Friday, August 05, 2011

Luther Plagiarized His Translation of the Bible?

Here's one I went through late at night this week, sitting in a Bed and Breakfast in Bar Harbor Maine.

Over on the CARM boards, a Roman Catholic put up a lengthy post on Luther's translation of the Bible.  The basic argument is Luther's translation of the Bible was a plagiarization, based on something called the Codex Teplensis. A number of arguments were made to bolster this notion. I'd like to go through his major argument: the opinion of church historian Henry Clay Vedder.

1. The Opinion of Henry Clay Vedder, Protestant Scholar
The first bit of evidence put forth was the opinion Henry Clay Vedder, a Baptist historian.  Since Vedder falls under the umbrella of "Protestant" this is taken to mean he would be "prone to hide" embarrassing facts about Luther. But on the subject of Luther's translation, he admits Luther's liberal use of earlier German Bibles, and questions Luther's ability to even translate the New Testament in the way he claimed he did.

This is simply naive, particularly in regard to Baptists. Luther strongly opposed either re-baptism or denials of infant baptism. He would consider such beliefs heretical, and would've (and did) write polemically against such views. There is therefore no reason why a Baptist scholar would want to hide any embarrassing fact about Luther. In fact, Vedder held to a number of views Luther would probably have abhorred. So, simply because Vedder was a Protestant, it doesn't follow he would be more prone to hide information on Luther. Therefore, any alleged revelations Vedder makes against Luther aren't at all shocking admissions from a Baptist historian.

Vedder's makes his anti-Lutheran comments (mentioning also the Codex Teplensis) on page 170- 171 of his book, The Reformation in Germany:

Authorities differ concerning the number of editions of the Bible in German before Luther's version appeared, but none enumerate fewer than fourteen in High German and three in Low German. Those in High German, which are all that we need consider here, are apparently reprints of a single MS. version, of which two copies are still preserved, one in a monastery at Tepl, Bohemia, the other in the library of the university at Freiburg in the Breisgau. The former, known as the Codex Teplensis, has recently been printed and is accessible to all scholars. As this MS. contains seven articles of faith that are evidently Waldensian, many have been led to attribute to this version a Waldensian origin. Others have pointed out that no more is proved by the MS. than a Waldensian ownership of it at some time, and have asserted a Catholic origin for the version. We need not enter into this controversy, which concerns a question of technical scholarship rather than the historic effect of the version; for, whatever theory of its origin may prevail, the fact of its frequent reprinting and wide circulation cannot be in any wise affected.

This version was certainly in the possession of Luther, and was as certainly used by him in the preparation of his version. This fact, once entirely unsuspected, and then hotly denied, has been proved to a demonstration by the "deadly parallel." It appears from a verse-by-verse comparison that this old German Bible was in fact so industriously used by Luther, that the only accurate description of Luther's version is to call it a careful revision of the older text. Just as the English Bible is the result of successive revisions, from the days of Wiclif to our own, so that our text has a demonstrable historic continuity, so the German Bible is the product of revision. This is not to detract in the least from the glory of Luther or to diminish the value of his version—it is merely to define with accuracy what he accomplished, and to distinguish his real achievement from the semi-legendary tales of Lutheran literature.
Vedder does not call Luther a plagiarizer, he refers to Luther's work as "a careful revision of the older text " and "This is not to detract in the least from the glory of Luther or to diminish the value of his version—it is merely to define with accuracy what he accomplished, and to distinguish his real achievement from the semi-legendary tales of Lutheran literature." In Vedder's opinion, Luther's translation is a "careful revision", not plagiarism.

2. The Codex Teplensis
Note also Vedder is saying the Codex Teplensis is one of two similar manuscripts deriving their origin from a previous manuscript. As far as I understand Vedder, He is not saying Luther had the actual "Codex Teplensis" in his possession, but a version of it, or a copy of the Bible translation. Notice he says, "old German Bible."

This charge gained popularity in the late 1800's and early 1900's. It is correct that during the 1600's to 1700's, it had become common and popular to think that Luther was one of the first people (if not the first) to translate the Bible into German. This started to be challenged more and more during the 1700's, and by the late 1800's the view was articulated forcefully by Wilhelm Krafft (Die deutsche Bibel vor Luther, 1883). Vedder actually appears to have taken this information against Luther's translation from Krafft (he cites him on page 171) and offers no other citations or proof of his historical statements. Nor does Vedder put forth any of the actual alleged plagiarisms that are supposed to exist. Vedder seems to have simply parroted the conclusions of Krafft. He does though provide a footnote reference to Schaff on the similarities, and mentions a work by Dr. Ludwig Keller.

The use of the "Codex Teplensis" was only one such argument against Luther, as a number of early German Bibles were compared and contrasted with Luther's translation. Codex Teplensis was an interesting comparison, because it was thought to be Waldensian, not Roman Catholic. If Luther could be linked with this early German version, it could be shown that Luther had sympathies with the Waldensians. Who would be interested in such a connection? Why, probably Roman Catholics, but interestingly, Roman Catholic scholars argued the translation wasn't WaldensianPhilip Schaff states:

The arguments for the Waldensian origin are derived from certain additions to the Codex Teplensis, and alleged departures from the text of the Vulgate. But the additions are not anti-Catholic, and are not found in the cognate Freiberger MS.; and the textual variations can not be traced to sectarian bias. The text of the Vulgate was in greater confusion in the middle ages than the text of the Itala at the time of Jerome, nor was there any authorized text of it before the Clementine recension of 1592. The only plausible argument which Dr. Keller brings out in his second publication (pp. 80 sqq.) is the fact that Emser, in his Annotations to the New Test. (1523), charges Luther with having translated the N. T. from a "Wickleffisch oder hussisch exemplar." But this refers to copies of the Latin Vulgate; and in the examples quoted by Keller, Luther does not agree with the Codex Teplensis.
Here Schaff notes the charge against Luther using a Waldensian German translation originated with Emser, but Emser is charging Luther took his translation from the Latin, not the German. He then says the argumentation put forth from Keller of Luther using using the German Codex Teplensis, "does not agree". Note as well, Vedder does not present any of alleged parallels between the Codex Teplensis and Luther's Bible. W.H.T. Dau notes "Catholics, in their efforts to belittle Luther's works, have claimed that he plagiarized a German translation already in existence, the so-called 'Codex Teplensis' and 'everybody who knows Greek can compare it with the original text. The Teplensian translation, too, can be looked into. In fact, all this has been done by competent scholars, and Luther's translation has been pronounced a masterpiece. Not only does it reproduce the original text faithfully but it speaks a good and correct German. Luther's translation of the Bible is now regarded as one of the classics of German literature."

Of the early German Bibles, Schaff states:

After the invention of the printing-press, and before the Reformation, this mediaeval German Bible was more frequently printed than any other except the Latin Vulgate. No less than seventeen or eighteen editions appeared between 1462 and 1522, at Strassburg, Augsburg, Nuernberg, Coeln, Luebeck, and Halberstadt (fourteen in the High, three or four in the Low German dialect). Most of them are in large folio, in two volumes, and illustrated by wood-cuts. The editions present one and the same version (or rather two versions, — one High German, the other Low German) with dialectical alterations and accommodations to the textual variations of the MSS. of the Vulgate, which was in a very unsettled condition before the Clementine recension (1592). The revisers are as unknown as the translators.

And also:

Luther could not be ignorant of this mediaeval version. He made judicious use of it, as he did also of old German and Latin hymns. Without such aid he could hardly have finished his New Testament in the short space of three months. But this fact does not diminish his merit in the least; for his version was made from the original Hebrew and Greek, and was so far superior in every respect that the older version entirely disappeared. It is to all intents a new work.

3. J.M. Reu on Luther's Use of Earlier German Bibles
The most extensive English treatment of Luther's German Bible was done by J.M Reu. Reu says:

Other literary aids were the Glossa Ordinaria, which, however, had little to offer, and the Postilla in Biblia of Lyra, though in what editions cannot be determined. Perhaps he also had the Epistolae Pauli of Faber Stapulensis, of 1512 or 1515, which he had used at other times. Then there were the necessary lexicons like Reuchlin's Rudimenta linguae Hebraicae of 1506, Aleander's Lexicon Graeco-Latinum of 1512 and perhaps, what was the newest work of its kind, the Dictionarium Graecum, that had been issued at Basel in 1519. Since his work of translating was to be into German he probably also consulted this or that Latin-German dictionary as, for example, the widely used Vocabidarium ex quo (edition of 1477 in Berlin) which he had learned to know in his school days, or one of the Vocabularii praedicantium (e. g. Strassburg, 1482 or Magdeburg, 1495). Whether in addition to the existing German translations he also used the translation of St. Matthew by his friend Lang, published in Erfurt in 1521, is to say the least questionable. We are fairly safe in assuming that he had at hand one of the many plenaria and consulted it. No matter how fine his memory, he would hardly have ventured to depend on it alone, especially with his consciousness of the extent and difficulty of the task before him. Facts that in a general way are probable have been made almost certain through the careful comparisons of Freitag. The plenarium published by Zainer at Augsburg in 1474 was that which Luther consulted in making his own translations of the pericopes from his second postil pericope (St. Luke 2:1-14) on. The translation of the first pericope of the Postil (Titus 2:11-15), that was completed on the 10th of June, does not yet show this influence, but on the same day Luther acknowledged the receipt not only of letters but also of omnia alia, and among these "other things" was probably the Zainer plenarium, so that he could consult it from that date onwards. So from the time of the writing of the Wartburg Postil this plenarium was also available for the translation of the New Testament, and here and there the translations of the Wartburg Postil, that were influenced by the plenarium, pass over into his New Testament.

It is an old matter of dispute as to whether Luther utilized one of the medieval Bibles for purposes of comparison. For only that and nothing more could have been involved. In Luther's books and letters there is only one reference to these medieval Bibles. It is in the letter to Amsdorf which we have given in note 6, where he writes: "Now I know what translating means and why no one before me has attempted it under his own name." There he is evidently thinking of the medieval Bibles in which the name of the translator is nowhere given. He refers to them but it does not follow that he used them, yet it is a significant fact that just at the time when he was engaged in the work of translating the Bible and when the difficulty of his undertaking weighed heavily on his heart, he should refer to them.

As late as 1917 it seemed to me that their use was excluded from consideration and I then collected all the facts that could be mustered against this supposition, but subsequently I have been converted to the other view, not so much by Roethe as by Freitag. It was the Zainer Bible of 1475 that Luther had before him. The tremendous difference that still exists between the medieval translation of Zainer and Luther's New Testament does not preclude his use of the former. The difference is sufficiently, explained by his use of the original text, through his unique mastery of language that so far excelled the abilities of the translator of the Mentel Bible and the later reviser who prepared it for Zainer's edition, and by his own inner experiences that had given him a new understanding of the text.

Roethe gives his opinion concerning the relation between Zainer's Bible and Luther's translation in these words: "The connection is closest in the Apocalypse, it is freer in the Gospels and particularly free in the Pauline Epistles, where, in the interest of clear teaching, many new renderings, of deeper understanding, appear." The first of these assertions is entirely untenable since the Apocalypse offers so few difficulties to the translator that if two translators went to work, the one translating from the Vulgate, and the other familiar with it and consulting it regularly, they would produce almost similar translations. The single examples that have been pointed out to prove the supposed dependence are by no means of a conclusive character. The other observation that the consideration of Zainer is much less evident in the Pauline Epistles than in the Gospels is truer, but it is also easily explained as both the medieval Bibles and Zainer were most inadequate and unserviceable in this portion of the New Testament. Whoever really translated from the original and had grasped the inmost heart of the Epistles, as Luther had done, would be forced to produce a translation that might here or there be reminiscent of the medieval version, but that, as a whole, would be far above it. With the Gospels the case was different. Here the difference between the Greek original that Luther was using and the Vulgate which the medieval Bibles had followed was not nearly so great as it was in the case of the Epistles and furthermore, as Luther stood at the beginning of such a tremendous undertaking he must have felt much oftener the need of comparing what others had translated before him than he would a little later after he had become more accustomed to his task. We could more properly say that the influence of the Zainer Bible decreased in the same proportion that Luther became more expert in his task. It can be observed in the Gospels and Acts, is very faint in the Epistles and ceases in the Apocalypse. As he went along Luther became more and more independent, more and more free, even of the Zainer Bible. It had aided him occasionally to secure the appropriate phrase, to find a popular expression more readily and to strengthen him in his choice of words and construction of clauses, but no more than that. That he made use of this aid is nothing in the least discreditable nor does it diminish his accomplishment, for in spite of all this his translation towers far above the medieval attempts and it is a credit to his conscientiousness and scholarliness that he passed by no aid without first ascertaining whether or not it had something to contribute towards his great undertaking.

As little as Luther simply modernized the medieval Bible but created something that was completely new, even allowing for his occasional use of the medieval Bible, just as little did he, "taking it all in all, carry over the Vulgate." That Sandvos could make this assertion betrays both a bad spirit and unbounded ignorance. Adsuredly, in his younger years Luther had acquired the language of the Vulgate so completely that it could not be forgotten, and we know how even at his dying hour Bible verses from the translation of the Vulgate came into his mind. So it would be very strange if his translation of the Bible did not show some dependence on the Vulgate. As a matter of fact such dependence can be shown in many places. But it is just as certain that Luther instead of merely modernizing the medieval Bible or translating according to the Vulgate version, made his own translation independently from the Greek text. That this was the case with the later translation of the Old Testament is evident from Luther's original draft, which has been partly preserved and which furnishes indubitable evidence of the fact. "It is evident from his handwriting that while he already had his pen in hand his eyes were still fixed on the Hebrew copy."
Reu's opinion echoes and expands on some of the Lutherans scholars at that time, that while Luther may have utilized an earlier German Bible, it is not the case that he simply plagiarized the earlier Bibles. Wilhelm Walther vehemently argued that Luther did not rely on the earlier German versions. Later in the mid 1900's some argued Luther relied solely on the Greek text put out by Erasmus for the New Testament. An interesting overview of this topic can be found here.

4. Reu vs. Vedder
However good of a scholar Henry Clay Vedder was, J.M. Reu was a Luther expert, specifically on Luther and his translation of the Bible. In his book Thirty-Five Years of Luther Research, Reu actually comments on one of the very sections from Vedder quoted above. First, Reu cites Vedder:

We refer to "Vedder, The Reformation in Germany" (1914). Here we read on page 171 not only: "This version was certainly in the possession of Luther and was certainly used by him in the preparation of his version. This fact, once entirely unsuspected, and then hotly denied, has been proved to a demonstration by the 'deadly parallel.' It appears from a verse by verse comparison that this old German Bible was in fact so industriously used by Luther, that the only accurate description of Luther's version is to call it a careful revision of the older text," but on page 170 we also read: "It would be difficult in any case to believe that a complete translation of the entire New Testament could have been made by a man of Luther's limited attainment in Greek, and with the imperfect apparatus that he possessed in the short space of ten weeks. . . . Any minister to-day who has had a Greek course of a college and seminary is a far better scholar than Luther. Let such a man, if he thinks Luther's achievement possible, attempt the accurate translation of a single chapter of the New Testament—such a translation as he would be willing to print under his own name—and multiply the time consumed by the 260 chapters. He will be speedily convinced that the feat attributed to Luther is an impossible one."
Reu then responds to Vedder's arguments:

And just this we pronounce childish argumentation. We could call attention to the fact that R. P. Olivetan completed his French translation of the entire Bible, printed 1536, in one year; that Luther finished his writing against Sylvester Prierias, that in Walch's edition fills 80 columns, in two days; that Luther was in fact a linguistic genius; that an educated man in the thirties acquires a dead language much faster and more thoroughly than a youth from 16 to 20, and this all the more, the dearer and more valuable, yes, even decisive for his whole life, the contents of a book written in that language is to him; that Luther since 1519 had been a careful reader of Homer, writing many marginal notes into the copy which Melanchthon had presented to him (this copy is extant at London, cf. Pr. Smith, Notes from English libraries, Zeitschr. f. Kirchengesch. 32, pp. 111-115; compare also: O. G. Schmidt, Luther's Bekanntschaft mit den alten Klassikern, 1883). We also could emphasize the important fact that Luther for more than ten years was well versed in the contents of the New Testament through the Vulgata. But aside from this we would like to ask Vedder whether he has forgotten that Luther, as can be proved, since 1516 used the Greek original in the preparation of his lectures, and certainly not seldom also when he prepared his sermons, and that it more and more became the foundation for his whole theological work; that he, before his stay at the Wartburg, had treated the Epistle to the Romans, Hebrews, Galatians, perhaps also the Epistle to Titus and the first to the Corinthians in lectures, the Epistle to the Galatians beside this also in a voluminous commentary; in short, that Luther lived and moved in the New Testament, and, finally, that the printing of his translation had not begun for two months after his return from the Wartburg, and that it was not completed before six months had passed? During this time he, together with Melanchthon and other occasional helpers, once more revised the whole in a most painstaking manner.

From my laptop here on the coast of Maine I'm somewhat limited as to researching this. I didn't find a lot of information on the Codex Teplensis. Nor did I have a chance to sift through more recent sources and studies on this issue.

I've never studied the alleged parallels between Luther's translation of the Bible and earlier German versions. Nor do I have the linguistic abilities to do so. It seems plausible to me Luther probably did consult earlier German versions in the way Reu explained, and I also wouldn't have any problems with Schaff's view, that "Luther could not be ignorant of this mediaeval version" and "He made judicious use of it, as he did also of old German and Latin hymns. Without such aid he could hardly have finished his New Testament in the short space of three months." 

On the other hand, The CARM Romanist hasn't really offered any evidence of any sort of plagiarism on Luther's part. Quoting Vedder without any evidence, who parroted a conclusion from Krafft from a work done in 1883, is not convincing argumentation. In fact, it isn't anything.


James Swan said...

I've revised a few minor things in this entry since posting it on August 5th.

Ransom said...

Not being generally familiar with the history of Bible translation outside of the English stream, I'm curious: does Luther's so-called plagiarism differ significantly in kind from, say, Miles Coverdale's use of Tyndale in compiling his own version? Virtually all English Bible translation effort post-1525 is based on Tyndale to some extent.