No Iota in Vain: Martin Luther’s ‘Great and Worthy Undertaking’

The reformer translated the New Testament in ten weeks—and with strong convictions. /

One can only imagine the spare look of Luther’s cell as he settled into his monumental task of translating the New Testament. With only his Greek and Hebrew texts as physical references, and no library to consult or clutter, delay or confuse his labor, his concentration was total. It would be easy to romanticize the process. But a more realistic vision involves sweat and frustration, long hours, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. He approached the assignment with awe. Later, he would call it “a great and worthy undertaking” and say that, given the unsatisfactory Bibles then available to the common person, “the people require it.” But the language of the Bible dazzled him.

He truly believed that he was dealing with the very words of God.

“One should tremble before each letter of the Bible, more than before the whole world!” he would say later. “God is in every syllable. No iota is in vain.”

His first challenge was to establish the rules for his translation. Above all, he needed to keep his audience upmost in his mind. What could a typical German understand? What should be the tone? What should be the grammar? “It is not enough to know the grammar of a biblical passage,” he would say later. “One must observe the sense. I held fast to the meaning . . . as if I understood neither Greek nor Hebrew nor Latin.”

In his first days of labor, he evolved two basic principles of translation. The first was to reduce all things to the most general, basic origin and type. “If a passage is obscure I consider whether it treats of grace or of law, whether wrath or forgiveness of sin, and with which of these it agrees better. By this procedure I ...

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Issue 22 / May 14, 2015
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    Issue 22: Martin Luther, pensive proteins, Lego churches, and Ascension

  2. Inside the Protein that Ponders

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  3. The Real Lego Church

    The brickmaker has a history with houses of worship. /

  4. Ascension Day

    ‘He took us with him to the heart of things’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 22: Links to amazing stuff /

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