Can an Action Invalidate a Life’s Work?

Yesterday, UPS dropped a heavy box on my front porch. Inside, I found something I’ve wanted to own for quite some time: the ten-volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. This incredibly dense publication goes into excruciating depth on virtually every word used in the New Testament. As an example, the entry on logos (and all the related words) from John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the logos or word”) runs to more than 60 pages. Yes, I’m a nerd.

Rather than reading some random entry in it this afternoon, I decided to find out a little bit about the scholar who produced this thing. Frankly, I should have spent my time reading that random entry.

53817dc4d487b6fbb1b57529cd095eb0Gerhard Kittel, it seems, despite being an amazingly brilliant and productive scholar, had this slight issue. He was a Nazi. And this guy apparently wasn’t just a join-the-party-to-advance-the-career Nazi. He served the party in the creation of propaganda, including materials dealing with the “Jewish Question.” In his defense, Kittel wasn’t ushering Jews into gas chambers, but he was, pretty much without question, part of the problem rather than being neutral or part of the solution.

So my question is this: Does Kittel’s bad action invalidate his good scholarly work? Before you answer, keep in mind that the Old Testament work that Kittel performed serves as the foundation for every modern Bible translation. If you want to reject all his fruits, then you most likely have to put your Bible away.

If the answer is that Kittel’s Nazi sins do not invalidate his scholarship, then how far must a person go before they are rejected totally? We’ve all noticed that Bill Cosby has pretty much disappeared from public display. Are his shows no longer funny? Do they not, despite his misdeeds, still portray positive images?

This question might seem a bit abstract. After all, I don’t get to decide whether Bill Cosby’s or Roseanne’s shows remain in syndication, and the Nazi background of Kittel could remain hidden if I didn’t Google inconveniently. But of course this question is quite essential as it asks us if anyone is truly innocent enough to be taken seriously or, looked at from the other end of things, if anyone makes it through life without transgressions that render them persona non grata.

The Christian response, I would insist, is that no one is beyond the redemption of God, whether their sin comes at the beginning or the end of life’s path. Moses killed a man early and David killed a man in the middle of life. Neither was rendered useless by this heinous action. And as for Professor Kittel? I’ll use his work and let God deal with the “Jewish Question.”