By Timothy Lang
The "Legend of Martin Luther" claims that he translated the Bible into German so that the German people would have the Holy Scriptures in their native language. This 10-week effort is often portrayed as his finest achievement. The "Legend" would also have us believe that he was an incredibly brilliant scholar and theologian, and that he was gifted in Greek, Hebrew, the Classics, the writings of the Early Church Fathers, etc., etc. However, the facts are that there were at least 26 German translations available in Germany before Luther's. That these other German Bibles were already available is not part of the Luther Legend.
In 382 A.D. St. Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasas to produce a Latin Bible. It took him more than 15 years to translate what we now call the Vulgate Bible. How could Luther have possibly translated the New Testament from Greek to German in only 10 weeks? Furthermore, was Luther's unauthorized "translation" of the New Testament an actual translation, meaning from some other language to German? Protestant Scholar Dr. Henry ClayVedder provides an explanation in his book The Reformation in Germany:
It would be difficult in any case to believe that a complete translation of the entire New Testament could have been made by a man of Luther's limited attainments in Greek, and with the imperfect apparatus that he possessed, in the short space of 10 weeks. ... A minister today, who has had the Greek course of a college and seminary, is a far better scholar than Luther. Let such a man, if he thinks Luther's achievement possible, attempt the accurate translation of a single chapter of the New Testament — such a translation as he would be willing to print under his own name — and multiply the time consumed by 260 chapters. He will speedily be convinced that the feat attributed to Luther is an impossible one. What then? Is the whole story false? That, too, is impossible — the main facts are too well attested. The solution of an apparently insoluble contradiction is a very simple one: Luther did not make an independent translation; he never claimed he did; none of his contemporaries made that claim for him. It is only later admirers who have made this statement to enhance his glory.
Here we have Vedder, a professor of Church history at Crozer Theological Seminary, commenting on Luther's "limited attainments" in Greek and his "imperfect apparatus." If Luther was "qualified" to translate Holy Scripture from the Greek, then hundreds of thousands of modern-day mediocre scholars would be even more qualified. According to Vedder, it was impossible for Luther to have actually translated the New Testament from Greek into German in the time that he worked on the project. It was his followers who wanted to enhance his reputation that made that obviously false claim at a later date.
So, if Luther couldn't have had time to do an actual translation, and never claimed he did, then how did he produce what became known as the "Luther Bible"? Again, we turn to Professor Vedder, who informs us about a German version of the New Testament that was available during the time that Luther was "translating": the Codex Teplensis (c. 1400):
As this (Codex Teplensis) contains seven articles of faith that are evidently Waldensian, many have been led to attribute to this version a Waldensian origin. Others have pointed out that no more is proved by the MS than a Waldensian ownership of it at some time, and have asserted a Catholic origin for the version.
This (German) version was certainly in the possession of Luther, and was as certainly used by him in the preparation of his version. The fact, once entirely unsuspected, and then hotly denied, has been proven to be a demonstration of the 'deadly parallel.' It appears from a verse by verse comparison that this old German Bible was in fact so industriously used by Luther, and the only accurate description of Luther's version is to call it a careful revision of the older text.
The Waldensians were an heretical group that broke away from the Christian Church in the 12th century and were later absorbed into the Protestant Reformation. They believed that the Pope was the Antichrist of Rome and that the Catholic Church was the harlot of the Apocalypse, which is pretty common in later Protestant rhetoric. In keeping with the tradition of naming an heretical group after their founder, the Waldensians were founded by Peter Waldo (c. 1140–c. 1205). What is especially interesting is that Martin Luther chose to use a German New Testament to basically copy that, at the very least, demonstrated Waldensian leanings, if not origin.
If there were already at least 26 Bibles in German available in 1522, and Luther's Bible was simply a close copy of an already-existing German Bible, then what was it that motivated Luther to produce his Bible?
Catholic Scholar Hartman Grisar, who wrote an extraordinary six-volume biography of Luther, provides a plausible answer. He also reported that Jerome Emser, the well-respected German theologian and Luther's contemporary, complained about Luther: "It was partly the defects of the translation itself, partly the cleverly calculated and thus all the more dangerous marginal glosses, which called forth objections and warnings from Catholic writers as soon as the work was published," Grisar said.
Luther "made Scripture to turn everywhere on faith and works, even when neither faith nor works are thought of (in the Scripture in question)," Grisar noted. "Emser speaks of more than 1,400 passages which Luther has rendered in a false and heretical sense."
Because of his extremely intense need for certainty about his everlasting salvation, Luther desperately needed to have all Scripture teach salvation by faith alone and so he "found" it everywhere. He wanted everyone else to do so, and so he took every opportunity, both in the text itself and also in the prefaces to each book, to force Scripture to uphold his radical, heretical, never-before-taught version of salvation.
Eric Gritsch, a modern Lutheran Professor of Church History agrees. In his Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, Gritsch writes, "The Bible was unmistakably a Luther Bible. Prefaces and glosses read like an evolving catechism of Luther's theology. Its center is the doctrine of 'justification by faith alone.'"
Throughout his Reformation career, Martin Luther always claimed that salvation by faith alone was extremely clear everywhere in the Holy Scriptures. However, it must be noted that it had never been "noticed" there in the previous 1,500 years. Of the thousands and thousands of scriptural experts and theologians who preceded him, Luther was the first to see Scripture as supporting anything remotely similar to salvation by faith alone. There is no doubt that his need for certainty regarding his salvation was one of the main driving forces behind Luther's need to rebel against the Catholic Church.
Luther produced his Bible in 1521–2 while in hiding at the Wartburg Castle. He had just been excommunicated by the Church and declared an outlaw by the Roman Empire. Clearly salvation by faith alone was going to be resigned to the dustbin of Christian history if he didn't "do something" fast. That "something" was to publish the New Testament in German, and to write prefaces for each book that would "assist" the readers to "discover" salvation by faith alone everywhere. There was no translating, no theological genius being applied to Holy Scripture — just heresy being developed and spread by someone who had an overwhelming need for certainty, an extremely arrogant attitude, and a complete hatred and lack of respect for rightful authority and for anyone who disagreed with him.