The Story of the German Bible
THE confusion of languages at the tower of Babel brought about tremendous changes in the field of language, which have not ceased down to our day. All languages that are used live; new words are continually being formed. We need to think only of the many new expressions that have been introduced in the field of technology. Some words also undergo a change in meaning or drop completely out of usage with time.
These developments and changes in the language field are great hindrances in the way of a worldwide distribution of any book, since it is necessary not only to translate this book into all languages but, after one’s translating it, to keep its language alive.
It was necessary for those loving God’s Word and thus interested in distributing it among all peoples to fight continually against this apparently insurmountable hindrance. Their efforts were not fruitless. In the field of Bible translation there has truly been a phenomenal accomplishment, when it is considered that up to the present day the Bible has been translated in its entirety or in part in more than 1,200 languages or dialects.
THE FIRST GERMAN BIBLE
The German literary language, which is presently spoken not only in Germany but also in Austria and Luxembourg and in parts of France and Switzerland, has grown out of the languages spoken by different Germanic tribes living in sections of the later German empire. The first known translation in a German tongue is the Gothic Bible of Wulfila, which is often referred to as the first German Bible translation. It is probably more correct to speak of it as the first Germanic Bible translation, since not the Goths, but, rather, the West Germanic peoples must be considered to be the ancestors of the present German-speaking populace.
Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, was himself not a Teuton. His grandparents came from Asia Minor, where Gothic warriors forced them as slaves from their home country. According to tradition, Wulfila (in German, “Little Wolf”) was consecrated as bishop of Donaugoten when only twenty-nine years of age. When Wulfila began his work of translating in 350 C.E. he was faced with great problems, as the common Gothic, the language of the Gothic warriors, had a comparatively small vocabulary. It was a language that did not appear suitable to express the exceedingly colorful contents of the Holy Scriptures. But Wulfila proved to be a genius in creating language, and he succeeded in translating the Bible in such a manner that his fellow countrymen could understand it. Besides this, Wulfila had to invent his own letters before he could start the work. The Greek alphabet served as a pattern for him; however, he changed it by adding certain runes (Germanic characters).
The best-known and most valuable copy of Wulfila’s Gothic Bible is the Codex Argenteus found in the university library in Upsala, Sweden, which is written in silver and gold letters on purple-colored material. Of the 330 pages found around the year 1550, there are only 187 still remaining.
THE GERMAN BIBLE DURING THE DARK AGES
The “Christianizing” of Europe following the council of Nicaea did not ensue by individual conversions, but, rather, by mass conversions based on the decision of an entire tribe or the will of a ruler. “Christianity” had become the state religion in the expansive Roman Empire, reaching far into northern regions. This circumstance meant that the newly won “Christians” were not instructed extensively enough in the Holy Scriptures.
The instruction of the people in reading and writing was severely neglected by the responsible persons. For that reason it does not surprise us that even among the clergy a great ignorance and lack of knowledge about Bible truths prevailed. Dr. Oscar Paret wrote in his book The Bible, Its Tradition in Print and Writing (Stuttgart, 1949; page 25): “At what low level education generally stood in the early middle ages (800) can be seen from the decree of Karl the Great, namely, that every clergyman must at least know the Lord’s prayer and the creed of faith.” Most clergymen were without a complete Bible. Adolf Risch wrote in his book The German Bible in Its Historical Development (Berlin-Lichterfeld, 1907; page 10): “Even the large majority of the clergy learned the essential content of the Vulgate only from excerpts and church handbooks as chosen and considered by the church.” The need for Bibles could not begin to be taken care of, as duplicating by copying progressed very laboriously and slowly. In addition to this factor most of the copyists used their time mainly to copy the Latin Vulgate, works of the church fathers and the “holy” legends.
The “Christianizing” of Germany followed, interestingly, from north to south, and that by Iro-Scottish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries. There is probably only one copy of the texts left that they used, and that is the Codex Fuldensis written in Latin, which was often copied in the Middle Ages and frequently used for later translations in the German language. This codex is not the pure Bible text that we are acquainted with from modern-day Bibles, but, rather, a so-called harmony of Gospels, a progressive story of Jesus’ life that was composed of the four Gospels.
THE FIRST GERMAN BIBLE TRANSLATIONS
Most of the first truly German translations of Biblical material come out of the period when the Heiland was written (825-835). Latin texts with German annotations (comments on the text) are known out of still earlier periods. These annotations that are supposed to be of help to the clergy when expounding on the text cannot be considered texts of high quality, as they are often not just reproductions of the text but, rather, explanations of it. Furthermore, approximately eight hundred interlinear translations from this time are extant. Each time the corresponding German word is written above the Latin word. These texts were likely in use in the monasteries.
Around the year 1000 C.E. a free translation of the Psalms was made by Notker Labeo, the head of the famous school of the monastery in St. Gallen, Switzerland. His translation was used for hundreds of years as the original for further translations of the Psalms into German. To be mentioned among translations dating back to this time is that of the Song of Solomon by Walliram, who came from Worms. His text with three columns contains the Vulgate text in the center column, a Latin recast in a special verse form in the left column, and to the right a free German translation, which, according to language experts, is among the best that have been preserved from that time.
The oldest known German transcription of Biblical literature is a translation of the Gospel of Matthew from the eighth or ninth century, the so-called Mondseer Matthew. It was discovered by accident in 1830 that the wooden covers and backs of some books that came from the Mondsee, Austria, monastery were covered with pieces of material that were taken from a book. With much hard work the strips were successfully removed and pieced together. Twenty-three pages of the Mondseer Matthew were restored in this manner. On the left-hand side of its pages this handwritten copy has the Latin Vulgate, and on the right-hand side the German text in a Frankish-Bavarian dialect.
Long before Luther, the German reformationist and Bible translator, and long before Gutenberg, inventor of movable-type printing, many parts of the Bible, yes, even the entire Bible, were translated into German. The oldest of the approximately fifty preserved handwritten Bibles in German is the Augsburger Pergament manuscript of the Christian Greek Scriptures from the year 1350.
Accordingly, Luther was far from being the first to translate the Bible into German, as is often wrongly supposed. Dr. Oscar Paret wrote on page 23 of his aforementioned book: “The . . . German Bible archives in Hamburg have by means of the manuscripts, of which only fragments are preserved, and with consideration being given to the earliest printing, for example of Psalm 6, still found 97 various German translations out of the pre-Luther times and 60 various transcriptions of 1 Corinthians.” He does, however, mention that different translations reveal a great lack of knowledge of the old languages and of the German language.
None of these translations experienced a wide distribution. On the one hand, they could not be produced in sufficient numbers and, on the other, they were so high priced that a private individual could hardly obtain one. Especially luxuriously made copies could be paid for only by princes and kings. Here and there references to the price of such Bibles have been found. In the year 1388, for example, Johannesberg in Rheingau, Germany, purchased a Bible for seventy Florentine gold gulden. For from one to two gold gulden a person could buy a fat steer at that time. A Bible, therefore, represented a good-sized herd of cattle.
THE FIRST PRINTED GERMAN BIBLES
Even when the Bible could be printed it was at first still very high priced. The Strassburger printer, Mentelin, published his first printed German Bible in 1466, and that only ten years after the Gutenberg Bible (Vulgate text), which is generally recognized as the first book printed from movable type. The Mentelin Bible cost between 2,000 and 2,500 German marks at that time. In an extant copy there is the exact entry: “1466 27 June this book was bought, not bound, for 12 gulden.” How high priced this was in reality can be seen by the following quotation: “The amount of 50 gulden at this time corresponds to a year’s income in a middle wage bracket income. That is the wage received by the Leipziger warden, the professional counselor for the city council’s building director.” (Doctor Friedrich Schulze, German Bibles, Leipzig, 1934; pages 8, 9) The text manuscripts for the Mentelin Bible were manuscripts from the Middle Ages that are still extant.
Already in 1470 the second printed edition of the German Bible was published in Strassburg, which was, however, primarily a reprint of the Mentelin Bible. In rapid order further printed editions were published in German cities: in Nuremberg and Augsburg, high-German Bibles, and in Luebeck and Cologne, low-German Bibles. In 1522 the Halberstaedter Bible was published in low German as the last Bible from the pre-Luther period.
REACTION OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
In the pre-Luther period Bible distribution experienced an impetus. This, of course, did not occur without the opposition of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy, which repeatedly pronounced prohibitions of Bible reading and further Bible translation work. (Edict of Archbishop Berthold of Mainz against all translations of the Bible and any other books from Greek, Latin or another language on March 22, 1485.) Laymen who desired to read the Bible in their mother tongue were threatened with excommunication and high fines. The Catholic Bible authority, Dr. Hans Rost, writes in his book The Bible in the Middle Ages (Augsburg, 1939; page 76): “Since the danger continually existed that through Bibles and books in the mother tongue secret religious services and lay sermons could be held with a desired deviation from the official teaching and Bible conception, the church reacted with prohibitions from time to time.” The conduct of the Catholic church is understandable when we read the following in the marginal reading to Matthew 16:18 of the Luebecker Bible of 1914: “You are Peter, a professor of the true rock Christ, and on this rock, that you professed, on Christ, I will build my church.” According to this marginal note every reader could understand that Christ, and not Peter, is the rock upon which the church was built. Professor D. Dr. von Dobschuetz writes in his book The Bible in the Life of Nations (page 127): “Where the Bible was published in the common language the church rejected this and tried to suppress it.” The distribution of the Bible in the language of the people could not be stopped, however. The accumulation of prohibitions by the hierarchy on Bible reading prove how ineffective these really were. The Koberger Bible was published in 1483 and was the most widely distributed in the period before Luther. The Nuremberg printing shop in which it was printed was the first big printing establishment. Koberger ran twenty-four presses and employed one hundred printers.
With Luther’s Bible translation a triumphal procession for the German Bible was begun that could not be restrained. Luther brilliantly mastered the job of finding language that everyone understood. He himself wrote in his work entitled “Letter About Translation” (1530): “We should question the mother in her home, the children on the street and the common man at the market, and then watch their mouths to see how they talk and then translate accordingly.” His translation was accepted with enthusiasm. By the time of his death in 1546 he had seen thirteen editions of the entire Bible and twenty-one editions of the so-called New Testament. In each new edition he made improvements. The demand for the Bible was so great, however, that the printers working for Luther could not keep up. His translation was reprinted throughout Germany, but not always with the necessary care.
It has been established that there were 253 reprints during Luther’s lifetime within a period of twenty-four years. The Bible was, however, still comparatively high priced. Church historian Walter Koehler writes that the New Testament “cost as much as a horse.”
Luther’s translation naturally brought forth many opposers. One of them, Duke Georg of Saxony, authorized Hieronymus Emser to make a new German translation, which was to replace Luther’s Bible translation. Luther’s “presumptuous translation” was not, however, edged out by Emser’s translation, which was “authorized by the Christian church.” Up to the present day Luther’s translation, which has had to be revised several times (last revision 1964), remains the most widely distributed German Bible translation, although since that time many German Bible translations have been published.
MORE MODERN GERMAN TRANSLATIONS
In the field of language study there has been enormous progress made since Luther’s time, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many manuscript finds have also been made, which allow for an increasingly precise translation of the Bible. Many mistakes that crept into the original texts due to shortcomings in their transcription could be done away with in new translations, because of the many ancient manuscript finds and the increased knowledge of the old languages.
In this manner good and dependable German Bible translations developed, which, in many respects, excel Luther’s translation. Especially the Elberfelder and Zuercher Bibles excel in their modern style with regard to the exactness of translation. From Catholic and Protestant sides there have of late been a number of completely new translations published. The Kautzsch, Menge and Schlachter translations alongside the Luther Bible are among the best-known Protestant Bibles. The Allioli, Arndt, Riessler-Storr and Hamp-Stenzel-Kuerzinger Bibles are the best-known Catholic translations. The Jewish translators Zunz and Buber are also to be mentioned for their recently published translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in German. Those acquainted with Hebraisms will learn many interesting thoughts in the Buber translation.
When several Bible societies were founded in the German-speaking region at the beginning of the past century, Bible distribution took on proportions not heretofore realized. The price was greatly reduced by mass production. The Book of Books became a book for the home of many German families, most of which were Protestant. It is regrettable, however, that in Germany Bible reading is being neglected more and more in recent decades. The younger generation is so engrossed in other activities that it feels there is no time for searching in God’s Word. Few of them realize what precious treasure they thrust aside through their indifference.
JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES AND THE DISTRIBUTION OF THE BIBLE
Jehovah’s witnesses have always been very interested in the distribution of the Bible among all peoples of the earth, and everywhere they have worked with what means they had to accomplish this. They thereby made use of the various translations. Even in the field of Bible translation they have worked productively. In 1961 the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures was published in English in one volume, after various single volumes had been published in the preceding eleven years.
Plans were made to publish this distinguished translation in German, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish versions. Without delay the translators went to work, and already in 1963 the Christian Greek Scriptures could be published in these languages. There have already been 445,000 copies printed in German.
After you have read this article you will undoubtedly realize how much effort and work has been put forth over the centuries to acquaint people with the Book of Books, the Word of Jehovah. Innumerable people have devoted their entire lives to spreading God’s Word; many have sacrificed their lives for it. The Bible can also become a valuable treasure for you if you daily read it and search for its truths in fellowship with other faithful Christians.