Martin Luther shifted popular attention from the Pope to the text. Over time the text itself became the battle field for many theological disputes. The modern Protestant church carries many assumptions from that era. Some of them are false.
Most people's exposure to Christianity is through attending some sort of church. Outside of church, there are various popular Christian media personalities. Together these form the most widely understood expressions of western Christianity.
Over a period of 20 years I attended church, listened to christian media, and went to various conferences. In that time I never heard anyone dealing with the foundational assumptions of the Protestant faith in regards to the Bible.
There are a bunch of assumptions implicit in the battles fought at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps the most important assumption is that the Bible is the inspired word of God.
This is, of course, the basis of the authority of the Protestant branch of Christianity. To understand that assumption, let me review the standard Protestant teaching on the Bible.
In the mid 1400s, the Catholic Church began raising funds to build what is now Saint Peter's Basilica at Vatican City in Rome, Italy. There was an older church building at the same location. Construction of the new building took place in stages, dodging the old structure so services could still be held on Vatican hill. Once enough of the new building was complete, the old building was torn down.
That new building was approaching its final form in the early 1500s. This was the time when Martin Luther was coming of age. He was a Catholic Priest. He visited Rome in 1510 and got to see that building for the first time.
Adjusted for inflation, Saint Peters is considered one of the most expensive buildings ever constructed. In order to fund construction, the Church at the time was raising as much money as they could in order to keep construction progress moving.
Perhaps one of the most egregious ways they did this was through selling indulgences. If someone gave the church enough money, their sins would be forgiven and they would have everlasting life. No matter how they lived life here on Earth.
This was but one of many moral objections that Martin Luther had with what was going on in the Vatican at the time.
By 1517 Luther was a professor of Moral Theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. He articulated his objections in a list called the Ninety-five Theses or the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.
Later generations would make the publishing of this document the basis for what would become the Protestant Reformation. That event itself is the basis for the Protestant branches of Christianity that we know of today.
Bible As Ultimate Authority
Luther wanted some way to prevent the excesses that were expressed in his list of 95 Theses. He found it in the idea that the Bible itself should be the ultimate authority for Church practices and beliefs.
Being constrained by this inspiration meant that he needed to find support within the Bible for this idea. He found it in 2 Timonthy 3:16. Here is this most important Protestant foundational quote.
16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (Second Timothy 3:16 NIV)
This was quite satisfying in that the text itself seemed to be suggesting that the text of the Bible is the ultimate authority, not the office of High Priest as held by the Pope at Rome.
Reigning in the Papacy was not going to be easy. Shortening a long story, Europe broke into civil war based in part on religious disputes centered on this idea.
Of course church attenders do not fund war. There were many parties in Europe who wanted to break the power of the Pope. Luther was a convenient excuse to shift the power structures of Europe.
Some estimates put the loss of life in Europe by the end of the 1500s at 1/3 of the total population. This was a bloody era.
This era of European Civil war was not just a religious fight, but it was the breakup of centralized government over Europe into various nation states. Each having their own language and heritage.
Luther's reformation began a prophetic season of world history that I have documented extensively in the bibletribes.org website. Luther started a process that ultimately caused the emergence of the lost tribes. It was a bloody process that set these peoples free.
In the end, Northern Europe, especially Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles became Protestant while the southern parts of Europe generally remained Catholic. Generally Cahtolic regions included Ireland, France, Spain and Italy. Eastern Europe remained mostly Orthodox through this revolutionary process, including especially Greece and Russia.
The idea that all scripture is God breathed is a powerful idea. This idea is so powerful that it deserves some elaboration on the implications.
Fundamentally, it suggests that God himself wrote a book. That he breathed that book into existence. So that book, and not particularly men, is the ultimate authority over whatever topics that book chooses to cover.
This implies that book is worthy of close study. By studying the book we step into the study of God himself. As we read the book we are creating what is called a 'theology.' We might say a, 'God-ology' or a framework for understanding God and his character.
Though there would be a Catholic counter reformation, Protestants more than any other branch of Christianity remain deeply focused on the text of the Bible itself. This is why there are so many Protestant preachers using mass media of various types to teach about the Bible.
The Protestant idea implied some changes on how the text of the Bible itself should be handled. Conceptually, everyone needed to know the Bible in order for the Bible to be a realistic check on the practices of people in high church office.
That meant the Bible needed to be widely available so people could read the Bible for themselves. This implied that people needed to be able to read. The skill of reading, itself, was not very common in Luther's day.
Even if people could read in their own language, it would not be of much use if the Bible was not translated into their language. Thus began the practice of vernacular language translations.
Luther himself set out to produce what would be one of the first vernacular language translations of the Bible, a German language translation.
For the better part of the past 500 years, Christian missionaries are faced with the same problems as Luther faced in Germany. For any unreached people group, the people there need to learn to read, so they need a written language. After they have a written language, then they need a translation of the Bible into their unique language.
From the earliest decades, Protestant branches of Christianity held Sunday Schools to teach pupils first how to read and write and then how to read the Bible itself. The burden of teaching young people to read is now often borne by society at large. Church Sunday Schools now focus more on the content of the Bible.
This missionary drive, based on the need for enough literacy to read the Bible, has brought literacy to most of the globe, something that did not exist in Luther's day. Literacy is the basic skill that allows nations to develop into what we recognize today as the developed world. The developed and developing worlds exist because of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.
There were a few other vernacular language translators at about the same time as Luther in Germany. Luther was not the very first such translator. Luther is perhaps the most famous because he was the central figure in the Protestant Reformation.
Before Luther, the western church generally used Latin language texts of the Bible, when it used the text of the Bible at all. Catholic Mass would remain in Latin up until around 1960. Latin was known and used by everyone who lived and worked in the Vatican.
Luther's natural path would have been to translate the normal Latin Bible text into German. This is not what he did.
Luther, and those who still follow in his footsteps, shifted to using the then relatively new Vowel Pointed version of the Hebrew Old Testament. Luther also shifted to using the Greek New Testament. These texts were the basis for his new translation.
The argument, of course, is that these were the inspired languages of the Bible, so by shifting to the Hebrew and Greek as source documents, the accuracy of the final translation would be better. This, of course, is the fundamental idea. As many people as possible should know the text as accurately as possible.
The argument that Hebrew and Greek are the inspired texts of the Bible is itself built upon some assumptions. Though Luther was doing about as well as he could in his day, it has some faults that all Protestants should be aware of.
Vowel Pointed Hebrew
There are 2 fundamental and complete manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament that are still in existence and still used by translators even today.
The first is called 'The Aleppo.' The second is called, 'The Westminster Leningrad Codex.' These 2 documents do not differ very much. The Aleppo is generally favored in Jewish circles. The Westminister Leningrad Codex, WLC, is generally favored in Christian circles.
These 2 documents are written in what is called 'Vowel Pointed Hebrew.' To begin to understand the problems of the texts, you need to understand the known history of Hebrew. Some of which may not have been known very well in Luther's day.
Hebrew, as a working modern alphabet, is known to be only about 2500 years old.
If you are doing archaeological digs anywhere in the eastern Mediterranean and you find an artifact with modern Hebrew letters on it, then you know that artifact is less than 2500 or so years old.
In the New Testament era, that now 2500 year old Hebrew letter system was being used.
Dead Sea Scrolls are mostly in that Hebrew form. About 10 percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in an older form, known in religious circles as Paleo Hebrew. That older form is not yet our concern here.
From about 2500 years ago until about 1500 years ago, all Hebrew writing using the letter forms we know now, but without vowel pointing. Starting around 1500 years ago scribes starting added notations around the Hebrew letters. Those notations are collectively called 'Vowel Points.'
These notations are mostly dots, but they also include small dashes. Each notation has a different name and serves a different purpose. There are about 14 different vowel point symbols for Hebrew represented in the Unicode tables. Some overlap with punctuation and some form letter variants, so how they should be counted is disputable.
So if the Hebrew base letters were good enough for about 1000 years, what was going on that scribes and rabbis decided they needed to add notation to what Protestants would call inspired scripture?
Conceptually, the base historical text was being left alone. But a new layer of notation was being added to nearly every letter in the text. There are 3 different and very distinct purposes that are taught to students learning to read Hebrew.
Sound System Changes
Some of the vowel points are used to mark changes in pronunciation from the base letter. The classic example is the Hebrew letter for 'Sh' can be marked so it is pronounced as 'S.' This is a very old problem, discussed in Judges. Here is the quote:
6then they said to him, Now say Shibboleth, and he said, Sibboleth, for he could not pronounce it. Then they took him and slew him at the passing of the Jordan and there fell at that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites. (Judges 12:6 BRB)
Note that story is over 3000 years old. The pronunciation problems between S and Sh were prevalent even then. Finally, the use of a dot added to the text could reflect how the community of 1500 years ago was pronouncing the letter.
This does not appear to be very harmful. By the year 500 Jewish speakers were changing the pronunciation of certain words. So vowel points were added to the text to mark these pronunciation changes.
For the record, the events recorded early in Acts at Pentecost likely spread out across the Roman World. There is plenty of scholarly work that has looked at the sound system changes that were going on cross that world in the late first and second centuries.
By the early 100s there were areas in the Roman world were grand parents were unintelligible to their grandchildren. The speed of pronunciation shifts was that dramatic.
Most of the lower class Roman world did not read and write and had no written basis for pronunciation. Hebrew and upper class Romans using Latin did have a textual base that kept them from most changes.
But, the Hebrew world was shifting anyway, and vowel points were how the texts were kept up with these changes. So far, vowel points were not very malicious. Sound system changes are the basis for calling these vowel points. But, there are 2 other fundamental uses to vowel points.
The second use of vowel points is to override the effective letter found under the vowel point.
So in this case the word implied by the mark has now changed.
This became a point of modern controversy when news papers in Israel tried to stop using vowel points on printed pages. Those points require high resolution printers in order to be legible.
In the end, vowel points that change letters had to remain in order to keep the correct meaning of the words.
This is not as bad as it gets. There is a 3rd use for Vowel Points that sets the Hebrew scribes and rabbis loose.
The third use of vowel points is to override the implicit grammar of given sentences. This is a case that our instructor stressed but I do not have a good illustrative example in my scant notes from the class.
Our Hebrew language instructor warned us strongly to ignore all vowel points when learning to read ancient Hebrew manuscripts. Our instructor wanted us to read past the editing of the Hebrew old testament that began around the year 500.
The easiest way to see through that round of recent editing was to ignore those marks. This was an insight that we would use to learn many other things.
What Were They Doing?
So what would scribes and rabbis of 1500 years ago have been up to using vowel points in these ways?
If a vowel point changes what word is under the point, then the simple letter string of the text remains the same, but the words used in the text are changing.
If a vowel point overrides the fundamental grammer of the Hebrew text then a scribe or rabbi is able to change the meaning of a sentence.
Note this is not complete freedom to rewrite any OT sentence. But, it is a system that can achieve a very similar intent.
This was a fundamental warning from the Messianic Hebrew Language teacher where we learned about these things. Rabbis were theoretically able to rewrite the text without changing the base letter strings passed to them by history.
It is theoretically possible to 'see through' this level of editing, but few go to the work. Our instructor demanded of us that we learn how to do this for ourselves.
So consider Luther era vernacular language Bible translators. They went to Hebrew experts, Jews primarily, and asked them how to ready Hebrew. What system of writing will they be taught? What system are they still teaching in seminaries?
Fundamentally, the Hebrew texts available since the year 1500 are a translation of the Hebrew texts available until the year 500.
Fundamentally, Luther may have been better served by sticking with Latin text of the Old Testament. Both Latin and Vowel Pointed Hebrew are translations of some base text. The early Latin translators may not have been malicious in intent at some earlier point in history.
Watch The Timing
Imagine you are a modern translator, say Martin Luther into German. Or imagine you are a missionary translating for an unreached people group. Now think about what you are doing.
The text of the Old Testament that you are using as your source document is newer that the New Testament. Or said another way, the New Testament is actually older than the Old Testament.
Because the Hebrew Old Testament went through a very clever vowel pointing review process that ended about 1000 years ago. It was updated in response to 500 years of Rabinic writing that itself began after events in the New Testament.
The standard Protestant assumption that 1) All scripture is God breathed and that 2) The Bible as we know it is that scripture, covers over a bunch of dirty little secrets.
Our initial Hebrew instructor was giving us a glimmer at a fundamental idea that would propel much of our later work. By looking carefully at the manuscripts passed to us by history it is possible to learn to see through to the writings of an earlier era.
If you learn to read Hebrew without any regard to vowel pointing, you are looking past edits of 1500 years ago, and are now starting to see the results of an earlier editing pass. That earlier editing pass was around 2500 years ago, which we will get to soon enough.
This is an impressive feat because it is a way to see the Hebrew text as it was when the New Testament was written. It is also a way to see closer to the original point of divine inspiration. Remember, we are still Protestant and hold to the teaching of Second Timothy 3:16.
There is another set of similar problems with the New Testament. Luther might have been better off just translating from Latin We will look at that problem in the next article on Aramaic Primacy.