The Bible in History

By Don Heese
(Bible Editions & Versions – April/Sept. 2004)
The Latin Vulgate Bible
In the fifth century A.D. the church in the west used the Latin Bible. There were so many different copies of both the Old Latin and the modern Latin that confusion resulted. This bothered Pope Damasus, so he asked Jerome to make a new translation of the entire Bible in Latin.
Jerome was born to a Christian family in A.D. 329 at Stridon, in Dalmatia. The family was wealthy, making it possible for Jerome to pursue an extensive education. He learned Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and some Arabic. He became a brilliant scholar and was one of very few with qualifications to produce a version of the Scriptures for the use of the Latin church.
The Gospels were his first installment in A.D. 383. The next twenty years were spent in working on the project. He was dissatisfied with the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, so he used the original Hebrew. During his work his eyesight became so bad he had to have help from assistants to continue.
Jerome did not accept the Apocryphal books as part of the canon. The Catholic Church included them in their canon at the Council of Trent in 1546.
At first there was much opposition to the new translation because it came from the Hebrew instead of the Septuagint. But as time went on it was accepted and became the official Bible of the Catholic Church. It was known as the Latin Vulgate because it was in the language of the common people.
The influence of this Bible on Christianity was profound. It was the Bible read by the great reformers of the Reformation period. A number of our ecclesiastical terms came from the Vulgate, e.g., predestination, justification, regeneration, revelation, propitiation, reconciliation, sanctification, mediation, inspiration, etc.
This was the first Bible printed by Gutenberg from moveable type and was the forerunner of all vernacular translations during the Reformation period.
The work was finally completed about A.D. 405. Jerome died on September 30, 420.
The Martin Luther Bible
Discontent in the Christian religious world had been brewing for over a century. New leaders were needed to give new direction. Who could have realized that the boy born in Eisledben, Germany to Hans and Margaretta Luther on November 10, 1483 would one day shake the entire Christian world? Few have made so far-reaching an impact on modern Christianity.
Martin Luther grew up in a very strict family. He was beaten for any infraction of the high standards set by his parents. Undoubtedly this influenced his tendency to be intolerant of those who did not hold to his understanding of the Scriptures. During his college years he wrote that he was often discontent with his own Christian life. He felt completely unworthy. He finally came to the conviction that only through faith in Christ could one be justified in God’s sight, not by good works.
Luther felt the Catholic Church and its leaders fell far short of what God expected of them. The Bible was the standard by which all should live, not the teachings of the church. 0n October 31, 1517 he posted ninety-five theses, items for debate, on the door of the Castle church building in Whitten, Germany. These statements were an attack on the practices of the Catholic Church. Events following this action led to Luther’s excommunication from the church.
Luther’s burning desire was for every person to have the Bible available in his own language. Then each one would be able to read for themselves how God wanted them to live, and what practices should be carried on in the church.
Luther fled to Wartburg to escape arrest by church authorities. There he began the great work of translating the Scriptures into the common German language. It was not that the Bible was completely unavailable to the German speaking people. There were fourteen translations printed in High German and four in Low German. But these must not have been readily available to the common people, and the translation was not the best.
Luther began translating the New Testament and did a complete rendering in the first three months. The first publication was in September, 1522. He had the problems of the typical translator. He was never quite satisfied with his renderings, and kept revising until the day of his death in 1546.
The second publication of the New Testament was in December, 1522. The first is referred to as the SeptemberbibIe; the second called the Decemberbible. The New Testament was printed several times before he published the whole Bible in 1534.
Luther used Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, second edition (1518-19) as his original text. His great burden was to put the Bible into the German language so Germans could understand it. He conferred with a number of his friends on different passages and once stated “I endeavored to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew.” He struggled with the names of animals and birds. He insisted that idioms of one language must be translated into the other language so it made sense to people.
Luther used many woodcut illustrations in his Bible. Some of his woodcuts resembled contemporary people, and more often than not, the faces of individuals Luther wasn’t getting along with were used for the Bible’s more unsavory characters.
The language Luther used played an important part in shaping the German language in future years, as his translation was reprinted numerous times. Even the first German Bibles and Testaments printed in early America were based on Luther’s renderings. We owe a great debt to Luther for his work.