Chapter and verse?

January 12, 1996

An academic in Germany believes he has found the Bible that Luther translated and which sparked the Reformation. His colleagues are not so sure. Jennie Brookman reports.

"Discovered: Martin Luther's personal Latin Bible, which he used to translate the New Testament and the five books of Moses." This sober headline in a German newspaper late last year did not give much indication of the fierce controversy it was to unleash among theologians, historians and palaeographers.

Luther's 1522 translation of the Bible into German is after all a landmark - both of the German language and of the Protestant Reformation, the religious revolution against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, which began when Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. The discovery of this allegedly personal copy comes as academic publishers in Germany are preparing for commemorations of the 450th anniversary of Luther's death on February 18, 1546.

But could this small, A5-sized Latin Bible full of handwritten annotations really have been one of Luther's translation sources, and if so, apart from vastly increasing the monetary worth of the volume, what is its academic value? Manuel Santos-Noya stumbled across the inconspicuous volume two years into his work cataloguing the 2,000 Latin Bibles in the Wurttemberg State Library in Stuttgart.

Dr Santos-Noya already knew that the volume - a Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible from the early fifth century - had been produced by printer Jacques Mareschal in 1519 for publisher Simon Vincent. In 1784 Karl Eugen, Duke of Wurttemberg, had bought it along with 5,000 other volumes from a pastor in Copenhagen. It later became part of the Stuttgart library.

But as Santos-Noya set about cataloguing the volume he found clues to its earlier ownership indicating a closeness to Luther. "The at first barely imaginable assumption that this could have been Luther's personal Vulgate from his time in Wartburg, gradually became a possibility in the course of the investigation and finally became a certainty," he wrote in an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung announcing his discovery.

Luther's name is not on the title page of the book, although three later owners have added their names. But many annotations, in German and Latin, looked like Luther's own handwriting and contained autobiographical references pointing to the reformer, Dr Santos-Noya said.

Some entries, for example, indicate that, like Luther, the owner had been a monk at Wittenberg ("Es ist kein gemach zu Wittenberg yhm meyn Klos[ter]"). There are also polemics against Thomas Muntzer and Ulrich Zwingli, contemporary reformers with whom Luther fought. Other notes indicate unhappiness with the monastic vows. Alongside I Corinthians 6.12, which refers to Christian freedoms, is written in Latin "Ego miser monachus", which roughly translates as "I'm a wretched monk".

But Santos-Noya maintains that greater proof of Luther's ownership can be found in the intense annotations on the pages of the New Testament and the five books of Moses. The text has been corrected many times over, crossed out, underlined and commented on in a way which he believes is a meticulously executed preparation for the German Bible translations.

Since Luther is known to have translated the New Testament in the Wartburg - the monastery where he was given protection between 1521 and 1522 while under ban of the empire - Dr Santos-Noya believes Luther used the Bible there.

Following Santos-Noya's revelations a number of historians and handwriting experts have studied the document or copies of extracts for themselves. But rather than supporting his theory, most have cast doubt on it.

The strongest criticism comes from Stefan Strohm, a theologian who worked at an earlier stage of the cataloguing project at the Wurttemberg State Library. "I have had the volume in my hands on numerous occasions and never had the idea that it might have been used by Luther for a translation," he wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "I considered the annotations to be of secondary intellectual value and the work of a student."

Even if the Bible was used by Luther, which he doubts, it would be of less academic value than Santos-Noya claims because it is well known that Luther used many sources for his translation - the Vulgate, the Erasmus Latin translation of the Greek New Testament, as well as Greek and Hebrew texts. A full understanding of the translation process has to be seen in these contexts, Strohm said.

Ulrich Bubenheimer, professor of Protestant theology at the Padagogische Hochschule in Heidelberg, supports the view that this was not Luther's Bible.

But Professor Bubenheimer, who has built up a large collection of examples of handwriting of theologian intellectuals in the 16th and 17th century, told The THES he believes the notes are probably the work of a pupil of Luther's.

The Bible is therefore a valuable discovery which will help experts gain a better understanding of how Luther's ideas were received, and which provide an insight into early theological training methods, he said. "My theory is that the similarity of the handwriting to Luther's indicates a relationship between a teacher and pupil or between colleagues.

"This is an early example of a pupil trying to imitate the handwriting of a master. It is an example of the cult which developed around Luther. The writer was not trying to falsify Luther but to identify with him," he said.

For the moment, however, Dr Santos-Noya is standing by his theory. "For many people this is just too big." The document needs to be studied more intensively, he says.

He is unconvinced that the Bible was owned by a pupil of Luther's. The unknown scholar would have to have started his theological studies before becoming a pupil of Luther's because he knows his way so well round scholastic theology of the old church. He must have been a monk who not only knew a lot of Latin but also Greek and Hebrew. It is unlikely such a scholar would have disappeared into the depths of history, he claims.

Dr Santos-Noya is now planning to organise an international symposium of experts of different disciplines before the end of this year to further evaluate the discovery.

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