Station: [934] 500 years ago

  • Bibelhaus Erlebnis Museum

To be able to read and understand the Bible in your own language – this was a central concern for the Reformation. 500 years ago, various circumstances led to the translation of the Bible becoming the first media event in world history.

In 1516, the New Testament appeared in print for the first time in the original Greek language. Around 1500, recognition grew for the fact that the Latin Holy Scriptures of the Roman church did not correspond with the oldest biblical manuscripts in Hebrew and Greek. Scholars worked under great pressure on the Greek text. It was the basis for independent translations in the Reformation period. Here you can see the first concise edition of the New Testament in Greek from 1521. Martin Luther took this book with him to Wartburg castle, fresh from the press, and translated the whole of the Greek New Testament into German for the first time.

Martin Luther’s conflict with the Roman Catholic Church generated much publicity in the German language, too, through the publishing of the 95 theses against the sale of indulgences. A German-language book market was established: the dispute between the monk and the Pope was met with great interest and sales of the publications shot up. Between the years 1517 and 1525, the numbers of printed products in German exceeded those in Latin or other languages for the first time. Flyers and pamphlets represented a large proportion of these.

The German translation of the biblical texts from Hebrew and Greek by Martin Luther and his colleagues in Wittenberg made a great contribution to this media event. 80 authorised editions and 160 pirated editions of the Luther Bible flooded the book market. In Luther’s lifetime, already a half a million Luther Bibles were printed – the most widely disseminated book of the period.

For the first time, we see in the Luther Bible a type of standard German that can be understood in all the German states. This is the basis for the development of a German standard and literary language. Many of the verbal images or expressions used in the Luther Bible can still be understood today. The “last authorised version” of the Luther Bible of 1545 had particularly great influence: this last edition before Luther’s death in 1546 would be read for the next 300 years in Germany with few changes. Its influence ranges from vocabulary and form of speech to spelling.

Luther’s translation into German led to the first translation boom in Europe. Even if they correct him at some points with good reason, the now available translations are based on Luther’s template in some respects. One example of this is the translation of Psalm 23. In the Hebrew original, as well as in the Latin and Greek, the text reads something like this: “The LORD puts me out to pasture”. Luther clarifies the Psalm with a verbal image and translates it as “The Lord is my shepherd”. Most translations today all over the world follow Luther’s example here.

The translation of the Bible was completed under the protection of Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, the second most powerful man after the emperor in the then Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The medal reminds of how Frederick took over the business of the German king for some months in 1507.