The “National Socialist Bible” of 1940: An Experiment in Contextualization

The so-called “Nazi Bible” of 1940 was an experiment in theological revision undertaken by scholars attached to the Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life. The Institute, based in the Thüringian town of Eisenach, emerged in 1939 as a centre for research into the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. This relationship was of paramount concern within the climate of National Socialism, as many within the Nazi hierarchy believed Christianity to be irreconcilable with the national feeling due to its Jewish origins.[1] Anxious to free Christianity from the “stain” of its Jewish foundations, the Nazi-supporting Institute’s research was understood as an effort toward religious liberation. It also had the secondary aim of transforming the corporate experience of the German church through its production of a “Nazified” catechism and hymnal. 

The Institute cloaked its activities under the veneer of objective, academic “research.” As Susannah Heschel observes in her seminal work on the topic, a recurring motif in the literature produced by the Institute was the concept of an “Aryan” Jesus. Using the very best tools in critical biblical scholarship —tools that were largely developed within the German theological tradition— established scholars such as Walter Grundmann produced monographs, pamphlets, and conferences that expanded on the theme of the racial origins of Jesus and the Germanic foundations of Christianity. An important example of this is Grundmann’s 1940 text Jesus the Galilean and Judaism, in which he suggests that the diverse ethnic Galilean region in the 1st century casts significant doubt on whether Jesus was of Jewish descent.[2]

In contrast to its protestations toward neutral objectivity, the Institute’s research methodology was in praxis guided by a priori ideological commitments. These commitments held that National Socialism, and the person of Adolf Hitler in particular, were divine revelations of God for the age. These beliefs had been clearly expressed in the proclamations of Nazi–supporting theologians in the pre–War period, such as Julius Kuptsch’s conviction that Hitler and Jesus shared an “essential kindredness.”[3] Prior to 1939, many of the Institute’s scholars had been attached to the Thüringian branch of the German Christian movement (the Kirchenbewegung Deutsche Christen, hereafter ‘KDC’).[4] The KDC faction was especially radical in their devotion to National Socialism, and its members displayed a willingness to forego many elements of Christian tradition and theology out of sympathetic deference to the totalizing claims of Nazi Weltanschauung. Future leaders of the Institute, such as its director Siegfried Leffler and Walter Grundmann, would have their origins in the KDC, and it was through their organizational efforts that the Institute would eventually come to fruition.[5]

As a major project of the Institute, the “Nazi Bible” was an attempt to contemporize scripture in a way that would harmonize Christianity with the central tenets of Nazi ideology. Titled Die Botschaft Gottes (The Message of God, hereafter ‘BG’),[6] it confined itself to the New Testament —the Old Testament being relegated to a relic of unenlightened Jewish history. What is offered in the final product is a de-Judaized version of various New Testament texts which loosely follow the progression of the gospels. These are supplemented with a compilation of material taken from the epistles, followed by a section on the early church.   

Several intriguing (and disturbing) editorial and hermeneutical principles can be discerned through careful analysis of the content in the BG (an online version can be found here). The question of what New Testament material has been deemed worthy of inclusion is paramount and highlights the editorial team’s boldness in placing themselves in the role of judge as to what counted as authoritative scripture and what should be discarded. Unsurprisingly, any aspect of the gospels that accentuated the Jewish background of Jesus was deemed unsuitable and was simply omitted from the final version (i.e., Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel). Other translations of key biblical texts use various literary flourishes and embellishments to accentuate Jesus’ clash with Judaism, although these can often be subtle. One interesting example pertains to the BG’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches his hearers that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees (Matt 5:20). In the BG’s version the text reads:

I tell you: If your behaviour is not better than

that of pharisees and scribes, you

will not enter God’s kingdom![7]  

The interesting thing in this example is that the use of “behaviour” as a replacement for righteousness diminishes the theological import of the teaching and bypasses the deeper theological link between fidelity to the law and spiritual righteousness. What is left is ethical instruction divorced from its Jewish context, which is of course precisely what the editors were trying to achieve throughout the BG. 

The Christology that emerges from within the BG tends to emphasize the humanity of Jesus over his divinity. This undoubtedly stems from the Institute’s broader tendency to locate the primary significance of Jesus’ mission in his protest against Judaism. This element of the Institute’s theology can be glimpsed in the BG’s interpretation of the miracle stories. Grundmann had openly acknowledged that the miracles narratives could no longer be reconciled with scientific truth,[8] and instead, the BG emphasizes the role of the miraculous as a polemical device that offers little more than a statement as to Jesus’ supremacy over the religious traditions that had come before him. Many of the miracle narratives are retained, but they occur in quick succession as if to bombard the reader with an overwhelming sense of Jesus’ strength and power. It is also noteworthy that themes of personal responsibility and submission to appropriate channels of authority are accented, as in the BG’s translation of the interaction between Jesus and Gentile centurion (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).[9] Finally, there is some evidence that the Institute’s Christology was informed by a broader German philosophical tradition that understood the divine as a representation of historical progress and the totality of human consciousness. This is revealed in its translation of the famous prologue at the commencement of the Gospel of John. Here the Logos has been substituted for what appears to be a Hegelian reference to the “eternal spirit” (ewige Geist)[10] Although this may appear to be a minor change, it has broad theological implications — especially when one considers how the language of “spirit” was utilized by German Christians during this time. 

Archival material courtesy of the Landeskirchenarchiv in Eisenach.

Staff at the Landeskirchenarchiv in Eisenach have been kind enough to send me some primary source material relating to the planning and administrative phases of the BG in the lead–up to its release. These documents reveal efforts on the part of the BG’s working group to have the final version endorsed and promoted by the German Bible Society — a strategy that would undoubtedly have aided the Institute in promoting the BG to audiences it may not otherwise have been able to reach. An endorsement from the Bible Society would have been deeply symbolic, as it would likely have served to reassure those who viewed the Institute’s theology as too radical to be accepted within mainstream German Protestantism. It is unclear to me from the documents presented whether this endorsement was received, although statements from correspondence between the Institute and Bible Society Committee members indicate that the latter held reservations about distributing such a text. 

That the Institute felt comfortable approaching the German Bible Society for distribution reveals the extent to which they believed their project operated within the boundaries of both responsible research practice and acceptable theology. This may strike contemporary interpreters as absurd given its clear ideological bias, but on this point, it is worth considering what kind of document the BG really was. Although it presented itself as a faithful translation of scripture to be used in the ecclesial life of German churches, in a truer sense it was an early example of what theologians might refer to today as contextual theology. One reason (and there are many compelling reasons to interpret the BG in this way) for this is because a similar language of oppression and liberation is shared in the rhetoric of the German Christians and later contextual theologies that seek to cast off the shackles of foreign influences. For theologians such as Siegfried Leffler, Wolf Meyer-Erlach, and Walter Grundmann, the German nation required liberation from those forces that had long oppressed its Volk and hampered its cultural flourishing. Whether this was true or not is largely irrelevant; for the purposes of constructing a theological methodology, what mattered was that they believed it to be true and so had acted on this impulse. In short, the BG was a document that aimed to set German believers free from accumulated religious baggage (i.e., Judaism) that had distorted the “real” meaning of Christianity. Through this translation, it was hoped that ordinary Germans would re-engage with Christianity in a way that made sense of their unique experience in history.   

While the Institute’s theology may appear to negate any claim to be operating within the Christian sphere due to the moral violations and political oppression it supported, both history and ethics are rarely so neatly defined. It remains a perplexing aspect of German Christian history — and indeed of National Socialism generally— that its supporters believed and acted in good conscience.[11] When judging the legacy of Die Botschaft Gottes and its manifest distortions, we do well to do so in a spirit of humility, for it is often in the pursuit of noble moral and ethical goals that we are most liable to lapse into violence. 

Notes:


[1] A powerful example of this can be found in Martin Bormann’s ‘Circular on the Relationship of National Socialism and Christianity.’ An English translation can be found in John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933–1945 (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001 [orig. 1968]), 383–86.  

[2] Walter Grundmann, Jesus der Galiläer und das Judentum (Leipzig: Georg Wigand, 1940). A reprint was offered in the following year, bringing the total number of copies to five thousand.  

[3] Julius Kuptsch, Im Dritten Reich zur Dritten Kirche (Leipzig: Adolf Keil, 1933), 30-31. 

[4] On the history of the KDC, see Oliver Arnhold, “Entjudung” – Kirche im Abgrund: Die Thüringer Kirchenbewegung Deutsche Christen 1928–1939 und das “Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf des deutsche kirchliche Leben” 1939–1945 (Berlin: Institut Kirche und Judentum, 2010. In English, see James A. Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors: A Study of the Ideas of Three Deutsche Christen Groups (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), 171–218. 

[5] Significant literature dealing with the origins and activities of the Institute include Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Oliver Arnhold, “Entjudung” von Theology und Kirche: Das Eisenacher “Institut our Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf des deutsche kirchliche Leben” 1939-1945 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2020); Dirk Schuster, Die Lehre vom “arischen” Christentum. Das wissenschaftliche Selbstverständnis im Eisenacher “Entjudungsinstitut” (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017).

[6] Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf des deutsche kirchliche Leben, Die Botschaft Gottes (Leipzig: Georg Wigand, 1940). 

[7] BG, 23. 

[8] Walter Grundmann, “Unsere Arbeit am Neuen Testament. Grundsätzliche Bemerkungen zu dem vom ‘Institut zur Erforschung des jüdischen Einfluess auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben’ herausgegebenen Volkstestament,” Verbandsmitteilungen 1 (1939): 13.  

[9] BG, 35. 

[10] BG, 99. 

[11] On this theme, see Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2003). 

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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2 Responses to The “National Socialist Bible” of 1940: An Experiment in Contextualization

  1. Dear Sir, have a look here about the “NS-Bibles” https://www.bibelausstellung.de/home/navi1110_3217_die-nazi-bibel-schlimmer-geht-s-nimmer
    We have one in our exhibition. All the best for your work!
    Alexander Schick

    Like

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