Exhibit on Luther visiting Baltimore

Copy of New Testament on display for one night at Zion Church downtown

November 14, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Martin Luther was a marked man.

Excommunicated by the pope in 1521 and afraid for his life, the father of the Protestant Reformation hid in a German castle, where he let his hair grow, shed his monk's robes and assumed an alias, "Knight George." Isolated in his hideout, he put quill to paper and began translating the New Testament from Greek into German.

The result was an instant best-seller that propelled the Reformation and transformed the audience for the New Testament. Once jealously guarded by the clergy, the book suddenly became a popular read.

Thirty-six complete copies of Luther's first edition remain. One goes on display this evening at Zion Church of the City of Baltimore to open a traveling exhibit, Martin Luther: The Reformer.

The book was produced on a hand press in 1522, nearly 70 years after Gutenberg's Latin Bible. It has not been on public display in nearly a decade, and the Johns Hopkins University is lending it to Zion Church for one night.

The exhibit, sponsored by the Luther Center in Wittenburg, opens at 7 p.m. and runs through Nov. 23. Tonight's program at Zion includes an address by the Rev. Eric Gritsch, a Luther scholar and retired professor at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary.

Martin Luther: The Reformer comprises replicas of items from the life of Luther, who challenged the Roman Catholic Church and sparked a movement that changed the political, religious and cultural landscape of Western Europe. The artifacts include a plaster copy of Luther's death mask, as well as replicas of his tombstone and his wife's ruby-and-gold wedding ring.

There is also a model of Castle Church in Wittenburg, where Luther posted his 95 Theses, which criticized the abuse of the "indulgences" the Catholic Church sold to the faithful who wanted their sins forgiven.

"It gives you a total immersion into the world of Luther," said the Rev. Holger Roggelin, pastor of Zion Church, at 400 E. Lexington St. Roggelin said the exhibit is filled with replicas because the cost of insuring genuine artifacts would be prohibitive.

The exhibit made its debut at the 10th assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Winnipeg, Manitoba, last summer and is making stops in 14 cities in North America. Tonight's big attraction is Luther's New Testament, which will sit under glass.

Working at night by candlelight in Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the work in just 11 weeks with help from secretaries and researchers. The first printing - 3,000 to 5,000 copies - sold out within three months. By 16th-century standards, it was not cheap. The book sold for the price of a calf and was snatched up by princes, nobility, craftsmen and merchants.

The translation not only made the New Testament accessible to a lay audience, but also unified Germany's dialects and set the stage for the modern German language.

Until Luther's translation, the clergy largely controlled access to the New Testament and feared that if it became widely available, new interpretations and sects would develop.

"When Luther entered the monastery, he had a hard time finding a Bible," said Gritsch, author of Martin - God's Court Jester: Luther in Retrospective. "It was the least read book."

The version on display tonight is in fine condition. Bound in leather, its pages are made from a cloth-based paper that feels like currency. It is usually housed in Hopkins' John Work Garrett Library and is available for view by appointment only.

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