Reading the Bible in Nazi Germany: Gerhard Von Rad's Attempt to Reclaim the Old Testament for the Church*

Article excerpt

From 1933 until 1945, the Hebrew Bible and the connection between Christianity and Judaism came under attack in Nazi Germany. Gerhard von Rad defended the importance of the Old Testament in a courageous struggle that profoundly influenced his interpretation of the book of Deuteronomy.

This essay investigates Gerhard von Rad's interpretation of the book of Deuteronomy and how his social location as a professor at the University of Jena from 1934-1945 in Nazi Germany influenced his exegesis. It explores a particularly poignant and instructive example of the complex relationship between hermeneutics and history. In order to tell that story, it is necessary to tell about the history of Germany during 1933-1945, about the famous church conflict (Kirchenkampf) that left the Protestant Church in Germany horribly divided, and in particular, about the extraordinary transformation of Friederich Schiller University of Jena-along with its prestigious Faculty of Theology-into a bastion of National Socialism (Hochburg der Nationalsozialismus). One sign of the close ties to National Socialism was the appointment of Karl Astel as Rector of the University. Astel, a leading medical scientist specializing in eugenics and a ranking officer in Hitler's SS, served as Rector from 1939 until his suicide in April, 1945. The photograph (opposite page) shows him in full SS uniform congratulating a student athlete.

Jena is in the state of Thuringia, in the former East Germany. Its historic university was the home not only of Hegel and Schelling, but also of W. M. L. DeWette, whose 1805 doctoral dissertation arguing that Josiah's reform must have been motivated by Deuteronomy represents the foundation of modern work on the Pentateuch.1 Von Rad's first academic appointment after completing his Habilitation (a second dissertation, which is the normal requirement in Germany for appointment as Ordinarius, or tenured full professor) was to the University of Jena, a position that he held from 1934-1945.

Von Rad kept returning to Deuteronomy throughout his career, beginning with his doctoral dissertation in 1929, Das Gottesvolk im Deuteronomium, and continuing through Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuchs (1938), Deuteronomium Studien (1947), and his commentary on Deuteronomy for the prestigious series Altes Testament Deutsch (1964).2 Perhaps more striking than his preoccupation with this pivotal text, however, is the way von Rad characterized its textual content, its priorities, and its theology. His rhetoric frequently took the form of a series of antithetical formulations: Deuteronomy is not X but is Y.3 At times it seemed that von Rad was concerned just as much to establish what Deuteronomy is not as to show what it is. As is well known, von Rad argued that Deuteronomy is not law but rather a series of sermons by traveling Levites preaching a renewed message of redemption. He maintained that Deuteronomy's law code is not a dead text but live instruction, not demands for obedience to incomprehensible requirements, but spiritual exhortations to remember God's grace.

In his hands, Deuteronomy became not a law book demanding obedience, but rather a collection of sermons pervaded with a spiritual, even a "'protestantische' Atmosphäre."4 Written laws became homiletic sermons meant to encourage and inspire. Israel's obligation under YHWH's covenant treaty for obedience to his statutes and ordinances became Israel's unconditional election to salvation. On that basis, any sections of Deuteronomy that seem to make salvation dependent on works, i.e., obedience to the law, were deftly and systematically explained away. Either their significance was deemphasized, or they were relegated to later exilic or post-exilic expansions of the text, like the blessings and the curses of Deut 28.5 The support for these claims is often absent, so that von Rad's analysis of Deuteronomy, particularly the legal corpus of Deut 12-26, comes closer to eisegesis than to exegesis. …