Before Luther: Germanic Bibles on the net

German(ic) bibles before Luther

Anyone who has heard me speak about Luther’s bible translation will know that he was not the first person to translate the Bible into German. Bringing together Germanic languages, including the variants found in the territories we now know as Switzerland, Austria, and the Low Countries, we might count as many as 18 different bible texts in circulation before Luther’s first complete Bible (and this is without counting variant editions of Luther’s own interim work). The following discussion highlights some significant printed bibles whose translations pre-date Luther’s first published version of the book of Ruth (published in Der Ander Teyl, 1524).


The opening words of Ruth in the 1466 Mentelin Bible, with large blue "I" and smaller red "W"
Opening words of Ruth in the 1466 Mentelin Bible (via the Digitale Bibliothek).

USTC 740100Printed at Strasbourg in 1466, this bible published by Johann Mentelin was the first German language bible in print. We see in it the hybridity of the new technology, as coloured initials have been added by hand post-printing. The translation has been dated to around 1300. (Digital facsimile courtesy of the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek / DFG Digitale Bibliothek.)

Heinrich Eggestein printed another edition in 1472, also at Strasbourg (USTC 740101). There are also two editions printed at Augsburg around 1475: one from Jodocus Pflanzmann (USTC 740102), the other by Gunther Zainer (USTC 740103). The latter survives bound in two volumes. The layout of the text (seen below) incorporated small pictures linked to the narrative at the start of the different books, artfully occupying the space of the initial letter.

The opening of the book of Ruth from Zainer's bible, ca. 1475
The opening of the book of Ruth from Zainer’s bible, ca. 1475. Snapshot from the Digitale Bibliothek copy.

Another two-volume edition with this feature was printed at Nürnberg (alias Nuremberg), attributed to a publishing duo, Johann Sensenschmidt and Andreas Frisner (1476-1478; USTC 740104).

The top of an initial 'I' from the start of Ruth, with characters resembling those of Zainer's bible.
Snapshot of the opening initial of Ruth in the Nürnberg Bible, via the Digitale Bibliothek. (Click on the picture for a full view.)

Printing a bible was a major undertaking, sometimes necessitating cooperation between different printers. There was also considerable “borrowing” of ideas; one has the strong impression that the Nürnberg artist had an Augsburg bible in view (see right).

The USTC records other surviving bibles from Zainer’s press (1477; USTC 740105) and from Anton Sorg in Augsburg (1477, 1480; USTC 7401067).

The bible that left the presses of Anton Koberger at Nürnberg in 1483 (USTC 740108) offers us a concrete reminder that the addition of decorated letters was at first a secondary procedure. The copy photographed for digitisation (and held in the vaults of Coburg State Library) entirely lacks many initials, including at the start of Ruth.

More bibles survive from Strasbourg (1485; USTC 740109) and Augsburg (1487, 1490; USTC 74011011).


Detail from the opening of Ruth in a 1477 Cologne bible.
Detail from Ruth in a Kölner bible (ca. 1478). Snapshot from the Digitale Bibliothek. (Click on the image to see more.)

A distinctively different text appeared in print at Cologne (Köln) in the late 1470s, published near-simultaneously in two dialects of Low German (destined for the Lower Rhineland and Saxony; cf. CHB ii.434). In bibliographical terms, these are two bibles (USTC 740112 and 740113), both attributed with some degree of uncertainty to the press of Heinrich Quentell. To date, I have only found an online facsimile of the second.

Some differences between this pair of Cologne bibles and the others reflect the different phonetics of High and Low German, e.g. tagen v. dagen (days). Yet an accumulation of differences in the active translation allows these Low German bibles to matched to a different manuscript family. In the opening verses of Ruth, compare the action attributed to the judges, “herschopten” (reigned) v. Mentelin et al “vorwaren” (presided), or the nouns “wiue”/”wyff” v. “hausfrauwen”.


An Old Testament reflecting the same manuscript tradition had been published by Meer and Yemantszoen at Delft in 1477 (USTC 435295). The Delft Old Testament is commonly regarded as the first bible in Dutch, and a digital facsimile of this and some subsequent important Dutch bibles is hosted online at “Bijbels Digitaal“. (A nice feature of this particular resource hub is the ability to choose to view scanned images, with or without transcription, as well as displaying two or three different versions in parallel.)

The opening of Ruth in the Lubeck Bible (detail via Lubeck Library facsimile).The 1494 Lübeck Bible is another edition from the “Low” Germanic manuscript family (USTC 740114). The presence of Lyra’s Postillas and commentary from other esteemed scholars is advertised on the titlepage (itself a relatively new feature, and simply laid out). As seen in Ruth 1 (pictured), the decorative initials are printed, reducing the potential cost of completion (no scribe required) as well as limiting opportunities for customisation. I have traced digital facsimiles of four copies, including one at the Lübeck library.


A final pre-Luther bible in the language of the Hanseatic League appeared in two volumes the same year Luther published his New Testament, i.e. 1522: the Halberstadt Bible (USTC 616608). Having followed the evolution of Germanic Ruths, the reader will here be struck by the unusual visual complement to that book’s opening:

The opening of Ruth in the Halberstadt Bible (woodcut)
The opening page of the book of Ruth, featuring a large woodcut. Halberstadt Bible.

As the tame lion to the left of the seated figure confirms, this woodcut depicts the fourth century bible translator, Jerome, at work. The date carved into the head of the plate (1520) shows this is a recent image.

The woodcut’s appearance is not particular to the book of Ruth: Throughout this bible, the same woodcut is repeatedly reproduced ahead of the biblical books, occupying around two thirds of the page each time (and ensuring a gap between even the smallest books). This is resource intensive. One is led to wonder if it is intended as a visual claim to suitable authority: Jerome’s translation, Jerome’s translation, Jerome’s translation–a source and authority communicated even to the non-literate.  (That its first appearance accompanies a translation of Jerome’s foreword at the head of volume one is hardly coincidental. The image is less prominent in volume two, but still there.)

Additional references

While assembling this biography, I have consulted passages from my PhD thesis, especially p. 47. The major reference work included there is the (original) Cambridge History of the Bible. See for example, W. B. Lockwood, “Vernacular Scriptures in Germany and the Low Countries before 1500,” in CHB ii. See also the third chapter in CHB iii.

Those with access to a good library might locate the following offline resource, in the series Deutsche Texte des Mittelalters:

Gerhard Ising (ed.). Die niederdeutschen Biblefrühdrucke: Kölner Bibeln (um 1478), Lübecker Bibel (1494), Halberstädter Bibel (1522). Deutsche Texte des Mittelalters 54.2. Berlin: Akad. Verlag, 1963.