A new edition of Martin Luther's seminal Bible has been released to mark 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. Theologian Christoph Rösel explains how the text shaped the German language and remains relevant today.
"Don't hide your light under a bushel," "to wash one's hands of responsibility," "perfect from head to toe," "pearls before swine," "separate the wheat from the chaff" - these expressions are well-known across the English-speaking world. But did you know that these sayings - and hundreds more - were penned by German theologian Martin Luther?
Luther, the seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, was also a brilliant wordsmith. In 1522, at the age of 39, he released the first printing of his translation of the New Testament, followed in 1534 by the first full version of the Bible. Now, after a 10-year planning and revision process, the latest edition of Luther's Bible has been released to the public - just in time to mark the 500th anniversary of Luther's Reformation in 2017.
Luther's translation of the Bible made the text accessible to the ordinary German for the first time, and helped shape the nascent Reformation. With its striking linguistic style, it also helped form the German language, unifying regional dialects and helping the Germans develop a stronger national identity.
"Luther made an excellent connection between the source languages and the German end result," said Martin Karrer, a professor of theology from Wuppertal in western Germany.
His straightforward translation from the original Hebrew and Greek made the text understandable to parishioners, and contributed significantly to its success.
For the latest revision - there have been four over the centuries - nearly half of the 35,598 verses translated by Luther have been changed, at times reverting the language to the original text to better reflect the words of the reformer.
"The range of revisions extends from minor changes in punctuation through switching individual words right up to completely new translations of entire verses," said the German Bible Society of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), which is behind the project.
To learn more about the new revised version of Luther's Bible, DW spoke to Christoph Rösel, a theologian from Stuttgart.
DW: It took 70 theologians 10 years to plan, translate and finally bring the new Luther Bible to the printing presses. Now that it's available to the public, how do you feel?
Christoph Rösel: It's a great moment. I myself participated in the revision process, and I was very excited to be a part of that. And since I started working at the German Bible Society, it was exciting to witness how all the many questions around the project were tackled and how it all worked out.
What does Luther's Bible signify to you?
I grew up with the Luther Bible. I received my first copy, which I still own, for my confirmation. And since then I have picked up other versions. The Luther Bible has a familiar sound.
Of course, during my studies and my work, I've also made use of other translations. But the Luther Bible is part of my spiritual home, and it's very dear to me. It reminds me of everything that's possible when it comes to encountering God through these words.
There are a total of 14 different versions of this 2017 anniversary edition. What are the differences between them?
Every Bible translation appears as part of a whole product family. Essentially, all Bibles are the same - they all contain the same text, but there are different editions for schools and communities, wedding Bibles with space for family trees, editions that are bigger and more practical, altar Bibles, and expensive editions with gilt edging and leather binding. In the special anniversary edition, there are additional pages describing Luther's life as a reformer and Bible translator, in addition to some of the preambles of the first editions of Luther's Bible.
You've created something quite special for the anniversary: several versions featuring richly decorated slipcases created by renowned German artists and celebrities. What was the idea behind that?
The idea was to show that the Bible is a book at the center of life. Among the people who were willing to decorate a slipcase are people you wouldn't traditionally associate with the Bible, like Janosch, the children's book author and illustrator, football coach Jürgen Klopp, actress Uschi Glas and singer Klaus Meine of the band Scorpions. For them, along with a few others, the Bible is a book that has a special meaning. It's a book they can relate to. The diversity of this group shows how relevant Luther's Bible is to diverse social and artistic groups.
In an effort to stay current, the German Bible Society has also published the new Luther Bible in a number of different digital formats.
Online, it's available at die-bibel.de, where you can access the entire text for free. And the new Luther Bible is also available as an app. Thanks to the support of the German Protestant Church, people can download this app for free during the 2017 anniversary year. The Luther Bible is available as an e-book, and will also be published as an audiobook in the spring. We are very happy that Rufus Beck, the renowned German actor, will contribute to the recording.
When comparing the texts of the new Luther Bible with those of older editions, it's clear that many revisions of previous editions have been withdrawn. These changes have made the style of the language more Luther-like, but at the same time more archaic, somewhat odd and perhaps less comprehensible. Couldn't the use of such archaic language hinder comprehension?
It's possible that some alterations to the text could confuse the reader. But the working group gave a lot of thought to those particular points. [Certain words] have always been a part of the biblical language, and had meaning and theological relevance to Luther. That's why we opted to make use of those words once again. In spite of all the revisions, Luther's Bible is still a book that originated in the 16th century. For some purposes, one shouldn't start out with Luther's Bible, but perhaps instead with the Basis Bible.
And what is the Basis Bible?
The Basis Bible is a new translation by the German Bible Society, which tries to apply Luther's principle of writing how people really talk today, while at the same time remaining close to the original text. If you want to apply Luther's principle nowadays, you need a translation like the Basis Bible. It can't replace the Luther Bible - that's part of our cultural memory. That's why we still need Luther's Bible as an accompaniment to a contemporary translation like the Basis Bible.
You have described Luther's Bible as "the first and still most important German-language bestseller." But you must admit that this bestseller has long ceased to be part of every household, and today is only read by a minority. How do you want to change that?
Of course, we're trying to take advantage of the anniversary year to attract new readers to Luther's Bible. And we expect that many people will take the opportunity to have another look at the text. But it remains a challenge to promote Bible reading. In the next few years, we will try to make it clear through various initiatives that the Bible is a central part of life, and worth reading. The Bible section on our website is increasingly attracting visitors; last year, we had almost 1.75 million site views, an increase of 28 percent compared to 2014. That's a great motivation.
Christoph Rösel has been the secretary-general of the German Bible Society (DBG) in Stuttgart since 2014. The DGB is responsible for the "translation, production and dissemination of the Bible," along with the promotion of Bible reading and the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Among its more than 500 versions of the Bible are academic versions in the original Hebrew and Greek, in use worldwide. Other versions include audiobooks, electronic media, foreign-language editions and children's books.