Were Vernacular Bibles Unknown Before Luther?

Were Vernacular Bibles Unknown Before Luther? January 8, 2016
Luther’s Dubious Claims About the Supposed Utter Obscurity of the Bible Before His Translation
In 1466, 17 years before Martin Luther was even born, Johannes Mentelin printed the Mentel Bible, a High German vernacular Bible, at Strasbourg. It was reprinted at least 13 times up till 1518. The copy above dates from 1518 and was sold by The Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company.
(6-15-11)* * * * *
[Martin Luther’s own words below will be in blue; Hartmann Grisar’s footnotes (only) in red]

The big myth under consideration is the commonly heard legend among Protestants (especially of an anti-Catholic bent) of Catholic hostility to the Bible and desire to keep it out of the hands of the people, for fear that its doctrines will be exposed as contrary to the Bible. I have written about the falsity of this charge, and related issues, several times.

See also in this regard, the wonderfully informative article by Andrew C. Gow, “The Contested History of  a Book: The German Bible in the Later Middle Ages and Reformation in Legend, Ideology, and Scholarship” ( The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Vol. 9, Article 13 [2009] ); and, “Luther’s Condemnation of the Rostock New Testament,” by Kenneth A. Strand.

Most argue (including most Catholics) that Luther’s translation was indeed far superior to previous German ones. But the controversy at hand was whether the Bible was available to the populace in (mostly High) German to any significant extent before Luther. It certainly was. Yet Luther polemicized in his usual hyper-rhetorical fashion, and claimed that it wasn’t.

Luther stated:

How much more did we invite this fate when we threw the Scriptures and Saint Paul’s epistles under the bench, and, like swine in husks, wallowed in man’s nonsense!

(Sermons of Martin Luther, “The Twofold Use of the Law and Gospel: ‘Letter’ and ‘Spirit'”, section 18; see also a second source for this portion)

And again he repeats the mantra:

No false doctrine or heresy ever arose, which did not carry with it that mark which Christ here gives:—that is, which did not command, ordain, and teach, those works as necessary to be done, which God never commanded. And the reason why the world is seduced as it is, is none other, than because it suffers itself to be led by maddened reason, and permit the Word of God to fall into disuse, as if hidden under a bench, or laid up in rust; not at all regarding what that Word saith, but following the deluded sight of its own eyes, wherever it perceives any thing new or uncommon.

(Select Works, translated by Henry Cole, 1826, “Professors and Prophets Known by Their Fruits”, p. 544)

As early as 1518 he had proclaimed:

. . . the Holy Word of God has not only been laid under the bench but has almost been destroyed by dust and filth.

(Preface to the complete edition of A German Theology, LW, vol. 31, 75-76; WA 1, 378 f.)

In his Commentary on Peter and Jude (1523), Luther opines:

But up to this time, the idea that the laity should read the Scriptures has been treated with derision. For in this the devil has hit on a fine trick to tear the Bible out of the hands of the laity; and he has thought thus: If I can keep the laity from reading the Scriptures, I will then turn the priests from the Bible to Aristotle, and so let them gossip as they will, the laity must hear just what they preach; while if the laity should read the Scriptures, the priests would have to study them, too, in order that they might not be detected and overcome.

(translated by John Nichols Lenker [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2005]; comment for 1 Peter 3:15; p. 158)

An even more sweeping instance of this sloganistic phraseology of “under the bench” occurs in Luther’s Large Catechism (April 1529):

43] For where He does not cause it to be preached and made alive in the heart, so that it is understood, it is lost, as was the case under the Papacy, where faith was entirely put under the bench, and no one recognized Christ as his Lord or the Holy Ghost as his Sanctifier, that is, no one believed that Christ is our Lord in the sense that He has acquired this treasure for us, without our works and merit, and made us acceptable to the Father. What, then, was lacking? 44] This, that the Holy Ghost was not there to reveal it and cause it to be preached; but men and evil spirits were there, who taught us to obtain grace and be saved by our works. 45] Therefore it is not a Christian Church either; for where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Ghost who creates, calls, and gathers the Christian Church, without which no one can come to Christ the Lord.

(“The Apostles’ Creed”; Article III)

Further support for the notion that Luther perpetuated the myth of almost total ignorance of and inaccessibility of the Bible before he brought it to light (much like his similarly absurd views of having “rediscovered the gospel” (as if Catholics didn’t have a clue about it before he arrived on the scene), comes from Hartmann Grisar’s six-volume biography, Luther (the following from Vol. 5 from 1916):

. . . it is instructive from the psychological standpoint to trace the development in Luther’s mind of the fable to be dealt with more fully below that, under Popery, the Bible had been discarded and that he, Luther, had brought it once more to light. . . .

When afterwards he had been dazed by his great success with his translation of the Bible he was led to fancy that he was the first to open up the domain of Holy Scripture. This impression is closely bound up with the arbitrary pronouncements, even on the weightiest questions of the Canon, which we find scattered throughout his prefaces to the books of the Bible. He frequently repeats that he had forced all his opponents to take up the study of the Bible and that it was he alone who had made them see the need of their devoting themselves to this branch of learning so as to be able to refute him. Here of course he is exaggerating the facts of the case. Accustomed as he was to hyperbole, we soon find him declaring, first as a paradox and then as actual fact, that the Bible had been buried in oblivion among the Catholics. The Papal Antichrist had destroyed all reverence for the Bible and all understanding of it; only that all men without exception might not run headlong to spiritual destruction had Christ, as it were by “force,” preserved the “simple text of the Gospel on the lecterns” “even under the rule of Antichrist.”

[Footnote: “Werke,” Weim. ed., 30, 2, p. 645 ; Erl. ed., 65, p. 122, “Sendbrieff von Dolmetzschefi.”]

(pp. 534-535)

The Bible in the Ages before Luther 

It would be to perpetuate a prejudice all too long current among Protestants, founded on Luther’s often false or at least exaggerated statements, were one to fail to recognise how widely the Bible was known even before Luther’s day and to what an extent it was studied among educated people. Modern research, not seldom carried out by open-minded Protestants, has furnished some surprising results in this respect, so that one of the most recent and diligent of the Protestant workers in this field could write: “If everything be taken into account it will no longer be possible to say as the old polemics did, that the Bible was a sealed book to both theologians and laity. The more we study the Middle Ages, the more does this fable tend to dissolve into thin air.” “The Middle Ages concerned themselves with Bible translation much more than was formerly supposed.”

[Footnote: Kropatscheck, “Das Schriftprinzip der lutherischen Kirche,” 1, 1904, p. 163. On the German translations see below, p. 542 ff.]

According to a careful summary recently published by Franz Falk no less than 156 different Latin editions of the Bible were printed in the period between the discovery of the art of printing and the year of Luther’s excommunication, i.e. from 1450 to 1520. To this must also be added at that time many translations of the whole Bible, many of them emanating from what was to be the home of the innovations, viz. 17 German, 11 Italian, 10 French, 2 Bohemian, 1 Belgian, 1 Limousine and 1 Russian edition, making in all, with the 6 Hebrew editions also known, 199 editions of the complete Bible. Of the German editions 14 are in the dialect of Upper Germany.

[Footnote: F. Falk, “Die Bibel am Ausgange des MA. ihre Kenntnis und ihre Verbreitung,” Cologne, 1905, pp. 24, 91 ff.]

Besides this the common people also possessed extracts of the Sacred Book, the purchase of the entire Bible being beyond their slender means. The Psalter and the Postils were widely known and both played a great part in the religious life of the Middle Ages. The Psalter, or German translation of the 150 Psalms, was used as a manual of instruction and a prayer-book for both clergy and laity. Twenty-two translations dating from the Middle Ages are extant, and the latter editions extend from the ‘seventies of the 15th to the ‘twenties of the 16th century. The Postils was the collection of lessons from both Old and New Testaments, prescribed to be read on the Sundays. This collection sufficed for the people and provided them with useful reading matter, with which, moreover, they were rendered even more familiar owing to the homilies on these very excerpts usually given on the Sundays. The early printers soon helped to spread this form of literature. We still have no fewer than 103 printed German editions of the Postils (often known as Plenaries) dating from the above period.

[Footnote: Falk, ib., p. 27 ff.]

. . . Even a superficial glance at the Middle Ages,” says Risch, “cannot fail to show us the gradual upgrowth of a fixed German Biblical vocabulary. Luther here could dip into a rich treasure-house and select the best. … In laying such stress on Luther’s indebtedness to the past we have no wish to call into question the real originality of his translation.”

[Footnote: “N. kirchl. Zeitschr.,” 1911, p. 141.]

“That, during the Middle Ages,” says another Protestant scholar, “more particularly in the years which immediately preceded Luther’s appearance, the Bible was a well-spring completely choked up, and the entrance to which was jealously guarded, used to be, and probably still is, the prevailing opinion. The question is, however, whether this opinion is correct.” “We have before us to-day so complete a history of the Bible in the various modern languages that it can no longer be said that the Vulgate alone was in use and that the laity consequently were ignorant of Scripture. It greatly redounds to the credit of Protestant theologians, that they, more than any others, took so large a part in collecting this enormous store of material.” “We must admit that the Middle Ages possessed a quite surprising and extremely praiseworthy knowledge of the Bible, such as might in many respects put our own age to shame.” “We have to acknowledge that the Bible at the present day no longer forms the foundation of our knowledge and civilisation to the same extent as it did in the Middle Ages.”

[Footnote: E. v. Dobschiitz, ” Deutsche Rundschau,” 101, 1900, p. 61 ff. Falk, ib., p. 86.]

Who, however, was responsible for the prevalent belief that the Middle Ages knew nothing of the Bible? Who was it who so repeatedly asserted this, that he misled the people into believing that nobody before him had studied Holy Scripture, and that it was only through him that the “Word of God had been drawn forth from under the bench”? A Protestant quite rightly reproves the “bad habit” of accepting the estimate of ecclesiastical conditions, particularly of divine worship, current “with Luther and in his circle” -, 1 it is, however, to fall short of the mark, to describe merely as a “bad habit” Luther’s flagrant and insulting falsehoods against the ecclesiastical conditions at the close of the Middle Ages, falsehoods for which his own polemical interests were solely responsible.

. . . As some Protestants have sought to clear him of the authorship of so glaring a fable and to insinuate that the expression belongs rather to his pupil Mathesius, we must here look a little more closely into the words.

Luther himself uses the saying, for instance, when claiming credit in his Commentary on the Prophet Zacharias (chap, viii.) with having rendered the greatest possible service to Scripture. He says: “They [the Papists] are still angry and refuse to listen when people say, that, with them, Scripture lay under the bench, and that their mad delusions alone prevailed.” In this connection the Weimar editor of the Commentary refers to a work of the former Dominican, Petrus Sylvius, aimed at Luther and entitled “Von den vier Evangelein, so eine lange Zeit unter der Bank sein gelegen.”

[Footnote: “Werke,” Weim. ed., 23, p. 606 ; Erl. ed., 42, p. 280. Cp. N. Paulus, “Die deutschen Dominikaner im Kampf gegen Luther,” p. 61.]

Popery, Luther says in another passage, “kicked Scripture under the bench.”

[Footnote: “Werke,” Erl. ed., 25, p. 444.]

. . . Elsewhere he describes in detail the trouble he had in pulling the Bible from “under the bench,” particularly owing to his theological rivals and the sectarians within the camp; on this occasion his black outlook as to the future of the Bible he had thus set free scarcely redounds to the credit of his achievement. He says in his tract against Zwingli (“That the words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ still stand fast,” 1527): “When in our own day we saw how Scripture lay under the bench, and how the devil was deluding us and taking us captive with the hay and straw of men-made prayers, we tried, by the Grace of God, to mend matters, and have indeed with great and bitter pains brought Scripture back to light once more, and, sending human ordinances to the winds, set ourselves free and escaped from the devil.”

[Footnote: ” Werke,” Weim. ed., 23, p. 69 ; Erl. ed., 30, p. 19. For similar predictions see above, p. 169 ff. On the famous “bench” cp. also Weim. ed., 6, p. 460 ; Erl. ed., 21, p. 348 ; also below, p. 541 and vol. iv., p. 159.]

(pp. 536-539)

It is plain that they “abuse and revile Scripture, thrust it under the bench, pretend that it is shrouded in thick fog, that the interpretation of the Fathers is needed and that light must be sought in the darkness.” Thus did he write against Emser in 1521.

[Footnote: ” Auff das ubirchristlich Buch,” etc., 1521, ” Werke,” Weim. ed., 7, p. 641 ; Erl. ed., 27, p. 247.]

(p. 541)

Modern Protestant writers in this field are also somewhat sceptical about the theory of Luther’s complete ignorance of the older translation of the Bible, and the assertion that he made no use whatever of it. O. Reichert, for instance, in his new work “Luthers deutsche Bibel” makes the following remarks on Luther’s work in the Wartburg, with which we may fittingly conclude this section: “Although he probably was able to make use of Lang’s translation of 1521 in his rendering of Matthew, and as a matter of fact did have recourse to it, and though he most likely also had the old German translation at his elbow, as is apparent from many coincidences, nevertheless, what Luther accomplished is an achievement worthy of all admiration.”

[Footnote: “Luthers deutsche Bibel,” p. 23.]

(p. 546)

Luther at times talks about “obscurity” of the Bible in the sense of false doctrines being imposed upon it (Catholic biographer Grisar acknowledges this), but this doesn’t rule out that he also often intends the first sense of physical removal of the Bible from the laity (by either prohibition or absence of vernacular translations, or lack of availability of same): according to the timeworn Protestant myth that has been heard countless times ever since. That Luther intends the first sense is already observed in the excerpts I have provided above. For example:

. . . the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah). (1539)

The editors of this collection of Luther writings, gives the biblical reference alluded to by Luther: 2 Kings 22:8. Here it is (RSV):

And Hilki’ah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilki’ah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.

Most Bible scholars consider this lost work, the book of Deuteronomy. Note that it was literally, physically lost, in the temple. Once it was found, it was read to the people. This is not merely loss of proper interpretation, but loss of the book itself. Luther proves that this is his meaning by citing this analogy. It couldn’t be any clearer than it is.

Again above, Luther refers to a state of affairs where (Catholic) men “permit the Word of God to fall into disuse . . .” It’s not used at all; this is again, non-use of the Bible altogether, not false or corrupted use of it. If I permit my bicycle to fall into disuse, quite obviously I am not using it at all. The chain would get rusty in due course. Luther uses the same analogy in the same work: [the Bible] “laid up in rust”.

Luther’s Commentary on Peter and Jude from 1523 (cited at length above), explicitly states that Catholics (or the Church) supposedly desired to keep the Bible out of the laity’s hands. As a general statement, this is untrue. And it’s a bit difficult to believe that he could have been this ignorant of Church history and Catholicism (being quite a sharp guy).

But we know that Luther was prone to hyper-polemical utterances and exaggeration (and that context is always very important in interpretation of Luther); thus we hope (in charity) that this is altogether an instance of that, rather than reflective of his literal opinion as to the historical facts.


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