One translation of the Bible towered above the others in sixteenth-century Europe. It was by no means the first vernacular Bible, nor even the first complete vernacular Bible to appear from the Reformation movements. However, the translation of Martin Luther wielded enormous influence throughout the German-speaking world and beyond it. It was overwhelmingly the proto-reformer's own work, even if he was assisted by colleagues in certain key areas. It powerfully embodied Luther's core theological insights, not only through the translation itself, but also in the prefaces and annotations that accompanied it. The text constantly developed, undergoing multiple revisions and enhancements during Luther's lifetime. It was, finally, an outstandingly powerful piece of prose writing by any imaginable standard. The history of the vernacular Bible in the Lutheran traditions is, fundamentally, the story of the Luther Bible.
German Bibles before the Luther translation
The first Bible known to have been printed in High German was published by Johann Mentel or Mentelin at Strasbourg in 1466. This edition derived from a fourteenth-century translation of the Vulgate in its Spanish recension, rendered into the dialect of the late medieval Nuremberg area. This very wooden and in some respects archaic translation appears to have been intended to help clergy understand their Vulgate better. Around 1475 Günther Zainer, a printer–publisher based in Augsburg, issued a revised edition, which claimed to have eliminated incomprehensible words from the translation, and incorporated a number of technical advances over its predecessor. The enterprise was sufficiently successful for similar translations based on the Vulgate to appear in a total of fourteen editions by 1518, published by a variety of printers in Strasbourg, Ausgburg and Nuremberg. These complete Bibles were often quite lavishly illustrated folio volumes. Additionally, at least four editions of the Bible were published in Low German in Cologne, Lübeck and Halberstadt before 1522. At least three separate printings of the Psalms in German were issued over the same period.
There was therefore no great difficulty in obtaining some sort of German Bible before the Reformation, given the limited literacy and the likely appeal of these translations principally to the clergy. Neither, apparently, was there a shortage of purchasers.