The Most Dangerous Thing Martin Luther Ever Did

EISENACH, GERMANY – MAY 05: This detail shows a page of a 1642 edition of Martin Luther’s translation into German of the Bible, in this case known as the Kurfuerstenbibel, or the Elector’s Bible, at the Lutherhaus museum on May 5, 2017 in Eisenach, Germany. Martin Luther, whose 95 theses of 1517 set in motion the Reformation, lived at nearby Wartburg Castle under protection following his excommunication and translated the Bible there into German. Germany is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year with events throughout the year. The Reformation led to the creation of Protestant denominations all over the globe.
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

At the very beginning of the Reformation, the principle Bible available was the Latin Vulgate, the Bible Jerome had originally produced in Latin in A.D. 380—though by the time of the Reformation it has undergone significant textual corruptions. It included both a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, plus Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, some additions to the Book of Daniel, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

The Bible was not a book the general public was familiar with. It was not a book most individuals or families could own. There were pulpit Bibles usually chained to the pulpit; there were manuscripts of Bibles in monasteries; there were Bibles owned by kings and the socially elite. But the Bible was not a book possessed by many.

Furthermore, it was rare to find a Bible in the language of the people. There were a number of German translations in existence by the time of Luther, and one French version published already in 1473. But it was still the case that the Latin Bible was by far and away the principle Bible available. The well-educated social elite could read Latin, but your average resident of England or France or Germany or Italy or Spain knew only snippets of Latin from the Mass. And indeed, often enough they garbled the snippets they knew. If you want to get a good feel for the poverty of biblical literacy in the general public in this era, read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400 in Middle English. Confusion and misunderstandings of the Bible abound in Chaucer’s stories.

The Latin Vulgate was the Bible that Luther first studied, but he soon became aware of its deficiencies as he delved into the Greek text to discover his revolutionary insights. That led Luther to another realization: if things were really going to change, it would not come just by debating theology with other learned souls. The Bible needed to be made available in the vernacular (in this case German) and needed to be widely available. In my view, the most dangerous thing Luther ever did was not nail the 95 Theses to a door. It was translating the Bible into ordinary German and encouraging its widespread dissemination.

Luther’s ‘Heresy’

By 1522, Luther had translated the New Testament, and he had completed the full Bible by 1534, which included what came to be called the Apocrypha (those extra books from intertestamental Judaism). Luther kept revising this into his waning years, for he realized what a major change agent this translated Bible was.

Luther did not translate directly from the Latin Vulgate, and for some, this amounted to heresy. Luther had learned Greek the usual way, at Latin school at Magdeburg, so he could translate Greek works into Latin. There are tales, probably true, that Luther made forays into nearby towns and villages just to listen to people speak so that his translation, particularly of the New Testament, would be as close to ordinary contemporary usage as possible. This was not to be a Bible of and for the elite.

Philip Schaff, the great church historian, opined: “The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure in the Wartburg [castle], and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and hearts of the Germans in life-like reproduction. … He made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house.”

This act by Luther opened Pandora’s box when it came to translations of the Bible, and there was no getting the box closed thereafter. Needless to say, this worried church officials of all stripes because they no longer had strict control of God’s Word.

Forerunners and Followers

Too few people, however, have said enough about the precursors to Luther’s act of translating the Bible into the vernacular. For example, John Wycliffe’s team preceded Luther by a good 140 years with the translation of the Bible into Middle English between 1382 and 1395. Wycliffe himself was not solely responsible for the translation; others, such as Nicholas of Hereford, are known to have done some of the translating. The difference between the work of the Wycliffe team and Luther is that no textual criticism was involved; the Wycliffe team worked directly from the Latin Vulgate.

In addition, Wycliffe included not only what came to be called the Apocrypha, he threw in 2 Esdras and the second-century work Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans as a bonus.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Ben Witherington III