Today we’re in Coburg, where Luther lived for six months in 1530 during the Diet of Augsburg—his friends wouldn’t let him attend, worried for his safety—and worked on his translation of the Old Testament while hanging around the castle. (If you’re confused and thinking that I should’ve said the Wartburg rather than the Coburg castle was where he translated the Bible, you’re right—but he was there earlier, in 1521-22, working on the New Testament.)
It’s well-known that Luther translated the Bible into German, and it’s often thought that he was the first one to do so. But that’s not true at all. In fact, there were 17—that’s right, 17—other translations of the Bible into German before Luther’s!
The reality is that the Western Church of the time did not forbid the translation of Scripture, contrary to popular belief. In fact, Luther’s contemporary, the Mexican bishop Juan Zumárraga, authorized his own Franciscan order to translate the Bible into the indigenous tongues of the Native Americans.
But several things are different about Luther’s Bible. First of all, it was translated from Greek and Hebrew, not from the authorized Latin Vulgate, as were most of its predecessors. But even this isn’t the most important thing. The most important aspect of Luther’s Bible was that it was meant to be accessible—accessible by being readable, and by being inexpensive! Yes, price mattered!
Gutenberg’s Bible was the first book printed in the West using movable type. But while the technology was new, the social system was still old. We have in the Gutenberg Bible a classic product designed for the nouveaux riches. His Bible promised to up-and-coming classes the same access to written culture afforded previously only by ecclesiastics and nobility.
We can see that in even in its style. Gutenberg’s work left the intial letters unprinted with space left for illumination. His printed Bible was meant to simulate the great illuminated Bibles owned by the nobility and rich monasteries, but for a bargain-basement price. That’s not to say they were cheap. Gutenberg’s Bible would have cost the average worker a fortune. It was still a prestige piece, not meant for study but to decorate the collections of those who wished to be identified with book culture.
What we see in Luther’s work is an entirely different kind of thing. Here was a whole Bible meant for study, for reading. It was designed to be printed en masse, to be bought and distributed to many people below the nobility, used in churches and schools for catechesis. We can see the difference in the design. Older Bibles were large, folio-sized objects, printed in small numbers. Luther’s was was small, mass-produced, and affordable.