the heliand

on christ’s arrest in the garden of gethsemane from the gospel of luke 22:39-51 (the revised standard version):

“Jesus went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed…. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, ‘Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?’ And when those who were about him saw what would follow, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his [right] ear. But Jesus said: ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.”

and the same (sorta!) story from the heliand, an old saxon poem from the early 800s commissioned to aid in the conversion of the saxons on the continent to christianity (“Song 57: Christ’s Deep Fear Before Battle, His Last Salute in the Garden” and “Song 58: Christ the Cheiftain is Captured, Peter the Mighty Swordsman Defends Him Boldly”):

“Christ’s warrior companions saw warriors coming up the mountain making a great din, angry armed men. Judas the hate-filled man was showing them the way. The enemy clan, the Jews, were marching behind. The warriors marched forward, the grim Jewish army, until they had come to Christ. There he stood, the famous chieftain. Christ’s followers, wisemen 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 their spearpoints, wounded by their weapons, then nothing would be so good to us as to die here, pale from mortal wounds, for our chieftain.’ Then Simon Peter, the mighty, the noble swordman, 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 thegn, 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 in his hands, so that Malcous 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 the mortal wound. Blood gushed out, pouring from the wound. The men stood back. They were afraid of the slash of the sword.”


pre-christian germanics were clannish. very clannish!

presumably, this is the sort of thing discussed by james russell in his The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, another book which i haven’t read.

here’s jesus the warrior for you, from the stuttgart psalter, also from the early 800s:


btw, i transcribed those passages from lecture 15 of the Early Middle Ages audio course from The Great Courses. excellent course!

(note: comments do not require an email. jedi jesus.)



  1. Although, in the Bible, Jesus is strikingly unclannish, which begs the question of how Christianity could become so popular early at a time when most people were clannish.


  2. @staffan – “…how Christianity could become so popular early at a time when most people were clannish.”

    yes. i’ve been wondering about that, too. hmmmm. =/


  3. Didn’t it mostly spread among the least clannish sorts at first though: the upper classes of the Empire.


  4. Before Jesus and unto this day, there have been people who believed that there could be universal brotherhood. It hasn’t always worked out, but some people still try (and dream).


  5. Universal brotherhood don’t enner inoo it. That is a modern idea being imposed on the past. (Rather Western, and even more especially North American.) Jesus’s message, to use the language common here, was that people should leave their old clans and join the new one. All were eligible (that took awhile to sink in), which was universality of a sort, but the elimination of clans in general and cooperation among them was irrelevant.

    If, instead of imagining this Jesus in the context of our modern conception of him, one picks up the gospels and tries on this New Clan garment, one will see that it fits better than any thought of “Hey, now the Jews, and Romans, and Samaritans can all live together in harmony!” Only those who left those clans to seek the kingdom he preached were considered to come into a brotherhood.

    Jesus was in that sense very clannish. Hard as it is to imagine, all those youth pastors in 1960’s coffee houses got it wrong.


  6. Christianity was established as a religion in the context of big Roman cities. In that social environment, clannishness was probably weak and people were receptive for universalist ideas. Clannishness seems to be strong in the periphery.


  7. Mohammed was also very unclannish, violent, but idealistic and very universalist. More like a international communist than a sectarian leader.

    Maybe you guys are forgetting that religious leaders are *special* characters, unlike the people of their tribe. Indeed unlike the vast majority of humanity.

    Maybe there is a religious leader “gene” ?


  8. AVI

    I have my Bible (KJV) to read and interpret for myself. You read your Bible and do the same. Problem solved. And was solved several hundred years ago.


  9. @kamran – “Mohammed was also very unclannish, violent, but idealistic and very universalist. More like a international communist than a sectarian leader.”

    yes. i wouldn’t say he was very unclannish, but he was certainly less clannish than other arabs of his day, and much less clannish than the najdi arabs of saudi arabia today. i speculated (speculated!) before that maybe the hejazi arabs of the red sea coast (mohammed’s arabs) were less inbred than the arabs of inner-arabia. dunno for sure at all about that, though. that’s speculation based on some sparse historic info.

    @kamran – “Maybe you guys are forgetting that religious leaders are *special* characters, unlike the people of their tribe. Indeed unlike the vast majority of humanity. Maybe there is a religious leader ‘gene’?

    yes! undoubtedly! (^_^) (sets of genes, obv.)


  10. For the record, I would join that church. This new, warrior disciple of simon peter, I love it.


  11. Maybe there is a religious leader “gene” ?

    It is more likely that there are “leadership” genes and some leaders make greater or lesser use of religion to accomplish their goals.


  12. In fact, as a Jew, Jesus was quite clannish. See for example, Mark 7: 24-30, where he refers to a Canaanite woman (non-Jew) as a dog:

    21Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. 23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. 28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

    I note in passing (since heliand is only one letter away from Helian, a poem by Georg Trakl), that he also wrote Menschheit (Mankind), a poem with a theme similar to that addressed here, and which also illustrates a theme I believe you’ve spoken of before, the tendency of some people to perceive colors as things or symbols:

    Menschheit vor Feuerschlünden aufgestellt,
    Ein Trommelwirbel, dunkler Krieger Stirnen,
    Schritte durch Blutnebel; schwarzes Eisen schellt,
    Verzweiflung, Nacht in traurigen Gehirnen:
    Hier Evas Schatten, Jagd und rotes Geld.
    Gewölk, das Licht durchbricht, das Abendmahl.
    Es wohnt in Brot und Wein ein sanftes Schweigen
    Und jene sind versammelt zwölf an Zahl.
    Nachts schrein im Schlaf sie unter Ölbaumzweigen;
    Sankt Thomas taucht die Hand ins Wundenmal.

    The “official” English translation is horribly botched. It actually goes something like this:

    Mankind stands before the fire abyss,
    A roll of drums, dark warriors foreheads,
    Steps through a blood fog; black iron rings,
    Despair, night in dark minds,
    Here Eve’s shadow, the hunt, and red money,
    Clouds, through which the light is breaking, the last supper,
    There dwell in bread and wine a soft silence,
    And they are gathered, twelve in number,
    At night they scream in their sleep under olive trees;
    Saint Thomas dips his hand in the wound.

    Trakl never wrote of colors merely as colors. For example, the “red” money refers to the 30 pieces of silver. Every color has a symbolic meaning.


  13. One of the funniest remarks in a history of the Dark Ages that I read once was to the effect that the Germans didn’t like the hard work of clearing woodland for agriculture: they preferred to let someone else clear it, and then steal it.


  14. Cracker1, I would contend that none of us interprets for ourselves (and at this linguistic distance, particularly not from KJV), but are taught things which we move from only slowly. Universality is a new enough idea that it could not have occurred to us until fairly recently (by historical standards). I see it as strongly influenced by 1st, the transnationalism of the medieval church and 2nd, the enlightenment/marxist/utopian strains around 1800. Depending on your Christology, Jesus might have been able to think it, and an occasional visionary from the early church onward may have grasped parts of it. But universalism was not thinkable until…well, not commonly until America, and not even there very well. It seems natural to those of us who grew up with a UN in the world.

    The Heliand is not an unusual north germanic concept that had a humorous crash with a universalist gospel a thousand years ago. It is in fact what the gospel encountered everywhere it went, up until the present day. This is how every group understood Jesus for a long time after first hearing about him. Try Matthew 10-12, 18, 19; Mark 3, and from memory, I am thinking Luke 7 and 10, John 7 and 10. I first came across this from a NT online course out of Gordon-Conwell. It took me by surprise, but I have come to agree with it.


  15. AVI

    The army of Ramses seconded the prayer of the herald that the Egyptians and Hittites should henceforward be “brothers together”.

    We disagree as to when the impulse for universalism can be discerned.

    “Those of us who grew up with a UN”

    I grew up being taught that the UN was a direct threat to my political freedom. Or maybe that was just my interpretation if I could have had one.


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