Dan Jones: Powers and Thrones, a New History of the Middle Ages

In preparation for our 20th wedding anniversary trip to Europe, I knew I had to bone up on some of my Europe Medieval history. The popular British historian, Dan Jones, known for his tattoos on his forearms, had last year published “a New History of the Middle Ages,” as he subtitled it, Powers and Thrones. It did not disappoint.

The Middle Ages are often erroneously called the “Dark Ages,” but that description is not fair. A lot happened during the time span that Dan Jones covers between the sack of Rome in 410, and the later sack of Rome in 1527.

That 1,000+ year period is filled with Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines, Arabs, Franks, Monks, Knights, Crusaders, Mongols, Merchants, Scholars, Builders, Survivors, Renewers, Navigators, and Protestants, as Jones lays out in his chapters. The primary reason the label “Dark Ages” is still hard to shake off is because we have less written sources to work with during the first half of that era, as compared to the previous era of when the Roman Empire was at its greatest.

Yet Dan Jones manages to tell an engrossing story, giving the reader the flow of this immensely important era of European history. I gained a better appreciation of how just brutal the Monguls were, while ironically and simultaneously prefiguring the current age of cultural pluralism. Who knew that many medieval Christians at first mistakenly imagined Genghis Khan to be a new “King David,” who might push back against the scourge of the growth of Islam? But most interestingly, climate change, technological revolution, and pandemics play a significant part in the whole story, topics that sound eerily contemporary post-2020.

Veste Oberhaus, a castle overlooking the city of Passau, Germany, on the Danube River. The current structure was built in the late 15th century, and hosts a marvelous museum today. (photo credit: Clarke Morledge)

During our trip to Europe, I saw plenty of castles and cathedrals, resulting from the great building programs Jones describes from the medieval period. Admittedly, I did see attestation to the darkest sides of this period, as evidences of anti-semitism abounded in nearly every major city my wife and I visited. But the 16th century marks a clear break in Europe’s history, as any visitor to continental Europe can confirm. Beyond the fall of the Roman Empire, it could be fairly stated that the coming of Martin Luther, the age of the printing press, and the exploration of the Americas signaled the end of the Middle Ages.

Alas, as with any sweeping survey of history, I have some complaints with Dan Jones retelling, from my Protestant evangelical perspective. The work of any historian is by the very nature of the field selective, and so how the story is framed tells you a lot about the worldview bent of the historian.

Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most influential Christian preachers during the early 12th century, and one of the most saintly figures of the age, comes across as wholly hostile to academic freedom in his condemnation of the progressive theology of Peter Abelard. I got the impression that the Christian movement somehow suddenly discovered for the first time the value of women under the reign of the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian, through the influence of the empress Theodora. Towards the end of the book, Christopher Columbus initially comes across as an insightful missionary to the American peoples, only to be revealed eventually as a liar and colonialist oppressor, willing to use every underhanded means necessary to gain converts…. and profits. The ultimately secular orientation of Dan Jones implies that just about for every minute advance of Christianity in the medieval world along with it came a devastating catastrophe for at least someone.

To be fair, the doctrinal controversies with the Christian church, in an era when religious commitments were tightly welded to political realities, often had horrific consequences. The fact that Alaric, the Hun who first sacked Rome in 410, the seat of the orthodox papacy, was a professing anti-Nicene-anti-Trinitarian Arian Christian does make one think twice about the theological role Trinitarian thought plays in Christianity today, something that most Christians never even consider. Pair that with the fact that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V employed Lutheran-sympathizing German mercenaries in his 1527 sack of Rome, then you get the sense that the theological conflicts within Christianity even today carry with them great power to indelibly change the lives of many people.

Nevertheless, the advantage of reading such a broad history as found in Powers and Thrones is that it inspires one to dig into some of the stories Dan Jones brings up in greater detail to gain a better understanding of historical context. Consider the story of empress Theodora, noted briefly above, and her efforts to encourage her husband, the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian, to uphold the value of women. Though Theodora had the history of being a prostitute, having come from a very lower class background, she became a big advocate of marriage, viewing it as the “holiest of all institutions,” a tip towards her Christian convictions as empress. Roman law was changed to allow marriages between men and women of different social classes. Dowry was described as being “strictly necessary,” in contrast to a more traditional view that made dowry essential to marriage. Justinian’s law stated that “mutual affection is what creates a marriage.” Justinian and Theodora made it more difficult for men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons. The killing of adulterous wives was strictly forbidden.

These type of legal reforms may seem obvious to us today, but in the 6th century, these ways of elevating the status of women were unheard of in any comparable civilized society. This was a clear indication that far from being anti-woman, the Christian movement that had only gained cultural ascendancy a mere two hundred years earlier had managed to reshape popular Roman views of women, that would have scandalized the earlier cultures of Roman paganism. It would have been more helpful if Dan Jones had given the reader more context here, but I am glad that in reading Powers and Thrones it encouraged me to dig a little deeper into the historical context myself.

But such critique of a general historical survey is to be expected and should not in any way diminish the artful way that Dan Jones tells his “new history.” Powers and Thrones entertains just as well as it educates. This is a fantastic historical survey of an immensely important time period, and a good model for how such sweeping histories should be done. Highly recommended. Dan Jones also narrates the Audible audiobook version, which makes it even better. A good way to spend about 25 hours worth of time, such as I did, including on a long plane flight to Europe!


The Stain of Antisemitism in “Christian” Europe

Our three-week journey across Europe this fall was fantastic. However, there were sobering moments. The most disturbing part that I learned about was the pervasive stain of antisemitism in Europe’s Christian history.

While my wife and I were away from the United States, the celebrity rapper Kanye West made a number of bizarre antisemitic comments , apparently cobbled together from conversations the singer/artist has had with Louis Farrakhan, that led to various corporate sponsors abandoning commercial agreements with Kanye, in an effort to distance themselves from the popular-rapper-turned-born-again Christian (since I originally wrote the rough draft for this post, some apologists are now saying that Kanye has been flirting with the theology of the Black Hebrew Israelites movement. Hear more about it on the Dallas Seminary Table Podcast, or with apologists Mike Winger and Allen Parr).

Christians and traditional Jews do not have the same view of Jesus, and that difference is significant. But Christians owe a tremendous debt to the Jewish people, for Jesus himself was Jewish. Sadly, extreme examples in European church history demonstrate that some have forgotten this simple truth.

Such incidents may seem rare in the 21st century, but in medieval Europe right up through the period of Nazi Germany, antisemitism poked up its ugly head far too many times. On our trip down the Danube River, our first stop was in Regensburg, Germany. We heard from a guide that the persecution of Jews there goes back at least to stories during the Crusade era of the late 11th century, when wandering bands of Crusade enthusiasts ransacked Jewish homes and businesses. Some church bishops thankfully offered sanctuary for their Jewish neighbors, but within centuries, anti-Jewish sentiment was stirred up again.

In the late 15th century, the preaching of a Bavarian Dominican preacher, Peter Nigri, led to the confiscation of Jewish property in Regensburg. But Roman Catholic leaders have not been the only ones to stir up persecution against Jews.

A generation later in 1519, another preacher in Regensburg, Balthasar Hubmaier, called for the expulsion of Jews from the city, an event that led to the destruction of the local Jewish cemetery and the turning of a Jewish synagogue into a church as Jews fled the city. Within a few years, Hubmaier got married, even though he was a medieval priest, and joined up with the Anabaptist cause, having himself re-baptized, actions that not only put him in bad relations with the Roman church, but also with Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Swiss Reformation. He and his wife were shortly thereafter martyred for their Anabaptist faith. Whether or not Hubmaier eventually repented of his mistreatment of Jews is unknown to me, but the mark he left on Regensburg’s Jewish community remains to this day.

When the Jewish cemetery in Regensburg was destroyed as a result of Hubmaier’s preaching, various citizens of the city took the gravestones and reused them in various building projects. One gravestone was set underneath the floor of a room used as a toilet, as seen in the following photograph, an obvious insult to a Jewish person.

Jewish gravestone placed underneath a toilet in a Regensburg, Germany home, after Jews were expelled from the city in the early 16th century. Expand the photo to see the Hebrew lettering more clearly (photo credit: Clarke Morledge)

 

Now, why would someone claiming to be a Christian do such a thing?

The great cathedral of St. Peter’s Church, in Regensburg, an otherwise beautiful building, has a strong hint of antisemitism embedded in one of its outward walls. Someone had carved a sculpture of three Jews sucking from a pig, looking in the direction of the old Jewish synagogue.

What an insult. Hardly Christ-honoring. Where was the church’s bishop when this sculpture was placed on the side of this otherwise glorious church building? Why did he not put a stop to such nonsense?

Reminders of Europe’s antisemitic past like these are sprinkled across Europe. For example, in Prague, in the Czech Republic, a Jewish ghetto was formed in the 13th century, when Jews were told to vacate their homes and live in one particular area of the city. While Jews were allowed during the day to traverse the city, at night a curfew was placed on the Jews that kept them inside their Jewish Quarter. Even as Jews were expelled from other areas of Europe, like Spain in the late 15th century, such Jews made their way to more tolerant cities like Prague, but they still had to live in these prescribed areas.

Entrance into the Jewish Quarter in Prague. Note the Jewish town hall clocks, where the top clock is displayed with Roman numerals and the bottom clock is displayed in Hebrew (photo credit: Clarke Morledge).

 

But nothing  compares to the utter brutality experienced by Europe’s Jewry during the Nazi years of World War II. At the beginning of the war, when Hitler’s German army occupied Prague, there were some 92,000 Jews living in this section of the city. But by the end of World War II, nearly 60,000 of those Jews had been killed, many of them in concentration camps, like Auschwitz, in neighboring Poland to the north. Today, less than 5,000 Jews live in Prague, though ironically the Jewish Quarter in Prague is considered to be the “hip” place to live in the city.

Just one more example of antisemitism on display in Prague’s history….. The following photo is one of many statues that populate the sides of the Charles Bridge, one of the most iconic places in all of the Europe, where many thousands of visitors walk across every year. At first glance, you see a picture of the crucified Jesus. As a Christian, I was quite impressed with this… until I looked a bit closer, and learned the whole story behind it. The sculpture itself has  gone through several revisions over the centuries.

Calvary Statue. Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic. Original metal versions, 1657. Sandstone figures off to the sides, 1861. Bronze plaques added in 2000. More information here. (photo credit: Clarke Morledge)

 

If you look closer, the head of Christ is surrounded with Hebrew letters. The rough translation into English is “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts,” from the Jewish prayer, the Kedushah.

In my ignorance as a Christian, this is a pretty interesting and encouraging thing to see…  until you hear the backstory about it.  In 1696, a Jewish community leader, Elias Backoffen, was forced to pay for the gold-plated lettering, as a punishment for an alleged act of blasphemy, committed by another Jewish businessman. In other words, this was not a voluntary act of devotion to Christ, but rather it was a forced act of humiliation, for which Prague’s Jews had to look at for the next 300 years whenever they crossed the Charles Bridge, over the Vltava River.

In 2000, bronze plaques were affixed below the crucifix (hard to read from the photo), with explanatory text in Czech, English and Hebrew. In English, they roughly say, “‘The addition to the statue of the Hebrew inscription and the explanatory texts from 1696 is the result of improper court proceedings against Elias Backoffen, who was accused of mocking the Holy Cross.’ The addition to the Hebrew inscription, ‘which represents a very important expression of faith in the Jewish tradition, was supposed to humiliate the Jewish Community.’ It is signed ‘The City of Prague.’

Wow.

Some might protest that leaving these reminders of antisemitism up for public display is a bad idea, that they “celebrate” beliefs and behaviors that most everyone in a post-Hitler world would find abhorrent. I disagree. Rather, they should remain available for people to see for the exact opposite reason: that they should remind us that sinful humanity has the awful tendency to forget the sins of previous generations, and thereby end up repeating those same sins later on.

It is difficult to understand how such blatant acts of antisemitism went unanswered for centuries in a land which was so dominated by Christian devotion, along with its impressive church architecture, drawing one’s attention to the Glory of God. Anglican theologian Gerald McDermott has a response to this that I find quite helpful. A lot of our Bible translations have given rise to the wrong ideas about the Jews of Jesus’ day. While we all know that Jesus was indeed a Jew, he received a lot of opposition from the “Jews.”

In one rather unsettling passage, Jesus says to the “Jews” who challenge him:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:43-44 ESV).

It is passages like these that were badly misinterpreted, often taken out of context and prompted various church goers in medieval Europe to call out “the Jews” as “Christ-killers,” as they exited their churches to go taunting their Jewish neighbors.

But professor McDermott makes the point that misleading Bible translations have been a big part of the problem. For example, the phrase “the Jews,” as found in many of these passages in various translations comes from the Greek term, “Iudaioi.” That word can also be translated as “Judeans,” that is, in this context, the leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea.

When Jesus had his earthly ministry, many Jews lived all across the Roman Empire, and not just in “Judea,” proper. Furthermore, to speak of “Judeans” is lot like talking about those in Washington, D.C., who make decisions for Americans. It simply is not true that the American political statespersons in Washington D.C. represent the viewpoints of everyone living in Washington. In the same way, it makes better sense to translate “Iudaioi” as “Jewish leaders,” instead of the overly broad designation as “the Jews.” Besides, nearly all of the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews themselves, in contrast with the Jewish leaders in Judea, who opposed Jesus’ ministry.

Consider therefore, the immediately following passage from John 8, which in the ESV reads:

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48 ESV).

Professor McDermott’s suggestion is that we modify “the Jews” translation of “Iudaioi” with better clarity as “the Jewish leaders” instead:

The Jewish leaders answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48).

Not only does a reading like this avoid the stain of antisemitism, it makes better sense when reading the passage. It avoids the temptation to want to lump all Jews in the same category, when the Gospels make it abundantly clear that many Jews were indeed, not only sympathetic, but also enthusiastic followers of Jesus as their Messiah.

For years, I tended to dismiss complaints from non-Christians that Christianity harbored antisemitic elements in certain elements of the faith. After all, anyone who is truly Christian would never be antisemitic. My reasoning had been that opponents of Christianity will say and do anything to discredit the Gospel, including making false charges of “antisemitism.” There is still some truth to this, as some critics of the Christian faith will tend to focus on antisemitism as a reason for rejecting the Christian faith outright, which is not a fair representation of what most Christians have believed over the centuries.

About four years ago, I read and reviewed several books that touched on this topic, Joel Richardson’s When a Jew Rules the World, and in tandem, Paula Fredriksens’ magisterial Augustine and the Jews, along with a shorter work, Barry Horner’s Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged. I admit that a lot of the points raised in those works about anti-Judaic teachings being promoted at various times in church history seemed fairly suspicious to me. But after this year’s visit to Europe, and seeing quite a bit of this antisemitic history for myself, I find myself more grieved by such occasional teachings by even some of my favorite theological heroes. Such writing and preaching enabled antisemitic thinking, at least among certain segments of the Christian community, more so than I had imagined before.

While it helps to always remind ourselves that Jesus was a Jew, and that his most prominent followers in those early years, like the Apostle Paul, were Jews as well, we should do more than that, and be more vigilant in rooting out anti-Judaic sentiments as Christians. It is quite evident that Jews and Christians have a number of differing beliefs, as genuine Christians believe that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah of the Jews, and that traditional Jews are still waiting for their Messiah to come, and therefore reject Christian claims about Jesus’ messianic status.

This is obviously a significant theological barrier that simply can not be ignored or waved off as unimportant. We should never trivialize such differences. I still want to engage my Jewish friends with the claims of the Gospel that Jesus is indeed that True Messiah that they have been waiting for these many, many generations. Many “Messianic Jews” and “Completed Jews,” as they are sometimes called, have come to discover that wonderful truth about Jesus.

But this is a far cry from the sad examples from church history, where Jews have been forced to live in segregated communities, expelled from cities, and having their cemeteries destroyed, all in the name of promoting certain extreme preachings popularized in certain segments of the Christian world. Being forced to pay for and sponsoring works of Christian art, that spring not from a voluntary act of worship, but rather as way of humiliating people, is something that we as believers should strongly condemn. Even if a popular rapper spreads lies about Jewish people, we as followers of the True Messiah, should take no part in such coarse and unguarded speech.

Instead, we should lovingly point others to the way of humility in following after Jesus, and giving God all of the honor and the glory and the praise, and not allow our petty agendas to distort how we view others, for whom our Savior and Lord died.

 


Defenestration of Prague & The Thirty Years War

My wife and I had the privilege of traveling in Europe for three weeks. Six countries: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Italy. Seven, if you include an airplane switch in Zurich, Switzerland.

The main event was to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau, in southern Germany. But it was followed by an 8-day cruise down the Danube, from Regensburg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. But what I want to blog about here is something I saw the next three days after the cruise, while touring in Prague, in the Czech Republic. So, make this the third post, in a multipart series looking at church history in Europe.

The Defenestration Window, at Prague Castle, where the Thirty Years War began. Several Roman Catholic representatives of the royal governorship were pushed out of the top window of this building, in protest over mistreatment of Protestant subjects.

The Prague Castle is a large complex of buildings overlooking the capital city of today’s Czech Republic, Prague. I had to ask our Czech guide where to find this particular spot, but I was interested in learning where the Thirty Years War technically started. I found it and took the snapshot above.

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated Europe. For nearly a century after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door at the Wittenberg Church, the Protestant Reformation led to upheaval nearly all over the continent. Europe became divided between Roman Catholic and Protestant areas. The basic way this all happened was that each particular monarch or city-state would essentially declare what form of Christian worship would be permitted within that particular territory.

This was several centuries before the American Founding Fathers enshrined the concept of religious freedom within a governing document, so there was no room for dissension from any government decision. In other words, whatever the government decided the form of worship should be in a particular territory, then people living in that territory must comply…. or else!

But by 1618, the whole solution became unmanageable. For example, let us say that one particular sovereign declared their land or country to be Roman Catholic. There still were wealthy landowners in that country who were persuaded of the Protestant cause. Would they be forced to worship in a Roman Catholic Church? What about church lands that were being stewarded by certain benefactors? Would the right to earn monies from farming being done on those lands be taken away from benefactors with Protestant convictions?  The same type of questions would come up for Roman Catholics living in Protestant areas.

Once one’s personal convictions began to impact the pocketbook, then frustration easily resulted. It did and had serious consequences in 1618, when political power brokers got involved. Some 7% of the land in Central Europe was at one time property of the medieval church, much of it stewarded by church benefactors, which fits in this ambiguous category, which caused all sorts of tension throughout Europe.

The tension came to a head when a group of Protestant landowners met with royal governing authorities representing the Habsburg royal family, who were advocates for the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation efforts in Bohemia, surrounding Prague. Protestantism had grown greatly in Bohemia, dating back to the days of Jan Hus and his protests in the early 15th century. Instead, the Habsburgs wanted to reinstitute Roman Catholic worship throughout their realm, and Prague was under the domain of the soon-to-be new Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II. Several Protestant leaders protested against the Habsburg policies and were subsequently arrested. When the Habsburg governors were challenged to release the prisoners, the governors refused to budge.

On May 23, 1618, these Protestant landowners staged a mass demonstration at Prague Castle. They argued with the royal governors, and pushed three Roman Catholic representatives out the third story of window of Prague Castle (above where I am standing in the photo above). This is known as one of the Defenestrations of Prague, in which “defenestrate” means to push someone out of a window.

Depiction of the Defenestration of Prague that precipitated the start of the Thirty Years War.

To the benefit of the victims, they survived the fall. My guide told me one version of the story, that they were saved by landing in a pile of manure at the bottom of the building below the window. That is probably the Protestant version of the story, as another version says that the Virgin Mary miraculously intervened and saved the men from their deaths. Nevertheless, and needless to say, the Roman Catholic governing authorities were not thrilled by this action. Both sides left the meeting intent on building up armies.

Two years later, the Protestant forces were defeated at the Battle of White Mountain, which effectively ended the Protestant revolt in Bohemia. But it was merely the first of many conflicts throughout Central Europe. Eventually, the Thirty Years War evolved from being a Protestant/Catholic conflict to a very complicated affair with alliances that crossed confessional boundaries, intent on settling old scores and exacerbating rivalries. Armies as far as Sweden rushed in across Central Europe, spreading disease with the troop movements, even threatening the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau (the topic of the first blog post in this series).

By the time the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, very little had changed in terms of who controlled what and where. The whole region was exhausted of war. Religious concerns gave way to nationalistic concerns, as the unity of the Holy Roman Empire had effectively crumbled, and different nation/states had formed all across Europe.

Roughly one out of four Europeans had been killed by either disease or battle. Tired of religious disputes, the European world had by then become preoccupied with nationalistic aims and concerns, and the days of European colonialism were in full swing, as new areas across the world, from India to the Americas, gained the attention of Europeans hoping to extend the influence of their native lands and cultures… and take their minds off of intra-European issues. Europe would not experience another major military calamity until Napoleon campaigned across these same lands in the name of Enlightenment nationalism in the early 19th century.

Gone were the days when a united Christian faith, at least under the oversight of the church in Rome, held the glue together for Western society. Denominationalism has since become the defining factor of the Western church.

You can still feel a sense of the Thirty Years War’s impact in the Czech Republic. Another Czech tour guide told me that there is a tragic connection between the religious strife of the Thirty Years War and the loss of Christian faith among most Czech people. For example, according to a 2021 census, for 70 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 48 percent held none, 10 percent were Roman Catholic, 13 percent listed no specific religion, and 9 percent identified with a variety of religious faiths, Protestant evangelical being among that last group. For a country which was once the cradle of Gospel-driven Christianity in Europe in the 15th century, that is a sad statistic.

Lessons learned: denominationalism was never intended by God to happen in Christ’s church. But the combination of denominationalism and forced religious observance of a particular denomination is a recipe for disaster. Be thankful for religious freedom!! Nevertheless, we should use that freedom to engage in dialogue with other believers in Jesus, who do not read the Bible exactly the way we do. Better to learn how to have “impossible conversations” than trying to settle theological and worldview issues with weapons that kill!!!

My “postcard” photo of Prague Castle, looking across the river, with the famous Charles Bridge in front. Click on the photo to get the full impact. You can make out the “defenestration” window, just below the middle of where the cathedral is.


Prague’s Jan Hus: The Reformation Before Luther

One of the things I was excited about visiting Prague the most was learning more about Jan Hus. On this Reformation Day, I thought it appropriate to remember Jan Hus, and make a second blog post about the trip that my wife and I took to Europe this past October, to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany.

Jan Hus Memorial in the Old Town Square. Prague, Czech Republic.

Jan Hus is a hero in the modern day Czech Republic. Czechs remember him as a courageous individual who stood up against the system. Hus was crushed for his efforts, but a lot Czech history was about being crushed by institutional powers. The story of Hus has inspired resistance efforts in the pursuit of freedom. At the end of World War One, the Czechs were able to throw off centuries of rule by the Habsburg Empire, which included an imposed Roman Catholicism and closing of Protestant churches. In 1938, the Western powers abandoned the Czech nation and delivered it into the hands of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, for the sake of an appeasement that never lasted. After that war, the Czechs eventually threw off the yoke of the Communist Soviet Union, by the early 1990s. Jan Hus has been an inspiration during each cycle.

Sadly, the Christian convictions that underpinned the spirit of Jan Hus have often been neglected in the story. In the early 15th century, Jan Hus was a priest who was able to get his hands on the writings of John Wycliffe. Wycliffe exposed Hus to the very ideas that eventually captivated the mind and heart of the German Reformer, Martin Luther, almost exactly one hundred years later.

However, the printing press had not been invented yet. It would be another 40 years before the Gutenberg Bible would roll off the first printing press. Luther used the new media technology, the 16th century version of the Internet’s social media, to great effect. Jan Hus, on the other hand, had no such media outlet. With no 15th century equivalent of Twitter or Instagram available to him, Jan Hus had very little resources available to advance his message.

The monument stands as a symbol for resistance in the face of tyranny…. but it also stands for the principles of the Reformation, for the Scriptures that Jan Hus sought to teach the people.

In 1414, the popular Prague preacher was summoned to the Council of Constance, to report on what he had been teaching the people of Prague in his sermons. Hus was given a promise of safe conduct, that he not be harmed if he appeared before the council to defend his views about the Bible. He had been preaching to the people in the native Czech language, and not in Latin. He had championed the full authority of the Scriptures, and spoke out against church traditions that he believe contradicted the Bible. He taught that no bishop or pope had the right to call up men to take up arms against others in the name of the church, a direct critique of the Crusading mentality. He believed that Christians should be able to take communion in both kinds, the bread and the wine. He spoke out against indulgences. In many ways, Jan Hus was the Luther before Luther.

For these type of things, Jan Hus was deemed a heretic at the Council of Constance, which forfeited him the right of safe passage to Constance. Hus had been deceived. So much for such promises, heh??  On July 6, 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake.

Hus’ Czech listeners back in Prague were furious. What followed was the Hussite Wars, and eventually the Bohemian church enjoyed a measure of autonomy within the medieval church, joining up to a certain degree with the Protestant efforts of the German and Swiss Reformers, a hundred years later.

As our time in Prague was near the end of our trip to Europe, I was not able to make it over to Jan Hus’ church, Bethlehem Chapel. But I did get to see the great monument sculptured in his honor. The work of the artist, Ladislav Šaloun, was officially unveiled in the main town square of Prague, at the end of World War I, when the first Czech Republic was founded. The sculpture was completed just a few years earlier, at the 500th anniversary of Hus’ martyrdom (1915).

Ironically, the monument in the square stands between two large churches. One church had been a Protestant church, which is now Roman Catholic, and the other had been a Roman Catholic church, and is now Protestant. The main message carved in the monument is “Truth Prevails.”

Though Jan Hus was surely a forerunner to the Protestant Reformation, he differed from the later Reformers on certain matters. While his theological mentor, John Wycliffe, denied the medieval Western doctrine of transubstantiation, Jan Hus was actually okay with transubstantiation. Hus affirmed the real presence of Christ in the communion elements, but he was adamant that Christians be given the opportunity to receive both the bread AND the wine in the Lord’s Supper, in a day when the church generally withheld the wine from the congregation.

So, in some ways, Hus occupied a middle ground between Roman Catholicism and the later 16th century Reformers, like Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther, who all rejected transubstantiation, but who moreover differed among themselves regarding how to think of the Last Supper. In this sense, Hus stands as a model for seeing a type of third-way through the Roman Catholic / Protestant divide. See my previous blogs posts about Jan Hus on Veracity (#1 and #2) for more.

Regardless of what one thinks about the nature of the Last Supper, it is clear that many of the reforms that Jan Hus argued for were surely needed in the medieval church. Sadly, Jan Hus came along at a time when the church was not completely ready to hear his message. However, in 1999, a symposium on Hus was held in Rome where Pope John Paul II issued a historic apology for his “cruel death” and praised him for his “moral courage.”On this Reformation Day, we would do well to consider the contribution of Jan Hus to restore our faith to a truly Biblical Christianity.

Several messages are displayed, but the one at the front is roughly translated: “You love the truth that everybody desires”


Oberammergau – The Passion Play

My wife and I originally planned to spend our 20th wedding anniversary a year early by taking a trip to Europe to view the Passion Play in Oberammergau, in southern Germany. COVID delayed all of those plans, but we were able to go this year when the Passion Play was rescheduled for 2022.

I learned about Oberammergau from my mom’s cousin, Lee Southard, who went to see the Passion Play when it was presented in 2010.  He told me that we should definitely make an effort to go see it. Lee was right.

The Oberammergau production does not allow photography during the performance, so I got this from their website. The Passion Play, performed once every ten years in Oberammergau, southern Germany, is an incredibly moving experience.

As the legendary story goes, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated the whole of continental Europe. Originally, the Thirty Years War had its genesis in the conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (a topic which I will cover in a future blog post). During that period, armies criss-crossed Central Europe in an attempt to redefine national boundaries, at least originally along theological commitment lines, though it got more complicated as time wore on. But along with these armies came the plague.

In 1633, the plague finally struck the small village of Oberammergau, nestled in the foothills of the southern Germany’s Alps. Half of the village’s population, about 81, died within about a month. The fathers of the village vowed that if God would spare the town further deaths that they would put on a “Passion Play,” retelling the last week of Jesus’ life, once every 10 years, as long as the town would endure.

From that moment on, there was no more death from the plague in Oberammergau.

Passion plays have been part of European history for a long time, but what makes Oberammergau unique is how these townspeople kept this pledge. Despite some fudgy-ness with the above details, Obermmergau kept their pledge, by ultimately settling on performing the play once every decadal year. Only a few times, such as around World War I and II, did they miss or delay their performance. When COVID hit in early 2020, they postponed the play until 2022. Other than that, once a decade, you can visit Oberammergau and witness the performance. Thousands travel from all over the world to see the play.

 

Oberammergau is a small town in Bavaria, Southern Germany, with a big name. Thousands come every ten years for the Passion Play (My wife is standing off in the corner, to the right)


You have to be a resident of Oberammergau to perform in the play, which means that nearly everyone is an amateur… hundreds of them! Plus, there are live animals going across the stage (including camels!!), and everyone wears long hair, with terrific costuming. The play is 5-hours in length, with a dinner intermission in the late afternoon. But the familiar story is so gripping the way it is presented, it does not feel like you are there quite that long. It helped to have an English copy of the script in hand, as all of the dialogue is in German.

My wife and I caught the last weekend of the performance in early October, and as the theater is open air, it got pretty cold. I got a head cold that very night as a result. This was the first stop on a Viking tour that she and I took, that concluded with an 8-day cruise down the Danube from Regensburg to Budapest (more blogs articles on that to come!).

The most controversial part of the play is the history surrounding how anti-semitism made its way into the play script over the centuries. Adolf Hitler saw the play and loved it when it was performed in the off year of 1934, so that might tell you something. Hitler’s review went like this: “It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans.” 

Yikes.

Not too long after Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church called for changes to be made to the Passion Play. A new young director, Christian Stückl, in 1986 assumed the task of revising the script, that had remained largely unchanged since the early 19th century. Over the past thirty years or so, efforts have been made to rid the story of anti-semitic elements not found in the Gospels, and I think they did a very good job in doing so. The current version makes it clear that while the Jewish leadership, symbolized by the office of the Jewish High Priest, engineered the fate of Jesus, it was the Roman government, through the office of Pontius Pilate who possessed the actual power to crucify in first-century Judea.

The most challenging and frankly refreshing interpretation for me was in the portrayal of Judas Iscariot. In the Oberammergau interpretation, Judas is contrasted with Peter a lot. Peter comes off like you would think he would, someone who has great confidence in Jesus, but then who shamefully denies Jesus when things get tough, three times.

The Oberammergau stage prior to the beginning of the performance, around 2pm. It was a rainy, cold afternoon, so I am glad that the open-air theater had a roof!

Judas, however, comes across differently than I had thought of him before, but I think Oberammergau got it right. Judas is portrayed as a Zealot, who was trying to force Jesus to reveal himself as the militant Messiah, ready to pick up the Davidic banner and exert his Kingship and kick the Romans out of Palestine. Judas goes to the Jewish leadership, looking for a way to force Jesus to act, by pointing out Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. But when Jesus fails to act and it looks like execution lies ahead for Jesus, Judas realizes that he had made a huge mistake. Judas confronts the High Priest, Caiaphas, for deceiving him, but the damage was already done. Judas cannot forgive himself, and rejects the offer of silver pieces from the Jewish leadership as irrelevant in his struggle with guilt. Instead of coming across like the Devil, Judas instead looks like a disillusioned revolutionary, who eventually commits suicide in his shame.

A lot of invented characters carry the plot along, along with additional plot elements to tie the story together. Advisors to Caiaphas, the High Priest, have dialogues that show the precarious situation that the Jewish leadership was in. Jesus had to be stopped for if Jesus did reveal himself as the full-blown military Messiah, then surely the Roman government would come in and crush the Jews, including their leadership. Faced between the alternatives of having Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans (which ultimately happened in 70 A.D., anyway), versus derailing Jesus’ public ministry, Caiaphas felt he had no other choice but the latter.

At the crucifixion, Mary cradles the dead Jesus, a tip towards Roman Catholic theology regarding Mary.

As a break between scenes, a choir came out, supplemented by a great orchestra, and different still scenes from the Old Testament were displayed and described in song, that really helped to frame the story of Christ’s Passion. The banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the story of Cain and Abel, and various scenes from the Exodus with Moses really stood out for me.

About 10:30pm at night, the drama of the Passion Play comes to a close. The stage is left with the empty cross.

In a surprise twist at the end, the Passion Play does not give us a Resurrected visit from Jesus. The play basically follows the brief outline given by the Gospel of Mark, which has no appearance of the Resurrected Jesus, only an Empty Tomb (unless you read from a King James Version Bible). Once Jesus is buried after the Crucifixion, we never see Jesus again, and yet the message of the angel at the tomb gives the women hope and confidence that Jesus is indeed alive. Just like modern interpretations of the passion, like the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus is never presented in visible form.

The evangelical theological convictions in me finds this to be immensely disappointing, since without a Resurrection appearance, the whole story misses the whole point. Though one could argue that it would be difficult to do justice in making some believable Resurrection appearance work in a live stage production, without it feeling a bit hokey. About a month before we were in Oberammergau, New Testament theologian Ben Witherington saw the play and walked away with a similar perspective.

Aside from that, the whole production was great. The dinner meal was a total bonus as well. Plus, my wife and I had great seats! Just a few rows from the front, and we could see everything. So glad we did this! Your next chance will be in 2030.

MORE BLOG POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

  • Prague’s Jan Hus: The Reformation Before Luther. Towards the end of our trip in Europe, we spent a few days in Prague, the home city for Jan Hus, the most prominent forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.
  • Defenestration of Prague & the Thirty Years War. The Thirty Years War of the first half of the 17th century devastated Europe. The amount of destruction to impact Europe would only be rivaled by the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, and the two World Wars of the 20th century. Sadly, what started it all was the conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism…. and it all began in Prague, Czech Republic.

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