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Jesus Creed

I’m holding in my hands at this very moment the original German edition of Gerhard Kittel’s famous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. I’ve got volume 4. The foreword, written by Kittel himself, is preceded by a page of German theologians, collaborators in the 4th volume of TDNT, who were killed in WWII as soldiers of Hitler’s merciless campaigns. Kittel ends in Greek: “To whom be the glory forever!” Kittel’s foreword speaks of the blood offering of those who died.

The story doesn’t end there, of course. Gerhard Kittel was given a brilliant expose in the relatively unknown book that once shook me up for weeks: Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch
. In the 4th volume of TDNT Kittel expresses his gratitude that he could get the volume in print — and it was about the time the Nazis were breathing down the neck of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and banned him from any further writing. He eventually was hung in Flossenburg; Kittel lived on. Kittel, Ericksen clearly shows, should not be scapegoated (even if Kittel must be used judiciously and critically) but Kittel spent, beginning suddenly in 1933, a dozen years on the Judenfrage and he framed foundations for virulent anti-Semitism that led some to the Holocaust. Ericksen: “He swam in the Nazi stream, though he may have preferred a different stroke” (74). The volumes, in other words, were sanctioned by those who banned Bonhoeffer.

Why bring this up? Kittel swam in a stream that goes back to Kant. It was Kant, you will remember, who clearly and heinously articulated white supremacy in racialized tones. Africans, American Indians, Asians each were races, rotting was a term Kant used, and the whites were in the stream of teleological perfection of an ethico-civil state. The danger was the Jews who were a contagion and intermarriage was the fear. All of this is sketched in chp 2 of J. Kameron Carter’s must-read Race: A Theological Account.

Perhaps we need to be reminded of this: Kant explained both Paul and Jesus as framing a religion well outside the Jewish boundaries. Fundamentally, Jesus’ religion was a universal religion, one that moved beyond Judaism by grasping Greek wisdom and perfecting it, that would lead to the ethico-civil state and Paul was one who broke free from the YHWH God of Israel and moved outside the covenant connection of the Old Testament. For Kant the “race question” was tied up with the “Jewish question.” For Kant Jesus ceased to be Jewish.

When I began postgraduate work in the 70s, the Jewishness question — of Jesus, Paul and the first Christians — was coming into its own. The affirmation of Jesus’ Jewishness is a major step in the right direction of affirming race and undoing racism. The major books of my PhD days were Strack and Billerbeck as well as W.D. Davies Paul and Rabbinic Judaism. Before I had begun my doctoral work E.P. Sanders wrote a book that changed NT scholarship more than any book in the last fifty years: Paul and Palestinian Judaism. It called into question the lack of Jewishness in Christian understandings of Paul. This is standard fare today, of course. But we must not forget that 75 years ago there were reputable scholars asking if Jesus was a Jew.

Anyone who wonders if Christian theology is implicated in racism needs to be aware of this brief and inadequate sketch.

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