05 November 2021

Could an open Nazi have
distorted and betrayed
how we read the Bible?

Bibles, commentaries and old prayer books (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have long argued that theology students need to have the language skills necessary to read the Bible in its own original languages, especially Hebrew and Greek.

To read the Bible in our own languages only, in our case English, vests a vast amount of trust and confidence in the committees engaged in translating any particular version of the Bible.

To accept a translating committee’s version of Biblical text alone, without ever questioning or challenging it, bestows on the committee members a level of doctrinal finality and infallibility that has never been found in any curia in the Vatican.

We know that various translations of the Bible have particular strengths and weaknesses. The translations of the Bible we favour indicate a theological bias even before we start reading it.

Every translation of the Bible is an interpretation as well as a translation, and the new text always betrays the old prejudices of the translators. The Irish-born historian Professor Eamon Duffy of Cambridge finds the English Standard Version (ESV) reflects ‘a deep-rooted dimension of Anglophone culture,’ and the Jerusalem Bible ‘woefully flat-footed.’

In a debate in the letters pages of The Tablet, Sarah Parvis of the University of Edinburgh described the ESV as a ‘low-church evangelical Protestant translation.’ Neil Xavier O’Donoghue of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, conceded that the ESV ‘was produced by conservative Evangelical scholars in the United States and is often described as Calvinist in philosophy.’

In fact, the ESV is deeply ‘fundamentalist,’ unnecessarily imposing the translators’ extreme ‘conservative evangelical’ views and dogmas on the text and on the reader. The ESV’s general editor, Wayne Grudem, argued in paper published in 2016 ‘Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.’

But, even when we learn to read Biblical texts in Hebrew or Greek, our interpretations of those texts depend on the dictionaries and commentaries we use to guide us through those texts.

For example, Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is a 10-volume monumental reference work, a translation of his famous Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament. It is known commonly as ‘Kittel’ and has long been considered by many scholars to be the best New Testament dictionary ever compiled. The popular condensation of Kittel’s TDNT is commonly known as the ‘Little Kittel’.

Kittel treats of more than 2,300 theologically significant New Testament words, including the more important prepositions and numbers as well as many proper names from the Hebrew Scriptures. Presenting the words in the order of the Greek alphabet, Kittel’s TDNT typically discusses each word in the context of its secular Greek background, its role in the Old Testament, its use in extra-biblical Jewish literature, and its varied uses in the New Testament.

Gerhard Kittel (1888-1948) was Professor of New Testament at Greifswald and Tübingen, and a Lutheran pastor. But now his place in Biblical scholarship is being challenged, for Kittel was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis and an open antisemite.

In an open letter published in last weekend’s edition of the Church Times (29 October 2021), Binyomin Gilbert, Programme Manager, and Bernard Glick, Outreach and Education Officer of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, have challenged teaching institutions in the Church of England that have Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament ‘on their shelves without any warning about its context and content.’

In their letter, they say, ‘Gerhard Kittel and some of Kittel’s earlier contributors were committed Nazis, who contrived content to support the Nazi ideology.’

Kittel joined the Nazi Party in May 1933, and called the party ‘a völkisch renewal movement on a Christian, moral foundation.’

As Professor of Evangelical Theology and New Testament at the University of Tübingen, he published studies depicting the Jewish people as the historical enemy of Germany, Christianity and European culture in general. In a lecture in June 1933, Die Judenfrage (‘The Jewish Question’), he spoke for stripping citizenship from German Jews, removing them from medicine, law, teaching, and journalism, and to forbid marriage or sexual relations with non-Jews. All this was two years before the Nazis introduced the Nuremberg Racial Laws and took away Jewish rights of German citizenship in 1935.

He tried to distinguish his work from the ‘vulgar antisemitism of Nazi propaganda,’ and said his work as an ‘attempt to grapple with the problem of Jewry and the Jewish question,’ and claimed he was trying was to combat the myths and distortions of extremist members of the Nazi Party. He defended his work on the ‘Jewish Question,’ saying it was not based on the racial theories of Nazism but upon theology.

After the fall of the Third Reich, Kittel was arrested on 3 May 1945 by French forces, was removed from office and held in Balingen. He was released in 1946, pending his trial, but was forbidden to enter Tübingen until 1948, and from 1946 to 1948 he was a pastor in Beuron. He was allowed back into Tübingen in 1948, but died on 11 July 1948 year before his trial resumed.

The American Biblical scholar and archaeologist William F Albright (1891-1971) once wrote, ‘In view of the terrible viciousness of his attacks on Judaism and the Jews, which continues at least until 1943, Gerhard Kittel must bear the guilt of having contributed more, perhaps, than any other Christian theologian to the mass murder of Jews by Nazis.’

In their letter to the Church Times, Binyomin Gilbert and Bernard Glick point out the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) recently wrote to several theological teaching institutions, asking them to place content alerts in their copy of Kittel. At the time of writing their letter, however, ‘fewer than a quarter have responded, and only one, Moorlands College, agreed and immediately prepared a notice to be placed in its Kittel.’

They say this practical and considerate gestures are evidence of true commitment to ‘working together for the common good.’ They add, ‘Moorlands College not only heard: it listened — and acted. That small, simple, and yet significant act means much.’

However, they say that other theological colleges that responded ‘claim that, for a variety of reasons, they do not consider it necessary to place such a notice and emphasised that anti-Semitism and other discrimination is not tolerated at their institution.’

They say, ‘We appreciate the words, but a reluctance to act speaks considerably louder.’

They are now asking institutions holding Kittel ‘to place a contextual notice and advise us accordingly.’ They conclude by saying the Campaign Against Antisemitism ‘will praise those institutions that care enough to do the right thing; but we also will not hesitate to publicise those that do not.’

Earlier in their letter, they point out that he vocation to struggle against anti-Semitism is not something that Jews should do on their own. ‘The history of Christian anti-Semitism is shared between Jews and Christians, and it is often Christians who can be most effective in countering past or present Christian anti-Semitism, as it is for all groups to address racism within their own communities.’

There is a saying in Italian that I learned in Ealing Abbey while studying patristic and liturgical Latin: Traduttore, traditore – ‘The translator is a traitor.’ We need to be careful who we trust and who we turn to not only when it comes to translating Biblical texts, but who we trust and who we turn to when we seek to read those texts in their original languages.

Shabbat Shalom

I always recommend reading the Bible in the original texts … bookshelves in the synagogue in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
160, Ballingrane Methodist Church, Co Limerick

The Embury and Heck Memorial Methodist Church and the surrounding churchyard in Ballingrane, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme this week is Methodist churches, and my choice of church this morning (5 November 2021) is the Embury and Heck Memorial Methodist Church in Ballingrane, Co Limerick.

Inside the Embury and Heck Memorial Methodist Church in Ballingrane, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have preached and taken part in services occasionally in the Embury and Heck Memorial Methodist Church in Ballingrane, and I have always received a warm welcome from me neighbour, the Revd Ruth Watt, and her congregation.

This church is at the heart of the story of the Palatine people in west Limerick but has also played an important part in the story of world Methodism.

In 1709, 110 refugee families arrived in Ireland, fleeing French persecution in the Palatinate in Southern Germany. Many of these families settled on the Southwell estate lands around Rathkeale, at Courtmatrix, Killeheen and Ballingrane.

In the generations that followed, many of their descendants were forced to emigrate. These emigrants included Philip Embury and Barbara Heck, from this part of West Limerick.

Philip Embury was born in Ballingrane in 1729 and converted to Methodism following a religious experience in 1752. A carpenter by trade, he became a Methodist lay preacher and married Margaret Switzer from Rathkeale. They set sail from the Customs House Dock in Limerick in 1760.

His cousin Barbara Ruttle, who was on the same emigrant ship, was born in 1734 and was now married to Paul Heck. In New York, Barbara Heck was dismayed by the spiritual carelessness she found among the people and pleaded with her cousin Philip to preach to them. Philip maintained he could not preach as he had neither church nor congregation. But Barbara responded: ‘Preach in your own home and I will gather a congregation.’

Only five people attended that first gathering. But the congregation grew, and the first Methodist chapel was established in 1768 on the site of the present John Street church, in the heart of the business district.

Philip Heck later moved to Camden Valley, New York, where he continued to work in the linen trade during the week and preached every Sunday. He organised the first Methodist society among Irish emigrants at Ashgrove, near Camden Valley, but died suddenly in 1775 after a mowing accident.

Barbara Heck, her husband and their five children left New York for a farm in Camden but were forced off their land and moved to Montreal where she established a home for Methodism and founded the first Methodist congregation in Canada. She died in 1804 with her Bible in her lap.

Today, Philip Embury and Barbara Heck are counted among the founders of Methodism in North America. A pair of candlesticks that belonged to her are still lit every week in the John Street Church.

The Methodist Church in Ballingrane, which was built in 1766, bears their names. This is the last remaining Methodist church in the Rathkeale area.

John Wesley visited Ballingrane 13 times between 1756 and 1779. Originally, there were three Methodist church in this area, and the congregations were almost exclusively Palatine in origin. The Methodist Church in Ballingrane was built on a site donated by the Heck family, and replaced an earlier, smaller meeting house.

Until 1968, Sunday morning services were held in Rathkeale with evening services in Ballingrane, but the congregations were for the most part one and the same.

The church in Ballingrane retains much of its original form, despite additions, and is enhanced by features such as the coloured glass, lancet, sash windows and the fading limestone plaque, which reads: ‘Embury and Heck Memorial Church 1766, Renovated 1885.’

The church is a solidly-built building with seating for about 90 people. The original doorway was at the opposite end to the present entrance. When the church was restored in 1885, the porch was added and the opening for the older doorway became the present alcove. The entrance was originally from the laneway at the north of the church.

The memorial tablets inside the church include those to Barbara Heck and Philip Embury.

The Revd Dr William Crook (1824-1897), who is also commemorated, brought greetings from the Irish Methodist Conference to the American Methodist Church when it celebrated its centenary in 1866. He is buried in the adjoining cemetery.

Another tablet recalls the Revd Thomas Walsh (1730-1759), who is described as ‘A Saint For Seraphic Piety’ and ‘A Student Of The Divine Word,’ with a knowledge of Scripture that was rarely equalled.

The monument claims ‘He Was The First Irish Evangelist Who Preached The Gospel To His Perishing Fellow - Countrymen, In The Streets, Fairs, And The Markets Throughout The Land In The Irish Language.’ He preached throughout Ireland and England, and John Wesley regarded his ministry as the most fruitful he had ever known. He died at the early age of 29.

A plaque commemorates celebrations in Ballingrane in 1960 marking the bicentenary of the departure of Barbara Heck and Philip Embury from Limerick. This plaque was given by the First Methodist Church in Englewood, New Jersey, in honour of their pastor, the Revd Dr Lowell M Atkinson.

A brass tablet removed from the former Methodist Church in Rathkeale lists the names of members of the congregation who served in World War I. Another tablet is to the memory of George Shier of Robertstown, who lost his life in World War I while trying to save the life of a comrade. He is buried in a war grave in France.

One of the features of the church is a baptismal font made from an original rafter from the kitchen of Barbara Heck’s old home.

Two display cases in the porch include memorabilia, artefacts and photographs from both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1968 the hall, kitchen and cloakrooms were built and further renovations were carried out in 1987 when oil fired central heating was installed throughout the buildings.

The graveyard beside the church was laid out at the end of the 19th century. The headstones include many Palatine family names, including Baker, Bovenizer, Delemage, Doupe, Miller, Raynard, Ruttle, Shier, Sparling, Switzer and Teskey.

Other Methodist ministers buried here include the Revd James Benjamin Gillan, a scholar of Lutheran theology, and the Revd William Bolton Merrick, of Adare. At one time Merrick was stationed in Co Clare and rowed his boat eight miles across the Shannon Estuary to take services in the Methodist Church in Tarbert, Co Kerry.

His hardships and endurance make light of my weekly journeys between churches in West Limerick and North Kerry on Sunday mornings.

The memorial to Philip Embury in the church in Ballingrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 16: 1-8 (NRSVA):

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’

The memorial to Barbara Heck in the church in Ballingrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (5 November 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for the work of Hope for the Future and its relationship with USPG. May we continue to travel alongside each other in the pursuit of climate justice.

A display cabinet inside the church porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Methodist Church in Adare was built in 1872-1873, but has a story dating back to 1765 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)