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Gutenberg made possible the Luther Bible’s impact

Once upon a time, in the 1600s, Martin Luther was a best-selling author in Europe. And his rise in popularity was connected to a technological revolution of the time: Johannes Gutenberg’s development of the printing press.

Gutenberg was about 70 years older than Luther and lived in Mainz, along the Rhine River. Not much is known about him personally, said Claus Maywald-Pitellos, curator of the Gutenberg Museum Mainz. But “do not think of Johannes Gutenberg as primarily an inventor,” said Judith König, a town art historian. “He was a businessman.”

The Chinese and Koreans actually printed books hundreds of years before Gutenberg, as did the Babylonians, König said. But the printing press that Gutenberg developed, with the innovation of removable type, made mass production of books possible, vastly speeding up the process of printing. Previously, it would have taken about a year and a half to print one large book like the Bible, she said. With Gutenberg’s machine, roughly 200 could be printed in the same time.

As Gutenberg the businessman sold his printing press design to other shops and trained other printers, the technology “spread like a disease all over Europe,” König said. Prices dropped, so “people like you and me could finally afford to buy a book, if you could read Latin.”

Then came Luther, who with his translation of the New Testament into German “united all German dialects and made a general language out of it.” With the Reformation, people could read the Bible in their native language and decide for themselves “is it really true what the priest tells me every Sunday, or did he twist it?” König said. “Did Jesus really say it?” 

   The 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg will be celebrated in 2017 — with a 10-year “Luther Decade” tribute leading up to that.



The Luther Decade themes for the next five years are:


2012: Reformation and Music

2013: Reformation and Tolerance

2014: Reformation and Politics

2015: Reformation — Image and Bible

2016: Reformation and One World



For more information on the Luther Decade commemoration and travel possibilities see: