Letter to the Editor

14 December 1995

Dear Sir,

Readers of the Independent (23.11.95) could not fail to have noticed a short but remarkable item from a Bonn correspondent which blazoned the claim — ‘Luther's Bible found after 200 years’! A Portuguese postgraduate, engaged in cataloguing ancient books in the Württemberg State Museum in Stuttgart had stumbled onto a dusty tome which was later authenticated as a copy of the Vulgate once in the possession of Martin Luther, the inspired genius of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The importance of the find lies in the mass of marginal comments and annotations in his hand which litter the pages, and in the course of time textual scholars will be in a position to assess their significance in Luther's development as a great Bible translator. The item in the newspaper is tantalisingly brief and, perhaps as one might expect, utterly misguided in some of its conclusions. On the positive side, however, it does reproduce some telling lines of autobiography:

DML [Doctor Martin Luther] - I was born in the year 1483 ...
In the year of 1518 did D. Staupitz relieve me of my religious order ...
In the year of 1519 did Pope Leo excommunicate me from his Church ...
In the year of 1521 did Kaiser Karl expel me from his empire.
Thus was I thrice shunned. But the Lord took me into his care.

According to the correspondent, handwriting experts are in no doubt that this and the other marginal ‘scrawlings’ are from the pen of Martin Luther. The claim is also made that certain words in the margins represent attempts to translate the text into Hochdeutsch, the literary ancestor of modern German. So far, so good, but unfortunately in the first line he has already concluded that this particular copy of the Vulgate was ‘the Bible that broke the monopoly of the Catholic Church and consigned Latin to antiquity...’ and was ‘the template for Luther's first Protestant Bible, prepared in the years 1521-22 in Wartbug castle.’ G. Markus (Independent 1.12.95) rightly objects to the assumption that it was this Bible, Luther's Vulgate, that broke the monopoly of the Catholic Church; in his own work Luther certainly made use of the Vulgate as an important tool in translating the scriptures and often employed words and phrases from it in his new German translation. But Markus also objects to what he regards as ‘that old and rather antiquated prejudice —that the old Vulgate Latin Bible was part of a Catholic conspiracy to keep the Bible out of the hands of Christians’ and takes the corespondent to task for failing to mention the multitude of vernacular Bibles that appeared across Europe in the fifteenth century (one example being of one German version alone, printed in 1466, going into sixteen editions before the appearance of Luther's New Testament in 1522). I think that Markus is simply toeing the party line here when he protests that the Roman Catholic hierarchy, from the days of Wycliffe, had no desire to keep the Scriptures from the people. He needs to be reminded that the Council of Trent declared ‘...that the ancient Vulgate edition, which has now, been approved by the church itself ... should be considered the authentic edition for public reading, disputations, sermons, and explanations’, and that it was only with the encyclical Divino Affante Spirita of Pope Pius XII in 1943 some four hundred years after, that the church hierarchy changed its policy and encouraged vernacular translations from the original languages.

Whatever judgement is made about the ideological struggles that led up to the Reformation one thing has to be made clear: Luther broke new ground, not in the act of translating the Bible into his native tongue, but by basing his translations on the original biblical languages, i.e. Hebrew for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament. Thus he rejected the exclusivity of the Vulgate in Latin, which had indeed served its purpose for literate readers across mediaeval Europe where it operated as a sort of religious lingua franca. This is the point made so clearly in the letters by A. Hammond (Independent 4.12.95) and R.V. Wells (Independent 6.12.95). Hammond draws attention to the peculiar conditions prevailing in England in contrast to the Continent where Luther was getting his translations published: ‘Here it was the particular concern of the clerical and lay authorities to eradicate unofficial translation while refusing to provide an official one’ and Wells stresses the point that it was ‘translations of the Bible from the original languages that outraged the Roman Catholic Church, making it feel threatened, not new translations of the St. Jerome's Latin version of them.’ A reminder of what might have been in the sixteenth century was supplied in a recondite note from Gregory Morris, a postgraduate student at St. Andrews University (Independent 9.12.95), who informed us that there were officially sanctioned translations of the Hebrew Bible during that period. He refers to the translation of Pagninus (1528), to Ximines's great Complutensian Polyglot (printed in 1514 and published in 1520), and not least to ‘Sebastian Münster ... whose Latin translation was one of the favoured cribs of those who produced the Authorised Version.’

However, increasing fears among the priestly hierarchy in England, that translations on the continental model threatened the monolithic power of the Roman Catholic church, resulted in battening down the hatches against any scholarly work that put the sacred writings into the language of Tyndale's ploughboy. Tyndale, England's Martin Luther and greatest of all English Bible translators, became the prime target of the most malign invective from the Church authorities led by Cuthbert Tunstall the bishop of London and later by Sir Thomas More. It was Tunstall who was personally responsible for burning Tyndale's English New Testament in October 1526 and justified his action by pointing to thousands of errors in his work. In the third book of his lengthy A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, which first appeared in 1529, More argued that Tyndale's faulty renderings were ‘... so many and so spread through the whole book, that likewise as it were as soon done to weave a new web of cloth as to sew up every hole in a net...’

Morris points out that modern scholarship has vindicated Tyndale's ability as a translator and how amazingly advanced his translations were in his day.

Now the rest of the acts of the sixteenth century translators (and of Master Tyndale in particular), and all that they did, are they not written in the book of Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography. Yale University Press 1994. New Haven & London?

Yours faithfully

© Peter W. Coxon
(address supplied)

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