When German was established as an official language alongside Latin, the need arose to translate the Bible into German, as most Christians were no longer conversant in Latin. Luther’s translating of the New Testament represented a major milestone in the history of the language; one of the most significant events to take place since the German language gained its official status. The initiative for the New Testament was taken by Luther in 1522 and the Old Testament in 1534. The complete Bible was finally published in 1545.
Using the principles of his German language knowledge, Luther redefined the German language as a tool for expressing faith and established it as the sole language used for religious services and sermons in the country. To this day, Luther’s translation has withstood the test of time, as it is still used in many churches and communities.
The concept of translating the Bible into native languages, with German at the vanguard, was revolutionary for Luther and the Germans of his time. Most people were illiterate and, in addition, were not able to understand the Latin language, since that was at the time the only language commonly used to communicate religious matters. Luther’s translation of the Bible enabled a much more natural and accessible understanding of the faith and opened up the possibility of piety being expounded in the plain and intelligible language of ordinary citizens.
Luther’s efforts to translate the Bible translated into German also had a wider impact on the formation of the German classical language, as he was able to create syntactical patterns and grammatical categories that would later become partially or wholly adopted by other writers and personages of the German language. In fact, his choice of words and particular character of language formulations had an immense influence on the formation of fixed expressions and idioms which, to this day, keep Luther’s language style alive.
Luther’s influence on the vernacular language extended even further when, in 1586, Daniel Erben, who was an ardent admirer of Luther’s style, published two reforms on the text of Luther’s translation and subsequently oversaw its publication as an improved version that aimed to be more precise and precise in its translation of the original text.
Luther’s translation of the Bible can be looked upon with the utmost admiration and respect, not merely from the religious point of view, but from a linguistic point of view as well. His translation, or rather “re-translation”, of the Bible acted as a great impetus to the creation of a unified German language, as until then, there had been many different dialects that formed the majority of the German-speaking population. Luther, in effect, managed to amalgamate them into one language by means of his translation.
Luther’s translation of the Bible is considered a monumental work and, in spite of the fact that there were many other translations of the Bible into German after him, none of them have had such a huge impact on the formation of the language and the unification of the German speaking population.
Development of Luther’s Writings
After Luther’s initial translation of the Bible, it was not until 1545 when the complete work was published that the language was considered a unified one. Luther had added to his original text many new words and idioms, which would eventually become part of the everyday language and be fixed in the popular imagination.
The language of Luther continued to develop after his death; in 1784 an updated version of the translation of the Bible was published by Johann Griesbach who in the wake of the Enlightenment revised many of the Luther’s originals, by replacing some of the words with modern equivalents, and changing the order of certain words and passages.
Many others would later follow, adapting and revising Luther’s translation; however, it was Thomas Kepler, an eminent scholar who, in 1931, published the last version of Luther’s translation as a cry of unity amid the stormy political situation of the time occurring in Germany, at the beginning of the Third Reich.
The translation of the Bible into German by Martin Luther, later continued by Erben, Griesbach and Kepler, is however and in any case, significant and influential. Luther’s version of the literature provided an attribute of grandeur and sanctity to the Bible that added to its own credibility, as a representation of a “holy” language that implies a certain level of respect for the text and for the propagation of Christianity.
Printing and Publication of the German Bible
The project of translating the Bible into German was taken up with much enthusiasm by Luther and his collaborators. The great scholar himself was determined to see the project through, and believed that he had been chosen by God to achieve the task. He set about the task with great deliberation and copious writing, aided by scholars such as Philip Melanchthon.
The German Bible was printed and published in several successive stages: First the New Testament in 1521, and then the Pentateuch a few years later. The Bible was supplemented in 1545 with the Old Testament, Apocrypha and other books that compose it. This version of the Bible was soon to become the basis of all German translations of the scripture which followed.
The particular style of the translators was one of its greatest attractions, amidst its other virtues. It had a certain suppleness, charm and warmth that quickly made it the most popular translation of the Bible in the whole of German speaking Europe.
The publication of the Bible in many languages was an essential advance in bringing the Word of God to an ever increasing layer of faithful. The great translation of the Bible into German was also an important step for Europe in unifying its culture and language, as it enabled different cultures to be able to relate to one another through the same faith and literature.
Criticism of Luther’s Biblical Translations
Luther’s translation of the Bible into German has been subject to criticism by different scholars who offer a more modern interpretation of the original text. They argue that Luther’s translation was not entirely faithful to the original, as he had altered words and passages according to his own interpretation of the text.
This alleged inconsistency has been argued by some who oppose Luther’s methods, claiming that it is much easier for the original text to be misinterpreted or for the translator to add in his or her own ideas or interests that is not necessarily in line with the original.
Nevertheless, Luther’s translation of the Bible has become a classic and a monument to the German language. It is a lasting testimony to the faith of the translator and to the extensibility and adaptability of the German language, which has enabled its survival throughout the centuries. Through Luther’s translation of the Bible, the German speaking population was able to benefit from a closer encounter with the Word of God, bonding together through their language and shared faith.
Luther’s Place in Legacy and Writing Style
Today, on the fifth centenary of the publication of the first edition of Luther’s translation of the Bible, the legacy of the great German statesman, theologian and religious reformer remains still alive. One of Luther’s greatest achievements is thought to be the development of the German language and its translation in a way that could reach all levels of society, through his translation of the Bible.
Luther’s language was rich in its very singular use of words, overflowing with ideas and insights, it was a masterly art of words and dynamics that captivated its readers. Such was the passion for Luther’s writing and for his very way of expressing himself, that he has been compared to Homer, in some of the highest compliments ever bestowed to a writer in the German language.
Luther’s translation of the Bible is an all-encompassing work that, even in its possible imprecisions and modifications, managed to continue to edify, encourage and transform its readers, as well as to be a powerful influence in unifying Germany and bringing it together through a common language.
Continuing Relevance and Cultural Significance of Luther’s Bible
Luther’s translation was not only revolutionary for its time, but it has also continued to have an enormous impact and be of great relevance for later generations. In fact, Luther’s Bible remains the main source for today’s German bible translations, so much so that, one of its authorised versions, the “Lutherbibel 1984”, is currently one of the most read and printed Bibles of all.
The cultural and literary impact of Luther’s translation, albeit controversial for its time, is something that cannot be denied, both for its originality and for being the force behind the formation of a unified German language. It has proved to be a robust and avant-garde platform for communicating the Bible and Christianity to readers, just as much as it was 500 years ago.
Furthermore, the work of Luther carries educational value, which makes it available to today’s breed of students, who now can use the same version of the bible as had been used by Luther and his contemporaries, a unique privilege that bridges the gap between generations and origins.
Finally, Luther’s translation of the Bible has become an inalienable part of German culture, as it has been translated into many dialects, with which Luther himself had great familiarity. To this day, it is spoken and read with fervor in many countries, a testament to the enduring legacy of Martin Luther and the widespread impact of his translation on the German language.