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‘These four letters s o l a are not there’: Language and Theology in Luther's Translation of the New Testament

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2017

Charlotte Methuen*
University of Glasgow
*TRS, University of Glasgow, No. 4 The Square, Glasgow, G41 2NW. E-mail:


Luther's 1522 translation of the New Testament is one of the most significant translations in Christian history. In it, he offers a translation of Romans 3: 28 which introduces the word allein: ‘So halten wir es nun, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben.’ As Luther himself recognized in his Open Letter on Translating (1530), the word ‘alone’ does not appear in either the Greek text of Romans or the Vulgate; nor do other contemporary vernacular translations include it. Luther asserted that the introduction of the word allein arose from his attention to the German language. This claim has often been regarded as specious, since the introduction of allein serves to underline a key aspect of Luther's theology, namely his doctrine of justification by faith. This article examines Luther's translation practice, and particularly his comments on Romans 3: 28 in his lectures on Romans, his preface to Paul's epistle to the Romans and other writings, concluding that Luther was indeed concerned to produce a fluent and coherent German translation of the biblical text, but that he wished also to produce one that was theologically unambiguous. Not only linguistic considerations, but also Luther's theological priorities, and his definition of theological unambiguity, determined his definition of a good translation.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2017 

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1 There is some complexity involved in writing about Luther's German Bible translation in English: German, and where appropriate Latin and Greek, will be given in the text along with English translations. Luther's preferred term, dolmetschen, is today generally referred to the oral process of translating known as `interpreting'; however, I have used `translating' here since this article explores (inter alia) the relationship between Luther's textual translations and his exegetical interpretation. For Luther's terminology, see Christopher Spehr, ``Dem Volk aufs Maul schauen'': Luther als Dolmetscher', in Margot Käßmann and Martin Rösel, eds, Die Bibel Martin Luthers. Ein Buch und seine Geschichte (Stuttgart and Leipzig, 2016), 76--93, at 77--9.

2 Luther, Sendbrief zu Dolmetschen, WA 30/2, 636 (LW 35, 188).

3 Indeed, Barnes, Robert believes that ‘much modern debate about translation in general has arisen from debate about the principles of biblical translation’: ‘Translating the Sacred’, in Malmkjær, Kirsten and Windle, Kevin, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Translation Studies (Oxford, 2011), 3754; at 38Google Scholar.

4 Stolt, Birgit, ‘Luther's Translation of the Bible’, Lutheran Quarterly 28 (2014), 373400Google Scholar, at 376; originally published in German as ‘“. . . und fühl's im Herzen . . .”. Luthers Bibelübersetzung aus der Sicht neuerer Sprach- und Übersetzungswissenschaft’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 98 (2001), 186–208.

5 Nestingen, James Arne, ‘Luther's Cultural Translation of the Catechism’, Lutheran Quarterly 15 (2001), 440–52, at 440Google Scholar.

6 Stolt, ‘Luther's Translation’, 377.

7 Ibid. 377–81. Stolt notes, however, that Luther was also ‘sensitive to the historically developed, stylistic genre of the biblical way of narration, a biblical narrative tone’: ibid. 397.

8 Berman, Antoine, The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany (Albany, NY, 1992), 25Google Scholar. Historians of the German language are agreed that Luther's Bible translation made a very significant contribution to the standardization of early modern high German: see, for instance, Trinklein, Michael, ‘Luther's Insights into the Translator's Task’, Bible Translator 21 (1970), 80–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 There is not space in this article to engage properly with the philosophy of translation. Suffice it to remark that structuralism tells us, with some justification, that meaning is fluid for all texts, but translators nonetheless have to proceed on the assumption that they can find a meaning in the original text that can be mediated, however imperfectly, into another language.

10 This remains an ongoing challenge for biblical translators, as Anthony Pym observes: ‘in the case of the Bible, the establishment of any “original” . . . depends on a multi-lingual collection of writings and rewritings collated over a period of centuries, some of them quite fragmentary, many of them contradictory, and more requiring interpretation in terms of non-sacred texts from the same periods’: Pym, Anthony, ‘On the Historical Epistemologies of Bible Translating’, in Noss, Philip A., ed., A History of Bible Translation (Rome, 2007), 195215, at 196–7Google Scholar.

11 The extent of Luther's knowledge of New Testament Greek and of Hebrew has long been the subject of debate. This article will work on the assumption that his Greek was good enough for him to be able to use Erasmus's Novum Instrumentum and to recognize the validity of the translation issues identified by the humanists.

12 For discussions of Luther's Bible and its relationship to other early modern German Bible translations, see Bluhm, Heinz, Martin Luther: Creative Translator (St Louis, MO, 1965)Google Scholar; idem, ‘Luther's German Bible’, in Peter Newman Brooks, ed., Seven-Headed Luther: Essays in Commemoration of a Quincentenary 1483–1983 (Oxford, 1983), 177–94; Gow, Andrew C., ‘The Contested History of a Book: The German Bible of the Later Middle Ages and Reformation in Legend, Ideology, and Scholarship’, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, article 13 [online journal], at: <>, last accessed 15 August 2016; Kaufmann, Thomas, ‘Vorreformatorische Laienbibel und reformatorisches Evangelium’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 101 (2004), 138–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kooiman, Willem Jan, Luther and the Bible (Philadelphia, PA, 1961)Google Scholar; Leppin, Volker, ‘“Biblia, das ist die ganze Heilige Schrift deutsch”. Luthers Bibelübersetzung zwischen Sakralität und Profanität’, in Rohls, Jan and Wenz, Gunther, eds, Protestantismus und deutsche Literatur, Münchener Theologische Forschungen 2 (Göttingen, 2004), 1326Google Scholar; Methuen, Charlotte, ‘“novam sprach, celeste deudsch”. Eine Untersuchung der theologischen Sprache von Luthers Bibelübersetzung’, Zeitschrift für Neues Testament 13 (2010), 4051Google Scholar; Reinitzer, Heimo, Biblia deutsch. Luthers Bibelübersetzung und ihre Tradition (Wolfenbüttel and Hamburg, 1983)Google Scholar.

13 Botley, Paul, Latin Translation in the Renaissance: The Theory and Practice of Leonardo Bruni, Giannozzo Manetti and Desiderius Erasmus (Cambridge, 2004), 115Google Scholar; cf. de Jonge, Henk Jan, ‘Novum Testamentum a nobis versum: The Essence of Erasmus’ Edition of the New Testament’, JThS 35 (1984), 394413Google Scholar. The Basle printer, Froben, also encouraged Erasmus to produce an edition of the Greek text: see De Jonge, ‘Essence of Erasmus’ Edition’, 401; Elliott, J. K., ‘“Novum Testamentum editum est”: The Five-Hundredth Anniversary of Erasmus's New Testament’, Bible Translator 67 (2016), 928CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 11; Metzger, Bruce and Ehrman, Bart, The Text of the New Testament, 3rd edn (New York, 2005), 142Google Scholar. Metzger and Ehmann assert (ibid. 145) – erroneously – that the Novum Instrumentum initially included not Erasmus's translation but the Vulgate translation. For the shape of the Novum Instrumentum, its rationale and genesis, see von Rotterdam, Erasmus, Novum Instrumentum (Basel, 1516)Google Scholar, facsimile edn, ed. Heinz Holeczek (Stuttgart and Bad Cannstatt, 1986), especially Holeczek's introduction, v–xxxv.

14 Long, Lynne, ‘The Translation of Sacred Texts’, in Millán, Carmen and Bartrina, Francesca, eds, The Routledge Handbook of Translation Studies (London, 2013), 464–74, at 467Google Scholar.

15 Lefevere, André, Translation, History, Culture: A Sourcebook (London, 1992), 3Google Scholar; cited by Long, Lynne, Translating the Bible: From the 7th to the 17th century (Aldershot, 2002), 205Google Scholar.

16 Duerdon, Richard, ‘Equivalence or Power? Authority and Reformation Bible Translation’, in: O'Sullivan, Orlaith, ed., The Bible as Book: The Reformation (London, 2000), 923, at 9Google Scholar. For issues of power in translation in general, see Álvarez, Román and África Vidal, M. Carmen, eds, Translation, Power, Subversion (Clevedon, 1996)Google Scholar.

17 Duerdon, ‘Equivalence or Power?’, 13. For Thomas More's view of Tyndale's translation as heretical, see Hooker, Morna D., ‘Tyndale's “Heretical” Translation’, Reformation 2 (1997), 127–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Glowacki, David R., ‘To the Reader: The Structure of Power in Biblical Translation, from Tyndale to the NRSV’, Literature and Theology 22 (2008), 195209CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 197. Glowacki's claim is less convincing in the case of the preface to Tyndale's New Testament than it is for the Geneva Bible or the Authorized version.

19 Schüssler, Hermann, Der Primat der Heiligen Schrift als theologisches und kanonisches Problem im Spätmittelalter (Wiesbaden, 1977), especially 294–305Google Scholar.

20 To cite just one example, Duke George of Saxony sought to suppress the September-testament by having all copies confiscated and burned: see Volkmar, Christoph, ‘Turning Luther's Weapons against him: The Birth of Catholic Propaganda in Saxony in the 1520s’, in Walsby, Malcolm and Kemp, Graeme, eds, The Book Triumphant: Print in Transition in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Leiden, 2011), 115–31, at 127–8Google Scholar.

21 Luther, ‘Preface to the New Testament’ (1522), WA.DB 6, 2 (LW 35, 358, translation amended by Charlotte Methuen).

22 Ibid., WA.DB 6, 10 (LW 35, 362).

23 Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition, 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700) (Chicago, IL, 1984), 308Google Scholar.

24 Wycliffe has ‘Do ye[e] penaunce’; see: The Earlier Version of the Wycliffite Bible, 7: The Gospels, edited from MS Christ Church 145, ed. Conrad Lindberg (Stockholm, 1994), 31; King Henry's Bible, MS Bodley 277: The Revised Version of the Wyclif Bible, 4: The New Testament, ed. Conrad Lindberg (Stockholm, 2004), 38. For the relationship between the earlier and later versions of the Wyclif translation, see Dove, Mary, The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions (Cambridge 2007), especially 137–88Google Scholar.

25 By the late Middle Ages, lay people were expected to know and be able to recite the Ave Maria, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed in their own language. All these texts were often chanted in the context of the liturgy and were also used in private devotions and in combination with the rosary: see Angenendt, Arnold, Geschichte der Religiosität im Mittelalter, 2nd edn (Darmstadt, 2000), 471, 479, 545–6Google Scholar.

26 Both Valla and Erasmus observed in their Annotations that the Greek participle meant ‘accepted into grace’. See Pelikan, Christian Tradition, 4: 308; compare also Rummel, Erika, Erasmus’ Annotations on the New Testament: From Philologist to Theologian (Toronto, ON, 1986), 167–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 In this case, Tyndale's translation (Antwerp, 1534), apparently unconcerned about humanist objections, renders the Vulgate text into English: ‘Hayle ful of grace, ye Lorde is with ye’.

28 Luther, Sendbrief zu Dolmetschen, WA 30/2, 638 (LW 35, 191–2, translation amended by author: the LW rendering ‘Hello there Mary’ misses the tone of Luther's rendering of the divine greeting to ‘sweet Mary’).

29 Luther assumed that the spoken language of the New Testament was Hebrew, and therefore frequently considered which Hebrew term might be being translated by the Greek: Frech, Stephan Veit, Magnificat und Benedictus Deutsch: Martin Luthers bibelhumanistische Übersetzung in der Rezeption des Erasmus von Rotterdam (Bern, 1995), 261Google Scholar. In this, intriguingly, Luther was following Giannozzo Manetti, whose unpublished translation of the Bible into Latin he cannot have known. Erasmus, in contrast, emphasized ‘the diversity of languages which had been spoken in Roman Judaea’, and argued that Christ would certainly not have spoken Latin but ‘Syriac, perhaps sometimes in Chaldaic, and maybe occasionally in Greek’, or maybe also Hebrew corrupted by Syriac and Chaldean: see Erasmus's annotations to Acts 10, in Erasmus’ Annotations on the New Testament: Acts – Romans – I and II Corinthians, ed. Anne Reeve and M. A. Screech (Leiden, 1990), 299–300; cf. Botley, Latin translation in the Renaissance, 98, 116–17. For Manetti's translation, see also den Haan, Annet, ‘Giannozzo Manetti's New Testament: New Evidence on Sources, Translation Process and the Use of Valla's Annotationes’, Renaissance Studies 28 (2013), 731–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Luther, Sendbrief zu Dolmetschen, WA 30/2, 639 (LW 35, 192–3).

31 Luther, Two Types of Righteousness, WA 2, 146 (LW 31, 299); cf. also Luther's use of a marriage metaphor for the relationship between the sinner and Christ: The Freedom of a Christian, WA 7, 54–5 (LW 31, 351).

32 Long, ‘Translation of Sacred Texts’, 470.

33 Emser, Hieronymus, Das naw Testament nach lawt der Christlichen kirchen bewerten Text (Dresden, 1523)Google Scholar, fol. 39r. For the politics behind Emser's translation, see Volkmar, ‘Turning Luther's Weapons against him’.

34 Emser, Hieronymus, Auß was gründ und ursach Luthers dolmatschung / über das nawe testament / dem gemeinen man billich vorbotten worden sey . . . (Leipzig, 1523)Google Scholar, cited in Stolt, ‘Luther's Translation’, 382.

35 Stolt, ‘Luther's Translation’, 382.

36 Similarly, there are numerous discrepancies between Erasmus's Latin translation of the Greek text and the text used in his accompanying notes in the Annotationes.

37 Erasmus based his rendering of the Greek text on Byzantine codices, whilst the Vulgate used an Alexandrian text, which reads: λογιζόμεθα γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει ἄνθρωπον χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου. The latter is now regarded as closer to the original. For the manuscripts used by Erasmus in the Novum Instrumentum, see Patrick Andrist, ‘Structure and History of the Biblical Manuscripts used by Erasmus for his 1516 Edition’, and Brown, Andrew J., ‘The Manuscript Sources and Textual Character of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament’, in Wallraff, Martin, Menchi, Silvana Seidel and von Greyerz, Kaspar, eds, Basel 1516: Erasmus’ Edition of the New Testament (Tübingen, 2016), 81124Google Scholar, 125–44 respectively.

38 Tyndale's English translation gives a good indication of the meaning of Erasmus's text: ‘We suppose therefore that a man is iustified by fayth with out the dedes of the lawe.’ I am grateful to Gergely Juhász for drawing my attention to the relationship between Erasmus's translation and the manuscript tradition.

39 Heinz Bluhm has explored the relationship between Erasmus's 1519 Greek text of Romans 3: 19–31, Erasmus's 1519 translation, the Vulgate and Luther's Septembertestament: Bluhm, Heinz, ‘Bedeutung und Eigenart von Luthers Septembertestament: Eine Analyse von Römer iii. 19–31’, Luther Jahrbuch 39 (1972), 5579Google Scholar.

40 Luther, Sendbrief zu Dolmetschen, WA 30/2, 636 (LW 35, 188).

41 Ibid., WA 30/2, 637 (LW 35, 189).

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., WA 30/2, 637 (LW 35, 188).

45 Sauer-Geppert, Waldtraut-Ingeborg, ‘Bibelübersetzungen III/1’, in Theologische Realenzyklopädie (Berlin, 1976–2004), 6: 228–46, at 239Google Scholar.

46 Luther, Sermo de digna praeparatione cordis pro suscipiendo sacramento euchariatiae, WA 1, 332; Bluhm, ‘Bedeutung und Eigenart’, 76.

47 Luther, Lectures on Romans, WA 56, 171 (LW 25, 151); but cf. the minimal treatment in WA 57, 133, which does not mention faith at all.

48 Ibid., WA 56, 39 (LW 25, 33).

49 Ibid., WA 56, 264 (LW 25, 252).

50 Luther, Quaestio de viribus et voluntate hominis sine gratia disputa 1516, WA 1, 145–51; Luther, Sermon vom Ablaß und Gnade, WA 1, 243–6. The marginal citations in Luther's writings up to 1518 (WA 1), suggests that he cited Romans 1[: 17] and Romans 8 quite frequently, but Romans 3 rarely, citing 3: 20 more often than 3: 28. However, some care is needed here, since in most cases the marginal references given in the WA represent the editors’ assumptions about which passage Luther had in mind when he wrote ‘St Paul says’ or ‘as Paul in Romans chapter 3’.

51 Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, WA 1, 364 (LW 31, 56).

52 Ibid.

53 Luther, Proceedings at Augsburg, WA 2, 14; (LW 31, 271).

54 Luther, Freedom of a Christian, WA 7, 51 (LW 31, 346). In the German version Luther wrote ‘das der glaub allein mag frum machen’: WA 7, 23.

55 Luther, Sermon preached on the Day of the Holy Three Kings, WA 7, 241; cf. Bluhm, ‘Bedeutung und Eigenart’, 76.

56 Luther, Kirchenpostille, WA 10/1.1, 343–4; cf. Bluhm, ‘Bedeutung und Eigenart’, 76.

57 Bluhm, ‘Luther's German Bible’, 186.

58 James 2: 24, WA.DB 7, 392.

59 Luther, ‘Preface to the Letters of James and Jude’ (1522), WA.DB 7, 384 (LW 35, 396).

60 Luther, ‘Preface to the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans’ (1522), WA.DB 7, 2 (LW 35, 365).

61 WA.DB 7, 38. The note is positioned alongside Romans 3: 23–4, but Bluhm implies, probably correctly, that it should be taken to apply to the longer passage in the middle of which it occurs, i.e. 3: 19–28 or 19–31: Bluhm, ‘Bedeutung und Eigenart’, 73, 79.

62 Luther, Lectures on Genesis (Gen. 21: 17), WA 43, 178 (LW 4, 60).

63 Ibid. (Gen. 22: 17–18), WA 43, 253 (LW 4, 163).

64 Beutel, Albrecht, In dem Anfang war das Wort. Studien zu Luthers Sprachverständnis (Tübingen, 1991), 28Google Scholar.

65 As Stolt, ‘Luther's Translation’, 377, observes: ‘The preacher could perceive directly from the reaction of his listeners whether or not they followed what he was saying’. Cf. also Bluhm, Martin Luther, 77, on the difference between the Weihnachtspostille [WP] and the Septembertestament [ST]: ‘In WP what matters is the sermon; the translation is but a prelude. In ST what matters is the translation itself’.

66 Long, ‘Translation of Sacred Texts’, 468.

67 Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, WA 6, 412 (LW 44, 135).

68 Leppin, ‘“Biblia, das ist die ganze Heilige Schrift deutsch”’, 17.

69 Alec Ryrie, ‘“Protestantism” as a Historical Category’, TRHS 6th ser. 26 (2016), 59–77, at 72.

70 Cf. ibid.; and see also Hendrix's recognition that for Luther the authority of Scripture was not some kind of propositional truth: ‘rather . . . Luther approached Scripture as we would approach a great work of art’: Scott H. Hendrix, ‘The Authority of Scripture at Work: Luther's Exegesis of the Psalms’, in idem, Tradition and Authority in the Reformation (Aldershot, 1996), art. II, 144–59, at 147; first publ. in Gritsch, E. W., ed., Encounters with Luther (Gettysburg, PA, 1982)Google Scholar.

71 Stolt, ‘Luther's Translation’, 381.

72 Hendrix, ‘Authority of Scripture’, 158, drawing on Luther's preface to the revised edition of his commentary on the penitential psalms: WA 18, 479 (LW 14, 140).

73 Luther, Sendbrief zu Dolmetschen, WA 30/2, 640 (LW 35, 194, amended); cf. Pym, ‘Historical Epistemologies’, 203.

74 Berman, Experience of the Foreign, 24.

75 Venuti, Lawrence, Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice (London, 2013), 107Google Scholar.

76 In the mid-nineteenth century, the Bible translation prepared by Luther and his team at Wittenberg came to be known as the Lutherbibel. The earliest use of the term I have – with the help of David Bagchi – been able to identify is in a mid-nineteenth-century edition of the 1545 Bible, the last to be published in Luther's lifetime, the erroneously named Wartburg-Bibel (Gotha, 1842), 4 n. 4, online at: <https://opacplus,>, accessed 13 February 2017. The earliest uses in book titles appear to be Gustav Baur and Johhann Friedrich Ahlfeld, Ueber die sprachliche Revision der Lutherbibel (Halle, 1873); Carl Ludwig Wilibald Grimm, Die Lutherbibel und ihre Textesrevision (Berlin, 1874). Nikolaus Schneider suggests that the terminology arose in connection with the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of the 1545 edition, and the need to agree on one authorized version: ‘Luthers Arbeit an der Bibelübersetzung – Ein Beispiel reformatorischen Theologie-Treibens’, address given at the conference ‘“Was dolmetschen für Kunst und Arbeit sei” – Die Lutherbibel und andere deutsche Bibelübersetzungen’, University Church, Rostock, 17 October 2013, online at: <>, accessed 13 February 2017. The revised translation was published in 1883 to coincide with the four hundredth anniversary of Luther's birth. It is apparent from the titles of many works responding to it that this 1883 edition was commonly referred to as the Lutherbibel.

77 For Tyndale's translation decisions, see Hooker, ‘Tyndale's “Heretical” Translation’.