Dr Mary E. Stewart

29th October 2017

From the sublime words of recent weeks to the ridiculous: did you know that Luther with his Bible has become the fastest-selling Playmobil figure ever?

But why on earth should we be interested in an old German Bible? And anyway, what does ‘German’ even mean here? In Luther’s day there was no such language – indeed, no country called ‘Germany’. He wasn’t the first to try Biblical translation into Germanic vernacular either. So why is it that 500 years on Luther’s Bible matters at all? Was he just lucky that Gutenberg had revolutionised printing only decades before, or that Lucas Cranach was his illustrator?

After Luther published his 95 theses against indulgences on 31 October 1517, perhaps intending to initiate a university discussion, the furore they created led to a Papal Bull and an Imperial Ban being issued against him in 1521. His life was at risk, but fortunately for him the Elector of Saxony, Luther’s home state, had him abducted for his own safety to the remote Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. Convinced that faith must be based directly on God’s word in the Bible, not Church dogma, Luther used his isolation to translate the New Testament in just 11 weeks (his Old Testament came later in 1534.)  He was familiar with the Latin  ‘Vulgate’, but as Prof Hooker explained, Erasmus’ new Greek edition was his prime source. Luther had been schooled in Latin since early childhood and had a good command of classical Greek from his university education in Erfurt, so had no problems of understanding. But in what kind of language did he write, and for whom was his new translation intended?

The world in which Luther lived was very different from modern Germany. There was no unitary German state: the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was a vast disparate grouping of principalities, dukedoms, kingdoms, Imperial free cities etc. This fragmentation benefited Luther in so far as it prevented an effective campaign of suppression against him (such as poor Tyndale would soon suffer here in Britain), but there was a negative side too.  The educated lingua franca of the Empire was Latin: there was no one common German language, only a huge range of regional spoken dialects – and so-called High and Low German forms (a roughly south/north division) were almost incomprehensible to each other. So how could he reach people? The German Luther wrote was broadly modelled on that used for business in the Chancellery (the administrative office) of Saxony, which providentially lay in the eastern central area of the Empire, neatly placed between the main dialect blocs. Luther himself spoke both High and Low German dialects, and skilfully evolved a fusion of the two that could be understood more or less everywhere, and formed the basis of what became over time standard written German. (One tiny example: there could be unrelated, competing words for the same thing, and whichever Luther chose became the standard: e.g. for the image of separating the sheep and the goats he chose Low German Ziege for ‘goat’ as opposed to Geiß , which was thereafter consigned to spoken dialect and fairy-tale.)

But Luther was concerned with social as much as geographical reach. In his 1530 “Open letter on translation” he stated his aim of writing a living German, i.e. replicating the speech patterns of everyday life, not slavishly copying Latin phrasing, as earlier translators had done. “You don’t ask Latin literature how to speak German” Luther wrote, “you ask the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the market – look at how they speak and translate accordingly.” He was well aware that literacy was limited, though it was perhaps a little more widespread in the Empire than elsewhere in Europe because every state had its educated bureaucracy. That certainly helped to make Luther’s Bible an astonishing best-seller: in 1522 over 3000 copies of the New Testament sold within a few days of publication, even though it cost half a guilder – the weekly pay of a workman - and over ½ million Bibles sold in his lifetime. But Luther’s world was still a predominantly oral culture: listening and learning by heart was the norm, so he concentrated on simple vocabulary, idiom and folk sayings from everyday life, using syntax and rhythms explicitly meant for reading aloud, hearing and memorising.

As a result, many of Luther’s Biblical phrases have become deeply embedded in colloquial German (much more pithily than is the case with our literary King James Bible and English). At the risk of boring you with linguistic niceties, one good example is the story of the widow’s ‘mite’, as told in Mark 12 and Luke 21 – ‘mite’ is of course a coin of little value. Luther followed neither the Greek text – ‘two lepta’ – nor the Latin Vulgate with its ‘two copper coins.’ He chose the word Scherflein, a Scherf being the smallest silver coin then in use in northern parts of the Empire, and added the diminutive ending –lein for several reasons: it reinforces the impact of the story (the widow is incredibly poor but still gives); it captures the way German speakers do frequently use diminutives in everyday idiomatic speech; and it smoothes the rhythm of the sentence, making it easier to read aloud and remember (legte zwei Scherflein ein  as opposed to the slightly jerkier legte zwei Scherfe ein.) The phrase ‘sein Scherflein beitragen’ (to contribute one’s pennyworth to something) is still in common use today.

Another example: where the King James Bible has in Luke 6 “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”, Luther characteristically avoids abstraction and translates freely - possibly borrowing a proverb - “when someone’s heart is full, his mouth overflows” (“wes das Herz voll ist, des geht der Mund über”) – arguing in typically robust form that “no German would speak of ‘abundance of the heart’, unless his heart were too large or he had too much heart; it’s no more German than ‘abundance of the stove’!”  That is Luther’s earthily democratic translation practice in a nutshell (though, without venturing into complex theology, when he controversially translated Romans 3,28 as ‘justified by faith alone’ and argued that the additional word was required for idiomatic German, he was pushing it a bit! It wasn’t necessary in those terms, though equally it’s not wrong.)

So does Luther’s Bible still matter? It’s all about impact. Its extraordinary vigour appealed even to arch-atheist Nietzsche who praised its linguistic skill, and it still matters to Germans as the communal source of their standard written language, not the royal court as in England or France (so even the atheistic GDR could later claim Luther as an antecedent.) His Bible helped to create a first sense of coherent nationhood through shared language and culture, across the frequently changing political borders that divided German speakers for centuries up to 1871 (though this very sense of a nationhood beyond borders takes a darker turn in the 20c.). Of course Luther’s Bible matters historically and theologically as one of the main drivers in the huge upheavals of the Reformation; by giving everyone access to the scriptures and a direct route to faith, it encouraged the emancipation of the individual and the beginnings of European, not just German modernity. And finally, remember how in wk.1 Simon gave us Barth’s image of Luther inadvertently waking up the world? Whatever we may think of Luther as man or theologian – and he certainly wasn’t docile like his Playmobil image! - the story of his German Bible exemplifies for all time the dangerous, wonderful power of words to do just that:  awaken minds.