Frederick the Wise, who knew it was dangerous for Luther to go home now that he was under the imperial ban.

But Luther’s safety came at a price. Isolated from his friends and coworkers, he suffered intense loneliness. What is more, he had to live with the knowledge that he was a hunted man. He subsequently had to pretend to be someone he was not: in place of Luther the monk there arose the Knight George. He grew a beard and let his hair grow out to complete the disguise.

It is little surprise that Luther would come to refer to the Wartburg as his “Patmos”—the island to which St. John was exiled in his later years. But like St. John, who wrote the Book of Revelation while on Patmos, Luther used his time at the Wartburg industriously, writing numerous letters and tracts.

But more than any other, the work which stands out from Luther’s Wartburg period is his translation of the New Testament. A professor of Scripture, Luther had grounded his calls for reform in the teachings of the Bible. But for most people, the debate between Luther and his opponents was beyond their grasp for the simple reason they could not speak Latin—and Latin was the only readily accessible translation of the Bible available.

That, Luther determined, had to change. For too long, the Bible had been held prisoner in the language of the scholar; it was time it spoke in the vernacular too. “The Scriptures are common to all,” Luther wrote in 1522. “They are clear enough in respect to what is necessary for salvation, and are also obscure enough for inquiring minds. Let everyone search for his portion in the most abundant and universal Word of God.”

So it is that Luther began his translation. But Luther knew that if people were to read Scripture aright, it was important to translate in a way the average person could understand. To that end, Luther would slip into nearby villages to listen to the people talking. He wanted his translation to speak in a voice they would recognize. “We must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common person in the market about this,” he writes in a later letter explaining his methodology of translation. “We must be guided by their tongue, the manner of their speech, and do our translating accordingly.”

Such clarity was precisely what the people needed at this time. In Luther’s absence, the Reformation had been thrown into confusion. Andreas Karlstadt had begun a radical agenda of reform in June 1521 which had subsequently led to the smashing of statues and artwork, rebellion among the Augustinian monks, and growing civil disorder. The situation was a powder keg: what had begun as reformation was in danger of exploding into armed revolution.

Still disguised as a knight, Luther made a secret trip to Wittenberg in December 1521 to assess the situation. He wrote a letter admonishing the people to obey due authority and refrain from insurrection. But rebellion seemed ever more likely, especially following the arrival in the new year of the so-called Zwickau prophets. These people stirred up the populace yet again, claiming direct revelation from God that superseded Scripture.

Despite the danger he faced under the imperial ban, Luther left his lonely prison at the Wartburg and returned to Wittenberg in March 1522. There he opposed the false prophets and demanded they produce a miracle to authenticate their claims. No such confirmation was forthcoming, and the “prophets” left town.

In a series of sermons, Luther encouraged the people not to be prisoners to their passions, but instead to follow a moderate path of reformation—one that respected the consciences of their fellow believers and did not force sudden changes upon them. In the cause of reform, he said, it is necessary to educate not dictate—to demonstrate the truth of one’s positions on the basis of the Word rather than legislate compliance. “We must preach and teach, and let the Word alone do the work,” he explained. “The Word must first capture the hearts of men and enlighten them; we will not be the ones who will do it.”

That Word would begin to capture the hearts of men and women across Germany in a powerful new way a few months later. Luther had completed his translation of the New Testament prior to his return to Wittenberg. Now he and his friend Philip Melanchthon prepared the work for publication. In September 1522, the New Testament appeared in the market; within two months 5,000 copies had been sold. German people could now read and hear the Scriptures read in their own tongue. Through it all, the Holy Spirit was at work through the Word, drawing people to faith and a deeper understanding of the Gospel.

The translation of the Old Testament would take significantly longer, and Luther would here rely much more on the assistance of Melanchthon and other friends, like Johannes Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, and Caspar Creuziger. It would not be until 1534 that the entire Bible would appear in one book. The breadth of God’s Holy Scriptures was now available to regular Germans in a language they could understand.

Luther’s Bible would go on to inspire other reformers to similar work: William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale would rely on Luther’s translation in the preparation of their English translations (which subsequently influenced later English Bibles, including the King James Version). Luther’s work likewise influenced translations elsewhere in Europe, such as in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Even some of Luther’s opponents began producing German Bibles which heavily plagiarized his.

The Scriptures, which had long lain imprisoned in inaccessible Latin, were now freed to speak to common people in their heart languages. Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, was speaking to them. In the Bible, they were meeting Truth—and in accordance with Christ’s promise, the Truth was setting them free indeed.

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Mathew Block is communications manager of Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) and editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine. He is also editor of the book Saints of the Reformation, published by LCC to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

This is part three in a six-part series on the History of the Reformation. Find all the currently published articles here.