RAVENSBURG, GERMANY — Last summer, research librarian Wiltrud Baumann stumbled upon a box that had not been opened since World War II. Intrigued, she started going through its contents.
Her curiosity paid off.
What the librarian at the Wrttemberg State Library in Stuttgart, Germany, had uncovered was one of the rarest books in the world: a first edition of William Tyndale's "The newe Testament," printed in Worms on the Rhine in 1526 by one of Johann Gutenberg's former apprentices (Peter Schoeffer).
Engraved on its calfskin cover was the likeness of German Lutheran Prince Ottheinrich I of Heidelberg and the date 1550. Sandwiched inside was an English New Testament with a title page that made no mention of a translator, printer, or even printing date.
Ms. Baumann realized the potential identity of her find after comparing the decorative page with facsimiles of other Bibles printed in Germany. The library sought the advice of others to confirm its suspicions. Mervyn Jannetta, head of the English Antiquarian Collections at the British Library, affirmed the authenticity of the volume.
"The discovery," he says, "is a cause for great celebration," considering that of the original stock of 3,000 only three have survived, and of these only the newly discovered one in Stuttgart still has the original title leaf. Since 1994, the British Library has been the owner of an almost complete 1526 octavo first printing of Tyndale's New Testament. It and the Stuttgart find are currently on display at the New York Public Library in the United States.
The third, albeit textually incomplete, copy has been in the possession of St. Paul's Cathedral in London since the 19th century.
William Tyndale (also Tyndall and Tindale), a Roman Catholic priest, was the first to translate the entire New Testament into English from the original Greek. He was an early admirer and conscious imitator of the German Reformer Martin Luther.
Like Luther, who translated the New Testament into German in 1522 without providing his name, Tyndale, at first, also chose to remain anonymous, as the title page shows. In the forewords to their translations, both men drew on Mark 16:15, making known their intent to ultimately spread the Gospel "unto al creatures."
Tyndale was referred to as "a beast fit for hell" even by illuminati such as Sir Thomas More. A rebellious priest from the English west country, Tyndale had fled England in 1524 for Germany, where he personally met Luther and hoped to repeat for his countrymen what Luther had accomplished for the Germans: a translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into the vernacular tongue.
After failing to get his translation published in Cologne, Tyndale was successful in Worms, thanks to the good reputation Luther had in the Imperial City, where the German Reformer had defended the Protestant cause in a famous speech that ended: "Here I stand!"
Tyndale had hoped to smuggle all his Bibles back to England but was intercepted in port by agents of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1526. England's highest bishop decreed the destruction of the entire series. A few survived.
Luther had completed his translation under ideal conditions in the seclusion of Wartburg Castle in less than three months. Tyndale, by contrast, remained a man on the run, hounded until 1536, when his adversaries finally caught up with him in Belgium and had him executed in Volvorde near Brussels.
The path the newly discovered Tyndale tome took from Worms to Stuttgart is still a matter of speculation. It disappeared in Heidelbery in 1610 only to be rediscovered in 1802 in the possession of the Cistercian cloister Schoental in southwest Germany. From there it was transferred to the Catholic faculty of Tbingen University, which, unaware of its true identity, handed it over to the state government in 1935. That year it was acquired by the Stuttgart library, owner of the largest collection of Bibles in continental Europe.
Had it not been hidden in a monastery east of Stuttgart on the night of Sept. 13, 1944, the priceless Bible would have gone up in flames along with half a million other books the state library lost during a Royal Air Force offensive.
"We are elated," says Mr. Jannetta, "that a third copy of Tyndale's translation has survived in the country which gave its translator sanctuary."