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8 things to know about the Luther Bible

Christine Lehnen
January 5, 2022

From mysterious ink stains to an alleged fight with the devil and women lost in translation, there are many surprising facts surrounding Luther's version of the Bible, translated 500 years ago.

A painting of Martin Luther wearing a floppy hat.
Martin Luther's translation was historically significantImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

1. The Luther Bible was an instant bestseller

Although there were no bestseller lists in Martin Luther's day, no one could doubt the success of his Bible translation. It was not the first translation of the Christian Bible into German, but it was the first to be widely distributed.

As Luther himself said, "he listened to the common man" to find his translation style. He hated literal translations and worked on every single sentence for a long time to make the work easier to read. 

It was published in September 1522 for the Leipzig Book Fair — an event that still runs today.

At the time, 3,000 copies were printed — an important print run for that period. Between half a gulden and 1.5 guldens, the currency of southern Germany, was the price per copy, which was a handsome sum but still cheaper than previous versions of the Holy Book.

"Before Luther you had to pay the current equivalent of an S-Class Mercedes for a printed Bible; whereas in the 16th century a Luther Bible cost as much as a refrigerator today," according to theologian Hartmut Hövelmann.

The Bible sold out within three months, and reprints were quickly made. The first edition was called the "September Testament," the second the "December Testament."

Luther's work consisted of a translation of the New Testament and is considered to have triggered the Reformation, which challenged the Catholic Church, separating Protestants and Catholics.

Luther's room with a table and chair and wooden walls in the castle.
Luther worked from the privacy of his room in Wartburg CastleImage: Imago Images/imagebroker/wrba

2. Luther hidden in a castle as 'Junker Jörg'

Martin Luther could not translate the New Testament in peace at home.

In 1517, he had published his famous "95 theses," protesting against the clergy's practice of selling plenary indulgences, through which sinners were allowed to buy their way out of purgatory.

In January 1521, the pope excommunicated Luther because he refused to revoke his Reformation theses.

Three months later, Luther, who had already been condemned as a heretic, stood in front of the Diet in Worms and was asked for the last time to renounce his views. 

But he refused to do so, leading Emperor Charles V to issue the Edict of Worms, a decree declaring Luther an outlaw, and giving anyone the right to capture or even kill him.

Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, managed to protect Luther by having him abducted and hiding him at Wartburg Castle in the town of Wartburg in Thuringia.

Luther stayed there for 10 months under the name Junker Jörg — and devoted himself to translating the Bible. The word Junker refers to a German nobleman.

3. Ink fights with the devil

Martin Luther translated the New Testament from ancient Greek into early modern German with Latin translations. He toiled from within the confines of a writing room in the Wartburg Castle.

The room where he translated the New Testament is known today as "Lutherstube" or "Luther's parlor."

Legend has it that the devil even visited him in this room one night. When Luther heard a scratching sound, he threw his inkwell at the devil, which is said to have left a blue ink stain on the wall next to the stove.

The mysterious stain has been the subject of myths since the 17th century, although there is much doubt as to whether it was actually made during Luther's time. It has reportedly been touched up and moved over the past centuries.

#DailyDrone: Castle Church Wittenberg

4. Great things can only be achieved with teamwork

After Luther translated the New Testament, he devoted himself to the Old Testament, working with a number of other theologians and linguists. Alone, he would not have succeeded in translating the text from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic.

Among his helpers were Philip Melanchthon, Caspar Cruciger, Matthäus Aurogallus and Justus Jonas.

Germany and the church

5. Origins as a picture book

Some editions of Luther's Bible translation were illustrated with woodcut images.

Eleven full-page pictures from the workshop of artist and printer Lucas Cranach, inspired by Albrecht Dürer's Apocalypse cycle, were featured in decorative editions of the September Testament.

Linguistically, Luther also adapted the Bible translation to his time. He included rhythmic passages, internal rhymes, and alliteration. He may not be a founder of early New High German, but he and his Bible translation shaped countless literary genres.

A painted portrait of Martin Luther as a young man.
Luther's version has been revised several timesImage: public domain

6. It inspired an English translation

English translations of parts of the Bible had been in existence since the 7th century.

Wycliffe's Bible was published in the 14th century in vernacular English, as part of a pre-Reformation movement that was against many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

The riots that followed its publication made it illegal, under penalty of death, to possess an English translation of the Bible.

William Tyndale, an English reformer and contemporary of Martin Luther, also attempted to create an English version of the Bible and distribute it. Tyndale not only read the translations into Latin by Erasmus of Rotterdam as Luther did, but also Luther's translation of the Bible — and even learned German to do so. Tyndale was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1536, but his translation is still largely the basis for the modern English-language Bible.

A green light in the shape of Martin luther walking as if crossing the street.
In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, Luther's image was on the traffic lights of the town of WormsImage: Kristina Schaefer/epd

7. A woman was lost in translation

Martin Luther and his colleagues are highly regarded for their Bible translation; their influence is considered revolutionary.

But their version was not flawless.

For instance, scholars later found that they had changed a female name from the original Greek version into a male one: Junia, a woman apostle mentioned in the New Testament in Paul's letter to the Romans. That figure was turned into a male "Junias," a name that did not exist at all in ancient times.

This has been corrected in order to reflect the significant role played by women in preaching and spreading early Christianity.

Even in Luther's time, female theologians excelled. After all, Protestantism assumed in word, even if not in practice, that all people were equal.

Argula von Grumbach risked much to promote Protestantism, writing letters, intervening in theological debates and publicly speaking out in support of Martin Luther, with whom she also corresponded.

Protestant reformer and writer Katharina Zell wrote six books and three pamphlets, as well as Psalm and Bible interpretations, and also took in Protestant refugees in her husband's rectory in Strasbourg.

8. Not the last edition

As important as the Bible translation of Luther and his colleagues was, it was not the first — and it will certainly not be the last.

The translation of the Luther Bible is constantly being revised.

In 2017, the year that marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a modified version was published by the German Bible Society. Antisemitic passages that had been inserted by Luther and his colleagues were changed.

A "BasisBibel" published in 2021 is a simplified version that aims to reach the younger generation. It has been referred to by the Bible Society as the "Bible for the smartphone generation." 

This story was originally written in German.