Gerhard Von Rad: State Interference and Unflappable Belief in Nazi Germany

Bernard M. Levinson, Professor and Berman Family Chair of Jewish Studies & Hebrew Bible at the University of Minnesota Law School, has recently re-posted Reading the Bible in Nazi Germany: Gerhard von Rad’s Attempt to Reclaim the Old Testament for the Church (read the full text here).  The article, which first appeared in Volume 62 of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology (2008), explores Gerhard von Rad’s (1901–71) staunch adherence to Old Testament studies despite the challenge of Nazi elements within his theological and intellectual milieu.  Levinson also draws a direct connection between von Rad’ s hermeneutic and the historical circumstances under which he worked, painting a powerful portrait of religious and intellectual conviction in defiance of a totalitarian state.

Levinson chronicles National Socialism’s grip on academia and—through control of university theological study—churches.  In 1934, just as von Rad took a post teaching theology at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (“NSDAP”) was taking universities and churches into its ideological grip.  This substantial transformation coincided with—or caused—the ascendance of the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) and the more radically nationalist German Christian Church Movement (“KDC”) (I have already written upon the opposition of the protestant, anti-Nazification Bekennende Kirche—“Confessing Church”—here).

The University of Jena was a nucleus of this shift, and its Faculty of Theology became an organ for National Socialist, German Christian ideology.  (It is worth mentioning that, in addition to the Jena Faculty of Theology’s intellectual move toward National Socialism, the Faculty of Medicine became more concretely an NSDAP body:  It used Buchenwald to train students in pathology and its medical-clinics participated in some 14,000 forced sterilizations before 1943.  [See the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage's account of the unimaginable atrocities at Buchenwald here.]  The appointment of S.S. Obersturmbannführer Karl Astel as Jena’s rector in 1939 completed the university’s National Socialist transformation.)

For more on Levinson’s description of the Nazification of German protestant churches and von Rad’s resistance to Nazification through his writing and teaching, please follow the jump.

The purportedly evangelical German Christians and KDC pledged their allegiance to the NSDAP and sought to remove Jewish influence from Christianity—for example, by expurgating Hebrew words like hallelujah from hymns and denying Jesus’ Jewish ancestry.

At Jena, the Faculty of Theology followed suit.  It took the unusual step of eliminating theology students’ obligation to study Hebrew; declared Old Testament studies unnecessary to understanding Christianity; and aligned its curriculum with National Socialist priorities, offering courses on the interpretation of Jesus in light of the “Jewish Question,” “Fundamentals of Aryan Anthropology and Religion,” and “The Concept of the Reich as the Fundamental Question for German Theology.”  Certain Jena faculty also helped publish abridged versions of the New Testament that eliminated Old Testament references and links between Jesus and Judaism.  (How they evaded such basic questions as the name, Jesus, from the Greek ’Ιησους, a translation of the Hebrew Yeshua—that is, the Joshua of the Deuteronomistic History—boggles the mind.)

Levinson describes how this environment of political domination of the universities and churches by the Nazi state did not overcome von Rad’s strongly held devotion to the entire canon.  Despite the overwhelming Faculty of Theology support for German Christian and KDC views, Professor von Rad persisted in propounding the Hebrew Bible as an indispensable text, one central to the Christian message.  Needless to say, in the political atmosphere at the time, von Rad’s views did not garner widespread support.  In Winter 1935–36, only eight of the 155 Jena theology students registered for his Old Testament courses.

Von Rad’s unflappable defense of the Old Testament, as portrayed by Levinson, was a courageous challenge to an environment of dominating, anti-Semitic interference in theological matters imposed by the Nazi regime and its sympathizers.

See Professor Levinson’s abstract below:

From 1933 through 1945, the Hebrew Bible was under attack in Nazi Germany. Indeed, the entire notion that Christianity had any connection to Judaism was systematically denied. Even within the Church, the long-standing tradition of “Old Testament“ studies was marginalized. This paper studies the heroic struggles of Gerhard von Rad. It tells the story of how von Rad, long before he became a famous Protestant theologian, fought in near isolation to defend the Old Testament. Much of the gripping story has not been widely known, and has only recently become available.

This brief article—detailing the little-known von Rad’s intellectual resistance to government interference in matters committed to theology—should pique the interest of any state and religion historian.

—DRS, CLR Fellow

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2 responses to “Gerhard Von Rad: State Interference and Unflappable Belief in Nazi Germany

  1. Extremely well written, interesting and enlightening article.

  2. Hal Bennett

    How often have I heard it said that certain German Christian scholars heroically stood up to the Nazis, and how few times have I ever heard specific examples of just who these people were and what exactly did they do in this regard. And I have never really seen or heard an example given as to just what the Nazi position was. I will admit that I have not read biographies of such as Niemoller and Bonhoffer– I should have. That a state could actually derogate the study of the Old Testament regarding the study of the New Testament indeed boggles the mind. That sounds like one of the most unique, or rather eccentric, scholarly endeavors in the history of mankind. One more example of why TV specials keep coming out on the Nazis. The subject never gets old.

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