Martin Luther’s ‘Great and Worthy Undertaking’ of Translating the New Testament In Two Weeks

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One can only imagine the spare look of Luther’s cell as he settled into his monumental task of translating the New Testament. With only his Greek and Hebrew texts as physical references, and no library to consult or clutter, delay or confuse his labor, his concentration was total. It would be easy to romanticize the process. But a more realistic vision involves sweat and frustration, long hours, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. He approached the assignment with awe. Later, he would call it “a great and worthy undertaking” and say that, given the unsatisfactory Bibles then available to the common person, “the people require it.” But the language of the Bible dazzled him.

He truly believed that he was dealing with the very words of God.

“One should tremble before each letter of the Bible, more than before the whole world!” he would say later. “God is in every syllable. No iota is in vain.”

His first challenge was to establish the rules for his translation. Above all, he needed to keep his audience upmost in his mind. What could a typical German understand? What should be the tone? What should be the grammar? “It is not enough to know the grammar of a biblical passage,” he would say later. “One must observe the sense. I held fast to the meaning . . . as if I understood neither Greek nor Hebrew nor Latin.”

In his first days of labor, he evolved two basic principles of translation. The first was to reduce all things to the most general, basic origin and type. “If a passage is obscure I consider whether it treats of grace or of law, whether wrath or forgiveness of sin, and with which of these it agrees better. By this procedure I understand the most obscure passages.” The second was to submit ambiguous passages to the original Hebrew and not lazily fall back on literal translation, as he felt the Talmudic scholars had done. “The Jews go astray so often in the Scriptures because they do not know the true contents of the books. If one knows the contents, the sense must be chosen that is nearest to it.” For the common reader, the goal was “to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew.”

In whose language was this to be written? Should his tone be lofty and correct, like the learned speech of the royal courts of the Holy Roman Empire in Vienna or the official language of the Electorate of Saxony? Or should it be conversational, the tongue of the street? If so, which street? At this time there were 17 ways to write German in Wittenberg. Which of these—or what combination—should he choose?

Soon enough he made his choice.

“You’ve got to go out and ask the mother in her house, the children in the street, the ordinary man in the market,” he explained later. “Watch their mouths move when they talk, and translate that way. Then they’ll understand you and realize you are speaking German to them.”

As Luther began his work, he knew that the eventual product would be highly controversial. In his mind was the proverb, “He who builds along the road has many masters.” In his boldness he saw himself as the successor of St. Jerome, the first translator of the Bible. The fourth-century saint also had many masters—and critics. St. Jerome, too, was berated as incompetent by “people who were not worthy to clean his boots,” Luther knew. When Jerome himself had been asked by Pope Damasus to translate the ancient Latin Scriptures, he tried to get out of the assignment.

“Is there anyone learned or unlearned,” St. Jerome had wondered, “who, when he takes the volume in his hands and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, will not break out immediately into violent language and call me a forger and profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections in them?” But Jerome had scoffed at his critics, calling them “two-legged asses” and “yelping dogs.”

Luther, inevitably, was more coarse. His detractors would criticize, but then they would use his translation as theirs. They would stick to his work “like shit to a wagon wheel.” A violent reaction was inevitable. The world will criticize, he was to say. That was the way of the world.

Within a day of setting to work, he jump-started his process with the first 12 verses of Matthew: the birth of Christ, the treachery of Herod, the journey of the wise men to Judea guided by a star in heaven. Luther had translated these verses in the latter part of November, before his secret trip to Wittenberg, as he wrote his Christmas sermon called “The Christmas Postil.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, The Behemoth
James Reston Jr. is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of 15 books.

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