Luther’s bibles: a question of church?

I have previously written about Germanic bibles before Luther. But we might as well ask “before what Luther?”

As I’ve written previouslyMartin Luther began translating the Bible programmatically in 1522, with two versions of the New Testament appearing in quick succession. Another portion appeared in 1523, covering what Luther referred to as the “Five Books of Moses”. A complete Luther bible did not arrive until 1534 (or 1533 if we include the Low German bible prepared by Luther’s associate Joannes Bugenhagen which carried Luther’s endorsement).1 In the meantime, Luther had already begun to revise his work, and he would continue making changes until his death in 1546.

I often frame my explanations with reference to the book of Ruth.2 In this case though, prompted by an enquiry, I’m going to illustrate some of the steps in tracing Luther’s translation (and, allied with that, his thinking) with attention to Genesis.

An aside: Moses’ books

In Judaism, the five books attributed (largely) to Moses form the core of the Holy Scriptures, the so-called “Torah”. Christians have had an unhelpful tendency to present these texts as “the Law”. While they contain many rules that have informed and continue to inform how people live, they also contain complex narratives. Genesis is especially rich in stories, from epochal creation myths, to the forging of a more specific identity through tales of family, descent, and community.

Christians have done a lot of unhelpful exegesis, and laziness often leads people to think in false binaries or equivalences. While the example below does not take us directly into antagonistic oppositions of legalism and love, it feels important to warn that there’s always something dangerous (suspicious?) about Christians reading the Hebrew scriptures—competing to make sense of texts that first held importance (and continue to) for another religious group.

Title page for the first volume of Luther's "Allte Testament" (1523)
The title page of “Das Allte Testament deutsch”. Wittenberg, 1523. (via Wikimedia)

Luther’s Genesis

To recap, Luther completed a first translation of the Five Books of Moses—including Genesis—in 1523. It was printed with the ambitious title page “Das Allte Testament deutsch” (USTC 626766), i.e. The German Old Testament. There are as yet no online facsimiles of this text (but one coming).

We can form an impression of its contents via the Weimar collection of Luther’s works. The image shown below is a passage from the text of Genesis 49, according to the 1523 translation, but drawn from volume 8 in Die Deutsche Bibel series.

Detail from Genesis 49, the 1523 text, via the Weimar collected works.
First Book of Moses (i.e. Genesis) 49:6-7, according to Luther’s 1523 text.

I ask you to observe two details:

At 7th place in the first line is geheymnis, Geheimnis in modern German, a secret. In Luther’s usage it is often the equivalent of Latin mysterium, a secret with religious significance.3 In the second line, the third word is ʃamlung, Sammlung, a gathering.

As a critical edition, this Weimar volume also supplies the text of Luther’s 1545 edition, on the parallel page. In this instance, observe the nouns Rat and Kirchen, both in line 1:

Detail from Luther's 1545 translation of Genesis 49, via the Weimar Collected Works.
First Book of Moses (i.e. Genesis) 49:6-7, according to Luther’s 1545 text.

It takes a while for the unaccustomed eye to adjust. But if you look closely, you can perhaps see that the wording of these two versions differs only in spelling until we reach gehymnis | Rat. Further along the line, the noun Kirchen stands where we saw ʃamlung in the older text.

This Weimar volume is intended to help the modern reader see and appreciate significant changes between Luther’s first version and the influential 1545 edition. At the foot of the page is an annotated record (shown below), documenting what changed and when.

From this, we can learn that the section from yhr gehymnis to samlung was first revised in 1528.  The wider evidence (in the footnotes of this volume and elsewhere) shows that Luther undertook a programme of revision that year.

This timeline is especially worth noting if you want to explore how he may have influenced sixteenth-century English translations. Tyndale’s first translation of the books of Moses appeared in 1530, so for passages like this he might have had access to early (1523) Luther and/or the newer (1528) text.4

Footnote from the Weimar Collected Works, highlighting significant changes to Luther's translation of Genesis 49:6 over time.
The Weimar editors’ footnote, highlighting changes Luther made to his translation of Genesis 49:6.

The main change made at that point in this verse (49:6) was to the two nouns. Geheymnis became rat, and samlung became bund.

You may have met German Bund in relation to e.g. the Bundesbank, the central bank of modern Germany (and so issuer of German currency). More literally, it’s the ‘bank of the Bund’, or Federation—shared by the different German states. Bund then, means federation or alliance. (Compare English ‘band’.)

Rat is familiar to the entry-level German learner as one component of the noun Rathaus, a building one might find in any town—akin to the English town hall. Unlike its English counterpart, it is named for what takes place within: consultation, both as substance (counsel) and as organ (council). Rat would remain unchanged in later editions of Luther’s text, though it seems that Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon voiced the sense of (religious) ‘mystery’ in a subsequent revision session.5

Creating a Latin version of the same text a year later, Luther would replace the Vulgate’s consilium,  attested e.g. in the Complutensian Polyglot, with secretum. Consilium shares Rat’s capacity to mean both council and counsel, but was rejected in favour of secretum, a ‘separated thing’ and so both secret and perhaps ‘a sect’. This change ran counter to the direction of Luther’s German language revision, suggesting that how this noun should be translated was not particularly important for Luther on either occasion. I have not studied the matter in detail, but I am pretty confident that Luther had Pagninus’ new Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible (1527/1528; USTC 145898) at hand during that 1529 Latin project.

Bund, of course, did not stick. By 1545 it had been replaced by the alternative noun Kirche—Church. What, you may ask, is Luther doing bringing church into his Old Testament? That is indeed the substance of the enquiry around which this blogpost is oriented.6

The replacement occurred as part of a major overhaul of Luther’s text, undertaken through regular study sessions with colleagues, from 1539 to 1541. The bold 41 in Weimar’s footnote highlights this change, while the parenthesis that follows directs us to volume 3 of the series, and page 230. This, marvellously preserved and presented (see below), supplies direct testimony from the reviewers’ 1541 discussion (in the lefthand columns) and annotations made by Luther and unidentified others in a bible (in the righthand columns).

Overview of Luther & co/s 1541 Genesis 49 revisions as shown in Weimar 3:230, courtesy of
The Weimar volume containing notes from revisions to Genesis 49. Courtesy of

Genesis 49

Before we try to make sense of what’s happening in the revisions, a few words on the bible passage:

The Genesis passage is patriarch Jacob’s last speech, as he tells his offspring what lies ahead. As his twelve sons represent the twelve tribes of Israel, this is more a post hoc reflection on how they’ll relate to one another. Verses 5–7 present a warning (relayed here according to the NRSV):7

5 Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
6 May I never come into their council;
may I not be joined to their company
for in their anger they killed men,
and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.
7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob,
and scatter them in Israel.

In this English version, council translates the Hebrew סוד (swd), and company קהל (qhl).

Let us focus on the second noun, קהל, which became Kirche in Luther’s late text.

In sixteenth-century English versions, you will find congregation (Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, Great, Bishops) or assembly (Geneva). King James’ translators opted for the second.

What of the Hebrew? Well, it tends to signify a purposeful assembly, coming together because called—whether for political or religious ends.

Jewish Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures completed by the second century BCE commonly translate קהל with one of two nouns: συναγωγή meaning gathering, from which we derive English ‘synagogue’. Or ἐκκλησία (as e.g. in Deuteronomy 23:8) meaning those called or summoned, granting English vocabulary such as ecclesiastical. Courtesy of New Testament patterns, we may note that one of these is now strongly associated with Jewish practice and the other with Christian ecclesiology.8

In the present passage (Genesis 49:6) the Hebrew was rendered in Greek with a form derived from the verb συνίστημι meaning “to set together”, and therefore associate, including banding together or forming an allegiance for hostile purposes. In Latin, it was rendered with a form of coetus, a “coming together” that’s given us the English coitus.

In other words, neither Jewish Greek-speakers nor Christian Latin-speakers saw this as an occasion to deploy vocabulary associated with positive religious practice.

So what was happening to Luther and company, that led them to introduce Kirche at this point?

Testimony to the revisions

We know, from the manuscript record, represented by the critical edition, that they were not just thinking about the literal sense of the text in front of them.

I mentioned already that Jacob’s words are being related ‘after the fact’ so that the passage is a poetic expression of what’s seen to have happened to his sons-as-tribes. Luther et al are reading even further after the fact. For them, Simeon and Levi are in some sense the priestly classes. (Levi’s descendants serve as priests in the temple.)

This connection is expressed in the words “tribum sacerdotalem”, the priestly tribe (see right, line 8).

This is not a good thing.

Where Jacob calls them “brothers” (line 4, cf. verse 5), Luther & co. remark that Jacob is avoiding calling them his sons. (“Non vult vocare filios…”, lines 5–6.)

Simeon they gloss as “pharisei”, before writing the clarification “sacerdotes” above this (line 9). To be a Pharisee, in the light of the gospel texts, is also not a good thing. They go further, “Iudas ex Simeon”, ‘Judas came from the tribe of Simeon’ (lines 9–10).

At this point, it is worth re-reading the NRSV excerpt:

5 Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
6 May I never come into their council;
may I not be joined to their company—
for in their anger they killed men,
and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.

Who was Judas? The disciple understood to have betrayed Jesus.9

This prophecy (Jacob’s words), Luther & co. agree is open to different interpretations (line 16).

On the one hand the violence, killed men and hamstrung oxen, might refer to the treatment of brother Joseph (see Genesis 37).  Yet allegorically, they see here how pharisees and pontiffs (line 14) crucified Christ (lines 15–18, see also lines 11–12).

To recap the workings of this equation:

Simeon = Pharisees (conceived of as hostile to Jesus within the Gospels, and e.g. in Matthew as among those conspiring against him) and/or = Judas (the mechanism of Jesus’ betrayal).

Levi = priests, and so potentially the council that seeks Jesus’ death.

So, Simeon + Levi = culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion.

We might wonder what happened to the Romans . . .

Notes in Luther's bible. Genesis 49. From Weimar 3:320, column 2.That the crucifixion interpretation was Luther’s own (and not simply his colleagues’ influence) is evident from the mark in his own handwriting in the bible, “Crucifiger[e]s Chr”, Christ’s crucifiers.

See line 24, left (from the second column on page 230).

Luther was perpetuating a line of anti-Jewish rhetoric that has its foundations within the New Testament. Presenting emblematic Jewish characters as Jesus’ killers. There’s a whole lot wrong with that way of looking at things. E.g.  Pharisees and priests represent very different aspects of being and doing Jewishness in 1st century Palestine, and make extremely unlikely co-conspirators. Besides which, crucifixion was a Roman form of execution. Despite such modern objections (and they are important), it is evident that Luther was content to read and advocate reading Jacob’s words (and implicitly all the New Testament sources too) in this way.

So why “Kirchen”?

Does any of this explain the intrusion of Kirche, church, in this passage?

I think so. If we take what we know about their discussion, and imagine ourselves in Luther’s headscape in 1541. There is a church he would not be joined to, a church with pontiffs and priests.

For the words rendered by the NRSV as “may I not be joined to their company” stand in Luther’s 1541 text (and later versions) as “meine Ehre sey nicht in irer Kirchen”—‘my honour be not in their church’. Just as Luther & co. could read this text as about Joseph, and about Jesus, they could read it also as about themselves, and pray that their honour not depend upon “their” Roman Church.

To be sure, it is just a hypothesis, and I have not begun to look at the other texts that prompted the question. Nonetheless, this one case suffices to demonstrate that there’s often much going on beneath the surface of translation and revision. With Luther & co. we have the good fortune that on this occasion some of that was caught in manuscript witness.

—And the added good fortune of well-digitised critical editions open to all, to be sure.10




1 This edition carried Luther’s name prominently on its title-page as well as a brief foreword confirming the endorsement. It was the first Wittenberg Luther Bible, but lacked the Ur-text status of the 1534 edition which represented Luther’s own native tongue. Bugenhagen, known also by the Latin moniker Pomeranus (because he hailed from Pomerania), worked closely with Luther and was party to the revision process detailed further on in this post. The 1533 bible is USTC 629067.

2 Indeed, I’ve written specifically about Luther’s editions in relation to Ruth here , and spoken about Luther’s Ruth and related matters here and (though you wouldn’t know it) here. That’s to be expected, given Ruth provided the focal material for my thesis (Sheffield, 2014)!

3 See under Herkunft (origins) in’s Geheimnis entry.

4 I have work forthcoming on the sources of Coverdale’s 1535 bible, and I treat related questions in the body of my PhD thesis. Asking, “if Luther, which Luther?” matters very much for that. One unfortunate case is John Rothwell Slater’s PhD thesis on the sources of Tyndale’s Pentateuch (U. Chicago, 1906), which relied entirely on 1545 Luther.

5 Recorded in discussion appertaining to the 1541 edition of Luther’s bible. Other details of that discussion are treated below. For Melanchthon’s remark, see the linked volume, page 320, column 1, line 26.

6 I won’t publish the enquiry itself as I’ve not asked consent, but in essence, I was asked why Luther uses Kirche in his bible translation, especially in passages with no precedent or tradition for this. Genesis 49:6 was the first in a list of examples accompanying the question.

7 A descendant of the King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version is the recommended translation for those studying the Bible in academic contexts (alongside the original languages). When online, I consult it through the Oremus browser, a tool primarily intended to support Anglican worship.

8 For the practice of Englishing ἐκκλησία (Latin: ecclesia) as church, I shall refer you to an extract shared by my enquirer:

“It is a pity that in so many English versions of the New Testament ekklesia is rendered by a term ‘church’ which is absent from the English Old Testament.  Readers of the Greek Bible could draw their own conclusions from the use of ekklesia in Old and New Testament alike.  So could readers of William Tyndale’s English translation when they came on the word ‘congregacion’ in both Testaments.” (F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT).

Frederic Fyvie Bruce was Head of Biblical History and Literature at the University of Sheffield for a dozen years before moving across the Pennines to Manchester where became Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis.

9 The New Testament does not require this view. The Greek commonly translated “betrayed” means simply “handed over”. If crucifixion and resurrection were Jesus’ destiny, he needed someone to perform this role.  The hard thing for Judas is he does not survive to see the denouement. For a more sustained treatment of this theme, see William Klassen’s Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus (Fortress Press, second edition, 2004). Or if your resources fall short, try James Christie’s review of the first edition (courtesy of

10  I feel this keenly. When I began working with early modern bibles in 2010, I often had to travel to libraries and transcribe texts painstakingly. By the time I completed my PhD, late in 2014, many high quality digital facsimiles had become available online, and I continue to admire the role of the Universal Short Title Cataloguers in recording what’s where. But I feel additional gratitude to Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive ( It’s a not-for-profit enterprise and also hosts the WaybackMachine (indexing the internet). Having heard Kahle interviewed at the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing conference in 2017, I’ve become one of the many donors supporting this excellent open-access cause.
I still travel to libraries, but less frequently.

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