In 1521 Martin Luther was considered both an enemy of the Church and treasonous in the State. The Roman church had previously excommunicated him with the Papal bull and he has just left the Diet of Worms where the imperial ban of the Edict of Worms had put a price on his head (see Part 4). He was now a criminal.
Luther was captured by four or five armed “bandits” on his way home from Worms to Wittenberg on May 4, 1521. He was taken to the Castle Wartburg. Luther knew about the capture beforehand; it had been orchestrated by his Prince Frederich. The ruse allowed Frederick to escape charges of harboring a heretic.
So this guaranteed Luther’s safety by letting him disappear from the scene for a short while; there were even rumors of his death but Prince Frederick’s prized professor was safe. Luther assented to the seclusion at the insistence of his Prince and friends, though he was not in agreement. After he left he wrote to the Prince to say he did not fear for his safety,
I would have gone into Worms though there were as many devils as tiles on the room.
Here he remained from May 4, 1521 until March 1 the next year.
The Castle is situated above the city of Eisenach, where Luther himself went to school as a child. Built almost 500 years earlier, Luther would have looked up to see this Castle as a young student, perched on the hill above him.
Luther referred to the Prince Frederick’s Castle Wartburg as his “Patmos,” his island — like the Apostle John’s exile by the Roman emperor — on which he spent 300 days. He called it his “kingdom of the birds” or “the domain of the air” as he looked out of his study window down upon the city below. Only a handful of men knew where he was hidden.
Living incognito, Luther did not wear his usual monk’s habit but he wore a black robe with high collar and let his hair and beard grow out to complete his disguise. He carried a sword at his side, going by the name Junker Jörg or “Knight George” in honor of the patron saint of the city Eisenach, St George, and the name of the parish school he had attended there while young. Only one man in the Castle knew who he was because Luther needed his identity to be kept secret from other knights who lived there. Initially, he remained in his room with only his Bible. As his disguise “grew out” he was able to move about the Castle compound with greater freedom. While he was there he planted cabbages and carrots. Occasionally, he’d be taken out to hunt, accompanied by pages to scout ahead.
Soon, he turned from writing letters to a few friends in Wittenberg to more serious writing. He wrote many postils, devotional works, often commentaries on biblical texts that might be used in Sunday sermons. In his room, was a writing desk, a tiled oven, and one more thing. Indeed, it is the only thing in the room one visits today that is authentic: the vertebra of a whale. It could serve as a footstool. These kinds of bones were considered important for their powers of healing.( Luther complained often to his friends of gastrointestinal problems.)
German New Testament
While there he had only two of his own books, Erasmus’ 1519 second edition of the Greek New Testament, and his Hebrew Bible. Starting in December and into early January he translated the Four Gospels of the New Testament from Greek into German. It took only eleven weeks to do the preliminary work of translating the whole New Testament – at a rate of 1,500 words per day. Back when I was studying Greek at university, I don’t think I could have read that many words a day.
His New Testament translation into German was vivid and lucid. It was translated from Greek, the language that the New Testament was originally written in, not the Latin Vulgate, a translation that had been done by St. Jerome more than a millennium before Luther. The Vulgate, Luther believed, contained anachronisms and unfortunate translations that led to misunderstood passages. Not being able to find German equivalents of certain biblical terms, Luther created new words or idioms, some of which survive into the English Bible.
It was published in 1522 as the so-called September Testament. Through this Bible, Luther became the creator of the standardized New High German written language. It was becoming the unifying language used in more places in Germany. Luther wrote:
I speak the language of the Saxon chancery, which all the German princes are now using.
Luther’s September Bible became the “uncle” to the English Bible. William Tyndale, translating the English Bible used the same book order for the New Testament that Luther had. The “as Christ was taught” ranking started with The Gospels, then Acts, and the Epistles in descending order of Jesus’ prominence in each, followed by the Book of Revelation. Luther even influenced Tyndale’s choice of words. Tyndale’s translation makes up 90% of the 1611 King James Version of the New Testament and more than 75% of the 20th century Revised Standard Version.
And the September Testament is still respected half a millennium later. When I was mentoring a German student at American University in Washington D.C., the Bible he read was Luther’s.
Back in Wittenberg, trouble was fomenting. False teachers, radical innovations in worship, destruction in the churches, violence in the streets, and students leaving the university suggested that those who Luther had entrusted to be in charge were not up to the task.
Luther knew it was time to return home to Wittenberg from the Castle Wartburg.
Continued in Part 6
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian