In 1515, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther began to teach from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. While studying for these lectures, “I felt myself to be reborn….The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning….This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”1 Luther felt that, after his study of the Scriptures, certain teachings in the Church were wrong. In October of 1517 he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. The Theses included points such as, “Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.”2 Papal plenary indulgences were a practice common to the time, in which a person could pay money or services in order to be absolved of guilt for sins. Originally, these indulgences were given for sins previously committed, but grew to the point that people were paying to be forgiven of sins they were going to do in the future.3 This practice was one of Luther’s main issues with the church, as “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.”2 Luther’s Theses, more than any other writing or action, sparked the Reformation.1
Luther went on to publish more writings defying both the Pope and the Emperor. Although the Pope threatened to excommunicate him and the Emperor banned and ordered his writings to be burned, making Luther an outlaw, and any and all supporters to be imprisoned, Luther’s influence raged on. He stated that, “The Holy Scriptures and my conscience are my emperor. I cannot, and will not, withdraw what I have said. God help me. Amen.”4 In 1521, Luther was in hiding and began his translation of the Bible. He only had a few translations of the Bible to work with, but in four months finished the translation of the New Testament. The first edition was printed in three thousand copies and was sold out in three months–although one copy cost enough to support a student for two months. It was a criminal offense to buy Luther’s New Testament, but “Readers grasped at the book as though it were the only diet that could save them from starvation. Perhaps in a sense it was.”4 Luther published seventeen corrected editions of the New Testament, and after twelve years of working on the Old Testament, was able to publish the entire Bible. While attempting to translate the Old Testament, Luther only had a copy of the 1494 Vulgate and a 1488 Hebrew Bible. It was a difficult task: Luther said that,
“We have often spent a fortnight, or even three or four weeks, over a single word. We were working on Job, Master Philippus (Melanchthon), Aurogallus, and I, for four weeks before we had finished three lines. Now that it is finished anybody can read it easily and smoothly, without ever stumbling over a word or a phrase, as though he were sliding over a polished floor. Little does he realize how we sweated and strained to remove those obstacles which would have tripped him up.”4
Luther’s Bible united the German people, but caused a lot of debate. One critic proclaimed that, “This is not the Bible. It is a piece of outright heresy which seeks only to blaspheme against God and the Pope.”4 Joseph Smith said that Luther’s Bible was “the most correct that I have found.”5
Until Luther died in 1546 at the age of 62, he continued to improve his translation of the Bible. He has been recognized and proclaimed as the greatest German who ever lived4, and to the end proclaimed that “I would rather lose my life and head than desert the crystal-clear word of God.”5
The first is a 1665 German Bible with a Swiss dialect. As the Luther Bible was brought throughout Europe, it was slightly changed to be more easily understood and this is one example of that. This is an original and is on loan to our library.
This is a 1733 Luther Bible. It is a beautiful copy of the original German, printed centuries after the original 1534 printing. This is an original copy.
Information for this post was taken from the following sources. To learn more about Martin Luther’s life, try and view these webpages or check out the books from the McKay Library.
- The English Bible, A History of Translations. Frederick F. Bruce. 1961. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Luther’s 95 Theses. Retrieved from http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/creeds-confessions/luther-95-theses.html
- Indulgence. Roman Catholicism. Lawrence C. Duggam. n.d. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/topic/indulgence
- 6,000 Years of the Bible. G.S. Wegener. 1963. Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, New York.
- Martin Luther–Defender of Justice and Seeker of the Truth. Lawrence Cummins. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/friend/1984/10/martin-luther-defender-of-justice-and-seeker-of-truth?lang=eng