TranslationThe Day the Bible Became a Bestseller Martin Luther didn’t set out to produce a bestseller. But 500 years ago that’s exactly what he did. Jeffrey KlohaSeptember 21, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level We know exactly when the Bible first became the “best-selling book of all time.” It was September 21, 1522. This date was the opening of the annual book fair in Leipzig, Germany. The previous April, Martin Luther refused to recant his writings before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at an assembly convened to examine his works known as the Diet of Worms. From there he was secreted to the Wartburg Castle for his own protection. In eleven weeks, he completed a translation of the New Testament from Greek into German. From there, his colleague at Wittenberg University, Philip Melanchthon, edited the translation. Two businessmen in Wittenberg, Lucas Cranach the Elder and his partner Christian Doering, then employed the printer Melchior Lotter the Younger to rush to completion this New Testament in German in time for the book fair—even setting up temporary presses on their property to ensure completion. Between 3,000 and 5,000 copies were made, bundled up, and rushed to Leipzig for the book fair. Luther translating the Bible in 1521 as depicted by Eugène Siberdt. Wikimedia Commons An Immediate Bestseller The book was a hit. All the copies of this German New Testament sold out before the fair ended a week later. From there, Luther’s German New Testament spread around Europe. A second printing was started immediately and released in December. A pirated version was printed in Basel before the end of 1522. In the next year a total of twelve authorized and sixty-six unauthorized reprints appeared throughout Germany and Europe—hundreds of thousands of copies sold in just over twelve months. Suddenly, the Bible was a bestseller. Luther’s Bible. The German New Testament. Now, all this might be left as a footnote in history, except that this little Bible by Luther still influences the way that we read Bibles today. From format to contents to readability to explanatory notes—all have been shaped by the Septembertestament. How did this instant success happen? Luther was not the first to market. In fact, the first printed German Bible had appeared in 1466, fifty-five years before Luther’s work. Seventeen total versions appeared before 1522. So, there was not simply a pent-up demand for the Bible in German into which Luther tapped. Rather, it was Luther’s theology and notoriety, combined with a readable translation style and a physical and visual format designed to help the reader understand the text—at least the text as Luther wanted the reader to understand it—that made this Bible become a bestseller. Wartburg Castle, where Luther finished his German New Testament in 1522. Photo by Ashley Van Haeften The Context of Luther’s Achievement For the first 1500 years of the church, the Bible, or rather, the various books and stories in the Bible, were accessed by almost all people not by reading, but by hearing. People heard the Bible in worship, they sung it in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. They were taught it in sermons and catechetical teaching, they saw its contents portrayed in icons and eventually stained glass, watched it performed in mystery plays and passion plays (some of which are still performed today). But possessing a Bible, holding a Bible, whether on papyrus or parchment or paper was not at all common. Almost all physical copies of the Bible down to the 1500s were produced for use in churches, in monasteries, and for clergy. A few wealthy people had beautifully decorated devotional books, which often contained the Psalms, but the Bible as we know it was simply not accessible—nor indeed seen to need to be accessible—to the vast, vast majority of people. Even Gutenberg did not produce a bestseller because what he produced looked and felt and, to some extent, even cost what a Latin manuscript of the Bible cost in the 1450s. Gutenberg could produce sixty copies in the time it took a copyist to produce one manuscript. The first edition of 1454 was produced in about 160 to 180 copies: ¾ of them on paper and ¼ on vellum. Paper copies cost thirty florins at a time when the salary of a clerk in the Medici bank earned between fourteen and fifty florins per year. So, if you have a great job in 1450, a Gutenberg Bible would cost roughly one year’s wages—and you still had to be able to read Latin. Most copies were purchased by religious orders or wealthy individuals for donation to churches and ecclesial institutions. While a pivotal moment in western history (Time magazine named it the most significant event of the past 1000 years) Gutenberg did not immediately change the way that people accessed the Bible. RelatedWhy Are Protestant and Catholic Bibles Different?John D. MeadeErasmus and the Search for the Original Text of the New TestamentMartin HeideThe Life and Legacy of William TyndalePeter J. Gurry But in the early 16th century, people began to want to read the Scriptures for themselves. And reform-minded scholars throughout Europe worked to make it accessible to all people, in their own languages. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was one of the greatest classical scholars of all time. He produced numerous first editions of texts from antiquity, including the first published Greek New Testament in 1516. But he did not call it a “New Testament.” He called it a “Novum Instrumentum,” a new tool. The edition has Greek in one column and Latin in the other, but not the Vulgate, the commonly used Latin text, but a fresh translation that Erasmus argued was more accurate to the Greek. He wanted to make the Greek text more accessible to scholars and theologians in the west who did not really know Greek. And what was this tool to be used for? He lays this out in his preface, what he called the paraclesis or “exhortation” at the beginning of his new tool: The sun belongs to everyone; the science of Christ is just the same. I am totally opposed to the fact that divine scripture should not be translated into one’s native language, to be read by the non-clergy; it is as if Christ’s teaching was so mysterious that only a handful of theologians could understand it, or as if the fortress of religion was built with the ignorance which the Church has forced on the common man. I wish that even the lowliest women read the gospels and the Pauline Epistles. And I would that they were translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood not only by Scots and Irish, but also by Turks and Saracens… Would that, as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of the journey with stories from this source. Luther used the second edition (printed in 1519) of Erasmus’s “new tool” to create a New Testament for German farmers and weavers, and in so doing created a runaway success. The audience for this German New Testament was the German people themselves. Where the Gutenberg Bible was out of the reach of almost all people, both for the cost and the fact that it was in Latin, a bound copy of Luther’s New Testament cost a single guilder: schoolteacher’s two month’s wages, or the price of a calf. A Book to Point to Christ It seems self-evident to us today that the Bible should be translated. But for Luther, the translation of the Bible was not an end in itself. It was not simply, “let’s get the Bible out there and see what happens.” Nor was he interested in a text for academic study since Greek, Hebrew, and Latin editions were available for that if one wanted. Rather, Luther wanted a New Testament through which individuals could hear the Word of God directly, without the mediation of the church or a priest. Said another way: Luther’s goal was that individuals hear “God’s message about Christ.” Luther’s goal was that individuals hear “God’s message about Christ.” In the language of Romans 10: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Luther expresses this in his introduction to the Old Testament published later in 1534: “If, then, you would interpret well and surely, set Christ before you; for He is the man to whom it all applies.” But even the New Testament, which Luther acknowledged should be clear enough, also can be misinterpreted and therefore the reader needs assistance to hear the Gospel clearly. Luther produced this book, quite simply, to point to Christ. To give people access, for themselves—with Luther’s guidance—to the promises of God. We see this on the title page of a 1524 Wittenberg Bible with its simple description, and Christ on the cross. The title page to the Old Testament in Luther’s 1524 Bible with Christ on the cross. Museum of the Bible BIB.003838. Luther’s entire purpose in translating the New Testament, then, and every feature of the translation and the contents of the volume is designed to preach Christ and the Gospel message. This accounts for the new features of the Septembertestament. It was a text like no other before it. It translated a Greek text into the vernacular for the first time in Western Europe since the Vulgate. It included prefaces and notes to ensure that the readers heard the Gospel. And even the sequence of the New Testament books was altered to suit Luther’s goal of leading people to trust the promises of Christ. This might be surprising. A Reformation motto is sola Scriptura! By Scripture alone! without tradition or interpretation. But sola Scriptura itself is actually in service to the central Reformation tenet: “Christ Alone!” (solus Christus). Luther put Scripture into the language of the people so that by Scripture alone they could hear Christ and his gospel, and so receive salvation. Helps to Guide the Reader to Christ The physical format and additional features that Luther and his collaborators added to this Septembertestament helped accomplish this goal. These were not without precedent, and certainly not without controversy, as we will see. And there is an important juxtaposition between Luther’s desire for the Word to be heard clearly and directly by people on its own terms and, at the same time, the addition of several “helps” to make sure that the reader gets the right interpretation. Here I will focus on four “helps,” many of which are still used on our Bibles today. 1. Text and Translation As noted, Luther used the second edition (1519) of Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum as his base text. The parallel Greek-Latin diglot gave Luther access not only to the Greek but also to Erasmus’s Latin rendering. In addition, Erasmus published a remarkable scholarly and historical word-by-word analysis of the Greek New Testament in 1516 called Annotations. He significantly enlarged this resource in 1519, and we know that Luther used both tools, because there are places where the translations follow exactly Erasmus’s explanations. Luther, therefore, would be the first to use these “new tools” to bring a Greek text of the New Testament into a vernacular language. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: Given the manuscripts available to him, Erasmus’s Greek text was quite similar to the text used for centuries in the Greek-speaking church. Later editions of his basic text came to be called the Textus Receptus, most commonly available after the mid-16th century in the editions edited by Reformed theologian Theodore Beza. That text was the basis of the Geneva Bible (1557, 1560) and the 1611 Authorized Version of King James. Erasmus’s 1519 edition repaired many of the typos and errors of the 1516 edition. Famously, though, neither edition included the comma Johnanneum at 1 John 5:7–8: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one” (KJV). This passage was added by Erasmus in his 1522 edition, and Luther was aware of the reading. But Luther never included the reading in his German Bible, including the 1534 complete Bible and the 1545 edition, the last printed during Luther’s lifetime. In fact, Luther elsewhere comments on this reading, noting that it was added by the orthodox theologians to counter Arian theology. The Greek text was Luther’s foundation, but his deepest concern was that the text be readable and understandable by all people. Matching the Greek or Latin style and idiom would not have communicated the message of the New Testament clearly. His defense of his translation work against Catholic critics, written in 1530, underscores this goal. We do not have to ask the literal Latin [text] how we are to speak German, as these donkeys [Papists] do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them. In this treatise, Luther provided several examples of how the idiomatic German of his translation is more effective than a translation held captive to other languages: For instance, Christ says: Ex abundatia cordis os loquitur [Matt. 12:34]. If I am to follow these donkeys, they will lay the original before me literally and translate it thus: “Aus dem uberfluss des hertzen redet der mund” [of the excessiveness of the heart his mouth speaks]. Tell me, is that speaking German? What German could understand something like that? What is “the excessiveness of the heart”? No German can say that; unless, perhaps, he was trying to say that someone was altogether too generous, or too courageous, though even that would not yet be correct. “Excessiveness of the heart” is no more German than “excessiveness of the house,” “excessiveness of the stove” or “excessiveness of the bench.” But the mother in the home and the common man say this: “Wes das hertz vol ist, des gehet der mund über” [What fills the heart overflows the mouth]. That is speaking good German of the kind I have tried for, although unfortunately not always successfully. The literal Latin is a great obstacle to speaking good German.1Ein sendbrief D. M. Luthers. Von Dolmetzschen und Fürbit der heiligenn (1530) The most radical—some might say, egregious—example is his rendering of Romans 3:28 where his text has added the word “alone.” So halten wir nun dafür, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den GlaubenSo now we hold that a person is justified without the works of the law, by faith alone. The Greek text does not read an equivalent to “alone” in this passage. As the KJV reads: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Luther defends his translation, again in the 1530 Sendbriefe: Here in Romans 3, I knew very well that the word solum [alone] is not in the Greek or Latin text; the papists did not have to teach me that. It is a fact that these four letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate. At the same time they do not see that it conveys the sense of the text; it belongs there if the translation is to be clear and vigorous… It is the nature of the German language to add the word allein in order that the word nicht or kein may be clearer and more complete… Actually, the text itself and the meaning of St. Paul urgently require and demand it. For in that very passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine, namely, that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the law. For Luther, the sense of the text, undeniably influenced by the importance placed on this passage for the teaching of justification by faith, was more important than the Greek or Latin vocables in the base texts. Luther’s goal is to create a New Testament that preaches Christ, understandable directly by the people in language that they can understand. This is not a translation that seeks to capture the feel of an ancient text. It does not seek to sound “authentic” to the speech of, say, a Roman official in the book of Acts. Rather, the translation seeks to speak directly to ordinary people on their own terms. It is direct speech, as if God were speaking German. As if God were preaching Christ directly to them, into their hearts, with no priests, no tradition, no one else needed for the person to hear God and gain Christ. Luther’s goal is to create a New Testament that preaches Christ, understandable directly by the people in language that they can understand. 2. Prefaces A second device Luther used in his Septembertestament was to affix prefaces to the four Gospels and then individually for each subsequent book. He was not the first to add prefaces; prologues are found in Latin and Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that provide historical and chronological information and occasionally argue against heretical theological views. But Luther takes this in a different direction. He added prefaces to each book, not modeled on his predecessors, but designed instead to give the reader a basic understanding of the contents and what they will find in the book—or, more accurately, what Luther wants them to find in the book. In the initial preface to the Gospels and the New Testament, he directly explains his purpose for this device. It would be right and proper that this book should appear without preface and without any other name than that of its authors and convey only its own name and its own language. But many wild interpretations and prefaces have driven the thought of Christians to a point where no one any longer knows what is Gospel or Law, Old Testament or New. Necessity demands, therefore, that it should have an announcement, or preface, by which the simple man can be brought back from the old notions to the right road and taught what he is to expect in this book, so that he may not seek laws and commandments where he ought to be seeking the Gospel and God’s promises. Luther’s evangelistic purpose is clear here: He wants the reader to seek the Gospel and God’s promises, and to not read the New Testament as a book of rules to be obeyed. This becomes clearest in his preface to Romans. While most prefaces are quite brief, three individual books have extended prefaces: Romans, James, and Revelation. Romans is an outlier, but for that reason it is instructive: It shows how much emphasis Luther put on the contents and teaching of that book. Its preface is far longer than any other: ten full pages of introduction, and this to a book that, in translation, is only nineteen pages long. The preface to Galatians, which has perhaps even clearer explicit teaching of faith over and against law has an introduction of less than half of a page, with a text that is seven pages long. Ephesians has an even shorter preface: less than fourteen lines of type for six pages of text, and this in the letter that says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” That seems clear. And yet Luther relies on Romans to carry the weight of explaining the entire Bible and the Gospel: “This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.” Not only was this approach novel, it was effective. John Wesley, the famous 18th century English evangelist, preacher, and theologian, claims that his “heart was strangely warmed” and that he was converted to the Gospel by reading Luther’s preface to Romans—not, mind you, by reading Romans itself, but reading Luther’s preface to Romans. The other two lengthy prefaces, for James and Revelation, have a decidedly different tone, as we will see below. 3. Notes Luther also included notes and explanations in the margins of his edition. Again, this is not a new practice. Medieval manuscripts frequently contain quotations from theologians or glosses, i.e., brief explanatory and interpretive notes throughout the text. But Luther’s goal is not to repeat the best teaching and instruction of the past. His notes also reflect his goal of helping the reader trust in Christ and the Gospel. For example, this is an image of Romans 3. Notice how the margins are completely fullwidth with about 75 percent Bible and 25 percent Luther. Luther’s marginal notes took almost almost a quarter of the page. Photo You can almost hear Luther pleading with the reader in the margin: Note well that he says you are all sinful, etc. This is the chief thing and the central place of the epistle and the whole of the Scriptures. Namely, that all are sinful who are not redeemed by the blood of Christ and justified by faith. So grasp this text, because according to it all work, merit, and deeds remains God’s pure gift and honor (Ps. 84:11). 4. Luther’s New Testament Canon Perhaps most controversially, Luther arranged the sequence of the New Testament writings to reflect his views of the clarity with which those books taught the Gospel. The table of contents for this New Testament reflects this clearly. The list of books for Luther’s New Testament. Photo All twenty-seven books of the New Testament are present. But only twenty-three books are numbered. Four books are shifted to the end, unnumbered, as a kind of appendix: Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. Luther placed these books last and added prefaces warning readers about certain sections and passages. To Luther, Hebrews seemed to disallow repentance if one sins after baptism; Jude seemed to be an epitome of 2 Peter (with the addition of non-canonical stories); the Apocalypse is “a concealed and mute prophecy and has not yet come to the profit and fruit which it is to give to Christians.” James, however, receives the harshest criticism. It is “flatly opposed to St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture, it ascribes righteousness to works.” Luther concludes that “This fault leads to the conclusion that it is not the work of any apostle” and it is, therefore, an “epistle of straw.” This arrangement of the New Testament writings is unique to Luther, apart from his influence on William Tyndale’s New Testament translation of 1525, which in turn is followed in English by Coverdale (1535) and Matthew (1537). From the Great Bible of 1539, however, all English translations use the sequence of books commonly known today. Luther, though, retained this format through the last edition of the Lutherbibel published during his lifetime in 1545. A Bible for the People Luther sought to create a Bible not to be a bestseller, but one through which individuals would hear God speaking directly to them in their world, in their time, in their place. A Bible that was God’s Word—more accurately, God speaking. Not a passive tool that sits on a shelf or a table or even altar. But an active, speaking, seeking, hearable, and impactful speaking of God. Everything Luther does, from the style of translation to the title page to the sequence of the books to notes is designed to bring people to Christ. This is a Bible designed to not only make the words of the Bible clear, but to make the message of the Bible clear, the message of the Bible that Luther and the Wittenberg School had come to be convinced of: that Christ alone, and his work, received by faith alone, was what God was speaking in his word.Notes1Ein sendbrief D. M. Luthers. Von Dolmetzschen und Fürbit der heiligenn (1530) Jeffrey Kloha Jeff Kloha (PhD, University of Leeds) is the Chief Curatorial Officer at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. where he manages the Education, Scholars Initiative, Exhibits, Curatorial, and Collections departments. Before that he served as Professor of New Testament and later Provost at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He is the coeditor of Texts and Traditions: Essays in Honour of J. K. Elliott.