For Holocaust Memorial Day

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.

Reposted.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Patrick

    1) To an extent, we modern US Christians eliminated the Old Testament practically. Not many of us would say it’s not part of our heritage like the Nazi Christian would, but, it’s not part of our heritage literally to an extent for various reasons.

    2) Clearly Jesus was not a Gentile or He is not Messiah, but, Galilee was home to a lot of Gentiles it seems, Isaiah called it “Galilee of the Gentiles”(Isaiah 9:1-2) for example. Solomon gave 20 towns there to King Hiram.

    5) I fear our nationalism/reverence for our government and/or the state might be as dangerous to our spiritual roles as German racism/nationalism was their’s. I think it’s bad on the left and the right personally.

    7) Assume for a moment some of these theologians really DID consider compromising with Hitler was a wise way to preserve the German church and they would have preferred it wasn’t that way. My guess is some did think this way.

    That’s pretty par for the course for believers, to compromise with the prevailing zeitgeist.

    Yes, it’s spiritually dangerous when we mold Jesus as we want Him instead of accepting the unvarnished facts. We do it though, almost all believers do. I know I have.

  • Kenton

    Patrick(#1)-

    ” I think it’s bad on the left and the right personally.”

    Yes and amen. What’s scares me is how left-leaning Christians scapegoat right-leaning Christians for getting in bed with the GOP, all the while making the same mistakes today with the Dems.

  • Mike M

    Not surprising that Hitler used the German Christians for political purposes. Not surprising that the bulk of German Christians were Lutherans either, since Luther’s hatred of Jews gave impetus to the movement. Soon afterwards, on the anniversary of Luther’s birth, Hitler began 2 days of terror with the Kristallnacht. Martin Sasse, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran-Thuringia and one of the contributors to “The Message of God” project praised Kristallnacht publicly. Now I’m getting sick.

  • Dorfl

    @Patrick (#1)

    “Assume for a moment some of these theologians really DID consider compromising with Hitler was a wise way to preserve the German church and they would have preferred it wasn’t that way. My guess is some did think this way.”

    Isn’t that precisely the problem? It’s not that we think the theologians were insincere in their belief that they were doing the right thing. It’s that they genuinely believed that doing something terrible was the right thing to do that makes them awful people.

  • Diane

    Patrick and Dorfl,

    Bonhoeffer put it this way when a seminarian wondered if it was best to influence the Nazi Church from within, which also meant a paying pastoral job, less risk of arrest, etc: “If you get on a train speeding in the wrong direction and run in the opposite direction, you’re still on the wrong train.” I think about that often–can you change a system from within?

  • Dorfl

    @Diane

    That’s a really good quote!

    In most cases I can think of the top of my head where a system have been changed from within, that change has been for the worse. But presumably it should be possible to change things for the better too. It depends on the system. When your church’s official doctrine has become “Aryans are superior. Enslave the slavs and kill all jews, gypsies and negroes!”, I think the most constructive thing you could do is to run away and encourage as many as possible to follow. I don’t think you have any real hope of fixing the church at that point, and by remaining you still give it your support.

  • Kevin McKee

    Patrick, I liked your post, except that I disagree with your first comment that modern Christians in the US have “eliminated the Old Testament practically” I actually find the opposite to be true. Many conservative and fundamentalist churches appear to be obsessed with the Old Testament as a source to prrof text legalistic stands, which I think is similar to the actions of the pre-war German church trying to develop justifications for the support of policies that appeared contrary to the Christian gospel. When I hear church leaders today more concerned about a supposed protection of the second amendment, than Jesus instructions, and use Old Testament passages to provide a justification for these views.


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