Five hundred years ago in September, at the Leipzig Fair in the German state of Saxony, the printer Melchior Lotter Jr. offered up for sale his first edition of the New Testament as translated from the ancient Greek into the German vernacular by Martin Luther. By then Luther was notorious across Europe for his attacks on the papacy. He had been denounced as a heretic, excommunicated by Pope Leo X and condemned by Charles V, leader of the Holy Roman Empire. The edition of 3,000 copies sold out rapidly.
Contemporary readers might shrug at this anniversary. Yet Luther’s “September Testament,” in addition to being hailed as a great work of German literature, was also one of the most consequential publications in world history. It defined the Lutheran faith as one devoted to the authority of Scripture. Within three years it fueled the greatest mass uprising Europe had ever seen. Along with Luther’s Old Testament, completed in 1534, and the other vernacular translations they inspired, it reshaped society across Europe, breaking the Roman Catholic Church’s grip on civil life.
To understand the significance of the September Testament, we need to step through the looking glass from this irreligious, hyperconnected, media-inundated century into a time when people’s lives were usually confined to their town or village. Most people in northern Europe were illiterate farmers, fearful of bad weather, disease and strangers (not to mention the supernatural). Nearly everyone professed to be Christian, knit together socially in local parishes that guided every aspect of daily life but were obedient to the pope in Rome. Only 5% of the population could read, and for most people, the Bible was something that came from the mouth of a priest.
Born in 1483 to the owner of a half dozen foundries in central Germany, Luther learned Latin as a schoolboy and read the Bible in the “Latin Vulgate,” a fourth-century translation from the Greek by St. Jerome that, hand-copied by candlelight for hundreds of years, had absorbed countless revisions. European scholars had little access to the Greek texts that constituted the New Testament, but printed versions of the Vulgate and its numerous German translations had been spreading across Germany since Johannes Gutenberg introduced his revolutionary movable-type press to Europe in 1450.
Luther grew to distrust both these sources. Ordained an Augustinian monk at age 23, he learned Greek and discovered the humanist scholars of the day, who embraced the Renaissance ideal of returning to original sources in antiquity. He was especially taken with the Dutch writer Erasmus, who championed education of the laity and argued that the evangelical books and letters of the New Testament were central to anyone’s understanding of Christ.
In 1516, Erasmus published his Novum Instrumentum, a fresh translation of the New Testament with the Greek original in one column and his Latin in another. This was the first time the Greek had ever appeared on the market, and the many errors Erasmus exposed in the Vulgate aggravated popular resentment of Rome. A scholarly provocation, the Instrumentum put the church in an impossible position, forcing it to defend its millennial game of telephone after a more authentic version of the Bible had been disseminated to the public.
Erasmus taught Luther an important lesson: fluency is power.
This taught Luther an important tactical lesson: fluency is power. When he posted his 95 Theses in October 1517, attacking Rome’s indulgences and other abuses, he wrote in Latin, the language of the church, not only written but spoken across its bureaucracy. But when he first addressed his critics across the church in April 1518 with his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace,” articulating his notion of justification by faith, he wrote in German, which stymied his enemies in Rome and strengthened his popular support in Saxony.
Prince Frederick the Wise, who was elected to rule Saxony by a council of nobles but still answered to Charles V, was a pious man sympathetic to reformers, and he went to great lengths to protect Luther, his court adviser on monastic life, even as the reformer’s attacks on the church intensified.
In August 1518, Frederick protected Luther from a papal edict summoning him to Rome on suspicion of heresy, which forced the church to confront the monk closer to home. Called to Leipzig to testify before the papal emissary Johannes Eck in April 1519, Luther bluntly declared, “I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
After being expelled by the church in June 1520, Luther went even further: his letter “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” published only in German, declared “a priesthood of all believers” who, armed with Scripture, could interpret God’s will without the clergy’s guidance. This sort of appeal directly to the laity in their own language was unprecedented.
Luther faced his reckoning with civil authority when Charles V summoned him to testify in Worms in April 1521. Biographer Brad S. Gregory describes the monk being treated “like a rock star” as he made the 300-mile journey. “The crowds plead for him to preach; they clamor to see him; and they liken him to Christ on his way to Jerusalem before he was crucified,” Gregory wrote. A month after Luther’s appearance, the emperor declared him a heretic and called for his arrest and punishment.
Fearing for Luther’s life, Frederick hid the monk in Wartburg Castle, where Luther, equipped with a second and much-improved edition of the Novum Instrumentum, began his own translation of the Greek New Testament—this one into German. By identifying the word as God’s law and challenging the laity to enforce it, he had set himself a critical task. Erasmus had meant his title as a play on words—“New Instrument” rather than “New Testament.” Luther needed such an instrument now.
A translation for all German speakers
Luther would later call his New Testament project the most difficult he had ever undertaken. Beginning in December 1521, he spent two and a half months grinding out a first draft. His process was meticulous: for every verse he might do a quick literal translation, then drill down into each Greek word for German synonyms, then start over with a more melodious version incorporating idioms that Germans could understand.
In March 1522 he returned to his home city of Wittenberg and revised the translation with his ally Philipp Melanchthon, a revered Greek scholar, theologian and reformer, and the leader of the German Reformation after Luther’s death.
“You could say he tends toward the idiomatic,” said Brooks Schramm, a retired professor of biblical studies at United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa., who is fluent in German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. “He wants the language to live in a way that people would recognize as their own language. He doesn’t do it all the time. There are some places where he will say that the text needs to be translated very literalistic-ly, particularly if something very, very important is at stake. But for the most part, he wants his German to be recognized as German by speakers of German.”
Luther was ideally skilled for this task. The Augustinians were a public-facing order, so he had traveled around Germany and been exposed to its various dialects. “That was the great problem in the early 16th century: the German dialects were so severe around the country,” Schramm said. “Someone from far north Germany and someone in the south would have had a devil of a time understanding one another.”
Luther’s careful fusion of these dialects with the High German spoken at court in Saxony would make the September Testament a foundational work in German culture.
“[Luther] wants the language to live in a way that people would recognize as their own language.”
For both Erasmus and Luther, diction could trigger profound changes in doctrine. In Matthew 3 and 4, when first John the Baptist and then Christ himself implore the people of Judea to repent, the Vulgate used the Latin word meaning “do penance.” Erasmus, explained Schramm, returned to the Greek for a closer reading: “change, change your mind, that type of thing.” Luther embraced this revision, which severely undercut the church’s corrupt practice of selling indulgences to excuse sins.
Luther would launch his own controversies, most spectacularly adding the word allein (“alone”) to Romans 3:28 so it read that humankind “is justified without the help of the works of the law, alone through faith.” In his 1530 essay “On Translating: An Open Letter,” he would justify this as German idiom and defend it citing the apostle Paul, which conveniently supported his own beliefs about justification.
“This kind of stuff was a big deal in the day,” said Schramm, “because the received text of the Vulgate was considered to be an inspired text.”
As these new translations caught the public imagination, the very idea of biblical study as a linguistic journey into the past would hypercharge the Reformation. “Intellectually, if you’re willing to get past the stumbling block that the text that we have before us is vulnerable to challenge, and it can be critiqued on the basis of something prior, then things can become very exciting,” Schramm said.
But once the September Testament began to intersect in the public square with the translator’s radical call for the laity to reform the church, events on the ground in Germany grew too exciting for Luther.
A public reaction to a private way of reading the Bible
In “The Reformation as Media Event,” from The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible (IVP Academic, 2017), Read Mercer Schuchardt notes that the spread of literacy via printed vernacular Bibles profoundly altered people’s experience of Christianity.
“What the illiterate heard was transmitted orally in sermons, in auricular confessions and generally in the space of Gothic cathedrals. In such acoustic settings, humanity is a group animal, and our perception of or need for private identity is minimal. Under print conditions, however, all that suddenly changes. What Gutenberg produced, and what Luther manifested first and foremost, was a private way of reading and interpreting Holy Scripture.”
The social implications of this were enormous, as Luther must have understood in 1520 when he called for a priesthood of all believers to embrace Scripture and reform the church. Over the next five years, lay publication of religious pamphlets in Germany exploded—some 7,000 would appear—and their diverse authorship demonstrated the humanistic promise of reform, with contributions from such writers as Argula von Grumbach of Bavaria, Katharina Schütz Zell of Strasbourg and Ursula Weyda of Eisenburg.
This first wave of protest crashed on the rocks of the German Peasants’ War. From 1524 to 1525, serfs and small landowners across Germany revolted against the nobles. Some serfs, following Luther’s lead, had cited Scripture in demanding to be released from their servitude. Yet resentment of the church bled into the economic frustration: as bands of peasants roamed the countryside, they demolished not only castles but also monasteries. The nobility responded to the rebellion with overwhelming force, slaughtering some 100,000 people.
“What Luther manifested first and foremost, was a private way of reading and interpreting Holy Scripture.”
Luther now faced a backlash from his own aristocratic protectors as critics from Rome blamed his apostasy for the breakdown in civil order. In his infamous “On the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” (1525) he drew a bright line between salvation and politics and urged that the rebels be killed like rabid dogs. He had already walked back his notion of a priesthood of all believers, arguing that only those schooled in biblical languages were qualified to interpret Scripture.
Luther continued to fine-tune his New Testament translation until the day he died, in 1546. According to biographer Roland H. Bainton, a proof of the latest revision was the last thing Luther ever read. By then he had led a team of scholars in a yearslong project to translate the Old Testament into German from the original Hebrew, and the complete Luther Bible had sold a half million copies. Luther considered it a gift to God and never took any money for it, though over the years its publication enriched a consortium of German businessmen. The latest edition appeared in 2016.
We step back out of the looking glass into a world Luther would never recognize, one of literacy, independence and agency but also of atomization, isolation and loneliness. Humanity is less a group animal than ever, and our perception of and need for private identity has never been more acute. Now that Luther has given the Bible to the people, to use the historical shorthand, we have as many interpretations of Scripture as we have readers; instead of one Christian church there are many, some bitterly opposed in their interpretations of the word.
Such people may be reading a little too closely; in this century the great challenge of the September Testament may be to look up from it and see the stranger next to us.