If you traveled back in time 500 years to the Wartburg castle in what is now modern-day Germany, you would find an odd sight: Junker Jorg (Knight George) sequestered away in the castle translating the Bible into German.
Who is this odd knight? None other than Martin Luther. After Luther met with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1521, Luther’s political lord, Frederick III, “kidnapped” Luther and hid him in the Wartburg castle as a knight. Luther struggled through those dark days, hearing about the events of the Reformation occurring in Wittenberg and throughout Germany while he remained hidden away. Over the course of 10 weeks during this exile, Luther translated the New Testament into German. This translation, published September 1522, stands as one of Martin Luther’s greatest accomplishments for the church and for Germany. Luther’s German translation of the Bible codified the German language and brought unity to the German people. This translation also inspired other translations, not the least of which resulted in the King James Bible.
Martin Luther’s dedication to the translation of the Bible into the common language of the people drove him to complete the translation of the Old Testament as well. He believed that every Christian should know the epistle to the Romans “word for word, by heart.” The Word is “the daily bread of the soul” (LW 35:365). If the Word of God remained chained up in the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew or locked in the Latin of churchly hierarchy, it would not help God’s people hear of God’s redeeming work in Christ.
Luther’s translation into German, therefore, was a pastor’s desire to see his people read and grow in their understanding of God’s Word. This month’s issue celebrates 500 years of this translation and the broad swath of translations emanating from it. It also celebrates the traditions of learning and studying that have grown up alongside translation into the vernacular language of God’s people. This includes vacation Bible school and Sunday school, both relatively recent innovations in the history of the church.
This is not to say we ought to abandon the Greek and Hebrew. Indeed, every Christian who is able should study the original languages of Scripture. That is, in part, why we send our pastors to residential seminary training. Whether in Greek and Hebrew or in English, God’s Word will show us the one thing necessary: Christ and Him crucified.
By the Word,
Roy S. Askins
Managing Editor, The Lutheran Witness