English Bible Translations Produced by Lutherans

by Daniel W. Decker
(Bible Editions & Versions – Jan.-Mar. 2005)

This article examines twenty-three Lutheran scholars who have translated the Bible, or portions of it, into English since the 16th century. This author is deeply indebted to two ISBC members for their help in preparing this manuscript: Mark Mage and William E. Paul, especially the latter’s book, English Language Bible Translators (McFarland, 2003).

The Bible has always had a central place in the lives of Lutherans, both in their personal lives and in their worship and liturgy. This is evident by Martin Luther, early in the Reformation, translating the Bible into German in 1534. Many of Luther’s spiritual descendants, of course, emigrated to the United States, primarily from Germany and Scandinavia, and brought their faith and their Bibles with them. It was common for these folk to read their Bibles and conduct their church services in their native language for decades after their arrival. This writer’s German forbearers, for example, did not hold their worship services in English until the beginning of World War I. When the immigrants did begin reading an English Bible, it was the King James Version, the same as the majority of other Americans.

Miles (or Myles) Coverdale (1488-1569) was the first Lutheran on a team that translated the Bible into English. He was the key individual responsible for producing the first printed Bible in the English language, titled The Bible, that is, the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testament, faithfully and truly translated out of the Douche and Latin into English (1535). A Lutheran pastor and schoolmaster from 1543 to 1547, he became an assistant to William Tyndale in Hamburg, Germany. Coverdale acknowledged the use of other language sources in the preparation of his Bible: Tyndale (English); Luther and Zwingli (German); and the Latin Vulgate. A second edition (1537) was published “with the King’s most gracious license,” making it the first expressly “authorized” version of the Bible to appear in English. In 1539, Coverdale became editor of The Great Bible, which contained revisions of his own translation. He was also involved in producing the Geneva Bible (1560).

Franz Julius Delitzsch (1813-1890), a professor of theology at Leipzig, was a Lutheran scholar who wrote a prestigious commentary, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, which contained his own Old Testament translation into German. This was then translated into English by James Martin (1865). It is used to this day.

In the twentieth century, the German-born Richard Charles Henry Lenski (1864-1936) similarly produced a commentary, in English, which had embedded in it an extensive translation of most New Testament verses. This twelve-volume set of commentaries of the entire New Testament bore the title A New Commentary on the New Testament, Interpretation and Translation (1931 -1946).

Olaf M. Norlie (1876-1962) was a highly educated and respected Lutheran scholar who, as early as 1943, translated and published, with the help of students from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, a mimeographed edition of The Gospel of John. By 1951 he had completed a translation of the entire New Testament titled The New Testament in Modem English. Ten years later, Zondervan published this work as Norlie’s Simplified New Testament in Plain English for Today’s Reader, A New Translation from the Greek (1961). His version followed the readings of the King James Version but sought to make it “more interesting and intelligible, especially for today’s young people.” He made every effort to “make this translation readable, while at the same time making it meaningful— combining clarity and simplicity with a pleasing English style.”
A prominent scholar, Luther A. Weigle (1880-1976), professor (1916) and later dean (1928-1949) of Yale Divinity School, served as the first chairman of the translation committee for the Revised Standard Version Bible (New Testament, 1946; Complete Bible, 1952). Weigle was originally ordained a Lutheran minister and served as pastor of a Lutheran church in Bridgeport, Connecticut (1903-1904). But in 1916 he transferred to the ministry of the Congregational Church. Weigle was appointed president of the Federal Council of Churches in 1940.

Robert O. Hoerber (1918-1996) was a professor of exegetical theology at (Lutheran) Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (1974-1989). He was a translator both of his own version and as a committee member for the Holy Bible: New King James Version (1979). He self-published a translation of ten apostolic letters under the title Saint Paul’s Shorter Letters (1954). Hoerber also served as the general editor of The Concordia Self-Study Bible (1986), a Lutheran revision of The NIV Study Bible.

William F. Beck (1904-1966) published in 1963 The New Testament in the Language of Today that gained a rather wide circulation because it was offered without cost to listeners of “The Lutheran Hour,” a popular nationally broadcast radio program of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. By 1966, Beck had translated the Old Testament, but died before its final editing and publication. Others provided some changes and it was finally published in 1976 as The Holy Bible in the Language of Today, An American Translation. A second edition was issued that same year, containing further revisions and corrections. Beck’s translation has the distinction of being the first complete English translation of the Bible by an individual Lutheran. To commemorate that achievement, a copy was placed in the Luther House at Wittenberg, Saxony, Germany on January 1, 1976.

Marcus Barth (d. 1994), son of Karl Barth and chair of New Testament studies at the University of Basil, Switzerland, published The Broken Wall: A Study of the Epistle to the Ephesians (1959), which contains new translations of select passages scattered in no particular order throughout the study.

A translation called A Critical Emphatic Paraphrase of the New Testament by a lay-member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Vincent T. Roth (b. 1892), was produced in 1960 on a mimeograph machine as “a desire to get a better understanding and insight of the original language.” A second, revised edition was produced in 1963, also on the mimeograph. Wipf and Stock later produced a reprint of the 1963 edition in 2000. Roth was a postal clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. In producing his translation, Roth compared fourteen other translations in both English and German.

Richard S. Hanson, a member of the faculty of Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, produced The Psalms in Modem Speech for Public and Private Use (1968). Hanson said he aimed to capture the rhythms of the ancient Hebrew poetry in his translation.

Another translation embedded in a commentary is A Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon (1971) by William R. Poehlmann and Robert J. Karris, translated from the German by Helmut Koester.

Christopher J. Christianson produced “a continuous narrative harmonizing the four Gospels and the Acts,” titled The Concise Gospels and the Acts (1973). A graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary. St. Paul, Minnesota, Mr. Christianson has been both a pastor and author. His version does not deviate very far from the King James Version.

Julian G Anderson (b. 1916) was a Lutheran pastor and seminary professor. He self published a translation of the books of Luke and Acts as The New Testament, Everyday American English, Translated from the Simple Greek of the New Testament (1975). After twenty-five years of study, Anderson then produced a complete New Testament, titled A New Accurate Translation of the Greek New Testament into Simple Everyday American English (1984). Revised editions appeared in 1989 and 1990. A feature of the translation is the use of an asterisk beside numerous words, which sends the reader to a 150-page commentary section at the end of the book. Also, the books are arranged in their presumed chronological order.

Massey Hamilton Shepherd translated the Biblical text of Psalms in his A Liturgical Psalter for the Christian (1976), published by Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis.

John F. Hazel translated the Gospel of Mark, titled What’s Happening Now by Brother Mark (1977), published by C.S.S. Publishing Company, Lima, Ohio. Hazel, a native of Hightstown, New Jersey, was a graduate of Muhlenberg College and was a student at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.

David Rhoads, Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, and Donald Michie. Professor of English at Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin, produced Mark As Story (1982), published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia. It includes a translation of Mark along with discussions of settings and plot. The authors say, “The translation . . . is set out like a short story so that the reader may experience the story as a whole.” There is a preface by Reynolds Price.

Another translation contained in a commentary is Revelation: The Distant Triumph Song (1985), by Siegbert W. Becker (1914-1984) who was chairman of the New Testament department at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin. It was published by Northwestern Publishing House in Milwaukee.

Phillip P Giessler, a Lutheran pastor from the Cleveland area, formed a committee in 1978 for the purpose of revising and updating the William F. Beck translation (see above). Under the auspices of God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society, the resulting translation was titled The New Testament: God’s Word to the Nations (1988). Then, with slight revisions and a name change, it appeared in 1990 as God’s Word to the Nations: New Testament, New Evangelical Translation. The Society then produced a major Bible revision in 1992, which contained still a different title: The New Testament: New Evangelical Translation. By this time, the work bore little resemblance to Beck’s original translation. Finally, in 1995, a new edition was published by World Publishing, Inc., Grand Rapids, and titled simply God’s Word. Most editions of this evolving Bible, published since 1988, have included from slight to radical revisions of the text.

Andy Gaus (b. 1945), a “German-American Midwesterner” living in Boston, produced a translation of the Gospels in 1988, which he titled The Unvarnished Gospels (Brattleboro, Vermont). It purported to be a translation into modern American English without the influence of two thousand years of Christian history. It is said to have been based on a Greek text found by a friend of Gaus in a used bookstore! Gaus then produced a complete New Testament translation titled The Unvarnished New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1991). Gaus describes the approach taken in his translation as “re-creating the original authors’ words.” There are no verse numberings.

Hans-Joachim Kraus in 1988 wrote a commentary containing his translation of some of the Psalms. Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, published it as Psalms 1-59. Kraus was an internationally respected Old Testament scholar and professor at the Universities of Bonn, Hamburg, and Goettingen. He is also the author of Theology of the Psalms (1986).

Herman C, Waetjen, Professor of New Testament at San Francisco Theological Seminary, produced A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (1989), published by Fortress Press in paperback. The introduction says, “Part two offers a translation of the Gospel that has undergone continuous revision since 1978…” The translator acknowledges that his work may seem “eccentric, strange, even inept…” For example, Mark 2:10 reads. “...the Human Being has authority to forgive sins on earth.” The translation omits Mark 16:9-20.

Daniel Sindlinger (b. 1948) began work on The Biker Bible in 1999. By 2001 he had self published (Better Life Publications) the New Testament books of Matthew and Mark, with work continuing on the balance of the New Testament. He describes his version as “a new translation for people ‘on the Move”’ and contains “a style you’ll understand, without stumbling over difficult terms or puzzling over the meaning…The translator has attempted to accurately convey the meaning of each book in a clear and natural manner.” Sindlinger was born in York, Pennsylvania. He attended Concordia College, Ann Arbor, Michigan (A.A., 1968); several institutes of linguistics; and received a B.S. degree in missions at Taylor University, Ft.Wayne, Indiana (1971). He also studied literacy and Bible translation principles at the University of Liberia, Monrovia (1974).

Certainly, the heirs of Luther have carried on a great tradition that began when the great Reformer brought a vernacular Bible to the German people. As we have seen, the variety and experimentation in translation since then have been great and would, no doubt, have surprised Luther himself.