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Barely Anyone Reads the Bible in Germany. So Why Are Luther Bibles Selling So Well?

A revised edition of Reformer’s translation ranked among 2022 bestsellers.
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Barely Anyone Reads the Bible in Germany. So Why Are Luther Bibles Selling So Well?
Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A woman walks past The painting "Luther Preaching from the Pulpit" by Alexandre Struys on exhibition in Eisenach to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther's translation of the Bible.

Only 4 percent of Germans say they read the Bible every day, according to a poll conducted by Insa-Consulere and the German Christian news agency IDEA. A full 70 percent say they never read it at all.

And yet in 2022—500 years after its initial publication—Martin Luther’s German translation of the Scripture was a bestseller once again. The German Bible Society (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft), based in Stuttgart, sold 130,000 copies last year.

This could, perhaps, presage a resurgence of Bible reading, but Christoph Rösel, the Bible society’s general secretary, would be surprised if that’s the case. It’s more likely, he said, that people care about the historic importance of the Bible for German language and literature. They buy it out of curiosity and respect.

“It is and will remain a classic,” he said. “Our understanding of the world and nature, our art, literature and music, our annual holidays have all been shaped by Luther’s Bible and the religious practice derived from it over the centuries.”

Just don’t ask too many questions about what that Bible says.

“People may not know it much,” Rösel explains, “beyond the parts they already have in their head.”

The German language is peppered with idioms from Luther’s translation, like better an end with horror than a horror without end” (Ps. 73:18–19) and “growing with his pounds” (Luke 19:11–27). Every day, people use words developed by the 16th-century Reformer to express the holy text in workable, common language—vocabulary like bloodhound, baptism of fire, and heart’s content.

And the language itself owes a debt to Luther.

“Luther’s translation of the Bible contributed to the development of a common German written, literary, and stage language,” Jochen Birkenmeier, director and curator at the Lutherhaus (Luther House) museum in Eisenach, told the Central German Broadcasting network.

The Reformer drafted his New Testament translation over the course of 11 weeks in the winter of 1521–1522, while hiding from authorities in a castle in Eisenach. After he was declared a heretic and a criminal, he decided to translate the Scripture, going back to the Greek source material, which was older than the Latin translation the Catholic church used.

Luther published his translation in September 1522, earning the book the nickname “September Testament.” Experts say the striking style and wide availability (thanks to the cutting-edge technology of the printing press) kindled the flames of the Protestant Reformation—and transformed the German language.

Luther often complained that even people who lived only a few miles apart had difficulty understanding each other because there was no general, or official, German language. He developed a “Bible German,” which could be understood across dialects and served as the basis for Hochdeutsch, or “high German."

“His great achievement was to infuse his Bible language with an extraordinary poetic power and beauty that later translations of the Bible have never equaled,” Birkenmeier said.

The Lutherhaus curator points to the translation of the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke as an example of Luther’s literary skill. He used catchy rhythms and some alliteration to “make the birth of Christ ring out and help to remember what is heard—like in a song,” Birkenmeier said.

Despite those strengths and its immediate popularity, Luther himself never regarded his translation as "finished.” He released his first version in September 1522 and issued the first revision three months later. He published the full Bible, including the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, in 1534. As his understanding of the Bible evolved, Luther continued to adjust his translation for the rest of his life. His final authorized version appeared in 1545, just months before his death in 1546.

The German Bible Society has continued to rework the text in recent years.

“Although the text we have today goes back to Luther’s translation work, our knowledge of biblical studies has grown, as has the German language,” Rösel said. “So time and again it became necessary to carefully adapt the wording of the Luther Bible to these changes.”

The Luther Bible has been officially revised four times in partnership with the German Protestant Church: in 1892, 1912, 1984, and 2017. Each time, the translation was thoroughly reviewed by scholars and church officials, making sure it was accurate and could connect with German-speaking people.

The German Bible Society also released another version recently. It’s called the Basic Bible and is billed as a translation for the 21st century, with clearer language, shorter sentences, and a more contemporary structure and flow. It is designed to be a “Bible for all generations,” Rösel explained.

When the complete version came out in 2021, people bought 215,000 copies. It sold an additional 100,000 the following year, which is considered quite good, though it was surpassed by the 2017 edition of the Luther Bible.

The Bible Society and the state-privileged German Protestant Church have also been trying novel ways to connect with a German public that is increasingly disinterested in Scripture’s religious relevance.

Last year, the Bible Society partnered with the International Martin Luther Foundation and others to invite three prize-winning authors to the castle where Luther worked in Eisenach. Iris Wolff, Uwe Kolbe, and Senthuran Varatharajah each spent four weeks in “inner dialogue with Luther’s Bible,” producing diary-like texts engaging with the Reformer, his translation, and their shared language.

The Bible Society also partnered with designer Manfred Rieker to reproduce “the longest Bible in the world” in Eisenach. The Wiedmann Bible is made up of 3,333 pictures painted by Willy Wiedmann, a multidisciplinary postwar artist. The display stretched over 131 separate panels for more than a mile.

Kathi Blumenthal, a local resident, was one of many who walked that path up to the castle to look at the scriptural artwork. She told CT that she is not religious but “you don't have to be a Christian to benefit from reading the Bible.”

She reads the Bible occasionally, she said, for inspiration.

“It’s a treasury of human experiences and insights that remain relevant today,” she said.

Blumenthal actually bought a Bible recently: the new, revised edition of the translation that Luther first published 501 years ago.

January/February
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