Old Testament in German, 1524

Volume II: Joshua to Esther

Wittenberg: Christian Döring and Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1524

Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was one of the most influential books ever published and the sixteenth century’s absolute bestseller. It was the first version based on the original Hebrew and Greek texts since Jerome had completed the Latin Vulgate in 405, more than a thousand years earlier. Luther published it in five installments over a period of ten years. The New Testament was first printed in September 1522 in a press run of 5,000 copies that sold so fast that a second edition was issued within two months. The two editions are usually known by the month of their publication as the September and the December Testaments respectively. The first volume of the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch, was published in 1523 The next two volumes, containing Joshua to Esther, and Job to Song of Songs, were completed in 1524, while the fourth and last volume, starting with Isaiah and ending with Malachi, was released only in 1532.

The information recorded on the title page of the September Testament is limited to three basic elements: content (the New Testament), language (German), and place of publication (Wittenberg). In the December Testament, the printer, Melchior Lotter, added to this minimalist title page a colophon listing his own name and the date of publication. The title page of the Pentateuch issued in 1523 introduced a new and unexpected piece of information: the name of the translator, “M. Luther.” Most Scriptures printed before Luther’s Pentateuch are Bibles in Latin and none of them mentions Jerome’s name on its title page. By 1523, complete Bibles, or at least complete Testaments, had also been printed in seven modern languages. In chronological order they are: German, Italian, French, Czech, Low German, Dutch, and Catalan. Between them, they mention only one translator’s name. Bonifacio Ferrer, the author of the Catalan version, is listed in the Bible’s colophon.

After Luther’s courageous stand at the Diet of Worms, in April 1521, his life was in danger. To protect him, Frederick the Wise (1463-1525), the Elector of Saxony, had him kidnapped and locked in the castle Wartburg. Luther lived there incognito as Junker Jörg (“Knight George”) and worked on his translation of the New Testament. His letters indicate that he grew long hair and a beard during that period and contemporary portraits do not fail to show his facial hair. Most scholars agree that a portrait of the hirsute and bearded Luther is to be found on the title page of the second volume of his Old Testament. The volume was printed by Christian Döring and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and is illustrated with woodcuts designed and executed by Cranach and his workshop. Its title page has a large image of Joshua, the eponymous hero of the volume’s first book. It seems that Cranach, a close friend of Luther, gave Joshua the features of Junker Jörg and depicted Luther as the new Joshua.

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