The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther

By Donald K. McKim | Go to book overview
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4
Luther as Bible translator
ERIC W. GRITSCH

Luther was not the first German translator of the Bible. Translations into old German dialects had already appeared at the time of Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 742–814), based on the first Latin Bible, the Vulgate (from the Latin vulgare, ”to make common“) offered by Jerome (348–420). He had used a Greek translation of the Old Testament by Christian scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, from the third century, known as the Septuagint (from the Greek for”seventy“, an alleged legendary number of the scholars involved in the translation). The emperor had ordered a translation of portions of the Psalter and the Gospels from the Vulgate as part of his program to convert his subjects to Christianity. Rare whole German Bibles began to appear in the fourteenth century. When the Mainz German printer John Gutenberg refined the ancient Oriental art of printing by using movable type, one of his co-workers used an unknown German Bible from Nuremberg to produce the”GutenbergBible“of 1466. It became popular in a version of 1475, edited by Günther Zainer in Augsburg, with corrections based on the Vulgate and some linguistic updating. The Nuremberg printer Anton Koberger added stylistic refinements and published a revised version in 1483, the year of Luther's birth.

Church authorities tried to discourage the printing of German Bibles. The head of the German dioceses, Archbishop Berthold of Mainz, prohibited the publication of German Bibles because the poverty of the German language did not mediate the real meaning of the holy biblical texts of the Vulgate. Although such a powerful intervention slowed the speed of publication of German Bibles, eighteen German translations had been published by 1518, one year after Luther called for a biblically grounded church reform in his famous Ninety-five Theses. Luther was initially supported by influential”humanists“, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536), who published the first text-critical Greek edition of the New Testament in 1516. In the preface he disagreed with those who wanted to prohibit the reading of the Bible by simple folk. On the contrary, he argued, the Bible should be

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