Monday, July 15, 2013

I hold Luther's Bible in my hands

Today in the British Library at St Pancras I held in my very hands one of the world's great books: Martin Luther’s original 1534 translation of the Bible into German. Two enormous tomes, clearly designed as lecturn bibles to be read in churches. I was allowed to take them away to a desk and leaf through them at my leisure. The frontispiece and several illustrations were hand coloured as were the leading capitals of each chapter. Very fresh. Like illuminated manuscripts. Which so far as I know were still being made in those days, and I imagine that still in 1534 a printed book would be estimated by some with the disdain that we today might reserve for a photocopy.

Martin Luther’s 1534 bible: chapter 1 of Genesis (“Das Erst Buch Mose”, the First Book of Moses). The illustration is God creating the world, with a naked Adam and Eve in the centre, but the quality of this image falls far short of the brilliant crispness I held in my hands this afternoon.
The strange thing is, this happened unintentionally. All I desired was a copy of the text of Luther’s bible; the Penguin edition would have sufficed; but I couldn’t work out from the catalogue how to order it so I made a wild stab at Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch and 70 minutes later, as is the protocol, I was issued with this treasure.

My mission by the way was to see whether Luther in the book of Acts had perpetrated a deliberate misquotation from a Psalm and introduced the word bishop.  So far as my limited German tells me, he did. Why this is important or even mildly interesting will have to wait another day …

Martin Luther painted by Lukas Cranach, 1529