What, you might ask, is the Heliand? As good Saints, you will remember that Nephi “likened scripture” to himself, his people, and his situation. Well, he wasn’t the only one. In the 9th century an unknown Northern European warrior-monk-poet took it upon himself to “liken” the Gospels to his own people and situation: a chieftain society, a defeated people, a nation forcibly Christianized by Charlemagne. The result was the Heliand, a re-imaging of the Jesus story.
The Heliand, then, is a 9th century work in Old Saxon with a fair number of Latin loanwords for some, but not all, theological expressions. At 5984 lines, it’s twice the length of Beowulf and far more charming. Ever thought about the miracle at Cana as a mead-hall scene? Yup. All that Mediterranean imagery is now transplanted to the world of The Lord of the Rings, more or less.
So then in the original Old Saxon we’ve naturally got “Nazarethburg,” which comes into English not as the “castle” of High Medieval times, but as the “hill-fort” of the pre-Viking world. Like a good Saxon, Jesus was born inside the walls of a hill-fort. He was in and out of Fort Capernaum several times in his life and he taught in the shrine at Jerusalem, too. And of course, there’s Pilate of Pontusland who is threatened by the Jewish warriors with the ill-will of the emperor at Fort Rome.
As far as characters and characterization go, we have warriors, earls, and thanes. God is a Chieftain or Victory-Chieftain, or some such, and Christ is naturally “the Son of the Chieftain.” After his resurrection, Christ joins the warrior-company of earls on the road to Emmaus. In short, the whole thing is addressed to the warrior-nobility of the era, and meant to be sung in their mead-halls, not liturgically. Some manuscript even have neums in certain places. Here’s how the Sermon on the Mount begins:
Heroes were very eager and willing to stand around God’s Son, intent on his words. They thought and kept silent. They needed very much to think about the many brilliant things that the holy Child had told them this first time in words. Then one of the twelve, one of the intelligent men, spoke in reply to God’s Son…
And so we come to the Lord’s Prayer. Now there’s one aspect of that pericope that has bothered folks since about forever. It’s the sixth petition, which reads in the AV “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Despite the fact that it’s part and parcel of the OT that God is responsible for everything that happens to us, good or bad, folks don’t like that sixth petition so they change it.
As with the rest of humanity, the author of the Heliand was very solicitous of God’s reputation. Here’s his version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Father of us all, the sons of men
You are in the high heavenly kingdom
Blessed be Your name in every word
May Your mighty kingdom come
May Your will be done over all this world—
just the same on earth as it is up there
in the high heavenly kingdom.
Give us support, each day, good Chieftain,
Your holy help, and pardon, Protector of Heaven,
our many crimes, just as we do to other human beings
Do not let loathsome wights lead us off
to do their will, as we deserve,
but help us against all evil deeds.
And there you have it – a “likening” of the scriptures, brought to you from 9th century Northern Europe. You can find a complete copy by searching under either Heliand or, as it is more commonly called in English, The Saxon Gospel. I used a translation by G. Ronald Murphy (NY: Oxford Press, 1992), but if your German is up to it, that’s also a great experience. It’s a treat in either language.