Did Luther Rescue the Bible in German from Utter Obscurity?
Vernacular Bibles in many languages appeared throughout the early and late Middle Ages, long before Martin Luther.
This is another cherished myth, that remains popular in the collected Legends and Tall Tales of the self-understanding of Protestants, and the highly embellished story of Luther’s revolt and relationship with the Bible and its translation and dissemination in the early 16th century.
We’re told that Catholics were hostile to the Bible and desired to keep it out of the hands of the people, for fear that its doctrines would be exposed as contrary to the Bible. I have written about the falsity of this charge, and related issues, several times.
Most argue (including most Catholics) that Luther’s eloquent translation was far superior to previous German ones. But the controversy at hand was whether the Bible was available to the populace in (mostly High) German to any significant extent before Luther. It certainly was. Yet Luther polemicized in his usual hyper-rhetorical fashion, and claimed that it wasn’t. He wrote in his Commentary on Peter and Jude (1523):
Up to this time, the idea that the laity should read the Scriptures has been treated with derision. For in this the devil has hit on a fine trick to tear the Bible out of the hands of the laity; and he has thought thus: If I can keep the laity from reading the Scriptures, I will then turn the priests from the Bible to Aristotle, and so let them gossip as they will, the laity must hear just what they preach; while if the laity should read the Scriptures, the priests would have to study them, too, in order that they might not be detected and overcome. (translated by John Nichols Lenker [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2005]; comment for 1 Peter 3:15; p. 158)
Luther was referring to the alleged physical removal of the Bible from the laity by either prohibition, or absence of vernacular translations, or lack of availability of same: according to the timeworn Protestant myth that has been heard countless times ever since. He stated in 1539:
The Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah).
The actual historical facts are utterly contrary to these whoppers. Vernacular Bibles in many languages appeared throughout the early and late Middle Ages (after Latin ceased being a common, widespread language). Between 1466 and 1517 fourteen translations of the Bible were published in High German, and five in Low German. Raban Maur had translated the entire Bible into Teutonic, or old German, in the late 8th century.
Between 1450 to 1520 there were also ten French translations, and also Bibles rendered in Belgian, Bohemian, Spanish, Hungarian, and Russian. 25 Italian versions (with express Church sanction) appeared before 1500, starting at Venice in 1471.
The preface of the King James 1611 English translation of the Bible describes the long history of vernacular translations in England long before Protestantism ever arose:
Much about that time , even our King Richard the Second's days, John Trevisa translated them into English, and many English Bibles in written hand are yet to be seen that divers translated, as it is very probable, in that age . . . So that, to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up, . . . but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any Nation; no doubt, because it was esteemed most profitable, to cause faith to grow in men's hearts the sooner, . . .
The history of English Bible translation (preceded earlier by editions in the earlier common language of Anglo-Saxon) is very long, starting with Caedmon in the 7th century, Aldhelm (c. 700), the Venerable Bede (d. 735), followed by Eadhelm, Guthlac, and Egbert (all in Saxon, the vernacular language of that time in England). King Alfred the Great (849-99) translated the Bible, as did Aelfric (d. c. 1020). Middle English translations included those of Orm (late 12th century) and Richard Rolle (d. 1349).
It is true that the Catholic Church has (at least sometimes) forbidden reading the Bible in the vernacular: for example, the Synod of Toulouse in 1229. How can that be explained, except as a result of hostility to the Bible? It’s easy to understand, once it is properly explained.
The Catholic Church, as the guardian of Holy Scripture, opposed only unauthorized translations, which is no different from many Protestants today who protest against various translations as “liberal” or inaccurate, due to a perceived bias based on the religious beliefs of the translator(s). This flows from a praiseworthy concern for the accurate transmission of God’s word.
The early Protestants, including Martin Luther himself, often prohibited Catholic translations in their districts, on the same basis (while they also were prohibiting the Mass). It's a double standard, then, to accuse the Catholic Church of something that Protestants have always selectively done, too.
The Church occasionally prohibited vernacular Bible reading in specific circumstances because false doctrine was rampant, such as in 1229 (noted above), when the bizarre Gnostic heresy of Catharism was influential.
We also often hear the accusation that the Catholic Church chained Bibles in order to keep them from the common people. This is equally wrongheaded and historically misinformed. The exact opposite is true: Bibles were chained in libraries so that they would not be stolen, precisely because they were so valued and treasured (especially before the invention of the movable-type printing press in the mid-15th century), in order to be more accessible to all. Protestants did the same thing themselves for some 300 years. For example, Eton and Merton Colleges (Oxford) did not remove their chained Bibles until the 18th century.
We know that Luther was prone to polemical exaggeration and that context is very important in Luther interpretation. That said – and fully taken into consideration — his accusations in this respect are historically quite ludicrous and indefensible.