5 September 1967 Karl Barth’s Letter to Marquardt on Israel #otdimjh

Portrait des Theologen Karl Barth in Basel. Photographie 1956.Portrait of the theologian Karl Barth in Basel. Photography. 1956.

Portrait des Theologen Karl Barth in Basel. Photographie 1956.Portrait of the theologian Karl Barth in Basel. Photography. 1956.

Not only am I full of admiration for the work that has been put in to develop the resources on this site, but I am also deeply grateful for the way this key text from Karl Barth has been made available with detailed introduction, annotation and critical discussion.

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This letter from Barth to Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt is an eye-opener to anyone who wants to understand the theology of Israel in the minds of these two great theologians, and an example for all to follow. Read and enjoy! I give the English translation and notes to the letter below – but the introduction is well worth studying to set the context.


Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968. Ed. by Jürgen Fangmeier and Hinrich Stoevesandt. Translated and Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. T.&T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1981, No. 260, pp. 261-263.

[p. 261]


Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt

To Dr. Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt

Basel, 5 September 1967

Dear Dr. Marquardt,


I have just finished reading your book.[1] For two and one-half days it kept me holding my breath or breathless. I thank you sincerely for this gift and for all the things you point out and develop in it.

I still remember clearly how one day – I forget the year – you made a remarkable journey up the Rhine and turned up as one of two “Bultmann corpses,” as I then called those who had been hurt in some way by the virulent spread of Bultmannitis, but who had been sent here by their fathers, or had come on their own volition, as to a hoped for sanatarium [MD: sic]. In the case of the other one, whose name I do not recall, the cure did not work; he became a jurist, which is also a good thing. But you went to build with great originality and independence a theological house which now even stands formally on Baslerstrasse Berlin[2] and is a light that holds promise of lighting all who go in and out.[3] But to get to the point.[p. 262]


You have discovered and expounded my doctrine of Israel with great skill and finesse, and historically and materially I can raise no objection. This doctrine of mine as you depicted it was so impressive and convincing to me (before I came to §5) that I was almost tempted to tip the hat to myself – only seldom do I rummage about in my books, but you have shown point by point that this is the way it is. I myself could never have brought it to light in this way. And so the praise that this doctrine of Israel merits is really yours. Please let me thank you for taking the trouble to bring out the truth in this matter by following the banister of my ways and works. I am looking forward with joy (though also not without a certain anxiety) to what more you may say on this and other matters now that you no longer need the banister.


You had good cause to develop the criticism made in §5. At this point there is indeed a gap in my work. I can only say two things, not by way of excuse, but by way of explanation.

  1. Biblical Israel as such gave me so much to think about and to cope with that I simply did not have the time or intellectual strength to look more closely at Baeck, Buber, Rosenzweig, etc. as you have now done in such worthy fashion.
  2. I am decidedly not a philosemite, in that in personal encounters with living Jews (even Jewish Christians) I have always, so long as I can remember, had to suppress a totally irrational aversion, naturally suppressing it at once on the basis of all my presuppositions, and concealing it totally in my statements, yet still having to suppress and conceal it. Pfui! is all that I can say to this in some sense allergic reaction of mine. But this is how it was and is. A good thing that this reprehensible instinct is totally alien to my sons and other better people than myself (including you). But it could have had a retrogressive effect on my doctrine of Israel.


A partially consoling factor here is that in your work you have also noted the beginnings of improvement in me, or at least a serious attempt at it. Please let me give you some other indications. Here is the text, worked out in my 1954 seminar, of a supplement to the declaration on the theme “Christ – the Hope of the World” which was then occupying the World Council of Churches.[4] In view of the protest of the Lebanese ambassador in Washington it was not adopted by the full assembly. Again, a summons from as early as 1938, drawn up by W. Vischer, subscribed by me, and also strenuously defended by me against Emil Brunner.[5] Also, to my credit, my reservations concerning the Romans in my work Ad Limina Apostolorum, p. 33, question 5 and pp. 39f.,[p. 263] questions 6-7. Also to be considered, my contribution to a panel discussion held in Chicago in 1962.[6] I also sent you eight days ago (N.B.: before I took to heart your §5) my introduction to a book coming out in the Union Press Berlin (though they certainly will not print it).[7] I realize that all this is not enough to fill the gap to which you have drawn my attention in the doctrine of Israel as it is presented in my other writings and as you have so finely sketched it.


The only thing is – and I feel rather unsure at this point – what about your own doctrine of Israel as you fill this gap and draw out the lines in my treatment in the desired direction? I need not point out to so clever a person as yourself what dangers might rise and affect this enterprise.Incidit in Scyllam, qui vult vitare Charybdin?![8] May this not happen to you in the projected improvement of my first attempt! May you do it with no less wisdom than courage!

And now again thanks for everything, best wishes for your further activity in research and teaching, which you have begun with such promise, and sincere greetings,


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Prayer. Thank you Lord for the honesty, theological depth and precision of this letter, which sums up not only Barth’s views but also much of the strengths and weaknesses of Christian theology when it comes to an understanding of the ongoing election and significance of Israel (the Jewish people). Help us to learn from these past masters of the discipline, and go carefully and sensitively into a deeper understanding of your purposes with your people, and of the mystery of Israel. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.



Notes to the source

  1. -W. Marquardt, Die Entdeckung des Judentums für die christliche Theologie. Israel im Denken Karl Barths(Munich, 1967).
  2. Marquardt’s address.
  3. Matt 5:15.
  4. “Das Heil kommt von den Juden (Memorandum)” (Oct. 1938), in Juden-Christen-Judenchristen. Ein Ruf an die Christenheit, publ. by the Swiss Evangelical Auxiliary for the Confessing Church in Germany (Zollikon, 1939), pp. 39-47. The debate with Brunner took place 8-9 December 1940 on whether salvation is or was of the Jews (John 4:22).
  5. “Introduction to Theology; Questions to and Discussion with Dr. Karl Barth, Wednesday, 25 April 1962 and Thursday, 26 April 1962, 8 P.M., Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago,” in Criterion; A Publication of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, 2, No. 1 (Winter, 1963), pp. 3-11, 18-24.
  6. Stärker als die Angst, ed. H. Fink (Berlin, 1968). As Barth foresaw, his introduction was not published but Marquardt included it in his essay “Christentum und Zionismus,” EvTh, 28 (1968), 629-660, on 654. It included severe criticism of the Szagorsk Declaration and commendation of the Counterdeclaration; cf. 258, n. 1.
  7. Philippe Gualtier de Chatillon, Alexandreis(1277), v. 301: “Incidis in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charybdon.”
  8. Discussion of the source

This is Karl Barth’s response to Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt’s doctoral dissertation (published in 1967), a critical but not unsympathetic examination of Barth’s doctrine of Israel, i.e. his theological grappling with the significance of biblical and post-biblical Judaism. Barth (1886–1968) was “arguably the most important – and most prolific – theologian of the twentieth century” and “as important in his field as Adorno, Freud, Wittgenstein, Weber, Heidegger, or Saussure were in theirs.” (Koshar 2008 333–4) He played a crucial role in the formation of the confessing church, and left Germany for his native Switzerland after being robbed of his chair in Bonn for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the National Socialist regime. Although he later regretted not having taken a more public stand on the matter, there is no doubt that Barth was highly critical of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies, and he supported a number of initiatives designed to assist refugees from Nazi Germany.

Coming from a man of this stature, and with such impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, this letter seems all the more startling and it is little wonder that it has given rise both to scandalizing and apologetic responses. Yet a more nuanced view would suggest that this is arguably one of the most courageous statements on the matter made by a first-rate Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. The true scandal ultimately lies not with Barth as an individual but with the theological culture that rendered him a life-long hostage to these sentiments and, by extension, with any attempt not to confront the full seriousness of this legacy. What more dramatic illustration could there be of the virulence of the problem than the fact that a theologian of Barth’s acuity and brilliance, a man who had shown his ability radically to re-invent himself, when he abandoned liberal theology to develop his “critically realistic dialectical theology” (to use Bruce McCormack’s apt formulation), and who had grappled at considerable length with core issues pertinent to Jewish-Christian relations, was forced to admit to himself at the end of his long life that he had ultimately been unable to overcome, or even fully understand, the anti-Jewish attitudes that had come naturally to him for as long as he could remember.

It seems noteworthy that Barth actually responded to Marquardt with such seriousness. Marquardt (1928–2002) would soon emerge as one of the foremost radical theologians of his generation and one of the few for whom Auschwitz marked a genuine caesura for any future theological endeavour. It is worth remembering, though, that at the time he was not an established academic theologian, but the student chaplain at the Freie Universität Berlin. Nor should one overrate the fact that in the year following the publication of his doctoral dissertation it earned him the Buber Rosenzweig Medal, awarded jointly to Marquardt and the Austrian historian Friedrich Heer. For while the Buber Rosenzweig Medal is now doubtless Germany’s most prestigious prize for scholarship and activism in Jewish-Christian and multifaith relations, it was actually awarded for the first time in 1968. In short, Barth could quite conceivably have shrugged off Marquardt’s critique had he wanted to. Nor do Barth and Marquardt seem to have corresponded regularly; this is in fact the only letter to Marquardt included in Barth’s collected letters for the period 1961–68. As Barth mentions at the beginning of the letter, Marquardt, who had previously been under the sway of Barth’s rival, Rudolf Bultmann, in Marburg, came to Basel to study with Barth in 1951/52, and Barth was clearly pleased with the extent of Marquardt’s subsequent recovery from “Bultmannitis”. Even so, this would hardly explain the seriousness and frankness of this letter, had Barth not been genuinely interested in engaging Marquardt’s critique.

To be sure, in the penultimate paragraph Barth sounds a note of caution. For a man as smart as Marquardt, he suggests, the potential dangers of trying to draw out the implications of Barth’s doctrine of Israel in the desirable direction surely went without saying. He hoped, Barth wrote, that Marquardt would be as wise as he was courageous, thus ensuring that he did not run on Scylla as he sought to avoid Charybdis. Nor did Barth feel that he had nothing to show for himself. He mentions a number of recent initiatives that he considered indicative of a serious attempt on his part to better himself. Yet he nevertheless conceded that none of this sufficed to fill the gap in his doctrine of Israel that Marquardt had identified. Indeed, all this ultimately only throws Barth’s startling confession all the more sharply into relief. It is despite these ongoing attempts to better himself that the “reprehensible instinct” he admits to in this letter, on his own account, persists: “this is how it was and is”. What is more, Barth refrained from trying to declare this a purely private problem. Much as he had sought to “suppress and conceal” this “reprehensible instinct”, he could not rule out, he wrote, that “it could have had a retrogressive effect on my doctrine of Israel”. He admitted, in other words, that his “totally irrational aversion” to Jews, all his attempts to ignore it notwithstanding, might well have seeped into his theology.

Mark Lindsay’s is perhaps the most recent attempt to make all this go away. He concedes that it is “quite natural” that “the response of most commentators to these admissions has … been to accept uncritically Barth’s self-reflections”. (Lindsay 2007 23) Needless to say, the crucial word here is “uncritically”. When should we ever accept anything “uncritically”, no matter how “natural” it may seem? Lindsay’s apologetics are all the more remarkable in that he formulates them at the outset of a book in which his main argument is that Barth’s actual position can in any case be determined only on the basis of a thorough examination of the deep structure of his theological thought, rather than the occasional casual remark. Yet why then focus on such occasional casual remarks in the first place? Lindsay sets out to demonstrate that Barth was much more familiar and at ease with contemporary Jews and Jewish thought than his remarks in this letter suggest. Yet the evidence he seeks to enlist in this context is so tenuous that it only compels one to wonder all the more why it should be desirable to prove that Barth’s most frank, self-critical, and courageous comments on the matter were in fact mistaken (for a more detailed discussion, see Fischer 2010 891–6).

To be sure, as a general rule we are obviously well advised never to take our protagonists’ boasting uncritically, and this would indeed include conspicuous forms of self-criticism that merely amount to boasting by proxy. Yet how could the way in which Barth covers his face with egg in this particular instance conceivably be self-serving? As the scandalizing and the apologetic responses alike indicate, nothing could be further from the truth. Evidently, Marquardt’s critique resonated so strongly with Barth, that it provided him with an opportunity to examine his own position with genuine frankness and humility, and give us a rare sense of just how conflicted even somebody of Barth’s stature and good intentions remained in his grappling with Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness.

  1. Questions for discussion
  2. On the basis of his professions in this letter to Marquardt, could one conceivably classify Barth as antisemitic?
  3. Is it significant that Barth was a Swiss Calvinist rather than a German Lutheran?
  4. What might one deduce from Barth’s use of the term “philosemite”?
  5. What are the implications of the fact that even the likes of Barth and Bonhoeffer remained so conflicted in their attitudes towards Jews?
  6. How does one engage with important historical figures whose attitudes towards Jews were to varying degrees problematic?
  7. Selected bibliography
  • Bethge, Eberhard. (1981) ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews,’ in: John D. Godsey and Geffrey B. Kelly (eds.)Ethical Responsibility: Bonhoeffer’s Legacy to the Churches. New York, Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, pp. 43–96.
  • Ericksen, Robert P. (2009) Christian Complicity? Changing Views on German Churches and the Holocaust. Washington, DC: USHMM Occasional Papers.
  • Gerlach, Wolfgang. (2000) And the Witnesses were Silent. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Heschel, Susannah. (2010) ‘Confronting the Past: Post-1945 German Protestant Theology and the Fate of the Jews’, in: Frankel, Jonathan and Ezra Mendelsohn (eds.) The Protestant-Jewish Conundrum(=Studies in Contemporary Jewry 24). New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 46–70.
  • Heschel, Susannah. (2010) The Aryan Jesus. Christian theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hockenos, Matthew D. (2004) A church divided. German Protestants confront the Nazi past. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  1. Further Reading
  • Barnes, Kenneth C. ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hitler’s Persecution of the Jews’, in: Ericksen, Robert P. and Susannah Heschel (eds.) German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp. 110–128.
  • Fischer, Lars. (2010) ‘The Non-Jewish Question and Other “Jewish Questions” in Modern Germany (and Austria)’, Journal of Modern History82, 4, pp. 876–901.
  • Funkenstein, Amos. (1993) ‘Theological Responses to the Holocaust’, in:Perceptions of Jewish History. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, pp. 306–337.
  • Haynes, Stephen R. (2002) ‘Who Needs Enemies? Jews and Judaism in Anti-Nazi Religious Discourse’,Church History71, 2, pp. 341–367.
  • Head, Peter. (2010) ‘Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: A Response’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament32, 4, pp. 421–430.
  • Heschel, Susannah. (2011) ‘Historiography of Antisemitism versus Anti-Judaism: A Response to Robert Morgan’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament33, 3, pp. 257–279.
  • Koshar, Rudy. (2008) ‘Where is Karl Barth in Modern European History’,Modern Intellectual History 5, 2, pp. 333–362.
  • Lindsay, Mark R. (2007) Barth, Israel, and Jesus. Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Michael, Robert. (1987) ‘Theological Myth, German Antisemitism and the Holocaust: The Case of Martin Niemoeller’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies2, 1, pp. 105–122.
  • Morgan, Robert. (2010) ‘Susannah Heschel’s Aryan Grundmann’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament32, 4, pp. 431–494.
  • Spicer, Kevin. (2008) Hitler’s Priests. Catholic Clergy and National Socialism. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.
  • Toedt, Heinz Eduard. (2005) ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Decisions in the Crisis Years 1929–33’,Studies in Christian Ethics18, 3, pp. 107–123.

About richardsh

Messianic Jewish teacher in UK
This entry was posted in otdimjh and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 5 September 1967 Karl Barth’s Letter to Marquardt on Israel #otdimjh

  1. Susan Perlman says:

    This was so fascinating to read – thank you Richard for finding this gem! Susan

    Sent from my iPhone


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