October 11, 2017

Junker Jorg

Stephen Nichols
Junker Jorg


Looming over the town of Eisenach, Germany, is Wartburg Castle. This castle was constructed in the 1060s. When Martin Luther was a student at Eisenach, he would have seen this grand castle perched atop the hill, and he may even have ventured up there from time to time. Luther also was a resident in the Wartburg from May 1521 through March 1522.

You remember what happened in April 1521. The Diet at Worms was held that month, and there Luther made his famous “Here I stand” speech and was condemned as a heretic. As he left Worms and made his way back to Wittenberg, his prince, Frederick the Wise, arranged for him to be kidnapped and brought to the Wartburg for his own protection.

While he was at the Wartburg he had an assumed identity. He grew a beard and tried to disguise himself, and he called himself Junker Jörg, meaning “Knight George.” At the Wartburg, Luther felt alone, isolated. At one point, he wrote in a letter, “I am writing to you from my isle of Patmos.” He also worked hard at the Wartburg. There are a number of legends associated with Luther and his time there. One concerns the famous inkwell. The idea was that the devil was so after Luther that he materialized in Luther’s room, and Luther grabbed the inkwell off his desk and hurled it at the wall, leaving an ink spot behind.

Most importantly, during his time at the Wartburg, Luther translated the Greek New Testament into German. This was a remarkable feat. Luther began the effort in December 1521, and by early January he had prepared the four Gospels. He made copies of them and sent them to Philip Melanchthon and the other scholars at Wittenberg so they could review his work. Luther soldiered on through the rest of the New Testament, and by the time he left in March 1522, he had finished the entire New Testament; it took him about eleven weeks to translate the Greek text into the German. That is an amazing feat. It was edited over the next several months, and Lucas Cranach prepared woodcuts to accompany the text. By September 1522, the German New Testament was ready for publication. It’s called the September Testament. It’s one of the most important things to come from Luther’s pen and it shaped the Reformation in Germany.

Luther didn’t stay cooped up in the castle all the time; he would sneak out and go down to Eisenach occasionally. There’s even a path called the Junker Jörg Trail that leads up and down the mountain. Once when Luther came down he was in a pub and he got into a conversation with a couple of students from Switzerland. They were very eager to talk to Junker Jörg about Luther. Everyone was talking about Luther. They asked this squire, this knight, “Do you know where Martin Luther is?” And Junker Jörg—Luther—said to them, “Well, I know for certain that he is not in Wittenberg.” Then he said, “What is the talk about this man Luther?” And they said, “Ah, some of the bishops are calling him a great heretic.” And Luther’s response was, “Those are the papists.”

As Junker Jörg got up to go, the Swiss students saw his Hebrew Psalter and the jig was up. They realized that they had not been talking to Junker Jörg but to Martin Luther, and he was there in Eisenach.