Watching Luther: a prequel to three public talks

On Halloween, 1517, nearly 500 years ago, Luther posted up his debate text on the doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Was Luther’s text inflammatory? Composed in Latin, its direct capacity to inflame was limited to his literate peer group.1 Yet, together with a multiplicity of environmental factors2 and other happenstance,3 it was enough to trigger lasting change in both church and society.

Over the next month (and likely beyond), I’ll be making my own contribution to the study of Luther’s impact, beginning with a formal seminar paper for SIIBS and climaxing in a half-hour ‘Pint of Science‘ talk at The Old Queen’s Head (Sheffield’s oldest domestic dwelling, a building that predates Europe’s Reformations).

My interests lie principally in Luther’s bible translations and their socio-political impact. He was not the first to translate the Bible into German. But he departed from predecessors in heeding Erasmus’ suggestion that it was time to revisit the original texts. A further special quality of his work is the preservation of his workings.

The first edition of Luther’s New Testament followed a spell of exile at Wartburg Castle in 1522. The Old Testament followed episodically, a volume covering Genesis to Deuteronomy in 1523, Der Ander Teyl (i.e. the second part) spanning Joshua through Chronicles in 1524, with several iterations of the Psalter appearing during the 1520s. A complete Luther bible did not appear till 1533—in a Low German version assembled by Luther’s associate Johann Bugenhagen, alias Pomeranus.4 The celebrated Wittenberg edition of 1534 may underlie some elements of the first English bible in print (produced by Miles Coverdale and sent to the printers in 1535).5 Producing a complete Bible in his native tongue was not enough to satisfy Luther, and he continued to issue revisions until his death in 1546.6

A major spell of revision stretched from 1539 to 1541, and is reflected not only in a revised print edition but in manuscripts recording the revision work itself.  Because of this testimony, we can interpret with considerable confidence some of the thinking and motivation that underlies details within Luther’s translations.

Revising Ruth in April 1540

The image you see here comes from the (vast) critical edition of Luther’s works known to Luther scholars as the Weimar Ausgabe, from a volume first published in 1911 and recently digitised by the University of Toronto.7  Parallel columns present the record of discussion (left), supplemented by Luther’s own handwritten amendments to and notes on the full biblical text (right).


Annotated page from the critical edition of Luther's 1540 revisions

The excerpt pictured (pages 364–5 in the digital copy, with my annotations) shows that on 7 April 1540, shortly after Easter,8 revision efforts resumed with the book of Ruth.

Switching between German and Latin
Switching between German and Latin. Detail from p. 364.

Changes in typeface reflect movement between Latin learning and German language. Bulky sections in the left-hand columns show how some details prompted more extensive thought and discussion between Luther and his collaborators. Dense areas in the right-hand columns indicate extended editing of the German bible text.

Note on Ruth 1:6: 'Brod', speise. In the excerpt, we can see a gloss on bread (speise: food), recognising that this God-given bread (Hebrew: lehem; Ruth 1:6) serves as a metonym for food. In Hebrew, this food stuff also resonates with Naomi’s place of origins: for in the opening verse, she had departed from Bethlehem, the “house of bread” (Ruth 1:1) hungry.

Below that small annotation follow two Latin variants interpreting the penultimate clause of Naomi’s speech in Ruth 1:13, in each case suggesting that she ‘suffers for’ her two daughters-in-law.

Latin gloss on Ruth 1:13The corresponding section in the second column, running over to the next page, shows Luther tweaking the translated speech.

Close-up on lines 6-9.
Luther’s notes on Ruth 1: 13 (detail from p. 365).

Here lines 6–9 (right) show repeated attempts to translate the clause represented in the Latin discussion. Brackets enclose phrases Luther had written and then struck out.


"Spiritus sanctus interpellat pro nobis..." (detail from lines 10-15).
“Spiritus sanctus interpellat pro nobis”. Detail from lines 10-15.

Returning to the left-hand column, as Ruth resists and protests against Naomi in verse 16, Luther and company consider the role of ‘Spiritus sanctus’, the Holy Spirit.

In this passage and in the notes that follow, we see Luther’s repeated and shared conviction that Ruth was a “from[m] weib”,9 a faithful woman. This perception of her character influences his interpretation and translation of difficult passages, such as at Ruth 2:7.10 For faithful Ruth is not, reckons Luther, “one of those women who sit at home lounging around on cushions”.

Detail from p. 365, showing comments on Ruth 2.7-10
“ein from[m] webichen”: Luther’s view on Ruth influences his translation of Ruth 2:7. (From p.365.)

Given time to examine contemporary commentary, we discover that such decisions both reflect and shape social attitudes toward women and immigrants. 


1 See Brian Cummings’ discussion of “the textuality of the ninety-five theses” in the third part of his prologue to The literary culture of the Reformation: grammar and grace (Oxford: OUP, 2002 (2007)), pp. 30ff.

2 For the expression and its application to the Reformation, see Robert Wuthnow’s Communities of discourse: ideology and social structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European socialism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

3 Ought I to caution the reader against assuming that Luther is the answer to every reformation question? It is hardly my practice to suggest this. Indeed, I am more wont to paint a picture with many European bibles than the work of any individual.  Yet 2017 is an anniversary year and I excuse a month’s Luther-centrism on that basis. Those who wish for accounts of the reformation richer in details, more nuanced, and not even remotely driven by heroes to MacCulloch’s Reformation (not a new work, but a solid one). 

4 De Biblie: uth der uthleggine Doctoris Martini Luthers yn dyth düdesche vlitich uthgesettet, mit sundergen underrichtingen, als men seen mach, (Lübeck: Ludowich Dietz, 1533 [col.: 1534]; USTC 629067). Luther’s foreword is followed by a brief statement from his Low German translator. 
Bugenhagen was also author of a 1525 pamphlet ‘to the Christians in England’: Ainn sendprieff . . . an dye Christen inn Engla[n]d (Augsburg: Simprecht Ruff, 1525); USTC 610510.

5 This it not to say that it was either Coverdale’s main or only Germanic source, a topic that occupies much of the 70-page appendix to my PhD thesis, and must soon become an article.

6 As an editor eloquently phrased it, “Luthers Mühen um Verbesserung seiner deutschen Bibel dauerten von 1522 bis in seine letzen Lebensjahre,” that is ‘Luther’s labours to better his German Bible endured from 1522 through to his last life-year’. Cf. WA3, p. xiii.

7 “Text der Bibelrevisionsprotokolle 1539–1541 und handschriftliche Eintragungen Luthers in sein Handexemplar des Alten Testaments von 1539/1538.” In D. Martin Luthers Werke: Text der Bibelrevisionsprotokolle 1539–1541 und handschriftliche Eintragungen Luthers in sein Handexemplar des Alten Testaments von 1539/1538, ed. J.K.F. Knaake. WA: Die Deutsche Bibel, 1522–1546 3. Weimar: H. Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1911.
A digital facsimile of this volume from the critical edition is freely available to view and download from

8 Calculating Easter 1540 (Julian calendar) to have been 28 March.

9 Page 386, line 12; compare line 30. In each case the words are part of a vernacular aside, rather than translating the biblical text.

10 Any commentary on Ruth will give some account of the many problems presented by the Hebrew text at this point. For a discussion of its translation (albeit in French) see Daniel Lys, “Résidence ou repos? Notule sur Ruth ii 7,” in Vetus Testamentum 21 (1971): 497-99.