Discovery of a Bible Lifts Luther's Role For Germans Today

WITH the 50th anniversary of World War II safely behind them, Germans are slowly shedding some of their postwar insecurity about their national identity. And they are rediscovering Martin Luther as a helpful cultural icon.

The 95 Theses he nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 helped split Western Christendom. But for Germany, he's a symbol of unity. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics treasure his heritage - the Luther Bible, a masterpiece of translation that helped establish High German as a literary language.

"The [Berlin] Wall is down, and Germans are trying to recapture the cultural treasures of the past, and to get past the Nazi time," says Luther biographer Heiko Oberman.

This may explain Germany's excitement over the recent discovery of a Latin Bible, which scholars believe either belonged to the "great reformer," or at least spent some years in his home.

"I wonder what kind of discovery of Thomas Jefferson's diary or something like that one would have to make in America to get that kind of response," Professor Oberman mused during a telephone interview from the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The book in question is a Vulgate (Latin) Bible, printed in France in 1519. Manuel Santos-Noya, a Spanish philologist and expert on the Vulgate tradition, discovered it in September in the State Library of Baden-Wurttemberg in Stuttgart, Germany. The margins of the compact videocassette-sized volume are squeezed full of notes, at least some of them in Luther's handwriting.

Once scholars determined the book was not a fraud, they decided this must have been a Bible Luther had with him as he made his speedy 60-day translation of the New Testament in German.

German newspapers - ranging from the buttoned-down, to the trendy, to the downright hysterical - are panting over this Bible story, just months before Germans observe the 450th anniversary of Luther's death next year.

"We think we're so modern, but we're really quite medieval in our veneration for relics," Oberman says.

Andreas Baudler, an American Lutheran pastor completing a doctorate at the University of Tubingen, says he knows who the actual owner of this Bible was: Dr. Hieronymus Weller von Molsdorff, a onetime law student of noble family background in whom Luther's preaching instilled the desire to become a theologian.

This theory would mean that Luther only came upon the Stuttgart Bible several years after he made the "September Testament" translation, since Weller was in the Luther household from 1527 to 1535.

This theory also explains why the Bible contains many notations in Luther's hand but more in a hand that is clearly someone else's - a student whose admiration for his master extended to imitation of his handwriting.

The Bible contains the initials "I. W." - which Baudler says point to Weller, who sometimes Latinized the spelling of his first name to Ieronymus.

And even though scholars now say the book may have belonged to one of Luther's students instead, that may make it even more valuable.

Scholars who specialize in Leserspurenforschung - research into the traces readers leave, as in marginal notations - have found plenty to chew on in the Stuttgart find. "The earliest readers are closer to the text," explains Oberman.

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