“While I cannot claim to have got everything right, nevertheless I venture to say that this German Bible is couched in plainer and more correct language at many points than the Latin. So if the printers do not, as is their wont, spoil it with their carelessness, the German language has here a better Bible than the Latin. I ask my readers to decide.” — Martin Luther, from his preface to the first part of the Old Testament, 1523.
Luther considered the translation of the Bible into German his greatest achievement and his only publication that should outlive him. Recognizing that the Bible’s authority was to be found in the original texts–Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament–Luther became proficient in both languages. The final publications, however, were not the work of Luther alone but the collaborative achievement of a gathering of scholars in Wittenberg. Their efforts, focused on creating a new German Bible translated from the original languages, rather than from St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, proceeded in stages between 1520 and 1534.
These efforts in broadening the Bible’s intended audience and providing vernacular Bibles to the literate public were remarkably successful. The 1522 New Testament appeared in at least forty-three editions in three years, resulting in over one hundred thousand copies of what was surely an expensive book. In addition to folio volumes illustrated with woodcuts, the texts also appeared in more compact and less expensive formats. These smaller Bibles often included copies of illustrations from the larger editions as well. The market for vernacular scripture also expanded beyond Luther’s immediate German-speaking compatriots. Complementing the early High German language printings is an extremely rare 1524 Low German New Testament for use in Northern Germany. Luther’s Bible was also published in Basel, Switzerland and Protestant Dutch- and French-language editions appeared in the first half of the sixteenth century.