Victims or Conquerors: The Saxon Gospel and Glenn Beck

By Kate Daley-Bailey

I have the perfect gospel for Glenn Beck; a Saxon retelling of the Christian gospel with Jesus as a warrior chieftain written in “song” or epic form in the early part of the 9th century CE and was supposedly used to convert the pagan Saxons, after they had been conquered and forcefully baptized by Charlemagne.

This rendering of the Jesus story is no direct translation of a canonical gospel rather it is an actual retelling of the Jesus story. As an expert on the Heliand, the title of this Saxon gospel, G. Ronald Murphy, J.S. describes the text as “a reimagining of the gospel.” Murphy writes that the Heliand’s author, whose identity is still a mystery, “rewrote and reimagined the words and the events of the gospel as if they had taken place and been spoken in his own country and time.”

It is a synthesis: Murphy emphasizes this unique blend of seemingly disparate attitudes and belief systems by saying that the text is a “contemplative integration of Northern-European magic, sooth-saying, wizardry, fatalistic warrior values, personal mysticism, and the Christian gospel story give it compelling power and charm.” 

Murphy

Murphy describes the likely intended audience of the gospel as those in “the meadhall and monastery.” He also suggests that the intent behind the reimaging of the gospel story was NOT so that it could be used in church services but rather so that it could be used to explain a seemingly foreign story in a familiar context. Murphy writes that the epic poem appears to have been “intended to bring the gospel home to the Saxons in a poetic environment in order to help Saxons cease their vacillation between their warrior-loyalty to the old gods and to the ‘mighty-Christ’.”

The anonymous author of the Heliand has reimagined the story of Jesus the Jewish messiah or Greek savior (depending on which of the four canonical gospels you read) and transformed him into a brave Germanic warrior chieftain who was hung from a tree. The text contains such song titles as “Song 14. Christ, the mighty Chieftain, chooses His first warrior-companions” and Song 36. Christ the Ruler heals the daughter of a woman from a foreign clan.” The last supper is featured in song 55 as “the last mead-hall feast with the warrior-companions. And the communion feast is depicted in song 56 as “the words of Christ give great powers to the bread and wine.” No doubt the most remarkable reimagining that the text presents is the retelling of the story of Jesus’ arrest and Peter’s reaction. Song 58. Christ the Chieftain is captured; Peter, the mighty swordsman, defends Him boldly.

Christ’s followers, wise men deeply distressed by this hostile action, held their position in front. They spoke to their Chieftain. ‘My Lord Chieftain,’ they said, ‘if it should now be Your will that we be impaled here on spear-points, wounded by their weapons, then nothing would be as good to us as to die here, pale from mortal wounds, for our Chieftain.

The Simon peter, the mighty, the noble swordsman flew into a rage; his mind was in such turmoil that he could not speak a single word. His heart became intensely bitter because they wanted to tie up his Lord there. So he strode over angrily, that very daring thane, to stand in front of his Commander, right in front of his Lord. No doubting in his mind, no fearful hesitation in his chest, he drew his blade and struck straight ahead at the first man of the enemy with all the strength of his hands, so that Malchus was cut, and wounded on the right side by the sword! His ear was chopped off, he was so badly wounded in the head that his cheek and ear burst open with a mortal wound! Blood gushed out, pouring out of the wound! The cheek of the enemy’s first man had been cut open. The men stood back- they were afraid of the slash of the sword.

Then the Son of God spoke to Simon Peter and told him to put his sharp sword back into its sheath. ‘If I wanted to put up a fight against the attack on this band of warriors, I would make the great and mighty God, the holy Father in the kingdom of heaven , aware of it so that He could send me so many angels wise in warfare that no humans to stand up to the force of their weapons. No human army, however huge, could ever stand against them nor afterwards still be in possession of their life-spirits. But the ruling God, the all-mighty Father, has determined it differently: we are to bear whatever bitter things this people does to us. We are not to become enraged or wrathful against their violence, since whoever is eager and willing to practice the weapon’s hatred, cruel spear-fighting, is often killed himself by the edge of the sword and dies dripping with his own blood. We cannot by our deeds avert anything.

He went up to the wounded man and skillfully put the parts of his body back together, his headwounds, so that the sword-slash was quickly healed.

The gore and brutality of this depiction seems a far cry from the canonical gospel versions which simply state that Peter defended Jesus by cutting off the ear of a Jewish guard and in some of the gospels, but not all, Jesus rebukes Peter and heals the guard’s ear. Although all four canonical gospels mention this encounter, none of them include such a violent description. I’m half surprised Mel Gibson had not used this as a source text for his film of the Passion of the Christ.

Although the Germanic Jesus and Peter featured in this text may seem very odd from our perspective as modern people and we might be tempted to easily dismiss this reimagining as an anomaly in the world of Christendom… I would like to highlight that all forms of Christianity are and should be reimaginings of the Jesus story. The church fathers saw to it that four versions of the Jesus story were preserved in the Christian Canon. Each reader or hearer of the gospel story must try to imagine what it would have been like to be among the early followers of Jesus. While reimagining is necessary to make the gospel come alive in the here and now… Christians should also be aware of when this reimagining violates the spirit of the message.

Glenn Beck appears to be reimagining the gospel story in his own way and he is not alone. We seem to be experiencing a new wave of Muscular Christianity… one which, in extreme cases, violates some of the vital principles of the Christian message… primarily the Christian message of “agape”… “brotherly love.”

Glenn Beck recently is quoted as saying on his talk show that although

Jesus did identify with the victims… Jesus was not a victim. He was a conqueror…Jesus conquered death. He wasn’t victimized. He chose to give his life….If he was a victim, and this theology was true, then Jesus would’ve come back from the dead and made the Jews pay for what they did. That’s an abomination.” (See Sources)

The media fervor has been predominately over Beck’s blaming of the Jews for what “they” did to Jesus… and I admit this is very troubling especially because Beck’s admonishment of this “victim mentality” he sees in Liberation Theology sounds suspiciously close to the Nietzschean condemnation of Judaism and Christianity which was later appropriated by the Nazi propaganda machine. What especially stood out to me was Beck’s zealous statement that Jesus was NOT a victim but rather a conqueror. Does Beck subscribe to a radical Muscular Christianity view of Jesus?

Has Beck missed the “good news” of the Christian message in the gospels which exclaims that Jesus broke down the normal divisions… of Jew and Gentile, slave and master, woman and man, and of victim and conqueror? Part of the miracle of Jesus was that he was both… both victim (having died under the oppressive Roman Empire) and conqueror (having been raised from the dead and having offered hope in the face of extreme death and destruction)…100% human and 100% divine.

Obviously Beck’s comments are motivated by his view that liberal (liberation theology minded?) Christians are presenting Jesus as a Communist and a victim as opposed to a more Muscular Christian depiction of Jesus as a Capitalist and a conqueror. Perhaps we should revisit the Saxon Gospel I mentioned above to see an example of cultural and religious syncretism. This Saxon reimagining of Jesus is fascinating on multiple levels:

  1. The Saxons were a warrior culture which engendered tribal loyalty, focused of magic, and fate… Jesus, in their eyes, was a Chieftain who had the power to use force but that he resisted it… for he was fated to die.
  2. The Saxon culture celebrated valor and might… and the author had to think carefully about how to present the Christian message… so the Saxon gospel highlights the more masculine and mighty attributes of Jesus and his followers…. He is their chieftain and his disciples are his thanes… his warrior-companions.
  3. The Saxons, despite their might, had been defeated and forced to convert to Christianity… they were a conquered warrior culture. The Saxon gospel not only explained Christianity to them in on their own terms… it also offered them a way to reimagine themselves as a conquered yet conqueror culture.

What does a Saxon gospel from the 9th century have to do with us today? Not much on the surface but it has helped me understand a community’s ability to use sacred stories from ancient times and foreign cultures in order to understand that community’s own situation and time. However, when one uses another’s story to tell one’s own story… both are altered. These stories become inextricably intertwined. Some aspects of the sacred story are highlighted… other aspects are diminished or ignored all together. The question for American Christians is similar to the concern of Saxon Christians long ago… how do you negotiate these various identities in yourself?  How does one reconcile the powerful words of Jesus, even in the Saxon gospel, when he commands that his followers not turn violent… that “we are to bear whatever bitter things this people does to us.” Despite the Franks’ (and Charlemagne’s) victory in battle, the Saxons were reticent about adopting Christianity. The Saxons were rumored to be cannibals, were known to be ruthless warriors, and constantly rebelled against their Frankish overlords. How much of the 1st century Jewish healer and teacher was replaced by the Saxon warrior Chieftain? How much of Jesus is left in American Christianity today? How high a price has Christianity paid to be seen as patriotic and American?

Christianity in America today is undergoing many of the same theological pressures which plagued these early Saxon Christians. Christian Militias, Gun-toting church goers, The Catholic Church’s condemnation of women priests in what was supposed to be a referendum on sexual abuse among a male priesthood, Glenn Beck’s attack on Liberation Theology as a “victim theology”… all of these movements point towards an underlying insecurity regarding the nature of Christian identity in America today. The matter of contention is not just social, political, economic, philosophical, or religious… it is all of them because what is at stake is identity.

Sources and Works Cited:

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