Originally posted July 16, 2019-
Q. Your book is a fantastic example of the biographical genre. What is it about biographies, in your estimation that are so engaging?
A. Yes, biographies have a special power! I think they are engaging because peoples’ lives are generally more interesting than are ideas alone. But for me personally there is something more. I almost never act on something, even if I believe it is true and right, unless I see someone else act on it. That’s the advantage and power of a biography—we see the virtue in action, and that changes lives.
Q. There are several instances in your book where you mention biographical details from your own life. What led you to make the decision to do this?
A. Very perceptive question. Ernst Lohmeyer was a German who died seventy-five years ago, and he spoke no English and never came to America. That separates him from an American reading audience big time. I nevertheless believe that his life is worthy of being remembered, and that his witness has special relevance for us today, even in America. I tried to share some of my own story, especially as it intersected with the quest to solve the mystery of his disappearance and death, to provide a bridge for readers into Lohmeyer’s story.
Q. Your autobiographical remarks are extremely interesting. Do you have plans to write an autobiography?
A. Well, I have not thought of my life as having autobiographical significance. I would have to think more about that.
Q. We have a connection with Professor Eduard Schweizer in common, who lectured in our New Testament Seminar at Southeastern Seminary. I found him amazingly engaging. He made a remark that has stayed with me all these years: American scholars are afraid, oftentimes, to offer original ideas. Instead they feel obliged to argue on the basis of what is already known. But this hardly moves scholarship forward, which is why cutting-edge Biblical scholarship is European. Would you agree with that sentiment?
A. Great to hear of your contact with Eduard Schweizer. He is indeed engaging—a first-class New Testament scholar and theologian, committed to the church, and genuinely interpersonal and affable. I have two responses about his comment that American scholars are afraid to offer original ideas, choosing rather to stay on more beaten academic paths. First, American scholars have certainly pioneered the social context of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, and this is a significant contribution (although much of this contribution has taken place since Schweizer wrote). But there is some truth to his comment. It must be remembered that Germans had a two-century head-start in Biblical studies over American scholars, so it is not surprising that Americans have been playing “catch-up” for much of the 20th century. But there is another and more serious reason why his comment is important. American scholars have not been trained as rigorously in ancient languages—Hebrew, Greek, Latin—as have German scholars. Even today in Germany, scholars in the humanities hand out Latin texts untranslated, assuming students’ proficiency in reading the original. When I studied in Zürich and later in Tübingen, students in both Old and New Testament courses would open their Biblia Hebraica or Nestle-Aland New Testament (and this was before Readers Editions that define infrequently occurring words at the bottom of the page!) and cite-read from the original Hebrew and Greek in class. It is rare to find comparable proficiency in ancient languages in American theology students, even in doctoral students. Weakness in ancient language proficiency keeps one a step removed from ancient texts, and that distance from original texts reduces the ability to be ground-breaking. The same distance almost inevitably increases one’s dependence on secondary literature, and preoccupation with secondary literature is more likely to be redundant than original.
Q. Schweizer wrote a series of commentaries on the Gospels. How would you rate his treatment of Mark compared to Lohmeyer’s?
A. Good question. Very briefly, Lohmeyer was more independent in his scholarship, insisting on seeing Gospels as “wholes” rather than dismembered into fragments as form and redaction critics saw them. Schweizer was a student of Bultmann, and he was influenced by Bultmann’s form criticism and historical skepticism. Some of Schweizer’s comments about the text can strike American students as dismissive. Nevertheless, Schweizer regularly makes comments that are both simple and brilliant, stimulating readers, and especially preachers and teachers, with marvelous insights into the text.
Q. Prof. Lohmeyer is known in America, I think, only among a generation of older New Testament specialists. What provoked you to seek to make him known to a far wider public?
A. Yes, Lohmeyer is known only to a shrinking circle of American New Testament scholars. I doubt my book will rekindle the reading of his books, at least in America—for with only two exceptions all Lohmeyer’s books remain in German—but I hope it will awaken an interest in the significance of his life and thought. Lohmeyer’s work, especially in the Gospels, has weathered far better than that of most of his contemporaries, including Bultmann. The reason for this is that Lohmeyer gave preference to original texts over secondary literature, and this gave his work freshness and insight that has endured. Another scholar of the era who did the same was Adolf Schlatter, and his works, too, continue today to be read with profit. Regarding the significance of Lohmeyer’s life, his personal integrity in resisting Nazism and Soviet communism, and paying for the latter with his life, makes him more than a great scholar. It makes him a modern martyr, in my mind, whose example and witness is increasingly relevant in the world today.
Q. Tell us about Lohmeyer’s marriage to his wife Melie.
A. Lohmeyer and Melie met, and they prospered in marriage, because of the strong meeting of their minds. They loved the medium of words in their relationship. They wrote literally thousands of letters to each other in the course of their lifetimes. They even wrote letters when they weren’t apart. They were almost like the two lobes, right and left, of one brain. This description of marriage is quite foreign today for those of us who think of marriage primarily in terms of emotions and feelings rather than thoughts and words. The challenge for us moderns is in cultivating marriages of substance and character; the challenge for Lohmeyer and Melie was not to allow their love to grow cold.
Q. As far as I know, there is only one German biography of Lohmeyer. What do you think is the reasons for this?
A. Yes, there has been only one major biography before mine. And there is a reason for this. When the Soviets arrested and executed Ernst Lohmeyer, they put a blackout on his name, his works, and his memory in communist East Germany. The Soviet Union did not fall until 1990, which means that the blackout on Ernst Lohmeyer lasted nearly a whole generation, from 1946-1990. In 1979 I mentioned Lohmeyer’s name in a public meeting in Greifswald, East Germany, the city where he was arrested and executed, and my doing so sparked something of a minor crisis. Lohmeyer was executed as “enemy of the state,” and anyone who tried to find out about him became an “enemy of the state” as well. That quashed the possibility of a genuine biography until the 1990. By then people may have thought that it would be impossible to resuscitate him from such long obscurity.
Q. I couldn’t help but think of contemporary issues as I read through your narrative. The rise of nationalism, xenophobia, hate speech, etc. all have very current parallels. Do you see parallels between German in the 1930s and America today?
A. Yes, unfortunately. The world we have known is changing greatly. Think of it: the EU and NATO that have brought seventy-years of peace and prosperity to Europe never seen before are being dismantled in favor of nationalism and isolation. We see an upsurge of fear of immigrants, promotion of self over the common good, rise of meanness and malice, loss of charity and compassion, sacrifice of personal virtue for the goals of wealth and power, and the favoring of autocracy over democracy. When I went to Germany in the fall of 2016 to write my biography of Lohmeyer, I thought I was producing a work of history. But as I pondered the above changes it stuck me that Lohmeyer’s story was not just historical. It is prophetic!
Q. Lohmeyer suffered horrible mistreatment by both Nazis and communists. Why do you think the Russians, especially, were bent on destroying him?
A. Totalitarianisms are cruel, and both Nazism and Soviet communism vented their cruelty on Lohmeyer. Totalitarianism depends on one thing above all else: fear. If tyrants can make people fear them, they can control them. Most people are vulnerable to fear, and that contributes to the success of totalitarianisms. Lohmeyer was also vulnerable to fear, of course, but he chose not to succumb to fear, and hence he was unable to be controlled by communist threats. He was a person of moral conviction and courage, intellectual independence, and indomitable faith. When the Soviets saw that he was unintimidated by their terror and might, they had no choice but to arrest him on false charges, convict him on false charges, and execute him. He lived a hard life. But it is important to remember the most important thing about his life: the future always lies with virtue, not with vice. Virtue empowers life; vice warps life. Today, there are streets and squares in Germany named for those resisted Nazi and communist oppressions, streets named for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sophie and Hans Scholl, Martin Niemoeller, and yes, Ernst Lohmeyer. There are no streets named for Adolf Hitler or Heinrich Himmler. People won’t even name their dogs Adolf.
Q. What are you currently working on?
A. I am currently writing a book on how the Jesus movement in the Gospels became what we know as the Christian church. It’s entitled, From Christ to Christianity. How the Jesus Movement Became the Christian Church in One Lifetime (Baker). When we read the Gospels, we see a Jesus movement that was Palestinian, rural, Jewish, Hebrew- and Aramaic-speaking, associated with synagogues, worshipped on sabbath, staffed with apostles, and so forth. Only seventy-five years later, Ignatius of Antioch witnesses to a vastly different Christian movement that was pulsating throughout the Roman Empire, urban, Gentile, Greek-speaking, worshiping in churches on Sunday rather than Saturday, overseen by bishops and elders, and so on. In the space of one lifetime the forms of the Jesus movement changed more than they have in the 2,000 years since the death of Jesus. And yet, the DNA of the movement, its essence in the salvation brought in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ remains unchanged. Pretty exciting! That’s worth a book.
JW– I look forward to reading it! Thank you, Professor, for your time. And thank you most especially for a book that I think is one of the most interesting written in recent years.