In 1536, ten years before Luther’s death, William Tyndale was executed. First they strangled him. Then he was burned at the stake. His principal crime? Translating the Bible into English. In fact, even owning an English Bible was a crime punishable by the death penalty.
If Luther had done nothing other than translate the Bible into German, it would have gotten him in hot water. Of course there were already some portions of scripture floating around in German and English, but…
1. Luther and Tyndale translated directly from the Greek and Hebrew. Other translations had been made from Jerome’s Vulgate, a Latin translation. The irony here is this: Jerome translated the Bible into the vernacular of his day, Latin, so that it could be read. It was in this spirit that Tyndale and Luther translated to the vernacular of their day. By Luther’s day Latin was a language of scholarship. Those who read Latin were a tiny percentage of the general population. Tyndale was resolved that the plow boy would one day be able to read the Bible as easily as the bishop. As it happens, Tyndale shifted from the vulgar Middle English to an early modern form of English. His Bible is important not just as a spiritual document but as a foundation for modern English. Luther’s Bible holds the same place for German.
2. Tyndale and Luther produced the first entire English and German New Testaments, respectively. There were copies of various Biblical books floating around, but nothing complete. This was the first time in history an entire New Testament was available, and affordable. Affordable, but expensive nevertheless. A Bible would cost about 10% of the annual household income for an artisan according to German scholar and author Dr. Martin Treu.
Tyndale got a copy of Luther’s Bible in 1522. He was so inspired, he began working on his own translation from Erasmus’ Greek. Tyndale sought permission to do this work by London Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, who said such a text would be heretical. So Tyndale went to a place where he could work with intellectual freedom: Wittenberg. Luther and Tyndale actually met, in Hamburg in 1524. Both were exceptionally bright, gifted scholars. Tyndale had command of eight languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and, of course, English.
The first complete edition of Tyndale’s New Testament was published in Worms in 1526. Copies made it to England, where Bishop Tunstall ordered them burned. The sight of Bibles being burned incensed the public. Sadly, Tyndale would not live to finish his Old Testament, but as much as 75% of the King James Version owes itself to Tyndale’s work.
Luther, meanwhile, kept writing and writing. His habit of writing in German, rather than Latin, was quite unusual for the day. It appealed to the masses. Luther’s Sermon on Indulgences and Grace was so popular, it was reprinted 22 times. There were no copyright laws, so printers chose to reprint only what they knew would sell. Luther sold. From 1518 to 1525 Luther cornered the book market with over 350 titles. These were then translated into Latin so they could be read in the educational centers of the world. It was a media revolution. Luther went viral, as The Economist so articulately noted: http://www.economist.com/node/21541719
Wittenberg had a population of 2500 in Luther’s day, according to Dr. Treu. 180 of them worked for the church. 7%! None of them, however, could deliver what the people wanted: sermons they could understand; sermons in German. It was not the church, but the magistrate that called Luther as the Tower preacher. He was immensely popular. The first edition of his first Bible sold out – 3,000 copies just in Wittenberg. It went into an immediate second printing.
In a stroke of genius, the harbingers of reform even took the Papal Bull condemning Luther, translated it into German and then printed it, with commentary. The Reformation was all about understanding. You want to condemn us? Okay. We’ll translate your condemnation so everyone can read every last detail, counter your arguments in the margins, and then we’ll print and distribute it for you. Everywhere. Thank you Mr. Gutenberg.
Luther had every reason to expect he would be executed. Both he and Tyndale knew it was coming eventually, because this was the norm. Consider Jan Hus.
Jan Hus was a Czech priest who was executed in 1415, about 100 years before Luther posted the 95 Theses. He spoke out against corruption in the church and indulgences in particular. He was condemned. He also had protection, but not enough. After they repelled Papal armies five times (known as the Hussite Wars), Hussite forces were ultimately defeated.
Hus was eventually brought to trial, where he agreed to recant if he could be shown in Scripture where he had erred. On July 6, 1415, he was convicted of heresy and condemned to death.
Led to the stake, Hus was stripped naked and his hands were tied behind his back. His neck was chained to a post and he was buried in straw up to his neck. He was told once again to recant, but he refused. As they lit the fire, he said:
“Today you are cooking a goose, but a swan will come after me that you will never be able to roast.”
Luther became a monk nearly 100 years later. According to Pastor Scott Moore, ironically, at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Luther laid prostrate over the very grave of the man who had condemned Hus, and there Luther made his vows. The swan, therefore, became a symbol for Luther and the Reformation.
Fortunately, Luther did not get burned at the stake. He had two things Tyndale and Hus did not. First, he was a best-selling author, and a celebrity. Second, and more importantly, Luther had a protector. Prince Frederick owned thousands of relics that provided indulgences, but he was impressed by Luther, and was not going to give up his new superstar who was attracting students by the droves.
The Reformation was not the invention of a German monk in Wittenberg, it was the inevitable result of a movement that had been growing in the church for over a hundred years. It grew out of a spiritual hunger for Scripture, hymns and sermons in the language of the people. And in the end, kings were moved.
Before he was strangled, Tyndale made his dying request: that the King of England’s eyes would be opened. Two years after Tyndale’s death Henry authorized an English-language Bible. It would not be published until 1611, but it would change history, and the English language too, forever.
Luther indeed changed the world, but he was swept up in the crushing wave of history. Like all of us, he stood on the broad shoulders of those who came before him, and was carried along by public demand for the gospel, spoken and sung with joy in the language of the people.