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  • Aaron Wootton

Defending St. Paul Against Nietzsche and the Nazis

After failing to unite the Protestant churches under the banner of the Third Reich Hitler's views on Christianity ruptured. His opining on the subject suddenly swelled with hostility, and his infamous Table Talk monologues became crowded with invective against the main religion of his countrymen.

To express his newly invigorated bitterness Hitler invoked Nietzsche's slave morality principle, which theorises that Christianity and Judaism are two sides of the same coin in that both parties are guilty of holding humanity back by parading weakness as virtue. This conflation of the two Abrahamic religions led Hitler to blame Christianity for the rise of Bolshevism. ‘The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity’ he whipped in one of his closed-door speeches, ‘Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jews.’ [i]

To bolster his claims Hitler took aim at St. Paul who he charged with ‘transform[ing] a local movement of Aryan opposition to Jewry into a supra-temporal religion.’[ii] By attacking St. Paul Hitler was once again echoing Nietzsche, who in The Dawn of The Day argues that the apostle, unable to fulfill Jewish law due to his weakness, fled into Christianity where the Old Covenant was rendered obsolete. This ‘most ambitious and importunate soul’ whose mind was ‘full of superstition and cunning’ projected his own weaknesses onto the world in the form of Christianity.[iii]

To Nietzsche, St. Paul was a pitiful character who

if we had read, really read […], not as the revelations of the “Holy Ghost,” but with honest and independent minds, oblivious of all our personal troubles—there were no such readers for fifteen centuries—it would have been all up with Christianity long ago.[iv]

The philosopher, continuing with his sophomoric critique, goes on to point out that St. Paul pre-conversion was a hypocritical sinner who ‘was pitiless and cruel towards all evil-doers, whom he would fain have punished in the most rigorous fashion possible.’[v] This is not controversial. Any remotely dutiful Christian knows that when Paul was Saul his elitism and contempt for non and ill-observing Jews was great, and that this manifested severely in his persecution of Christians.

Saul rejected Jesus because he could not accept as a Messiah a lowly man who died the death of a criminal. Like most Pharisees, he viewed the very notion as a form of blasphemy, and executed what he felt was God’s wrath on Jews who accepted him as their Messiah. But the Acts of the Apostles tells us that after being overcome by a vision of God on the road to Damascus which left him blind for three days, Paul was able to accept his low nature and nothingness before God and defeat the sin that dogged him in his previous life. In Nietzsche's version of events, St. Paul’s vision was brought on by an epileptic fit which presented him with a psychological means of escape from the ‘anguished pride’ he felt at his inability to keep Jewish Law. In Jesus, Paul saw his freedom from an impossible situation and ‘the consequences of this thought, of this solution of the enigma, danced before his eyes, and he at once became the happiest of men.’[vi]

Nietzsche's materialist view of St. Paul’s conversion paints it as a purely psychological phenomena and the creation of the Church a grand projection of his weakness. But this requires another assumption: that Paul’s weaknesses followed him into his Christian life. The notion that Paul fled Pharisaism because of weakness is fueled by a faulty reading of passages such as that found in Romans where Paul compares Jewish conversion to Christianity to remarriage following the death of a spouse. Jews, ‘through the body of Christ have become dead to the Law and so you are able to belong to someone else, that is, to him who was raised from the dead to make us live fruitfully for God.’[vii] Paul openly addresses the difficulty he found in being faithful to God’s law, writing that ‘The commandment that was ordained to life, the same was found to be unto death to me. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, seduced me: and by it, killed me.’[viii] What Paul is attempting to convey also finds expression in Genesis. Eve, aware of God’s commandment, is approached by the Serpent who tells her that she will not die if she eats of the tree in the middle of the garden, ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’[ix]. Like Eve–because of Eve–Paul is aware of good and evil through the commandments which he accepts to be from God, and therefore is liable to be captivated by the devil into flouting these laws for transient pleasure due to his human frailty. This notion finds its most succinct expression in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians when he writes that ‘The letter killeth, the spirit quickeneth.’[x] Letter without the spirit, Paul infers, is akin to spiritual death.

To any religious person who adheres to the genealogy of the bible Paul’s intimations make perfect sense. Abraham, the father of the Hebrews, lived without the revelation of Mosaic Law, yet he ‘was sanctified through faithful adherence to the voice of God.’ St. Paul uses Abraham’s example in his epistle to the Galatians when he writes: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice. Know ye therefore, that they who are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.’[xi] In this epistle Paul was primarily concerned with addressing controversies that hung over the early Christian communities, threatening to disjoint them, specifically that of Judaizing, and whether the gentile converts were still bound by Mosaic Law. Expounding on his assertion that they were not, Paul opined that the Law ‘was set because of transgressions, until the seed should come, to whom he made the promise, being ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.’[xii] Continuing, St. Paul argues that for the Hebrews,

the law was our pedagogue in Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after the faith is come, we are no longer under a pedagogue. For you are all the children of God by faith, in Christ Jesus [...] And if you be Christ's, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.[xiii]

This prefaces St. Paul and Christ’s main objection to the Pharisees and Sadducees, who mistakenly and pridefully maintained that they were the seed of Abraham by virtue of their genes, a notion that Christ was at pains to admonish in his many parables exalting righteous non-Jews above Jews and when he condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and sinfulness, calling them a ‘generation of vipers’ and asking them in exasperation, ‘how will you flee from the judgment of hell?’[xiv]

In his epistle to the Romans Paul admits that the Law is ‘holy, and just, and good’ yet says that it aroused the sinful passions in him. Anticipating the difficulty an unnuanced or cynical mind may have with this seeming contradiction, he endeavors to explain that something good did not, and cannot, result in (spiritual) death. He testifies humbly that ‘for I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do.’[xv] The only way out of this spiritual cul-de-sac, Paul tells us, is Jesus Christ.

The Christian, then, beset on all sides by temptation, must practice a radical faith in Jesus Christ in the manner of Peter who defied the physical laws of the universe by walking on water. Peter was able to achieve this impossible feat because he was focused on Jesus Christ who, waiting for him out on the sea, bade him to come out and meet him. As soon as Peter began to fear the raucous waters around him, taking his eyes off the Lord, he started to sink, and only Jesus' outstretched arm could save him.

The account of Peter walking on water is a lesson to Christians in how to keep the commandments. The seemingly impossible feat is achieved through faith in Jesus Christ and by embracing one’s cross in the manner of the Son of Man. Paul’s life was a testament to this. In his epistle to the Corinthians Paul speaks of a thorn in his flesh, ‘an angel of Satan’[xvi] sent to torment him. This thorn, St. Paul believed, was mandated by God in order to keep him humble in light of his enormous success. It is thought by some to refer to some physical ailment, but a more likely explanation is that it referred to temptation to a particular sin. If this is the case it proves that Paul continued to be tempted into breaking God’s laws even after conversion, and therefore suffered spiritually, but that in Christ he was able to resist. It also proves, if St. Paul’s testament is to be believed, the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, especially in its power to fortify men against sin.

Paul demanded that Christian’s become ‘blameless,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘without blemish’[xvii], echoing Christ who said ‘be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.’[xviii] Such a command was not without gravity especially since ‘Paul’s moral standards coincided with the strictest view of Jewish communities in the Greek-speaking Diaspora.’ In fact many Christian standards surpassed Jewish laws in strictness, such as Christ calling remarriage after divorce adultery. But most damning to Nietzsche's arguments is St. Paul’s call to total celibacy. ‘Paul’s preference for celibacy,’ writes New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders, ‘in combination with Jesus’ praise of those who do not marry (Matthew 19:10–12), helped to establish in Western Christianity a two-tiered system of morality that persisted unchallenged until the Protestant Reformation.’[xix] This two-tiered system placed the religious and priestly life above married life: ‘He who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.’[xx] This was not the belief of gentiles or mainstream Judaism, disproving the argument that St. Paul fled Pharisaism because of its strictness. In fact, in Christianity he was able to achieve the discipline that eluded him in his previous life, suggesting that the hypocritical spirit of the Pharisee he once embodied was expelled.

The sufferings of St. Paul were necessarily passed down onto Christian converts who by their faith in Christ were excluded from the Judeo-Pagan binary that existed at the time. ‘Civic loyalty […] included participation in public worship of the local gods.’[xxi] Only Jews were exempt. Christians therefore were unable to take part in local activities such as festivals and sporting events since such activities were infused with paganism. This increased Paul’s workload because the temptation to relapse into idol worship in the face of such isolation was strong. As a safeguard against such temptations Paul petitioned converts to seek solace in spiritual gifts and embrace suffering to become like Christ while also loving one another patiently. His first epistle to the Thessalonians was an exercise in fortifying the people against such temptations, despite their continued faith, lest when the day of the Lord came upon them it not ‘overtake [them] as a thief.’ He implored them to ‘be sober, having on the breastplate of faith and charity, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.’[xxii]

Paul also imbued Christian converts with a respect for authority that was wanting in the Jews. This curtailed any temptation towards revolution and anticipated the doctrine of the divine right of kings that already had a biblical mandate from the prophet Samuel anointing first Saul as king and then David as his righteous successor. Paul’s insistence on this practice echoes Jesus who in Matthew 22:21 admonished the scheming Herodians, telling them to ‘Render [...] to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's’. Paul tells the Romans that authority is ordained by God and therefore ‘those who resist will incur judgment’[xxiii], ensuring that the early Christians suffer persecution patiently and work confinedly to alleviate it, not reacting in violent rebellion. Contrastingly, the Jews flouted this law in favour of a false Messianism which climaxed in the Jewish-Roman wars which backfired dramatically, resulting in the destruction of the temple.

As a result of the Jews’ aggression Titus, who was emperor at the time, took more from them than just taxes. After the first revolt, as well as plundering and destroying the temple, Jewish towns and land were either wiped out or appropriated by the Romans, leaving the Jews displaced. When they doubled down under the influence of Simon Bar Kokhba sixty years later the results were similarly, if not more, terrible: the Jewish population of Judea was devastated; many Jews were slaughtered, while others were exiled or sold into slavery.

The deference of the Christians set them on a different course to the Jews. The persecution they suffered culminated in the guilt pinned to them by Emperor Nero for the Great Fire of Rome which destroyed two thirds of the city. In its wake rumours spread that Nero himself was the instigator. According to legend agents of the tyrant feigned drunkenness and torched buildings while Nero watched from his palace on Palatine Hill, serenading the orchestrated destruction with his fiddle. Despite the embellishments the narrative was granted credibility by Nero’s swift rebuilding of the city in the Greek style, as well as his rapid construction of a new palace complex at the taxpayers expense, insinuating that he purposely razed the city to bypass the senate and rebuild it in his own image. Reports also surfaced that groups of actors wielding firebrands and threatening those attempting to extinguish flames claimed to have had the emperor's authority. Whether there is any truth to the claims or not, it was the Christians that functioned as the perfect scapegoat. Blame was quickly attached to them. Persecution ensued. In his famous account of the fire and its aftermath Roman historian Tacitus writes:

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.[xxiv]

Tacitus’ account attests to the historicity of the persecutions while also shedding light on the general view of Christians at the time whose suffering spilled over from the social and political into the physical. Peter and Paul met their bloody ends in the persecutions, which continued in various forms up until 312 A.D when the prayers of the centuries of suffering Christians were answered in spectacular fashion. The main instrument of the shift was Constantine the Great. According to Eusebius of Caesarea – a close advisor to Constantine – as the emperor and his soldiers readied themselves for a battle which would decide the sole ruler of the empire, a cross appeared in the sky inscribed with the words ‘conquer by this’. Heeding the divine command, Constantine consecrated his army to the Christian God and ordered that the Chi Rho Christogram be emblazoned on the shields and vexilla of his soldiers. Constantine’s army battled to victory, ending the tetrarchy and setting the empire’s course towards a Catholic future.

The unthinkable conversion of Rome to Christianity lends credence to Tertullian's proclamation that ‘the blood of the martyrs is seed for the church’ while also discrediting Nietzsche’s claim about St. Paul’s motives. The great saint attested to being eminently successful as a Pharisee due to his unrivaled zealotry, however ‘the things that were gain to [him]’ became ‘but of dung’[xxv] when he converted to Christ. The humility exhibited by St. Paul post-conversion is disdained by the likes of Nietzsche and Hitler, whose Messianic movements, like the warring Jews of the first century, seek salvation in creation rather than the creator; whether it’s Hitler’s supreme volk, which will bring about world peace, or its predecessor the Übermensch, which seeks to bypass God and outdated ‘other-worldliness’ in favour of self-exalting ‘this-worldliness’. Therefore it follows that if we ‘read, really read’ St. Paul, as Nietzsche asks, ‘with honest and independent minds, oblivious of all our personal troubles’, we find a man whose power comes from his humility, who abandoned a position of privilege to take up a position of scorn. This is where the absurdity of Nietzsche’s argument is made plain, for he claims that Paul, like a fish leaping out of the water and then fidgeting its way into a frying pan, moved from persecutor to persecuted, all because he found Jewish Law impossible, yet he moved from a strict code of conduct which was clean on the outside and dirty on the inside to an even stricter one whose end was execution at the hand of the state.


[i] Adolf Hitler, Hitler's table talk, 1941-1944 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 7. [ii] Hitler, Hitler’s Table Talk, pg. 78. [iii] Friedrich Nietszche, The Dawn of the Day (London: George Allen And Unwin Ltd.), p. 66-67. [iv] Nietszche, The Dawn of the Day, p. 67. [v] Nietszche, The Dawn of the Day, p. 68. [vi ]Nietszche, The Dawn of the Day, pg. 70. [vii] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Romans. 7:4. [viii] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Romans. 7:10-11. [ix] The Holy Bible, NRSV: Catholic Edition, Genesis. 3:5. [x] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, 2 Corinthians. 3:6. [xi] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Galatians. 3:6-7. [xii] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Galatians. 3:19. [xiii] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Galatians. 3:24-29. [xiv] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Matthew. 23:33. [xv] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Romans. 7:15. [xvi] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, 2 Corinthians. 12:7. [xvii] The Holy Bible, NRSV: Catholic Edition, Philippians. 2:15 [xviii] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Matthew. 5:48 [xix] E. P. Sanders, ‘St. Paul the Apostle’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, July 20, 1998, [xx] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition, 1 corinthians. 7:38 [xxi] Sanders, ‘St. Paul the Apostle.’ [xxii] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, 1 Thessalonians. 5:4-5:8. [xxiii] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition, Romans. 13:2. [xxiv] Cornelius Tactitus, The Annals of Tacitus (published in Vol. V of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus, 1937), Book XV:44. [xxv] The Douay-Rheimes Bible, Philippians. 3:7-8.


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