Sunday, July 03, 2011

Cochlaeus on the Impact of Luther's Bible

I wrote a post a few days ago addressing the assertion that Luther invented the myth that few previous to his work had a Bible. The argument I looked at was based on a few recent Dutch news reports. The story goes that few people in the early 16th Century had an actual Bible. Luther then came along and put the Bible in the hands of the people. In this myth, the Bible was kept locked away by the church, so much so that the first Bible Luther came across was chained up. I cited Luther scholar Willem Jan Kooiman: "It is almost beyond understanding that Luther should not have seen a complete Bible before he entered the University. An estimated twenty to twenty-seven thousand copies of the Vulgate, the official Latin Bible, were printed in Germany before 1520" [Luther and the Bible (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), p. 5]. There were plenty of Bibles published before Luther's. 

Somehow, a few Romanists read this same entry and concluded my argument was an attempt to get Luther off the hook for allegedly spreading the myth that the Roman church desired to keep the Bible out of the hands of the people. In their version, Luther argues if the laity got a hold of the Bible, Rome's doctrines would be exposed as the frauds they are. Anyone simply reading my earlier blog entry fairly should easily see the difference between these two arguments.Obviously, though related, these are two different things.

These folks also jumped all over my comments about Luther's Bible being written in something different than the previous High German that preceded his translation. Roman Catholic scholar Franz Posset pointed out in his recent book The Real Luther that Luther communicated in Early New High German (p.38). See also the information from TurretinFan: Luther and the Bible in the Common Tongue. I've never done any extensive studies into the "type" of German Luther used, or the details of the German language during the Reformation. I've only done cursory readings about his sometimes humorous methods of translation in order to make Paul speak German. I do recall reading in passing that Luther's translation had a significant impact on the German language.

One very interesting article put forth as proof against my blog entry was 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] ). My detractors refer to it as "a wonderfully informative article" which indeed it was. Of course, Gow and I agree fundamentally that it is incorrect to assert  "there were no vernacular Bible translations before Luther’s 1522 'September Testament'." There were indeed Bibles available, which is what my blog entry was about.

What I did find fascinating though was that this writer (Gow) actually indirectly states the Roman church desired to keep the Bible out of the hands of the people. This of course, is the very thing that my detractors say is a myth. While I haven't gone through the entirety of Gow's article, I found this information, wonderfully informative:
Luther’s 1522 ‘September Testament’ was immediately and wildly successful, selling out rapidly and experiencing multiple reprintings in the same year. As Johannes Cochlaeus, one of Luther’s fiercest opponents, later wrote with some venom,
Luther’s translation was read (as the source of all wisdom, no less) by tailors and shoemakers, even women and simpletons, many of whom carried it around and learned it by heart, and eventually became bold enough to dispute with priests, monks, even masters and doctors of Holy Scripture about faith and the gospels. [Johannes Cochlaeus, Historia Martini Lutheri (Ingolstadt, 1582), 120.]
Medieval prelates’ fears had come true, Cochlaeus is informing us. He tells the story in this form not necessarily because these were the only people reading the Luther Bible, but because they were precisely the unqualified readers of Scripture the medieval church had sought to discourage or exclude.
Well thank you Andrew C. Gow. I happen to have the Cochlaeus book he cited.  Cochlaeus, while indeed venomous, can be insightful because he was a contemporary of Luther's. The entirety of this quote from Cochlaeus is worth noting:
Among these [Roman Catholic] critics [of Luther's Bible], Jerome Emser certainly deserved the greatest praise since he not only noted the errors Luther made in translation and published them for the people, but even published his own translation, which agreed the Latin text that was approved and accepted by the Church.  He published this as an antidote to Luther's poison, and it was not a negligible comfort to the Catholic people. For from this labor the Catholics learned where Luther had been mistaken, and they were able to refute with confidence the Lutherans who were priding themselves in their Gospel. But before Emser's work appeared, Luther's New Testament had been reproduced by the printers to an amazing degree, so that even shoemakers and women and every kind of unlearned person, whoever of them were Lutherans and had somehow learned German letters, read it most eagerly as the font of all truth. And by reading and rereading it they committed it to memory and so carried the book around with them in their bosoms. Because of this, in a few months they attributed so much learning to themselves that they did not blush to dispute about the faith and the Gospel, not only with laypeople of the Catholic party, bu with priests and monks, and furthermore, even with Masters and Doctors Sacred Theology. Nay, more — even mere women were found who of their own accord dared to challenge the proposed themes and published books of the Germans — and that indeed they did by most boldly insulting men, reproaching them with ignorance, and holding them in contempt. And not only laymen and private citizens; but even certain Doctors, and licensed members of the faculty of Theology, and even whole universities. This information was obtained from Argula, a certain noble woman. [Luther's Lives, p. 106].

And also from Cochlaeus:
Therefore, since the mob is everywhere more intent on and avid for spreading revolutionary ideas abroad than for preserving accustomed things in their normal state, it happened that the crowd of Lutherans devoted themselves much more to the work of teaching the translated sacred Scriptures than did the Catholic people, among whom the laity by and large entrusted that responsibility to the priests and monks. Thence it happened not infrequently that in discussions more passages of Scripture were quoted extemporaneously by the Lutheran laypeople than were quoted by the Catholic priests and monks. And for a long time already Luther had persuaded his throngs that no trust should be put in any words save those that are taken from the Holy Scriptures. For this reason, the Catholics were reputed among the Lutherans to be ignorant of the Scriptures, even if they were the most erudite of theologians. Indeed, some laypeople would sometimes even contradict the theologians openly before the crowd, as if the theologians spoke mere lies and human fictions in their arguments. [Luther's Lives, p. 107].
It certainly sounds to me like Cochlaeus wasn't at all pleased the Bible was in the hands of the people. Ah well, I guess if I ever do a blog entry on this, I'll have to start with these selections from Cochlaeus. Thank you Mr. Gow.

Bonus for Reformation Geeks: In order to avoid scanning or typing out these snippets from Cochlaeus, I did a quick Google search and found the entire book in pdf. I didn't snoop around enough to figure out who put it up, but it was a great find.

Addendum from TurretinFan: On Luther and the German Languahe

Luther began his translation of the New Testament during his enforced exile at the Wartburg, and his work of translating and revising came to occupy him until the end of his life. Amazing as it seems, he apparently completed the first draft of his translation of the New Testament in some eleven weeks, using as his working tools the Greek and Latin editions of Erasmus. Not only did Luther prepare a superb translation, a version that seemed fresh and alive because, as one scholar has phrased it, "he read Holy Writ 'as though it had been written yesterday.'"[FN54] but also, in the process of translation, he helped to sculpt the German language. The development of Neuhochdeutsch, early modern high German, was underway before the appearance of Luther's Bible, due partly to the influence of Saxon Kanzeleideutsch or chancellory German. [FN55] Luther's Bible brought new high German into the parish schools and pulpits and made it the common language for the German people, even though the common folk long clung to their individual dialects. In brief, the language of Luther's Bible "became the language of the people, the langugage used in the studies of the scholars, and the language spoken in the huts of the unlearned."[FN56] Marilyn J. Harran, Luther and learning: the Wittenberg University Luther Symposium, p. 40.

For several hundred years after the height of Middle High German literature, there was no longer any standard literary language. By far the most important influence on the development of the Modern High German standard language was Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, the first edition of which appeared in 1522 (Old Testament) and 1534 (New Testament). Luther's translation was the first to be written in a direct and uncomplicated - at times even colloquial - style that strove not only to include expressions that were modern and up-and-coming, but also to incorporate linguistic features from as many regions as possible. Its impact on literary German was immense; its core was Luther's native dialect of Thuringian. Benjamin W. Fortson, Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, 15.78 (p. 367)

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