Jesus in our own Image

All Bible readers are tempted to make Jesus in their own image, and a study I mentioned in The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible makes a solid social-scientific case for that very observation. We all tend to toss onto the Bible’s texts our projections the way we project onto the Rohrschach inkblots. Some of it is innocent, some if it is neither innocent nor dangerous, and sometimes it gets dangerous.

Sometimes this “in our own image” becomes vicious. Which is the point Susannah Heschel makes in her book, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Don’t get this book in your hands unless you are ready to be disturbed. But I would urge you to get this book in your hands because we all need to be disturbed.

The reason to read this book is to warn us of how easy it is to slip into colonizing the Bible and Jesus into our own ideologies.

Here is the big picture. From the 1930s through WWII German Christians (that’s a technical name) sought to de-judaize the Bible, Jesus, Christianity and the German churches. One of the principal leaders of this attempt was Walter Grundmann, a famous New Testament scholar whose commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels were the standard commentaries read by German scholars and pastors until the 1980s and 1990s. That’s the big picture, so now some details … and you will have to read this exceptional study to get the details.

“At noon on Saturday, May 6, 1939, a group of Protestant theologians, pastors, and churchgoers gathered at the Wartburg Castle [of Luther fame]… to celebrate the opening of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life” (1). This book weaves the story of this Institute, led by Grundmann, in and out of discussions of what was happening in Germany and what was happening in the German Christian movement. It’s a story that makes me sick.

Here’s what happened:

1. A Bible was produced called “The Message of God” that eliminated the Old Testament, that wiped out all traces of Jewishness, that cut out the biographical portions of Paul’s life that made it sound like he was Jewish [the stuff was interpolation, they claimed], and that did everything possible to make the Bible Aryan and German and völkisch.
2. Jesus, it was argued, was an Aryan and not a Jew. Galilee, it was argued (blatantly wrongly), was not Jewish and it was Aryan, so Jesus was after all an Aryan.
3. The German Christian hymns and liturgies and catechisms were wiped clean of Israel and Old Testament and Jewishness. German baptized Jewish Christians were banned from the church.
4. Very, very few German Bible scholars or theologians opposed what was going on; some names who were: Hans von Soden, Hans Fischer and Ernst Haenchen.

5. The whole thing was driven by a racial theory that Jews were deformed and the Aryans were superior. The Aryan argument and the church were so intertwined that it became dialectical and mutually reinforcing.
6. Some major scholars were at the heart and in the middle of it, including Grundmann, Gerhard Kittel (one of Grundmann’s professors, and the editor of the famous Kittel dictionary), Emanuel Hirsch, Paul Althaus, Johannes Hempel, and others. Some scholars were at least stained, including Adolf Schlatter (one of Grundmann’s teachers) and Gerhard von Rad (he saw the OT rejecting Jewishness but defended the importance of the OT). One center was the University of Jena, a thoroughly nazified university and faculty.
7. When the war was over many, if not most, of these German Christian scholars and theologians and pastors were rehabilitated, including Grundmann. Their lame argument was to blame the whole thing on the Nazis and that the de-judaization effort was the only way they could preserve Christianity in Germany from Nazi destruction.

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  • Andrew Parle

    Must read this book… But something we can so easily do, ” Make Jesus into our image” This can be very subtly done in our life and not realized..

  • Susan N.

    “Don’t get this book in your hands unless you are ready to be disturbed. But I would urge you to get this book in your hands because we all need to be disturbed.”

    So true…

    I’m reminded again of ‘The Real Mary.’ Jesus’ own mother had to be willing to let go of the misunderstandings about “Messiah” that Jews believed at that time, as she was confronted with the reality of her son’s words and actions.

    Thanks for the book review and recommendation.

  • Seems to me this goes well beyond the idea of making Jesus in our own image. This is a re-formulation of biblical history. It’s surprising, based on point 4, so few stood up in defense of “orthodoxy” and so many significant names in theology were seduced by the lie. Not that uncommon I suppose, but chilling when one ponders the ramifications.

  • Steve

    This title is amazingly close to Richard Noll’s book, “The Aryan Christ” about Carl Jung.

  • Scott W

    Idolatry–that what we’re dealing with here–has its tentacles deep in modern Christian project. People may not identify with the ‘German Christian’ movement but in many ways Jesus has been assimilated to social ideologies with have to do with ‘blood and soil’ even in America, from the beginning.

    As you did a series on the important book by Prof. J. Kameron Carter of Duke, his colleague and conversation partner at Duke, Prof. Willie Jennings, has written a seminal book ‘The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race’, which spotlights this phenomenon in terms of developments in the New World also. I haven’t read this yet but I plan on making this one of my future reads. See the link below:

  • T

    This is the immediate lesson I draw from even the summary of these historical events: If these Christian scholars can be so blind to their own political and cultural lenses as to teach this kind of stuff as “God’s will,” I wish this would encourage Americans to take a long, long, long look at the various political stands and forms of patriotism that are supposedly clearly based on faith in Christ. If these German scholars could go as far as they did, do we think we’re exempt from the temptation to baptize our politics and call them God’s will?

  • Amos Paul

    @2 Susan,

    Mary is actually a great example. There’s so little information actually recorded about her… don’t you ever wonder where all the Mary interpretations and descriptions are coming from?

  • EricW

    “Some scholars were at least stained, including Adolf Schlatter (one of Grundmann’s teachers) and Gerhard von Rad (he saw the OT rejecting Jewishness but defended the importance of the OT).”

    Did you mean to write “NT” in the first instance, instead of “OT”? I.e.:

    “Some scholars were at least stained, including Adolf Schlatter (one of Grundmann’s teachers) and Gerhard von Rad (he saw the NT rejecting Jewishness but defended the importance of the OT).

  • MatthewS

    Very scary and an important cautionary tale. It gets me to thinking about the difference between attempting to incarnate the message into a culture versus remaking the message itself.

  • Scot McKnight

    EricW, nope … von Rad saw the OT rejecting Jewishness — its universalism doing that.

  • Perry L Stepp

    I forget the exact passages, but parts of the English translation of DO WE KNOW JESUS appear to be critical of the rise of Nazism.

    How was Schlatter stained, beyond his association with Grundmann? With his death in May 1938, he obviously wasn’t directly involved with the Institute for the Study and Eradication.

  • Joe Canner

    My German theological history isn’t what it should be, but shouldn’t people like Bonheoffer, Niemoeller, and Barth be included in point #4?

  • Susan N.

    Amos (#7) – Have you read the book? Scot authored ‘The Real Mary’, as I’m sure you must be aware? Though it is likely that our (his and mine) respective beliefs aren’t identical, I regard his biblical scholarship highly and consider him an authority that I can trust.

    You are an unknown entity to me, Amos, but I’ll bite: What “truth” do you want me to discover about Mary? I get the impression that you know something that you suppose I do not know…

    T (#6) – I think you are right.

    Scot (#10) – I do not understand the reference to universalism. Could this be explained a bit more?

  • Scot McKnight

    Susan, “universalism” here means the belief that the covenant can include Gentiles.

  • Susan N.

    Thanks, that helped me to understand.

  • Adam

    I think it’s obvious that we believe this is happening at some level in America.

    The example given here about Germany, demonstrates that reversing this trend took a war. Is a war required to change that here?

    What are the alternatives? How do you “fight” this?

  • Amos Paul


    No, I simply see the broad topic of Mary to often merely be people reading themselves and their ideas into the general outline we have recorded about her. I was stating that the Mary discussion, in general, is one in which lots of people often have a lot to say… but it’s not clear where they’re getting all of these ideas.

    I’ve seen Mary used to defend ‘Feminism’, Paternalism, Holding to Tradition, Changing the Times, Boldness, Submission, Holiness, Earthliness, Judaic Roots, Judaic Rejection, Christian Serenity, Christian Anger, Buh.

  • Fish

    Adam #16

    I don’t know. I know it would cause a “church fight” to remove the American flags from the front of many churches, but I also know seeing them is eerily reminiscent of pictures I have seen of swastikas similarly placed in Nazi German churches.

  • Aaron


    So what’s your point?

    Here’s another thing. There’s Jews like me all over the church who follow Jesus as the Messiah and many of us have met with this anti-Jewish mentality. “Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life” says it quite well.

    How about Eradication of Jewish Influence on American Church Life? It’s going on right now as in point 2. “Jesus, it was argued, was an Aryan and not a Jew. Galilee, it was argued (blatantly wrongly), was not Jewish and it was Aryan, so Jesus was after all an Aryan”

    Just replace the word “Aryan” with “Gentile” and you have, for the most part, what too many of our churches believe today. This needs to stop.

  • It’s crazy to think of heresies being-reborn. In this case the canon mutilation is nothing more than Marcionism.

  • John W Frye

    I appreciate the concerns that a “civil-religion-Jesus” could emerge in the USA, but I don’t think we have high-powered OT and NT scholars and pastors attempting to do this as a specific task (as was done in Germany).

  • Hi Scot,

    The example she gives is certainly a major and monstrous distortion. For most people, Jesus is distorted in minor ways by their own perception, limited by a mortal mind. We can strive to enter the Kingdom, where we will see Him fully revealed.

    Lou Barba

  • Barb

    joe @ 12–you beat me to the punch. I just heard an excellent lecture on these three at Whitworth U. by Timothy George (podcast is available on-line) I would include a reference to the Barmen Confession also.

  • @John: In America, the politicians don’t NEED high-powered OT and NT scholars in order to subvert Christianity. We have televangelists!

  • Richard

    @21 and 24, wouldn’t Wayne Grudem’s recent chart be a an example of a high-powered/influential theologian contributing to civil religion?

  • Albertomedrano

    Bad theology helped foster Naziism.

    What’s being fostered today?

  • Patrick

    Aaron #19,

    You’re right, but, my perspective is this is based on the original Jewish – Church antagonism begun 2000 years ago as opposed to a neo pagan racial identity idea.

    Over the centuries, the “split” has been so complete, that it surprises Jews and Christians of today to know Jesus is 100% Jewish in culture and faith.

    I read a polemic not 1 year ago by an Israeli scholar who felt he had made an amazing discovery, “Christianity is basically Jewish”!

    Well, yea.

    Christians seem surprised when they discover( if they discover) that Jesus was speaking from an OT perspective, sometimes alluding to extra canonical Jewish writings, as a traditional Jewish prophet, using Jewish “apocalytpic genre” of speech most the time, claiming to be the fulfillment of the Jewish/canonical hope for the salvation of Israel and mankind beginning with Gen. 3:15.

    Claimed to be in the royal line of David, the 2cd Yahweh of the OT( this is a doctrine the Church and Judaism have lost and it is demonstrably in the MT, 2cd temple Jews and early Christians understood this doctrine well).

    There is nothing NOT Jewish about Jesus in His lifetime on earth.

    Any Christian who doesn’t get this is really missing out because it is so beautiful&fulfilling to observe the literary unity of the entire Scriptures tell this story of The Son of God.

  • Steve Sherwood

    #25 Richard. Speaks my mind.

  • Susan N.

    Amos (#17), I interpreted nothing of a forced agenda in my reading of ‘The Real Mary.’ The impression that has stuck with me is Mary’s response to Jesus as Lord, and how her response to Him changed as she both understood his true identity (as full understanding of what kind of Messiah He was) and accepted that unexpected mode of saving. Contrast her with poor Judas, who couldn’t accept that salvation wasn’t to be secured through earthly power.

    I have no reservation in recommending ‘The Real Mary’ to you. I’m confident that the content would be edifying to you, and perhaps restore an accurate view of Mary. I understand how one can become jaded by reading and hearing too much commentary that is contrived or driven by a particular agenda. Scot’s book on Mary is not like that. ~Peace~

  • Diane

    Joe #12

    Barth was save in Switzerland–he was Swiss–where he did criticize Nazi “Christianity.” Niemoeller and Bonhoeffer are among the few who resisted the Nazi church and paid a high price for their stands. The larger point, as you know, is that too few did resist. The German church was weak and considered by many irrelevant prior to Hitler’s ascent (which may say something about why he was able to rise). Bonhoeffer’s father and brothers thought Bonhoeffer was committing career suicide by becoming a pastor because the church was so low in status–people with real talent and ambition chose other careers.

  • There is a pretty decent documentary called Theologians Under Hitler, in which Heschel appears, that provides a fairly helpful introduction to the issues discussed. You can watch it streaming for $5.00 or buy the DVD via the link below…

  • DRT

    21, 24, 25, 28 Yes, and I do feel Grudem’s chart is a step down that path.

    I believe the world domination in our case is more subtle and therefore less obvious and perhaps more dangerous. The weapon of rampant materialism without consideration of the effects on the production base (people in the world not on our doorstep) is getting close to the evil from the mid-1900’s. Slavery, disease, death (short lives), pollution, and we justify it because *we* are free and the *free* hand of the market is doing it. Just because we aren’t pulling a trigger makes us no less culpable in the deaths and enslavement of people supporting our society.

  • Rev Tony Buglass

    Re #12, and the response at #30 – the reason Barth was back in Switzerland was because he (with Niemoller and Co) was a signatory to the Declaration of Barmen in 1934, and had therefore been expelled by the Nazis. Barmen gave birth to the Confessing Church, which was the anti-Nazi federation of Christians which continued throughout the war. The conference described above was organised through the “German Christian Faith Movement”, which was the Nazified federation of churches led by Reichsbischof Muller. Sadly, it did include scholars such as von Rad and Kittel, who really should have known better – and Grundmann’s excuse was a particularly lame one.

    Having said that, the vast majority of German church people were not unlike the vast majority of British Christians, who believe that religion and politics don’t mix, and were really very happy with Mrs Thatcher. It’s very easy for us to criticise German Christians from the vantage point of hindsight.

  • A critique I think is pertinant here. Culture is a human construction, which is validated by Traditions, OR is THE Tradition to form cultural framing! Who is to say which is so? Is a secular view NOT bad, as it is humane, while a cultural/religous framing is confining of moral choice under “moral oughts”? AND does such religious/cultural framing tend to further enrage “traditonal, cultural, ethnic” rivalries???That is what is important for peace…not a transcendentalist view, but a critical realist view.

    Judiasm was a religion that developed out of polytheism (at least this is how one expert describes it). And as such, Saul as a relgious zealot persecuted another religous traditon, Christianity. Group behavior always tends to protect its defining of what is of greatest value. For religion, the greatest value is “God”.

    What was Christianity then? except identification with humanity, NOT religion! Christianty, as Jesus lived it, not as the Tradition has become through its absolutizing of Paul, which created another religion out of a Jewish sect. And what does humanity need? That up for grabs, for individuals to determine for themselves, in free societies, other societies are under religious or moral tyranny. Morality is about choice and value, not some conformity to religious zeal about “God’s righteousness”!!!