No Ordinary Bible Translator

Monday, June 27, 2016

Roland and I recently returned from a Reformation Tour. We had a German tour guide who didn’t believe in free time or lunch, but we were with a fun group of people, so overall it was a good trip. We also learned a lot about Martin Luther and the Reformation.

The picture shows the study at Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the New Testament into German in just eleven weeks.. He translated the Old Testament as well, but he did that at a more leisurely pace while in his own home.

I always thought that Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German. That would have been a big accomplishment, but there are many skilled translators around today, and there probably were then, too. Still, it would have taken courage to stand up to a church hierarchy that didn’t want laypeople to know what the Bible actually said, and Luther had plenty of courage. So maybe that was what made him stand out. That was my thinking before this trip.

It turns out that Luther was not the first to translate the Bible into German after all. He was the first to translate it directly from the Hebrew and the Greek rather than from the Latin, which increased the accuracy of the translation. But that wasn’t what made his translation so awesome.

Germany was not unified at the time. Each region had its own dialect, and people from different regions had trouble understanding each other, so the earlier German translations were of little use outside their own regions. Luther’s primary contribution was to study the different dialects and figure out how to standardize them into a universal German language. In other words, he wasn’t the first to translate the Bible into German, but he was the first to translate it into a form that all German-speaking people could understand. Not read, of course, since most people couldn’t read, but that they could understand when it was read to them.

I call that genius, but Luther wouldn’t have agreed. He would have said, “Ad Dei gloriam” (Latin),” or “Zu Gott die Ehre“ (German).

To God be the glory.

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