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The Most Dangerous Thing Luther Did

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And other facts about Bible translation that transformed the world.

At the very beginning of the Reformation, the only Bible available was the Latin Vulgate, the Bible Jerome had produced in Latin in A.D. 380. It included both a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, plus Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, some additions to the Book of Daniel, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

This was not a book the general public was familiar with. It was not a book most individuals or families could own. There were pulpit Bibles usually chained to the pulpit; there were manuscripts of Bibles in monasteries; there were Bibles owned by kings and the socially elite. But the Bible was not a book possessed by many.

Furthermore, the Bible was not in the language of the people. Yes, the well-educated social elite could read Latin, but your average resident of England or France or Germany or Italy or Spain knew only snippets of Latin from the Mass. And indeed, often enough they garbled the snippets they knew. If you want to get a good feel for the poverty of biblical literacy in the general public in this era, read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400 in Middle English. Confusion and misunderstandings of the Bible abound in Chaucer’s stories.

The Latin Vulgate may have been the Bible that gave Luther his revolutionary insights, but Luther quickly realized that if things were really going to change, it would not come just by debating theology with other learned souls. The Bible needed to be made available in the vernacular, in his case, German. In my view, the most dangerous thing Luther ever did was not nail the 95 Theses to a door. It was translating the Bible into ordinary German.

Luther’s ‘Heresy’

By 1522, Luther had translated …

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Source: Christianity Today Magazine

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