Thursday, January 15, 2009

Letters from an aging Käsemann

In today's Historical Jesus class, we turned to Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Käsemann. In preparing for class, especially classes I have often taught before, I like to try to read something new that will stimulate my thinking and keep the teaching as fresh as possible. Before today's class, I read some letters written by Ernst Käsemann not long before his death in 1998. They are reproduced in an article in Anglican Theological Review in that year, in the following piece:

A tribute to Ernst Käsemann and a theological testament
Paul F. M. Zahl, Anglican Theological Review 80/3 (1998)

The free online reproduction at is of course welcome but the quality of the reproduction is often appalling, and the reader has to emend the text as s/he goes. These letters, sent to Zahl, and discussing his dissertation, are often fascinating and they give one a feeling of the great man's personality. This section is rather Pauline in its defence of his reputation (with the FindArticle anomalies emended):
One of your examiners refers to my own "weakness" in making myself understood, especially in respect to my preaching. On that point I wish to protest energetically. When I was a professor, I tore up hundreds of sermons that I had worked on in earlier times when I served in the parish. I preached in those days at least four times a month. Seldom then did I preach to congregations that did not fill the church, which sat 1200. Seldom did I address a Bible study that did not have fewer than 200 participants. Critical services during the time of the Confessing Church were taken by myself. Once at a "ChurchDay" ("Kirchentag") we had to shut the doors of the hall after 7000 listeners crowded in. Later, over a 20-year period, my colloquia were the best attended, after Barth's, in Germany. In the early days (i.e., when EK was pastor in Gelsenkirchen-author), the academics had to come to the miners and steelworkers! The Gestapo was always there, taking notes when I was in the pulpit. All this is not to boast. It is simply to say that my so-called "difficulty in making myself understood" seems to have resulted in my having opponents among the Nazis, among the Pietists, among colleagues and among laity. Rumour has always accompanied me, whether it was Nazis who saw in me a "betrayer of the people" or whether it was Pietists who saw in me a concealed atheist.

Had I not become a follower of St. Paul or had I suppressed the scandal of the Gospel, I would probably have become bored. Professors have their crosses to bear, too. In any event I was asked constantly to give beyond what I could. I could not see my way to living a right middle-class life in a world that had never felt the hangman's noose. Anyway I have almost turned 90. My portrait shouldn't be over-painted.
The whole piece is delightful and will leave you wanting to read more.


Jeklam said...

Interesting piece! Thanks, prof. Goodacre.
I'm wondering, however, if this sentence is correct:

"Seldom did I address a Bible study that did not have fewer than 200 participants" (= often I addressed a bible study that had fewer than 200 participants)

It seems odd in the context.

Harper said...

Hey Jeklam,

You forgot to 'reverse' the "fewer than". So it should be:

I often addressed a bible study that had MORE than 200 participants...