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The Book of the People of the Book:
Luther’s Translation of the Bible


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God in human form is common in Christian Bible illustrations, belief in a God who is both All God and All Man making such depiction quite natural. No such depiction would be expected in Hebrew books published under Jewish auspices or for a Jewish readership. Yet on the engraved title pages of Minhat Shai (Mantua, 1744), an illustration depicting Ezekiel prophesying to the dry bones shows the face and outstretched arm of God breathing life into those bones. The editor of this volume is Yedidiah Shlomo Norzi; the publisher is Raphael Hayim Italia. Similarly, in a superbly illustrated Haggadah published in 1864 in Trieste, edited by Abraham Hayyim Morpurgo and printed by Johan Cohen, God is shown in the burning bush before which Moses is kneeling. Such depictions in Jewish sacred books are unexpected, even shocking, considering how seriously the Second Commandment inhibited Jewish artistic expression, especially of aspects of the deity. It indicates how widely Jewish publishers employed Christian artists and how great was the influence of Christian art on Jewish book illustration.

More acceptable from a Jewish perspective though no less appealing to the Christian reader are the illustrations in the first printings of Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German, Das Alte Testament deutsch (Wittenberg, 1524). These portray such biblical scenes as the Fall of Jericho and Solomon's Temple. The biblical experiences are made all the more immediate by illustrations which employ contemporary landscape peopled by recognizable figures clad in familiar garb of the time. Jericho, for example, is drawn as a medieval German town around which warriors in sixteenth- century military garb are marching, and each of the traditional shofars is a German horn.

To translate the Old Testament, Luther needed help. He consulted Jewish scholars, and the great Christian savant Melancthon was particularly helpful. Luther made wide use of the commentaries of Nicholas de Lyra, a French scholar who drew heavily on the commentary of Rashi, "whom he transcribes almost word for word." So frequently did Luther draw from de Lyra that a well-known couplet asserts, "Si Lyra non Lyrasset, Luther non saltasset" (Had Lyra not played, Luther could not have danced). The Luther translation of the Bible was to Hochdeutsch what Shakespeare was to the English language. Its immediate and lasting popularity was overwhelming; within a decade of its publication, it was reprinted some eighty times.

Of singular importance to the history of Christianity is Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German. This majestic first edition followed by countless others, and inspiring further translations into virtually all the major languages of humankind, may be viewed as a monument to the influence of the Bible on the course of civilization. It is opened to the Book of Joshua, where the artistically accomplished woodcut depicts the march around Jericho by Joshua's army led by Kohanim (priests) sounding Shofrot (horns) till "the walls came tumbling down" (Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress Photo).

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).

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