Martin Luther on bible translation: in the common language of the people

The importance of bibles being translated into the language of the common people (or the vernacular) cannot be better expressed than through the words of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther, the Reformer. The Latin Vulgate (translated by Jerome in 405 CE) was the Bible used in the Western Church. For 1,000 years after the Vulgate, bible translation was not an important activity in the Church. Luther felt that Latin kept the people distant from the truth, so the language of the bible should be simplified for all people to understand. He said:

“One may not ask the Latin language how to speak German…one must ask mothers in the home, children on the street, the common man at the market, and watch carefully how they speak. After that one may translate. Then those who read will understand you and know that you are speaking German with them” (WA30, II, 637).

Do we have this today in our English translations? I think so. We have our functional equivalent translations, even children’s bibles. I think Luther would be pleased with the T/NIV, NLT, God’s Word, New Century Version, and Good News Translation. Luther felt that the common people should be able to read the scriptures for themselves in the most contemporary language of the day.

“Your reader must be able to read God’s Word “as though it were written yesterday” (WA12, 444).

Though sometimes, I wonder about the Message bible. Okay, so we know that the King James Version is outdated. But how do we tell this to the King James-only crowd? I think we can just quote Luther. Luther wanted to communicate God’s word clearly. Therefore, it was necessary for Luther to translated Hebrew, Greek, and Latin language into the German language, the language of the people. But today, the KJV-only readers have to translate Elizabethan English into modern day English. I don’t think Luther would have approved of the KJV for today’s contemporary readers.

“In translation you cannot speak German with a Greek or Hebrew tongue” (Open Letter Concerning Translation).

He wanted the scriptures in easy to understand German and in terms of an accurate rendering of the original meaning.

“I endeavored to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew” (Open Letter Concerning Translation).

Would some of our formal equivalent translations qualify? I wonder if the RSV or NASB (1977) would meet Luther’s standard? Our functional equivalent translations certainly do.

Cochlaeus, one of Luther’s bitterest opponents, said:

“Even shoemakers and women become so absorbed in the study of Luther’s German New Testament that they are able to carry on discussions with doctors of theology” (Four Hundred Years, Dau, p. 115).

Moreover, he felt that the Confessions and scripture should be the source and norm of all religious thought and doctrine. The bible was the natural vehicle for inculcating piety into the hearts and lives of the people. Moreover, bible translation should not be taken lightly but should be done in all godly reverence.

“Translation is not an art that everyone can practice. It requires a right, pious, faithful, diligent, God fearing, experienced practical heart” (WA30, II, 640).

Luther had a high view of Scripture and sola scriptura was the sole rule and norm of faith. Justification by grace through faith in Christ Jesus influenced how Luther translated the German bible. Jesus Christ took our place under the law, and became all things for us so that God might fully redeem us. Luther felt that scripture needed to reveal “all things for us” just as Christ became fully incarnated in order to serve and to save humankind.

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Author: Kevin S.

A follower of Jesus, a husband and a father. Hobbies include biking, keeping fish if they don't die on me, blogging when I can, theologizing and ministry, and pondering about world affairs.

11 thoughts on “Martin Luther on bible translation: in the common language of the people”

  1. Kevin, I really like this post. When asked about the ESV, Dr. Carson said it was too wooden. Luther probably would agree.

    I think I’m going redirect others on my blog to this piece.

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  2. Kevin, Your comment on the KJV-only crowd is sorely needed. I have seen young children trying to read from it and cry because they can’t figure out how to pronounce the words, or don’t understand anything about what they’ve just read. Koine Greek was the language of the common person, from which of course the New Testament was translated. Translation should be a constant work in progress as the English language changes.

    But, this is an EMOTIONAL issue. In my fellowship, this has become an issue of fellowship, which translation you use. It’s use over the last 400 years has made it an object of veneration for many. I know of one person who was fired from his pulpit position because of a Masters thesis he wrote, basically affirming the KJV translators were not inspired. How can you logically discuss this issue with folks who are not thinking logically?

    I believe education in the process of translation, how we have the Bible in English, is an eye opening experience for some of these folks. The more I talk about the history of the English Bible, and remind folks of some of the translation problems in all of the English Bibles, including the KJV, the more open to discussion some become. Others, however, view this as a sort of blasphemy. We do the best we can to educate, but there will always be those who refuse to listen, I’m afraid. And the strife that this can create must truly grieve the Lord.

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  3. TC, yes, the ESV still has room for improvements and I hope they make them in their next revision.

    I have seen young children trying to read from it and cry because they can’t figure out how to pronounce the words, or don’t understand anything about what they’ve just read.

    Robert, I appreciate your comment on the KJV. Sorry this issue is an issue in your fellowship. It’s not easy to get it across to some people who are hard-headed. I remember as a child getting my first bible, a KJV. I complained that I couldn’t understand it so my mother got me a GNT (the one with pictures). That got me started reading the bible as a young boy. We just have to keep educating the people about the truth of bible translations. One day, it may click with them.

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  4. As for not understanding the KJV, my freshman year in college (about 25 years ago) I read Mark 10:15 “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

    I said to myself, “I’m not a little child any longer. I guess I missed the boat.” I then tossed my Bible aside figuring there was no hope for me.

    Thankfully, a couple of years later God called me using a pastor preaching from the NIV and an NIV I purchased a couple of days after the service. I remember thinking “This is in English.”

    The KJV was a foreign language to me and I was without a translator. Thank God for the continuing work of translating the Word into “the common language of the people.”

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  5. If I’ve given the impression that I dislike the ESV or is anti-ESV, that was never my intention.

    At some levels I think the ESV should be commended. I just thought they could have done more in revising the RSV.

    For example, on my blog I’ve praised the ESV.

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  6. While the KJV will probably never be surpassed for it`s literary beauty (I still use it sometimes for this reason), and was once the very best translation available, this is no longer the case. Probably hasn`t been the most accurate translation since the advent of the ASV I suppose.

    Personally, I think translations like the ESV and NRSV, even the NASB and RSV are very readable by almost anyone who can read English at all. Though I know there are some who struggle with some of them. One that I often find cumbersome for everyday reading is the NKJV (while my wife loves it, go figure), and I think the reason is the sentence structure in places.

    The biggest thing I can say in favor of modern translations, is that we simply have better and older manuscripts to translate from. Also, the NRSV and NIV for example make much use of the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls, whereas some, such as the NKJV insist on following the Masoretic Text in places it really makes no sense. I think these are also key factors in helping modern readers get a grasp on the Bible`s message.

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  7. I think what we’re all getting at is the need to understand what you read in your Bible. For those who are familiar with the KJV and feel comfortable with the language, that’s fine. The problem is with decreeing it, or any other version, as the ONLY one God can use to communicate His truth. I subscribe to being faithful to the texts, but I don’t that ability was lost after the KJV was translated. We need to pray for understanding, in both the message of Scripture, and in one another.

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  8. Kevin,

    I am a college student working on a paper for my evangelical theology class. I am really interested in Luther’s actual writings about the translation of Scripture. This quote is really helpful. However, I cannot figure out where it’s from! Do you know of the original source for this quote? I just couldn’t figure it our from the parenthetical reference. If you happen to read this before Wednesday, November 12 (when my paper’s due), would you mind e-mailing me any information you know about this quote? I would really, really appreciate it!
    Thank you!

    Sarah Nealeigh
    nealeighs@jbu.edu

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  9. This article attributes to Luther the words “I endeavored to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew.” But the quotation is probably spurious. It appears in numerous popular-level articles and books, but the only source cited for it is the “Open Letter on Translation,” which definitely does not contain any such statement.

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