The Lasting Influence of Gerhard Kittel, Nazi Theologian
Gerhard Kittel was a Christian professor who lived in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. His area of expertise was Judaism of New Testament times. Prior to 1933 Mr. Kittel published works in which he praised the Jewish people and the Talmud and emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity.
In 1933, however, Gerhard Kittel joined the Nazi party. This was the same year that the Protestant church of Germany was being divided into two separate groups, the pro-Nazi “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen) and the “Confessing Church” (Bekennede Kirche) which opposed the “Aryan paragraph” and other heretical distortions of the German Christians. Kittel affiliated himself with the German Christians, whose motto was “The Swastika on our breasts, the Cross in our hearts.” The German Christians denounced the Jewish influence on Christianity, and called for the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. They proclaimed an Aryan Jesus, not a Jewish Jesus. Julius Leutheuser, a prominent leader of the German Christians, said, “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler…We know today the Savior has come… We have only one task, be German, not be Christian” (Pierard).
Kittel claimed that he did not agree 100% with everything the German Christians stood for, but this was the branch of Christianity which he chose to join himself to. Like other German Christians, Kittel believed that God had elevated Hitler to power in order to save Germany from the “culture-destroying” Jews. He viewed the Nazi movement as “a religious renewal,” so he openly and enthusiastically supported Hitler (Erickson).
Kittel used his writing ability to produce propaganda for the Nazi cause. He became a leader in the Forschungsabteilung Judenfrage (Research Department for the Jewish Question), a Nazi organization which published a journal. The purpose of the organization and its journal was to establish a scientific base which would justify Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Kittel was the most frequent contributor to this journal, in which he described Jews as “depraved,” “refuse,” and “enemies of humanity.”
In a speech in 1933, Kittel discussed four possible solutions to the “Jewish problem”: 1) Extermination. Kittel said he rejected this idea, not because it was inhumane, but because it was impractical – others had tried this, and failed. 2) Zionism, i.e., resettle all Jews in Palestine. Kittel rejected this idea for practical reasons, too. 3) Assimilation. Kittel strongly opposed this for reasons of racial purity. 4) “Guest Status.” This was the only possible solution to the Jewish problem, he stated. Kittel recommended that Jews be stripped of their citizenship and deprived of normal civil rights. Guest status would also mean isolation in ghettos and strict limitations on the types of employment Jews could engage in.
Kittel wrote a great deal to help establish a scientific base to justify the mistreatment of Jews. However, Hitler needed theological justification as well as scientific justification, and as a theologian, Kittel was the man for that job, too. Kittel has been credited with “making extermination of the Jews theologically respectable” and establishing “a solid Christian foundation for the opposition to the Jews” (Erickson).
Kittel did his scientific writing and his theological writing simultaneously. In 1933, the same year he joined the Nazi party, he began working on a major project: a theological Greek New Testament dictionary. If New Testament theology was to be made compatible to Nazi philosophy, then a theological dictionary written by Nazis would be very helpful. Other anti-Jewish theologians helped him on this project. Walter Grundmann and Georg Bertram, theologians whose stated goal was “dejudification of Church and Christianity,” wrote a total of 39 articles in the first four volumes of the dictionary. With the help of other such theologians, Kittel’s dictionary eventually grew into a monumental 10-volume set. After the war, Kittel went to trial for war crimes. He was convicted and imprisoned for the role he played as Hitler’s “scientist” and “theologian.” His writings and speeches had contributed to the extermination of millions of innocent people, so Kittel went off to prison.
But what happened to the 10-volume theological dictionary that Kittel produced during those years when he worked as Hitler’s theologian? Oh, it is still around. I just saw an ad for it in a Christian Book Distributors (CBD) catalog that came in my mail box today. This 10-volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), is, according to the CBD catalog, “the standard NT theological dictionary” and “a necessity for the serious Greek student.” It is published by Eerdmans, a major Christian publisher in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This work, by a Nazi who was convicted and imprisoned for war crimes, is widely used and trusted by modem Bible translators, theologians and by students in Christian seminaries. As the CBD catalog says, it is “the standard NT theological dictionary.” According to one writer, it “has almost unparalleled status among biblical scholars.” The Logos Bible Software website calls it: “One of the most widely-used and well-respected theological dictionaries ever created, TDNT is indispensable for studies in the Greek New Testament.”
Is it any wonder that the Church cannot free herself from the anti-Semitism and anti-nomianism that blind so many? How can Christians hope to see the Jews as God’s chosen people and God’s Law (Torah) as God’s loving instructions, when their understanding of the New Testament is influenced, directly or indirectly, by the theological work of Torah-despising, Jew-hating Nazis?
It is not enough for a Christian to say that he or she has never used Kittel’s Theological Dictionary. If the Christian relies on only a modern translation of the New Testament, then his or her understanding of the New Testament has probably been influenced to some degree by Kittel and his Nazi cohorts, for virtually all modern translations rely on Kittel’s dictionary. And it’s not just our English Bible translations that have been affected: even Seminary-trained Bible teachers run the risk of being indirectly influenced by Kittel, for virtually all seminaries use Kittel’s work. Our New Testament theology should not be based on the Theological Dictionary of Torah-hating, Jew-hating Nazis. Our New Testament theology should be based on the Torah and the Prophets, as both Yeshua and Paul taught (Mt. 5:17-19; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).
One writer suggests that copies of Kittel’s work carry a warning label:
“Theology students are warned that this dictionary was edited by, and contains articles by Nazi theologians whose stated aim was to create a theological foundation for an anti-Jewish, ‘racially pure’ Christianity, and it should therefore be approached with caution.”
One CBD catalog describes Kittel’s work as “the best New Testament dictionary ever completed… Every serious Greek student dreams of owning a set.” I, for one, do not dream of owning Kittel’s work. I dream of something else. I dream of seeing Christians rid themselves of the influence of their Jew-hating, Torah-hating forefathers of the faith. I dream of the day when such dividing walls will be brought down, and when Christians will embrace the Torah, and Jews will embrace their Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth. Then Christians and Jews can embrace one another and become one people: a people who honor both the Messiah and the Torah.
Barnes, Colin. “Kittel and Anti-semitism.” Tempo Vol. 2, No. 4, Nov. 1995.
Erickson, Robert P. Theologians Under Hitler. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1985.
Hakeem, Michael. “The Protestant Reaction to the Nazi Holocaust.” Freethought Today, March 1993.
Pierard, Richard. “An Age of Ideology.” In Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dooley. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977.
Gerdmar, Anders. 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. Koninklijke Brill, 2009.
Smith, Kenny. The Curious Case of Gerhard Kittel (website). Bullitin for the Study of Religion. http://www.equinoxpub.com/blog/2012/05/the-curious-case-of-gerhard-kittel/
Casey, Maurice. “Some Anti-Semitic Assumptions in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.” Novum Testamentum XLI, 3 (1999).
*This article has been adapted from an article originally appearing in Gates of Eden Magazine. Vol. 3:3 (1997).