Luther’s German translation of the New Testament

I wish continue to blog about the history of the New Testament and continue with Luther’s German translation. Luther was a radical for his own time. His views of the bible and of theology was reason enough for the Roman Catholic Church’s high authorities to want to take his life. In 1415, the Church burned John Huss alive at the stake for his heresy. Thank God this is not the case today. Luther began translating parts of the scriptures in 1517. In 1521, Luther was kidnapped by five armed riders while returning to Wittenberg from the Diet of Worms. They kidnapped him and brought him to Wartburg Castle to keep him safe from harm. For 10 months, from May 4, 1521 to March 1, 1522, Luther’s hideout was Wartburg Castle. (You have to see the movie or if you prefer, read the book). This was the place where he would translate the New Testament into German. No one knew where he was in hiding and when he did leave the castle, he grew a beard, dressed up as a knight and called himself “Knight George” (Junker Jorge).

Luther wanted to make the Word of God available to all of the German people so he translated the New Testament from the original Greek into easy‑to‑understand German. He completed the translation from Erasmus’ text which was a special new edition of the New Testament in Greek with a Latin translation. It was said that he completed the New Testament in three months. Three months is not much time to translate an entire New Testament. He must have had to work extremely hard.

There were only 5,000 copies of the first edition of the New Testament (printed in Wittenberg by Melchior Lotter). Each copy costs no less than 1 ½ gulden (I am not sure what this would be equivalent to in today’s dollars). Luther did not make a financial profit from the translation. To make a profit would have been unthinkable for Luther.

This bible became the people’s bible and it helped shape the common German language. This bible translated into the contemporary language of the common people did a great thing for the German language because it unified the various German dialects into one. It was used as the norm for the next four hundred years (much like the King James Version was in the English-speaking world). I think it would be safe to assume that today’s translations in modern languages around the world will also unify hundreds of dialects around the world.

After completing the New Testament, he continued translating the Old Testament. His colleagues at the University assisted him in this endeavor. By 1534 he completed the translationf the entire German Bible.

12 thoughts on “Luther’s German translation of the New Testament

  1. Although post is nice but I am not agree with all the points. Any way best as compare to others…

    Hi Kevin, I come your blog accidently. My College friend painted Luther as a graduation gift for me. I still put it up in my office. Thanks for the story on him.


  2. Robert, reformation history is quite interesting isn’t it?

    It’s inconceivable to me that Luther would have known that his actions would have caused such a ripple effect (or tidal wave) on the whole or Christendom. When 100,000 people died in the peasants revolt, he had no part in this and was horrified it had happened. If he did have political aspirations, I think it would have ended right there.


  3. Kevin,

    Interesting when I was defending my Master’s thesis (Reformation History), one of the professors asked me if I thought Luther was sincere or if he had political ambitions. Interesting the spin some put on one’s motives. We owe him a debt of gratitude in many ways.


  4. Hi Kevin, happened to come across your blog. Luther is my no.1 hero. My College friend painted Luther as a graduation gift for me. I still put it up in my office. Thanks for the story on Wartburg.


  5. Peter, we in North America are not as lucky to be living so close to Germany as you. I’m not a beer drinker but if I do get to visit Germany, I might be tempted to go have a sip just to say I had the Luther experience.


  6. The Wartburg castle is a really interesting place to visit, if you are ever in Germany. You can visit the room where Luther did his translation work and see all kinds of memorabilia, all in a well preserved mediaeval castle. You can also drink the same beer Luther drank, from a local brewery which has been brewing continuously since before his time.


  7. TC, the black and white movie from 1953 has scenes that are not in the 2003 movie with J. Fiennes so I also appreciate the old one. In fact, the old one is more philosophical than the new one. The 2003 movie is more action/drama oriented.

    I’ve also been looking for a movie on Calvin but haven’t been able to find one.

    Nathan, I also started with a really short easy read to get a synopsis on Luther.


  8. The only details I know about Luther are from watching that movie on TV last year. I’ve been interested in reading a biography but lack the time (and before now a good one to start on).


  9. Kevin, Luther is a hero of mine on so many levels. I thank God for the man. I’ll see him in glory some blessed day.

    Thanks for keeping Luther alive in this translation issue, Kevin.

    Btw, I’ve watched that black and white movie of Luther over ten times. I love it!


  10. I have not read Oberman’s biography but from what I gather, it is a difficult biography to read for the average person. But this one by Nohl is a good starter for beginners on Luther.


  11. The biography you mention is akin to a hagiography, and does not address the controversial aspects of Luther’s life. I recommend an alternative biography: Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. As the title suggests, Oberman finds things to praise and criticize in Luther’s history.


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