During the fourteenth century some unknown scholars prepared a new translation of the whole Bible into the Middle High German dialect. It slavishly follows the Latin Vulgate. It may be compared to Wiclif’s English Version (1380), which was likewise made from the Vulgate, the original languages being then almost unknown in Europe. A copy of the New Testament of this version has been recently published, from a manuscript in the Premonstratensian convent of Tepl in Bohemia.428 Another copy is preserved in the college library at Freiberg in Saxony.429 Both are from the fourteenth century, and agree almost word for word with the first printed German Bible, but contain, besides the New Testament, the apocryphal letter of St. Paul to the Laodiceans, which is a worthless compilation of a few sentences from the genuine writings of the apostle.430
After the invention of the printing-press, and before the Reformation, this mediaeval German Bible was more frequently printed than any other except the Latin Vulgate.431 No less than seventeen or eighteen editions appeared between 1462 and 1522, at Strassburg, Augsburg, Nürnberg, Cöln, Lübeck, and Halberstadt (fourteen in the High, three or four in the Low German dialect). Most of them are in large folio, in two volumes, and illustrated by wood-cuts. The editions present one and the same version (or rather two versions,—one High German, the other Low German) with dialectical alterations and accommodations to the textual variations of the MSS. of the Vulgate, which was in a very unsettled condition before the Clementine recension (1592). The revisers are as unknown as the translators.
The spread of this version, imperfect as it was, proves the hunger and thirst of the German people for the pure word of God, and prepared the way for the Reformation. It alarmed the hierarchy. Archbishop Berthold of Mainz, otherwise a learned and enlightened prelate, issued, Jan. 4, 1486, a prohibition of all unauthorized printing of sacred and learned books, especially the German Bible, within his diocese, giving as a reason that the German language was incapable of correctly rendering the profound sense of Greek and Latin works, and that laymen and women could not understand the Bible. Even Geiler of Kaisersberg, who sharply criticised the follies of the world and abuses of the Church, thought it "an evil thing to print the Bible in German."
Besides the whole Bible, there were numerous German editions of the Gospels and Epistles (Plenaria), and the Psalter, all made from the Vulgate.432
Luther could not be ignorant of this mediaeval version. He made judicious use of it, as he did also of old German and Latin hymns. Without such aid he could hardly have finished his New Testament in the short space of three months.433 But this fact does not diminish his merit in the least; for his version was made from the original Hebrew and Greek, and was so far superior in every respect that the older version entirely disappeared. It is to all intents a new work.
Luther had a rare combination of gifts for a Bible translator: familiarity with the original languages, perfect mastery over the vernacular, faith in the revealed word of God, enthusiasm for the gospel, unction of the Holy Spirit. A good translation must be both true and free, faithful and idiomatic, so as to read like an original work. This is the case with Luther’s version. Besides, he had already acquired such fame and authority that his version at once commanded universal attention.
His knowledge of Greek and Hebrew was only moderate, but sufficient to enable him to form an independent judgment.434 What he lacked in scholarship was supplied by his intuitive genius and the help of Melanchthon. In the German tongue he had no rival. He created, as it were, or gave shape and form to the modern High German. He combined the official language of the government with that of the common people. He listened, as he says, to the speech of the mother at home, the children in the street, the men and women in the market, the butcher and various tradesmen in their shops, and, "looked them on the mouth," in pursuit of the most intelligible terms. His genius for poetry and music enabled him to reproduce the rhythm and melody, the parallelism and symmetry, of Hebrew poetry and prose. His crowning qualification was his intuitive insight and spiritual sympathy with the contents of the Bible.
A good translation, he says, requires "a truly devout, faithful, diligent, Christian, learned, experienced, and practiced heart."
Progress of his Version.
Luther was gradually prepared for this work. He found for the first time a complete copy of the Latin Bible in the University Library at Erfurt, to his great delight, and made it his chief study. He derived from it his theology and spiritual nourishment; he lectured and preached on it as professor at Wittenberg day after day. He acquired the knowledge of the original languages for the purpose of its better understanding. He liked to call himself a "Doctor of the Sacred Scriptures."
He made his first attempt as translator with the seven Penitential Psalms, which he published in March, 1517, six months before the outbreak of the Reformation. Then followed several other sections of the Old and New Testaments,—the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer of King Manasseh, the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary, etc., with popular comments. He was urged by his friends, especially by Melanchthon, as well as by his own sense of duty, to translate the whole Bible.
He began with the New Testament in November or December, 1521, and completed it in the following March, before he left the Wartburg. He thoroughly revised it on his return to Wittenberg, with the effectual help of Melanchthon, who was a much better Greek scholar. Sturz at Erfurt was consulted about coins and measures; Spalatin furnished from the Electoral treasury names for the precious stones of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21). The translation was then hurried through three presses, and appeared already Sept. 21, 1522, but without his name.435
In December a second edition was required, which contained many corrections and improvements.436
He at once proceeded to the more difficult task of translating the Old Testament, and published it in parts as they were ready. The Pentateuch appeared in 1523; the Psalter, 1524.
In the progress of the work he founded a Collegium Biblieum, or Bible club, consisting of his colleagues Melanchthon, Bugenhagen (Pommer), Cruciger, Justus Jonas, and Aurogallus. They met once a week in his house, several hours before supper. Deacon Georg Rörer (Rorarius), the first clergyman ordained by Luther, and his proof-reader, was also present; occasionally foreign scholars were admitted; and Jewish rabbis were freely consulted. Each member of the company contributed to the work from his special knowledge and preparation. Melanchthon brought with him the Greek Bible, Cruciger the Hebrew and Chaldee, Bugenhagen the Vulgate, others the old commentators; Luther had always with him the Latin and the German versions besides the Hebrew. Sometimes they scarcely mastered three lines of the Book of Job in four days, and hunted two, three, and four weeks for a single word. No record exists of the discussions of this remarkable company, but Mathesius says that "wonderfully beautiful and instructive speeches were made."
At last the whole Bible, including the Apocrypha as "books not equal to the Holy Scriptures, yet useful and good to read," was completed in 1534, and printed with numerous woodcuts.
In the mean time the New Testament had appeared in sixteen or seventeen editions, and in over fifty reprints.437
Luther complained of the many errors in these irresponsible editions.
He never ceased to amend his translation. Besides correcting errors, he improved the uncouth and confused orthography, fixed the inflections, purged the vocabulary of obscure and ignoble words, and made the whole more symmetrical and melodious.
He prepared five original editions, or recensions, of his whole Bible, the last in 1545, a year before his death.438 This is the proper basis of all critical editions.439
The edition of 1546 was prepared by his friend Rörer, and contains a large number of alterations, which he traced to Luther himself. Some of them are real improvements, e.g., "Die Liebe höret nimmer auf," for, "Die Liebe wird nicht müde" (1 Cor. 13:8). The charge that he made the changes in the interest of Philippism (Melanchthonianism), seems to be unfounded.
Editions and Revisions.
The printed Bible text of Luther had the same fate as the written text of the old Itala and Jerome’s Vulgate. It passed through innumerable improvements and mis-improvements. The orthography and inflections were modernized, obsolete words removed, the versicular division introduced (first in a Heidelberg reprint, 1568), the spurious clause of the three witnesses inserted in 1 John 5:7 (first by a Frankfurt publisher, 1574), the third and fourth books of Ezra and the third book of the Maccabees added to the Apocrypha, and various other changes effected, necessary and unnecessary, good and bad. Elector August of Saxony tried to control the text in the interest of strict Lutheran orthodoxy, and ordered the preparation of a standard edition (1581). But it was disregarded outside of Saxony.
Gradually no less than eleven or twelve recensions came into use, some based on the edition of 1545, others on that of 1546. The most careful recension was that of the Canstein Bible Institute, founded by a pious nobleman, Carl Hildebrand von Canstein (1667–1719) in connection with Francke’s Orphan House at Halle. It acquired the largest circulation and became the textus receptus of the German Bible.
With the immense progress of biblical learning in the present century, the desire for a timely revision of Luther’s version was more and more felt. Revised versions with many improvements were prepared by Joh.- Friedrich von Meyer, a Frankfurt patrician (1772–1849), and Dr. Rudolf Stier (18001862), but did not obtain public authority.
At last a conservative official revision of the Luther Bible was inaugurated by the combined German church governments in 1863, with a view and fair prospect of superseding all former editions in public use.440
The German Bible of Luther was saluted with the greatest enthusiasm, and became the most powerful help to the Reformation. Duke George of Saxony, Duke William of Bavaria, and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria strictly prohibited the sale in their dominions, but could not stay the current. Hans Lufft at Wittenberg printed and sold in forty years (between 1534 and 1574) about a hundred thousand copies,—an enormous number for that age,—and these were read by millions. The number of copies from reprints is beyond estimate.
Cochlaeus, the champion of Romanism, paid the translation the greatest compliment when he complained that "Luther’s New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity."441
The Romanists were forced in self-defense to issue rival translations. Such were made by Emser (1527), Dietenberger (1534), and Eck (1537), and accompanied with annotations. They are more correct in a number of passages, but slavishly conformed to the Vulgate, stiff and heavy, and they frequently copy the very language of Luther, so that he could say with truth, "The Papists steal my German of which they knew little before, and they do not thank me for it, but rather use it against me." These versions have long since gone out of use even in the Roman Church, while Luther’s still lives.442
the pre-lutheran german bible.
According to the latest investigations, fourteen printed editions of the whole Bible in the Middle High German dialect, and three in the Low German, have been identified. Panzer already knew fourteen; see his Gesch. der nürnbergischen Ausgaben der Bibel, Nürnberg, 1778, p. 74.
The first four, in large folio, appeared without date and place of publication, but were probably printed: 1, at Strassburg, by Heinrich Eggestein, about or before 1466 (the falsely so-called Mainzer Bibel of 1462); 2, at Strassburg, by Johann Mentelin, 1466 (?); 3, at Augsburg, by Jodocus Pflanzmann, or Tyner, 1470 (?); 4, at Nürnberg, by Sensenschmidt and Frissner, in 2 vols., 408 and 104 leaves, 1470–73 (?). The others are located, and from the seventh on also dated, viz.: 5, Augsburg, by Günther Zainer, 2 vols., probably between 1473–1475. 6, Augsburg, by the same, dated 1477 (Stevens says, 1475?). 7, The third Augsburg edition, by Günther Zainer, or Anton Sorg, 1477, 2 vols., 321 and 332 leaves, fol., printed in double columns; the first German Bible with a date. 8, The fourth Augsburg edition, by A. Sorg, 1480, folio. 9, Nürnberg, by Anton Koburger (also spelled Koberger), 1483. 10, Strassburg, by Johann Gruninger, 1485. 11 and 12, The fifth and sixth Augsburg editions, in small fol., by Hans Schönsperger, 1487 and 1490. 13, The seventh Augsburg edition, by Hans Otmar, 1507, small folio. 14, The eighth Augsburg edition, by Silvan Otmar, 1518, small folio.
The Low Dutch Bibles were printed: 1, at Cologne, in large folio, double columns, probably 1480. The unknown editor speaks of previous editions and his own improvements. Stevens (Nos. 653 and 654) mentions two copies of the O. T. in Dutch, printed at Delf, 1477, 2 vols. fol. 2, At Lübeck, 1491 (not 1494), 2 vols. fol. with large woodcuts. 3, At Halberstadt, 1522.
Comp. Kehrein (I.c.), Krafft (l.c., pp. 4, 5), and Henry Stevens, The Bibles in the Caxton Exhibition, London, 1878. Stevens gives the full titles with descriptions, pp. 45 sqq., nos. 620 sqq.
Several of these Bibles, including the Koburger and those of Cologne and Halberstadt, are in the possession of the Union Theol. Seminary, New York. I examined them. They are ornamented by woodcuts, beginning with a picture of God creating the world, and forming Eve from the rib of Adam in Paradise. Several of them have Jerome’s preface (De omnibus divinae historiae libris, Ep. ad Paulinum), the oldest with the remark: "Da hebet an die epistel des heiligen priesters sant Jeronimi zu Paulinum von allen gottlichen büchern der hystory. Das erst capitel."
Dr. Krafft illustrates the dependence of Luther on the earlier version by several examples (pp. 13–18). The following is from the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:21–27:—
the ninth bible, 1483.
Habt ir gehört, das gesaget ist den alten. Du solt nit tödten, wellicher aber tödtet. der wird schuldig des gerichts. Aber ich sag euch, daz ein yeglicher der do zürnet seinem bruder. der wirt schuldig des gerichts. Der aber spricht zu seinem bruder. racha. der wirt schuldig des rats. Und der do spricht. tor. der wirt schuldig des hellischen fewrs. Darum ob du opfferst dein gab zu dem attar. und do wirst gedenckend. daz dein bruder ettwas hat wider dich, lasz do dein gab vor dem altar und gee zum ersten und versüne dich mit deim bruder und denn kum und opffer dein gab. Bis gehellig deim widerwertigen schyer. die weyl du mit im bist him weg. das dich villeycht der widersacher nit antwurt den Richter. und der Richter dich antwurt dem diener und werdest gelegt in den kercker. Fürwar ich sag dir. du geest nit aus von dannen. und das du vergeltest den letzten quadranten.
luther’s new testament, 1522.
Ihr habt gehortt, das zu den alten gesagt ist, du sollt nit todten, wer aber todtet, der soll des gerichts schuldig seyn. Ich aber sage euch, wer mit seynem bruder zurnit, der ist des gerichts schuldig, wer aber zu seynem bruder sagt, Racha, der ist des rads schuldig, wer aber sagt, du narr, der ist des hellischen fewers schuldig.
Darumbwen du deyn gabe auff den altar opfferst, un wirst alda eyngedenken, das deyn bruder ettwas widder dich hab, so las alda fur dem altar deyn gabe, unnd gehe zuvor hyn, unnd versune dich mitt deynem bruder, unnd als denn kom unnd opffer deyn gabe.
Sey willfertig deynem widersacher, bald, dieweyl du noch mit yhm auff dem wege bist, auff das dich der widdersacher nit der mal eyns ubirantwortte dem richter, un d. richter ubirantworte dich dem diener, un werdist yn den kerccker geworffen, warlich ich sage dyr, du wirst nit von dannen erauze komen, bis du auch den letzten heller bezealest.
To this I add two specimens in which the superiority of Luther’s version is more apparent.
the koburger bible of nürnberg, 1483
In dem anfang hat got beschaffen hymel und erden. aber dye erde was eytel und leere. und die vinsternus warn auff dem antlitz des abgrunds. vnd der geist gots swebet oder ward getragen auff den wassern. Un got der sprach. Es werde dz liecht. Un das liecht ist worden.
luther’s bible, ed. 1535.
Im anfang schuff Gott himel und erden. Und die erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auff der tieffe, und der Geist Gottes schwebet auff dem wasser.
Un Gott sprach. Es werde liecht. Und es ward liecht.
1 Cor. 13:1, 2.
The Strassburg Bible Of 1485.
Ob ich rede inn der zungen der engel vnd der menschen; aber habe ich der lieb nit, ich bin gemacht alls ein glockenspeyss lautend oder alls ein schell klingend. Vnd ob ich hab die weissagung und erkenn all heimlichkeit vnd alle kunst, und ob ich hab alten glauben, also das ich übertrag die berg, habe ich aber der lieb nit, ich bin nichts.
Luther’s New Testament, 1522.
Wenn ich mit menschen und mit engelzungen redet und hette die443 liebe nit,444 so wäre ich ein tönend ertz oder ein klingende schell.445 Und wenn ich weissagen kündt, vnnd wüste alle geheymnuss vnd alle erkantnüss, vnd hette alten glauben, also das ich berg versetzete, und hett der liebe nicht, so were ich nichts.
The precise origin of the mediaeval German Bible is still unknown. Dr. Ludwig Keller of Münster first suggested in his Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien, Leipzig, 1885, pp. 257–260, the hypothesis that it was made by Waldenses (who had also a Romanic version); and he tried to prove it in his Die Waldenser und die deutschen Bibelübersetzungen, Leipzig, 1886 (189 pages). Dr. Hermann Haupt, of Würzburg, took the same ground in his Die deutsche Bibelübersetzung der mittelalterlichen Waldenser in dem Codex Teplensis und der ersten gedruckten Bibel nachgewiesen, Würzburg, 1885 (64 pages); and again, in self-defense against Jostes, in Der waldensische Ursprung des Codex Teplensis und der vor-lutherischen deutschen Bibeldrucke, Würzburg, 1886. On the other hand, Dr. Franz Jostes, a Roman Catholic scholar, denied the Waldensian and defended the Catholic origin of that translation, in two pamphlets: Die Waldenser und die vorlutherische Bibelübersetzung, Münster, 1885 (44 pages), and Die Tepler Bibelübersetzung. Eine zweite Kritik, Münster, 1886 (43 pages). The same author promises a complete history of German Catholic Bible versions. The question has been discussed in periodicals and reviews, e.g., by Kawerau in Luthardt’s "Theol. Literaturblatt," Leipzig, 1885 and 1886 (Nos. 32–34), by Schaff in the New York "Independent" for Oct. 8, 1885, and in the "Presbyterian Review" for April, 1887, pp. 355 sqq.; by Kolde, in the "Göttinger Gelehrte Anzeigen," 1887, No. I.; by Müller in the "Studien und Kritiken," 1887, No. III.; and Bornemann, in the "Jahrb. f. Prot. Theol.," 1888, 67–101.
The arguments for the Waldensian origin are derived from certain additions to the Codex Teplensis, and alleged departures from the text of the Vulgate. But the additions are not anti-Catholic, and are not found in the cognate Freiberger MS.; and the textual variations can not be traced to sectarian bias. The text of the Vulgate was in greater confusion in the middle ages than the text of the Itala at the time of Jerome, nor was there any authorized text of it before the Clementine recension of 1592. The only plausible argument which Dr. Keller brings out in his second publication (pp. 80 sqq.) is the fact that Emser, in his Annotations to the New Test. (1523), charges Luther with having translated the N. T. from a "Wickleffisch oder hussisch exemplar." But this refers to copies of the Latin Vulgate; and in the examples quoted by Keller, Luther does not agree with the Codex Teplensis.
The hostility of several Popes and Councils to the circulation of vernacular translations of the Bible implies the existence of such translations, and could not prevent their publication, as the numerous German editions prove. Dutch, French, and Italian versions also appeared among the earliest prints. See Stevens, Nos. 687 and 688 (p. 59 sq.). The Italian edition exhibited in 1877 at London is entitled: La Biblia en lingua Volgare (per Nicolo di Mallermi). Venetia: per Joan. Rosso Vercellese, 1487, fol. A Spanish Bible by Bonif. Ferrer was printed at Valencia, 1478 (see Reuss, Gesch. der heil. Schr. N. T., II. 207, 5th Ed.).
The Bible is the common property and most sacred treasure of all Christian churches. The art of printing was invented in Catholic times, and its history goes hand in hand with the history of the Bible. Henry Stevens says (The Bibles in the Caxton Exhibition, p. 25): "The secular history of the Holy Scriptures is the sacred history of Printing. The Bible was the first book printed, and the Bible is the last book printed. Between 1450 and 1877, an interval of four centuries and a quarter, the Bible shows the progress and comparative development of the art of printing in a manner that no other single book can; and Biblical bibliography proves that during the first forty years, at least, the Bible exceeded in amount of printing all other books put together; nor were its quality, style, and variety a whit behind its quantity."
§ 63. A Critical Estimate of Luther’s Version.
Luther’s version of the Bible is a wonderful monument of genius, learning, and piety, and may be regarded in a secondary sense as inspired. It was, from beginning to end, a labor of love and enthusiasm. While publishers and printers made fortunes, Luther never received or asked a copper for this greatest work of his life.446
We must judge it from the times. A German translation from the original languages was a work of colossal magnitude if we consider the absence of good grammars, dictionaries, and concordances, the crude state of Greek and Hebrew scholarship, and of the German language, in the sixteenth century. Luther wrote to Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1522, that he had undertaken a task beyond his power, that he now understood why no one had attempted it before in his own name, and that he would not venture on the Old Testament without the aid of his friends.447 He felt especially how difficult it was to make Job and the Hebrew prophets speak in barbarous German.448 He jocosely remarked that Job would have become more impatient at the blunders of his translators than at the long speeches of his "miserable comforters."
As regards the text, it was in an unsettled condition. The science of textual criticism was not yet born, and the materials for it were not yet collected from the manuscripts, ancient versions, and patristic quotations. Luther had to use the first printed editions. He had no access to manuscripts, the most important of which were not even discovered or made available before the middle of the nineteenth century. Biblical geography and archaeology were in their infancy, and many names and phrases could not be understood at the time.