Luther sought to create a Bible not to be a bestseller, but one through which individuals would hear God speaking directly to them in their world, in their time, in their place. A Bible that was God’s Word—more accurately, God speaking. Not a passive tool that sits on a shelf or a table or even altar. But an active, speaking, seeking, hearable, and impactful speaking of God. Everything Luther does, from the style of translation to the title page to the sequence of the books to notes is designed to bring people to Christ.
We know exactly when the Bible first became the “best-selling book of all time.” It was September 21, 1522. This date was the opening of the annual book fair in Leipzig, Germany. The previous April, Martin Luther refused to recant his writings before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at an assembly convened to examine his works known as the Diet of Worms. From there he was secreted to the Wartburg Castle for his own protection.
In eleven weeks, he completed a translation of the New Testament from Greek into German. From there, his colleague at Wittenberg University, Philip Melanchthon, edited the translation. Two businessmen in Wittenberg, Lucas Cranach the Elder and his partner Christian Doering, then employed the printer Melchior Lotter the Younger to rush to completion this New Testament in German in time for the book fair—even setting up temporary presses on their property to ensure completion. Between 3,000 and 5,000 copies were made, bundled up, and rushed to Leipzig for the book fair.
An Immediate Bestseller
The book was a hit. All the copies of this German New Testament sold out before the fair ended a week later. From there, Luther’s German New Testament spread around Europe. A second printing was started immediately and released in December. A pirated version was printed in Basel before the end of 1522. In the next year a total of twelve authorized and sixty-six unauthorized reprints appeared throughout Germany and Europe—hundreds of thousands of copies sold in just over twelve months. Suddenly, the Bible was a bestseller. Luther’s Bible. The German New Testament.
Now, all this might be left as a footnote in history, except that this little Bible by Luther still influences the way that we read Bibles today. From format to contents to readability to explanatory notes—all have been shaped by the Septembertestament.
How did this instant success happen? Luther was not the first to market. In fact, the first printed German Bible had appeared in 1466, fifty-five years before Luther’s work. Seventeen total versions appeared before 1522. So, there was not simply a pent-up demand for the Bible in German into which Luther tapped. Rather, it was Luther’s theology and notoriety, combined with a readable translation style and a physical and visual format designed to help the reader understand the text—at least the text as Luther wanted the reader to understand it—that made this Bible become a bestseller.
The Context of Luther’s Achievement
For the first 1500 years of the church, the Bible, or rather, the various books and stories in the Bible, were accessed by almost all people not by reading, but by hearing. People heard the Bible in worship, they sung it in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. They were taught it in sermons and catechetical teaching, they saw its contents portrayed in icons and eventually stained glass, watched it performed in mystery plays and passion plays (some of which are still performed today).
But possessing a Bible, holding a Bible, whether on papyrus or parchment or paper was not at all common. Almost all physical copies of the Bible down to the 1500s were produced for use in churches, in monasteries, and for clergy. A few wealthy people had beautifully decorated devotional books, which often contained the Psalms, but the Bible as we know it was simply not accessible—nor indeed seen to need to be accessible—to the vast, vast majority of people.
Even Gutenberg did not produce a bestseller because what he produced looked and felt and, to some extent, even cost what a Latin manuscript of the Bible cost in the 1450s. Gutenberg could produce sixty copies in the time it took a copyist to produce one manuscript. The first edition of 1454 was produced in about 160 to 180 copies: ¾ of them on paper and ¼ on vellum.
Paper copies cost thirty florins at a time when the salary of a clerk in the Medici bank earned between fourteen and fifty florins per year. So, if you have a great job in 1450, a Gutenberg Bible would cost roughly one year’s wages—and you still had to be able to read Latin. Most copies were purchased by religious orders or wealthy individuals for donation to churches and ecclesial institutions. While a pivotal moment in western history (Time magazine named it the most significant event of the past 1000 years) Gutenberg did not immediately change the way that people accessed the Bible.
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was one of the greatest classical scholars of all time. He produced numerous first editions of texts from antiquity, including the first published Greek New Testament in 1516. But he did not call it a “New Testament.” He called it a “Novum Instrumentum,” a new tool. The edition has Greek in one column and Latin in the other, but not the Vulgate, the commonly used Latin text, but a fresh translation that Erasmus argued was more accurate to the Greek. He wanted to make the Greek text more accessible to scholars and theologians in the west who did not really know Greek. And what was this tool to be used for? He lays this out in his preface, what he called the paraclesis or “exhortation” at the beginning of his new tool:
The sun belongs to everyone; the science of Christ is just the same. I am totally opposed to the fact that divine scripture should not be translated into one’s native language, to be read by the non-clergy; it is as if Christ’s teaching was so mysterious that only a handful of theologians could understand it, or as if the fortress of religion was built with the ignorance which the Church has forced on the common man. I wish that even the lowliest women read the gospels and the Pauline Epistles. And I would that they were translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood not only by Scots and Irish, but also by Turks and Saracens… Would that, as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of the journey with stories from this source.
Luther used the second edition (printed in 1519) of Erasmus’s “new tool” to create a New Testament for German farmers and weavers, and in so doing created a runaway success. The audience for this German New Testament was the German people themselves. Where the Gutenberg Bible was out of the reach of almost all people, both for the cost and the fact that it was in Latin, a bound copy of Luther’s New Testament cost a single guilder: schoolteacher’s two month’s wages, or the price of a calf.
A Book to Point to Christ
It seems self-evident to us today that the Bible should be translated. But for Luther, the translation of the Bible was not an end in itself. It was not simply, “let’s get the Bible out there and see what happens.” Nor was he interested in a text for academic study since Greek, Hebrew, and Latin editions were available for that if one wanted. Rather, Luther wanted a New Testament through which individuals could hear the Word of God directly, without the mediation of the church or a priest. Said another way: Luther’s goal was that individuals hear “God’s message about Christ.”
In the language of Romans 10: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Luther expresses this in his introduction to the Old Testament published later in 1534: “If, then, you would interpret well and surely, set Christ before you; for He is the man to whom it all applies.” But even the New Testament, which Luther acknowledged should be clear enough, also can be misinterpreted and therefore the reader needs assistance to hear the Gospel clearly.
Luther produced this book, quite simply, to point to Christ. To give people access, for themselves—with Luther’s guidance—to the promises of God. We see this on the title page of a 1524 Wittenberg Bible with its simple description, and Christ on the cross.
Luther’s entire purpose in translating the New Testament, then, and every feature of the translation and the contents of the volume is designed to preach Christ and the Gospel message. This accounts for the new features of the Septembertestament. It was a text like no other before it. It translated a Greek text into the vernacular for the first time in Western Europe since the Vulgate. It included prefaces and notes to ensure that the readers heard the Gospel. And even the sequence of the New Testament books was altered to suit Luther’s goal of leading people to trust the promises of Christ.
This might be surprising. A Reformation motto is sola Scriptura! By Scripture alone! without tradition or interpretation. But sola Scriptura itself is actually in service to the central Reformation tenet: “Christ Alone!” (solus Christus). Luther put Scripture into the language of the people so that by Scripture alone they could hear Christ and his gospel, and so receive salvation.