Academic integrity 2: Walter Bauer and the German Christian movement

He was said to be a typical academic: desperate for admiration and inclined to intrigue. — Based on the Stasi file on Walter Grundmann[1]

Today I have been reading Susannah Heschel’s book The Aryan Jesus, from which I quoted previously.  The book is rather discursive than precise, but nevertheless it contains much interesting material.  It is, in the main, about the German Nazi-era Institute for the Study of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life[2], and in particular about Walter Grundmann, its director, who became a Stasi agent in post-war East Germany.

The volume gives an overview, sometimes rather biased, of the rise of hostility to Jews and Jewishness during the 20th century, and how this was reflected in the attitudes expressed in German scholarship.  In particular it is very good on how the demands of the secular world were aped by the liberal protestant churchmen, and on the great power of the German Christian Movement in that period.  The story centres on Thuringia and Jena.

The book does not make enough allowances for the mixed motives that always prevail in every period, nor for the distorting effect of 20-20 hindsight on people who had no contemporary knowledge that this or that agenda was being pushed at secret meetings elsewhere.

I should add that the book contains far too few references for my comfort, and I frequently found myself asking, “How do I know this is so?  What is the evidence for this?”, which is never a good sign.  If I am going to express some statement as fact, I should like at least to know the data on which it is based.

Naturally I was interested to see what the book had to say about Walter Bauer, author of Orthodoxy and Heresy (1934), which I have been examining elsewhere, and which posits that real Christianity was no more authentic than Marcionism, the movement which was supposed in that period in Germany to deny the validity of the Jewish element in Christianity.

Bauer does indeed appear, but only once.  In 1927 he published an article Jesus der Galiläer[3] in which he identified Galilee as definitely non-Jewish.[4]  It is unfortunate that Heschel does not quote him directly, as one would naturally prefer to hear the man himself than someone’s representation of him.  But what was the social context of such a claim?

If you dislike Jews, and yet are a normal German in the 20’s, you have a problem.  Because you belong to the official state church, the Lutheran protestant, and indeed you pay a tax collected by the state for its upkeep.  This official church worships … a Jew.

So what do you do?  Well, you try to claim that he wasn’t a Jew.  And during this period, according to Heschel, this is precisely what German scholars were trying to do.

The argument is not as daft as it seems at first.  The bible tells of the deportations from Israel, and the alien settlers around Samaria, and there were more settlements in the area in the Persian period.  Persians are Iranians, and Iranians are good Aryans.  Being a Galilean, Jesus might not have had a drop of Jewish blood in him.

Into this process, the article by Bauer fits precisely.  And scholars such as Grundmann and many others proceeded to refer to a gentile, indeed an Aryan Galilee, for just this purpose, in order to claim that Jesus was not racially Jewish.[5]

Likewise we learn from Heschel that a purged bible, which discarded the Old Testament, and edited the New, was actually issued by the Institute.  It is very remniscent of Harnack’s demand that the church should discard the Old Testament.

However I am not certain whether Heschel is representing events correctly in this.  From what she says, the publication seems to have consisted rather of selected extracts, all very much in conformance with Nazi ideology.  It is at this stage that the limited referencing leaves the reader in the dark.

Bauer’s work consists of rubbishing the history of the early church, in order to substitute for it another, designed to undermine the authority of the church by suggesting that ancient heresies are just as authentic as representative of Christianity.  In the light of current events when he published it, this takes on a somewhat sinister light.  These two publications by Bauer are very much in keeping with the Nazi trend of the times.  It would be good to know more certainly what Bauer thought he was doing.

Of course there is a terrific irony here.  For Bauer’s book owes its popularity to a translation in the 60’s, and the use of its narrative by post-hippie gnostic-kissing secular theologians, of much the same stamp but a rather different political outlook from the Nazis, and with the aim of promoting a rather different ideology.

God has his jokes with those who set out to oppose him, it seems:

Blow the trumpets, crown the sages,
Bring the age by reason fed.
He that sitteth in the heavens,
He doth laugh, the prophet said.

In between the free love, was there time for a quick “Sieg Heil” or two, to honour their intellectual mentor?

But of course I may be mistaken.  Bauer’s friends must fall back on the saying of the old atheist about the gospel: that it all happened a long time ago, and we must hope that it wasn’t true.

Let’s finish with the cover image from the book.  There are other interesting photos inside!

Altar of the Antoniterkirche, Cologne, in 1935
  1. [1]Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, Princeton, 2008, p.258; the quote is Heschel’s reporting of a report signed by “Ludwig”, Grundmann’s Stasi file, May 11, 1960.
  2. [2]The title originally referred to “study and eradication”, but I understand from Heschel that the reference to “eradication” was dropped in order to give the body a more independent and scholarly appearance.
  3. [3]Reprinted in Bauer, Aufsätze unde Kleine Schriften, p.100 f.
  4. [4]Heschel, p.60, referencing p.103 of the reprint.
  5. [5]Heschel p.153: “Thanks to the work of Walter Bauer situating Jesus in Galilee, Grundmann could easily present Galilee as standing in opposition to Judea; thanks to Assyriologists such as Paul Haupt (and ignoring Albrecht Alt), he could claim that Galilee had been populated by Aryans who had been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmoneans, but who were not racially Jewish…”.

4 thoughts on “Academic integrity 2: Walter Bauer and the German Christian movement

  1. Of course, claiming that Jesus was totally non-Hebrew kinda undermined His claim to the Throne of David, and thus to being king forever, etc. But no doubt there were “scholars” eager to explain that away, too.

  2. Thank you – this might well be interesting.

    It’s always important to understand the context of academic studies when they venture into controversial waters, whether of politics or religion. All too often they merely articulate some contemporary obsession, rather than telling us anything about antiquity.

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