Echoes of Luther in latest German New Testament

German Lutherans celebrate Christmas this year with a new-old version of Luke 2, which contains the story of Jesus' birth. The lastest Lutheran edition of the New Testament goes far toward satisfying the critics of the previous edition of 1975.

The version of a decade ago strove so hard to clean up the anachronisms left from Martin Luther's prose that it flattened out the rhythms and richness of the original, a lot of critics (and Christians) thought.

Rhetoric Prof. Walter Jens of Tubingen University called it ''murder of Luther'' - and promptly got appointed as a member of the re-revision committee.

Without doubt the most infamous of the 1975 infelicities was the injunction not to hide one's candle under a ''pail'' (eimer) rather than under a ''bushel'' (scheffel). The word scheffel is no longer in use, but the biblical expression has become so much a part of everyday speech that the congregation couldn't help snickering when the modern translation was first used, according to a Lutheran who was present in the church.

The 1984 New Testament reverted to ''bushel.'' And it has reverted to much more of the inspired German that Luther poured out in that phenomenal 11 weeks of translation of the New Testament back in the 16th century - German that became the foundation of the modern vernacular.

What was intended to be the definitive revision of the Luther Bible for modern times was completed in 1912 - and did last for half a century. But the new source materials becoming available, along with the modern English Bible translations coming out in the 1960s, persuaded theologians and Germanists alike that they too should have another try at the Luther Bible. They determined to put the Bible into ''natural German as colloqui-ally spoken by educated people today.''

A revised translation of the Old Testament came out first in 1964 and was generally well received. A new Roman Catholic Bible translation appeared in 1972 -74, followed by the new Protestant New Testament in 1975.

The laughter in the first church to hear about hiding candles under pails and the excoriation by writers like Professor Jens soon brought reconsideration, however. The Lutheran churches of West and East Germany formed a commission of primary revisers, along with a panel to review the revision. This time the aim was to ''keep the middle line between understandability and the heritage of Luther.'' Words like ''ye'' and ''cometh'' were restored, but words that had become totally obsolete or had assumed different meanings were generally weeded out.

The end result, the Lutheran church now hopes, will last for several decades.

That there is still a market for the Bible, in whatever translation, has just been demonstrated by an unlikely entrepreneur - the Eduscho coffee stores. Sales of Bibles in bookstores have been languishing, but Eduscho still decided to put leather-bound copies of the full Bible up for special sale this winter at 24.95 deutsche marks (about $8). The result: more than 100,000 of the Bibles were sold this Christmastime.

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