Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bruce J. Krajewski reviews St. Matthew Passion

Hans BlumenbergSt. Matthew Passion, trans. Helmut Müller-Sievers and Paul Fleming. New York: Cornell University Press, 2021. 246 pp.

Review by Bruce J. Krajewski

15 December 2021

Hans Blumenberg settles scores—musical and otherwise—in this latest anglophone translation of St. Matthew Passion (1988). As a self-described “heretic,” Blumenberg takes on the “arrogance of the theologians,” the poor reading habits of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “weakness,” and the apostolic airheads who comprise team Jesus (pp. 20, 50, 146):

Jesus assembled a “crew” that was singularly unsuited for its task: people who until the very end did not quite know what the point of it all was except for an attractive kingdom of God. Who scampered off in all directions when the entry into Jerusalem did not go as planned. Whose knowledge of scripture apparently was not sufficient for them to be able to understand that everything had been prophesied. For whom everything had to happen just as it did, and only because it all “arrived” so precisely was the one whom they never ceased to doubt vindicated.” [p. 118]

Not all the attacks are unsubtle. For example, the opening section is a not-so-veiled slap to the person Anselm Haverkamp calls Blumenberg’s “most intimate enemy,” Hans-Georg Gadamer.[1] Blumenberg goes after Gadamer’s signature “fusion of horizons,” an allegedly liberatory image from Truth and Method (1960) at which Blumenberg scoffs.[2] Enacting the “fusion of horizons” results in “childlike disappointment” (p. 1). “Every such effort simply opens up a new, equally unapproachable field of vision” (p. 1).

Trained in theology by Jesuits, Blumenberg’s talents for parsing scripture are on full display. He knows that Jesus’s words are conserved in a language Jesus didn’t know (see p. 149). Blumenberg’s God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Creation is an experiment by a bored deity (see pp. 64–65). “God did not know what he was doing when he created the world” (p. 91).  Furthermore, this creation must be “suppressed” in the history of salvation (p. 128). The inhabitants of creation must remain obedient slaves even in the afterlife, perpetually subject to judgment (see p. 42). Free will? It is to laugh—not the only point intended for Christians in general. In Blumenberg’s macho commentary, the Hebrew Bible along with the synoptic Gospels constitute a grand slave narrative in which Christian freedom is a delusion.

To follow Blumenberg, readers adopt naturally, given our historical distance from the Gospels, the long-haul Jesus over the apocalypse-is-just-around-the-corner Jesus who disappointed Judas and others waiting for Jesus to lead a political revolt. Robert Eisler argued in The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (1931) that Jesus secretly armed his followers and led them to Jerusalem. As Gershom Scholem explains in his book on Walter Benjamin, Eisler was “an astonishing figure in the world of scholarship” and “one of the most learned historians of religion.”[3] Eisler reinterpreted the entire New Testament as a heavily distorted narrative about a Jewish holy man seeking to lead a rebellion against the Roman occupation.

“A work of religious rhetoric,” Bach’s oratorio “reflects perhaps the greatest failing of the Christian tradition: to let Jesus’s susceptibility to temptation stand in its full ‘realism’” (pp. 53, 148). Bach’s St. Matthew Passion matters to Germans in ways that it wouldn’t for most in this translation’s audience, say, the way that The Beatles matter for Liverpool but not for Little Rock. Still, Blumenberg believes the St. Matthew Passion can make “unbelievers in our time understand the Passion as a provocation against justice and reason” (p. 184). Unbelievers reach the end of Bach’s work feeling it’s all over, “no new impositions”; “the listeners are released” (pp. 185, 86).

Opting for comprehension over pomposity, the translators have managed beautifully the enormous shifts in Blumenberg’s sometimes taxing prose: compound sentences weighted down with abstractions interspersed with summative aphorisms. The translators offer readers both senses of “passion,” suffering and enthusiasm, a kind of enlargement of humanity that parallels the still-unscrolling story Blumenberg tells (p. 231).


[1] Anselm Haverkamp, “Nothing Fails like Success Poetics and Hermeneutics—A Postwar Initiative by Hans Blumenberg,” MLN 130 (Dec. 2015): 1224.

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York, 2013), p. 350.

[3] Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1981), p. 159.