Karl Barth an Anti-Semite?

Karl Barth was accused of anti-Semitism when he preached a sermon titled Die Kierche Jesu Christi, “The Church of Jesus Christ.” It was preached on Advent, 1933. Weeks earlier, on November 13th, a radical German Christian by the name of Dr. Reinhold Krause delivered a “rousing speech” in the Berlin Sport Palace in which he called all German Christians to purge their Bibles of the Old Testament, Paul, and of any Jewish elements in the New.[1] The German Christians who shared Krause’s theological and political convictions, demanded the Arierparagraph be applied to the Prussian church, the segregation of Germans and non-Germans, and the freeing of worship and confession from the Old Testament’s “Jewish ethics of reward.”[2] With this rise in overt anti-Semitism, Barth was forced to respond to these recent “theological developments” in German Christianity. And so Barth preached a sermon.

Despite the sermon being utterly pro-Jewish, with conniving logic and some large doses of taking quotes out of context, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen was able to have Barth call the Jewish people “an obstinate and evil people.” Of course he failed to mention the fact that Barth was primarily quoting Exodus 32:9 (for the first part of the statement) and referring to Exodus 33:3-5, 34:9, Deuteronomy 9:6, etc. (for the second). In fact, to be completely fair, the text of Exodus 32:9 actually calls the Jewish nation “stiff-necked” (read: obstinate) and deserving to be “destroyed” while God’s anger “burned.” Had Barth quoted the verse in its entirety, maybe Goldhagen would have stood a chance at being called a judicious and sober scholar. (Instead, he chose to quote-mine and, hence, serves as a perfect example of how not to do scholarly work.) So what, in fact, did Barth say in his sermon?

Barth’s thesis seems pretty clear: Christians are to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.[3] And, furthermore, since Christ was thoroughly Jewish, and Jesus came as a fulfillment of the Old Testament, we, too, must welcome Jews and the Jewish traditions. As Barth overtly puts it: “salvation comes from the Jews” (citing John 4:22).

Right off the bat, Barth begins by saying that “Christ has been a servant of the Circumcision.”[4] In other words, Christ was for the very thing the German Christians have completely denigrated. Barth reminds the German Christians that Christians are called to be a “community,” using the old German word Gemeinde. There has to be a certain level of togetherness. Not any segregation.

Barth also demolishes any ideas of a Church that is completely aligned to a given State. “The fact that there is God’s Word in the Church is not established in human spiritual life, nor is it a cultural achievement, nor does it belong to the nature and character of any particular people or race…”[5] For Barth, then, a German Christian Church is really no church at all—since it is not really a universal community, but a racial community! (And Barth already annihilated that in his comment.)

Midway through the sermon, Barth really gives the German Christians something to think about: “Christ belonged to the people of Israel. That people’s blood was, in his veins, the blood of the Son of God. That people’s character he has accepted by taking on being human…”[6] There appears to be nothing anti-Semitic about any of this. In fact, it sounds almost elitist. Jewish-elitist. Barth is saying what most historical Jesus scholars know (post-Sanders): Jesus was a Jew.[7]

Then, after making those statements, Barth says that even that people’s characteristics were “stiff-necked and wicked.”[8] But aren’t the Jews the ones who killed Christ? “[A]ll peoples of all times and lands would also have done in its place.”[9] For Barth, the Jews did what all humanity would had done anyway: crucify Christ. Moreover, Barth is also quick to point out that all of us are “stiff-necked and wicked.” Goldhagen is wrong again. Barth did not only call the Jews stiff-necked and wicked, he called all of humanity that. Citing Romans 11:32, Barth said: “God imprisoned all in disobedience, so that he might have mercy on all.” And, as if that weren’t overt enough, Barth continues by adding that the Heathen, who were later accepted by God, were not any better than the Jews.[10]

So there we have it. Goldhagen was wrong and Barth was right. “[W]e perceive [faults] in each other much too seriously.”[11] This ability to deny goodness in others; to exaggerate evil in others; to annihilate the Other simply by reducing the Other to a cruel word or phrase—this is what Barth was against. He said this was what the Germans who agreed with Krause were doing in 1933. And this, precisely, was not “welcoming one another.” In doing that, we were not being a Church. In doing what Goldhagen does, we are submitting ourselves to infantile caricaturing and annihilation of the Other through false documentation. Goldhagen is not merely doing bad scholarly work; he is perpetrating the myth of the power of labels. He labels Barth, then proceeds as if nothing really happened. But something did. Barth—from a reasonable perspective—said no such thing (e.g., “obstinate and evil people”). If one finds anti-Semitism in an anti-anti-Semitic sermon, one can find a bag of shit in a non-existent diaper. Goldhagen should not merely be corrected; his methodology in this particular endeavor should be actively denounced and called what it really is: the comments of a scholar doing scholarship-gone-awry. (And such an evaluation is thoroughly justified.)

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1]John Michael Owen, “Karl Barth’s Sermon For Advent 2, 1933: Introduction and Translation,” Colloquium 36/2 (2004), 170.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 179.

[4] Ibid., 172.

[5] Ibid., 174.

[6] Ibid., 175. Italics original.

[7] I am referring to the influential (and game-changing) book by E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984).

[8] Ibid., 175.

[9] Ibid., 176.

[10] Ibid., 177.

[11] Ibid., 178.

2 thoughts on “Karl Barth an Anti-Semite?

  1. I agree with you about the unwarranted attack on Barth. While most New Testament scholars would not concur, I agree with (or may have independently come up with on my own…too long ago to remember) Hyam Maccoby’s take on the brutally anti-Semitic description found in Matthew of Jesus’ trial before Pilot, where the Jewish crowd, demanding the release of Barabbas, cries out that Jesus’ blood be upon them and their children. Among others, the Nazis loved to quote those verses. What’s really interesting here, is that some versions of Matthew refer to Barabbas as Jesus Barabbas. Also, it is bedrock tradition that Jesus addressed God as Abba, an intimate name for God akin to papa or daddy. Putting these two facts together, Maccoby and I believe that the crowd that formed while Pilot was interrogating Jesus were FOLLOWERS of Jesus, who were demanding the release of Jesus Bar-Abba (Son of God, perhaps a nickname that Jesus had acquired due to his unusual way of addressing God). This would better explain the grotesque,gruesome message Pilot sent back to that crowd, the abuse and mockery of Jesus before his murder.For those who are interested, I recently published a re-write of the Jesus story that makes these kinds of adjustments, while also attempting to strip away the doctrinal accretion and spin in the canonical accounts, allowing the passion and power of the story to stand on its own feet, without need of dogmatic interpretation. You can find the booklet on the Amazon bookstore or on the Kindle storefront, the title being “Life of Truth: a synoptic gospel,” written under the pen name Theophilus. The booklet costs a buck that goes to charity. The book description and book sample are free, and both the description and sample should be read to understand where “Life of Truth” is coming from before deciding to buy it. And yes, I know, Kierkegaard and Barth and most other heavy-duty theologians, and esteemed Biblical scholars as well (including the one to whom the book is dedicated), would shoot me for being so bold and foolish as to attempt to revise Mark, Matthew, Luke, and portions of John in a direct alternative gospel format as opposed to an interpretive book. But to be honest, I never thought the gospel authors told the Jesus story–what may indeed be the greatest story ever told–all that well, and that Christianity has suffered for it.

  2. I’ve heard similar takes. One way of interpreting the narrative is to have Jesus bar-Abbas be a symbolic representation of “Jesus son of the Father,” and then Jesus the “real” son of the Father be the OT “scapegoat.”

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