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from "Designing Bibles," by Andrew Wilson, Here I Walk, 25 August 2010

It’s well-known that Luther trans­lated the Bible into Ger­man, and it’s often thought that he was the first one to do so. But that’s not true at all.  In fact, there were 17—that’s right, 17—other trans­la­tions of the Bible into Ger­man before Luther’s! . . .

Gutenberg’s Bible was the first book printed in the West using mov­able type. But while the tech­nol­ogy was new, the social sys­tem was still old. We have in the Guten­berg Bible a clas­sic prod­uct designed for the nou­veaux riches. His Bible promised to up-and-coming classes the same access to writ­ten cul­ture afforded pre­vi­ously only by eccle­si­as­tics and nobility.

We can see that in even in its style. Gutenberg’s work left the intial let­ters unprinted with space left for illu­mi­na­tion. His printed Bible was meant to sim­u­late the great illu­mi­nated Bibles owned by the nobil­ity and rich monas­ter­ies, but for a bargain-basement price. That’s not to say they were cheap. Gutenberg’s Bible would have cost the aver­age worker a for­tune. It was still a pres­tige piece, not meant for study but to dec­o­rate the col­lec­tions of those who wished to be iden­ti­fied with book culture.

What we see in Luther’s work is an entirely dif­fer­ent kind of thing. Here was a whole Bible meant for study, for read­ing. It was designed to be printed en masse, to be bought and dis­trib­uted to many peo­ple below the nobil­ity, used in churches and schools for cat­e­ch­esis. We can see the dif­fer­ence in the design. Older Bibles were large, folio-sized objects,  printed in small num­bers. Luther’s was was small, mass-produced, and affordable.