This article describes the history and process of Martin Luther's translation of the Bible in German. It also discusses some of Luther principles for Bible translation.

Source: Clarion, 1994. 4 pages.

Martin Luther and the German New Testament


By the time that he posted the ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was convinced that the Word of God should be heard and read by all. The Bible, Luther believed, should be at the centre of the preaching. This conviction he expressed in theses 53 and 54 of the famous declaration of October 31, 1517:

They are the enemies of Christ and of the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others;
the Word of God suffers injury when, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.

In the course of the years which followed that first Reformation Day, Luther became increasingly convinced that every German citizen should read the Bible for himself and not through the eyes of the Romanist church. The pope is not the only person permitted to interpret Scripture, but every Christian, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, is able to understand clearly the message of the Gospel. Therefore, Luther realized, the Bible ought to be translated into German.

German translations of the Bible did exist; according to one count, no less than 18 High and Low German translations predate Luther's version. But these translations were inadequate, since they were translations not of the original Greek and Hebrew texts, but of the Latin Vulgate translation. The famous Gutenberg Bible was unintelligible to most people because it, too, was a Latin version. By November 1521, Luther had stated publicly his wish that all Germans might read the Bible for themselves in the mother tongue and without the aid of commentaries. The desire to return to the original source, “the clear pure Word of God itself,” grew not only in the hearts of other reform-minded scholars, but also in the heart of Dr. Luther, “professor of Bible” at the University in Wittenberg.

1521 proved to be an exciting year for Luther. The papal bull of 1520, which had declared Luther a heretic and enemy of the church, had provided the defiant reformer with a greater zeal than ever before. And still flush with the excitement of the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther knew that he had passed the point of no return. All Germany was in a state of unrest, and waited to see what leadership Luther would provide. But the edict of Charles V after the Diet had called for the capture of Luther, and “brother Martin” was a wanted man. Thus it came about that in the spring of 1521 Luther was abducted by his own supporters and taken to Wartburg castle near Eisenach. There, assuming the name Junker Georg (“Knight” George), Luther spent almost a year away from his beloved Wittenberg.

In Wartburg Castle🔗

Imprisonment in the Wartburg was an important phase in Luther's life, because he was able to work in relative peace on a project he knew was important to the growing Reformation. When Luther interrupted the voluntary exile in Wartburg castle with a brief visit to Wittenberg, his friend, Philip Melanchthon, strongly encouraged him to forge ahead with the translation of the Bible. Back in the castle, Luther maintained a public profile through his published treatises; yet he was permitted to make the most of the time. The privacy of the castle provided an opportunity for full concentration upon the New Testament. And the result of his labours was the so-called Luther-Bible, a German edition of the New Testament which would become the basis for reform throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. It is indeed remarkable that Luther produced the first draft of the German New Testament in the span of only eleven weeks.

Fortunately for Luther, much of the groundwork for a good translation of the New Testament had been completed. In 1519 Erasmus had published his second, revised edition of the Greek New Testament; Luther used this text for his translation. He also compared the Latin translation, annotations, and comments which Erasmus had appended to his text with the standard Vulgate. 1 Luther's aim was to provide a simple, direct rendering of the Greek in modern German. Since he considered the Word of God to be first the spoken Word, Luther paid much attention to the sound which an audible reading of the text would produce. Accordingly, the rhythm and cadence of the German text are superb. Moreover, as was his style, Luther employed graphic and vivid diction where the text permitted. Several turns of phrase became proverbial sayings: “throwing your pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6) and “shaking off the dust from your feet” (Matthew 10:14) are but two examples. In the matter of linguistics, the translation was a major achievement.

The greatest significance of the translation, however, was not its language or style; it was the simple fact that the Gospel was expressed in German. In the preface Luther stated that the New Testament brings the good news of salvation in Christ. The New Testament is the “evangel” which surpasses the Old Testament and the law; it is “a book in which are written the Gospel and the promises of God.” And the “real nature of the Gospel,” Luther explains, is the glad tiding that “faith in Christ overcomes sin, death and hell, and gives life, righteousness and salvation.” The purpose of the translation was, quite simply, to make available to all Germany the good news of eternal life in Christ Jesus. The brief marginal notes which accompanied the text highlight the good news which the Roman church had kept secret for ages: justification by faith alone. This theme, and the many others which became part of the Reformation, is clearly expressed in the German edition of 1522.

Only By Faith🔗

An illustration of Luther's idiomatic yet accurate rendering of the original Greek text is Romans 3:28. A literal translation of Luther's German wording is: “Therefore we hold that man is justified without the works of the law, only by faith.”2 Jerome Emser and other critics charged Luther with inserting the word “only” into the text, and noted that the word does not appear in the Greek original. Luther defended his use of the word in Romans 3:28, by publishing an open letter, “On Translating.” Therein Luther showed that there were philological and theological grounds for his translation.

First Luther asserts one of the philological principles of his translation: clarity. He writes,

I have constantly tried, in translating, to produce a pure and clear German… Here, in Romans 3, I know right well that the word solum [only] was not in the Greek or Latin text… Yet the sense of [it] is there and the word belongs there if the translation is to be clear and strong.3

Readers will understand what the text means, Luther states, because it is in keeping with contemporary German grammar that “only” be placed with a positive statement to oppose it more clearly to the negative phrase. “It is the nature of our German language that in speaking of two things, one of which is admitted, and the other denied, we use the word 'only' along with the word 'not'.” As the goal of translating is to make the meaning of a foreign text understood, one must employ the rules of the language into which the text is being translated. Luther expresses this principle in simple terms: first we listen to the speech of “the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace,” and “afterwards [we] do our translating.”

As for the theological reasons, Luther writes that “the text itself and the sense of St. Paul demanded” that the translator insert “only.” Paul is dealing, in that passage, with the main point of the Christian doctrine, that is, that we are justified by faith in Christ, without any works of the law, and he cuts away all works so completely, as even to say that he was justified entirely without works… The matter itself, and not the nature of the language only, compels this translation.

In other words, the context of Romans 3:28, dealing as it does with the doctrine of justification by faith and the rejection of good works as grounds for salvation, gives the translator ample reason for opposing faith to works. For Luther, the theological principle underlying this translation is simple: an interpretation which exalts the promises of God and the benefits of Christ is the right one. To support this reading of Romans 3:28, Luther adduces the Letter to the Galatians; there, “and in many other places,” Paul teaches that salvation comes “not by the works of the law.” And Romans 4, Luther goes on to argue, shows that “only Christ's death and resurrection make us free from sin, and righteous.” It is in keeping with the teaching of other Scriptures that the word “only” be part of the translation of Romans 3:28. And if the reader demands still more proof, Luther concludes, let him turn to the church fathers Ambrose and Augustine, who had shown long ago that Scripture teaches justification by faith alone.

By the time Luther ended his stay at Wartburg castle, he had completed the translation of the New Testament. The spring of 1522 was dedicated to revisions and corrections, and when the summer was over, the New Testament was ready for the press, which produced a complete New Testament shortly before September 25. It is estimated that three thousand copies of Das Newe Testament Deutzsch were printed in Wittenberg; an unbound copy sold for a half gulden. The sales were so strong that by December a second, new edition was printed. Evidently people ignored the pope's ban of Luther's writings. And the order that Duke George of Saxony gave in 1522 to surrender the translation with its “heretical” notes and glosses fell upon deaf ears.

It goes without saying that “Luther's Bible” contributed greatly to the Reformation in Germany. Now all German-speaking people could read the Gospel in their own language. Luther had taken pains to provide a translation which might be read easily by people throughout the country. At least eighty percent of the expressions could be understood in both North and South Germany, despite the widely differing dialects in these regions. It falls outside the scope of this article to discuss the contribution which Luther's translation made to the formation of new High German; suffice it to say that “die Luther-Bible” is deemed by many to be the most influential work in the German tongue. Of greater importance is that Luther's translation was invaluable for the reformation of the church. No longer were lay people dependent upon the interpretation and exegesis of Roman Catholic clergy. Now each person could read the Bible for himself in his native tongue. Very quickly the translation became the basis for the reform of the church throughout Germany.

And not Germany alone, but all Europe was affected by the appearance of the Bible in a common tongue. Luther's translation was widely used outside his native country, and it became the benchmark for all Protestant versions in the Germanic languages. Also the English Bible which we use today shows signs of Luther's work, for William Tyndale, and later Miles Coverdale, who contributed much to the English Authorized Version (1611), were heavily influenced by Lutheran formulations. 4 For example, in his English edition of 1534, Tyndale notes in the margin at Romans 3:28: “Faith justifies.” At this point Coverdale's edition notes a thinly-veiled reference to Luther's famous translation: “Some read [i.e. Luther] 'by faith only'.” Clearly the echo of Luther's words is heard in the English editions.


Soon after the appearance of the German New Testament in September 1522, Luther began to translate the Old Testament. Despite some modern claims to the contrary, it may be said that Luther championed the unity of the Old and New Testament, and therefore was eager to complete the edition. For several reasons, however, the Old Testament did not appear in its entirety in German until 1534. Luther's illness, the Peasant War, and the demands of ecclesiastical and political developments, prevented the Reformer from working on the Old Testament with that peaceful concentration he had enjoyed while in the Wartburg. Also, the length and comparative difficulty of the Old Testament books demanded more time. To aid him, Luther enlisted Philip Melanchthon, and probably also the Hebrew scholar Matthew Aurogallus. The works of the Hebraist Reuchlin stood them in good stead as they struggled with the difficult passages in Job and the books of the prophets. Luther's experience as “professor of Bible” at the University in Wittenberg now paid off; the lectures on the Old Testament books served as groundwork for the translation.

Luther spent the remainder of his life improving and correcting the text of the German, Greek, and Hebrew Bibles. He frequently stated that his translations could be even “closer to the German and farther removed” from the original languages. On this matter, some modern scholars have criticized Luther for rendering the original text too freely. In some passages the German translation seems far removed from the literal sense. On the other hand, since Luther's translation strove to combine the sense and the letter of the original text, the German Bible was remarkably contemporary. The ancient text was translated with a view to life in the sixteenth century. How relevant Luther's Bible was to real life is shown by the number of copies which were purchased during Luther's lifetime. By the time of Luther's death in 1546, 430 complete or partial editions of the German Bible existed, and some 500,000 copies were in circulation! It is no wonder that Luther considered the German Bible the most important contribution to the European Reformation. In an autographed inscription to one copy of the Bible Luther wrote, after citing Proverbs 30:5,

It is a blessing above all blessings to be in awe and humbly read and hear God's Word.


  1. ^ For a treatment of Erasmus' edition of the New Testament, see R. Faber, “Erasmus and the Authority of Scripture,” Clarion 41.14 (July 17, 1992), 303-305.
  2. ^ “So halten wyrs nu, das der mensch gerechtfertiget werde, on zuthun der werck des gesetzs, alleyn durch den glawben” (1522 edition). The RSV reads “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”
  3. ^ M. Luther, “On Translating: An Open Letter” (September 1530), in H. Jacobs, The Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia, 1931-32), V, 10ff.
  4. ^ For the influence of the German New Testament upon the English version see H. Bluhm, “Martin Luther and the English Bible: Tyndale and Coverdale,” in G. Dünnhaupt, ed., The Martin Luther Quincentennial (Detroit, 1985), 112-125. For an account of Tyndale's life and his translation of the Bible into English, see R. Faber, “Martyr for the English Reformation,” Reformed Perspective 13.6 (April 1994), 12-16.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.