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.