Review of Anders Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 3, September 2011

Review of Anders Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann. Studies in Jewish History and Culture, Vol. 20 (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2009), 675pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-16851-0.

By Christopher Probst, Saint Louis University

Anders Gerdmar’s study of the approaches of German Protestant biblical scholars toward Jews and Judaism from 1750 to 1950 is a compelling work of biblical scholarship cum intellectual history. The author captures the ambiguity of the attitude toward Jews and Judaism of many of the exegetes discussed with Habermas’s moniker, “the Janus face of the Enlightenment.” The book is an interdisciplinary tour de force in which the author blends (often seamlessly) biblical theology, church history, and the history of antisemitism. It is an ambitious work, one that is both needed and well executed.

The book is presented in four parts bracketed by a thoughtful introduction and a thorough conclusion. Gerdmar takes a roughly chronological approach, beginning with eighteenth century Enlightenment exegetes and ending with National Socialist interpreters of Christian Scripture. Yet, each of the four sections of the book corresponds with a particular trajectory in biblical exegesis. Thus, for example, Adolf Schlatter, whose life and career reached into the National Socialist era, is included in Part II, “Salvation-Historical Exegesis and the Jews: from Tholuck to Schlatter.” At the close of his discussion of each exegete, Gerdmar provides a helpful short conclusion. Part I, “Enlightenment Exegesis and the Jews,” includes analysis of the work of Semler, Herder, Schleiermacher, F.C. Baur, and Ritschl, among others. Part II includes Delitzsch, Strack, and Schlatter. In Part III, “The Form Critics and the Jews,” Gerdmar analyzes the work of Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. Part IV, “Nazi Exegesis and the Jews,” is the longest section of the book and includes in-depth analysis of Kittel and Grundmann.

The author analyzes the work of these exegetes along three lines. First, he examines how each characterizes Jews and Judaism. Second, he frames the exegesis of each scholar within their symbolic world, that is, “the world of thoughts, values and ideologies” (9). Finally, he discusses whether each scholar’s representation of Jews and Judaism legitimized or delegitimized discriminatory attitudes and practices toward Jews. This approach in toto lends balance and perspective to the study. Gerdmar’s analysis of the characterization of Jews and Judaism of the exegetes provides for the reader the data pertaining to their theology of Jews and Judaism in the context of their biblical scholarship overall. The second aspect of the author’s approach is a crucial bridge from his characterization of the work of the exegetes to his discussion of whether their work would have legitimized or delegitimized Jews and Judaism in their historical context. The final aspect gives the author the opportunity to demonstrate the link between religious legitimation/delegitimation and social action (12).

Gerdmar explains that his idea of symbolic world essentially accords with Peter Berger’s symbolic universe. He applies this notion to the modern scholars examined in the book, noting that “since Jews and Judaism are an important part of the symbolic worlds of these scholars, either as positive or negative entities, I observe how they construct Jews and Judaism. I call this ideological construction of Jews the ‘symbolic Jew’ …” (11). Throughout the book, he demonstrates indeed that “it is possible to hold elevated views of the ‘symbolic Jew’, yet regard the ‘real Jew’ next door as a nuisance, or speak of ‘that Jew’ in a pejorative manner” (11).

When Gerdmar gets to Gerhard Kittel and Walter Grundmann, of course, the picture gets a bit grimmer than the one painted of the work of the earlier exegetes. Rather than a Janus-faced approach to Jews and Judaism, here we have German Protestant theology in the service of the Nazi racial state. The author develops a careful argument about Kittel’s evolution from a credible scholar with a complicated but not overtly antisemitic approach to Jews and Judaism to a racist theologian who publicly supported Nazi racial policies. Despite Kittel’s complexity, Gerdmar might be a bit too cautious when he discusses the Tübingen theologian’s odious 1943 article “Die Behandlung des Nichtjuden nach den Talmud” (The Treatment of Non-Jews According to the Talmud). Written for the Ministry of Propaganda’s Archiv für Judenfragen (Archive for Jewish Questions), it includes the charge, based in passages ripped out of their contexts, that the Talmud grants Jews the freedom to kill non-Jews. Gerdmar avers that Kittel “probably did not take pride in this article, since he does not include it in his own documentation of printed works in his defence” (495). While this conclusion seems too cautious, Gerdmar rightly condemns Kittel’s distorted presentation of Judaism, especially as evidenced by his writings during the Third Reich.

Gerdmar’s is a thoroughgoing scholarship; it is dense and heavily footnoted. While specialists might quibble with minor points here and there, the weight of the scholarship is as a whole very impressive. The book assumes at least a modicum of understanding of biblical scholarship. A working knowledge of biblical Greek is helpful for understanding some of the author’s arguments, but not essential for appreciating the work as a whole.

Gerdmar’s study demonstrates the need for scholars of religion, biblical scholars, and historians working on issues of theology and biblical studies to read and incorporate into their scholarship works from across the disciplines. It is a mature work, one that recognizes that the works of biblical scholars should be, indeed must be understood in their historical contexts. With his very competent handling of a vast array of historical literature covering the sociological and historical settings of biblical exegetes who lived in three successive centuries, Gerdmar sets an example for his fellow biblical scholars. Historians working in the area of Christian antisemitism or, more generally, those whose area of expertise is the history of religion, would do well to follow suit by immersing themselves in the theological literature of the subjects of their historical studies.

Eschewing easy answers and trite generalizations alike, this superb study significantly expands our previous knowledge about the outlook of German Protestant biblical scholarship on Jews and Judaism since the Enlightenment. The force of Gerdmar’s study rests in the weight of its measured and acute analysis. It is a must read for anyone interested in German Protestant biblical scholarship during the modern era, and would also be helpful for those interested in the history of antisemitism.