The Missionary Approach of the Heliand


I first became familiar with the Heliand, the Saxon Gospel, through reading a book written by Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara that defended fantasy literature as a valuable genre for Christian reading and writing. I was intrigued by how the anonymous poet transformed the Holy Land into Germanic hill-forts, presented Jesus as a heroic Saxon hero and a powerful wizard[1] (think Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings series) and turned the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into a coherent and seamless epic in the form of Beowulf[2]. Having never heard of the Heliand before, despite being a longtime fan of epic literature, I was intrigued. Clearly this was a book that merited further study.

The Heliand, in the versions we have, is a collection of 71 songs that begin with the teaching of the spell of creation to four heroes, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and end with the resurrected Christ traveling with his warrior-company of earls to Emmaus Castle. Research has indicated that there is a fine parallel structure within the Heliand, with the end of the Sermon on the Mount (song 18) coming exactly 20 songs before the center of the book, the Transfiguration (Song 38), which itself comes exactly 20 songs before Peter’s defense of Jesus on Mount Olivet[3]. From the foregoing we may gather, therefore, that the Heliand was a careful constructed (though anonymous) work of epic poetry, to be sung in mead halls to a Saxon audience.

It is the purpose of this short paper to examine the missionary purpose of the Heliand and to defend the use of the same practice of cultural communication that the Heliand represents for today. In understanding the ways in which the author of the Heliand adapted scripture in a language familiar to his Saxon audience, and in viewing the parallels that exist between his efforts and those of other Christian missionaries (from Paul to today), we may discover some ways in which the truths of scripture can be presented in a way that seeks to persuade rather than coerce an audience of a different culture than a missionary. Thus, by studying the Heliand we may come to a greater understanding of what approach we should use when interacting with those of different cultures about the truths of God.

The Re-interpretive Genius of the Heliand

The genius of the Heliand is evident when one examines how skillfully, based on a knowledge of his audience’s culture, the bard recasts the Gospel story into a Germanic epic of the top level. In examining this, let us first look at how elements of the New Testament world are transferred to a Northern European environment. Then, let us examine how the Saxons and Jews are to be identified, to allow the Saxons to feel as if they too are a part of the story of the Bible. Finally, let us examine the consequences of this cross-cultural communication on the goals of the author in furthering the spread of Christianity among the Saxon people.

For one, the Heliand shows many examples of cultural sensitivity in transferring the biblical events to the lands near the North Sea. Space permits only a brief summary of some of these elements. For one, the Holy Land is turned into a collection of hill-forts ruled over by military legates sent out from Fort Rome[4]. The shepherds who came to visit the infant Jesus are transformed into horse-servants, as shepherds were considered beneath dignity in Saxon society[5]. The Lord’s Prayer is turned into a runic spell giving magical power to the one who recites it precisely word for word, as one would in a Germanic spell[6]. Jesus is shown as a great feudal lord by the way in which he heals the affliction of the lady from a foreign clan of the Canaanites, while the Galileans, like Jesus and his twelve ‘warrior-companions’ are transformed into Northern people (Saxons) while the hostile Jews of Jerusalem are transformed into wicked Southern people[7]. Jesus’ power is demonstrated in part by his ability to foretell the grim fate of Jerusalem’s destruction, as the power of fate was considerable in pagan German religion[8]. The Sanhedrin is turned into a thing or legal assembly, while the temple in Jerusalem is transformed into a shrine, where people brought jewels, as one would in Germany at the time[9]. Jesus is portrayed as a powerful and chivalrous champion of women, as in the story of the woman caught in adultery[10]. The betrayal of Judas is made more serious by making it an act of betraying one’s own family chieftain, to whom one was bound by blood and absolute loyalty[11]. The darkness after Christ’s death includes a North Sea fog, and the Holy of Holies exposed afterwards includes a hidden treasure horde[12]. In all these ways and more the bard who wrote the Heliand was able to paint the Middle Eastern setting of the Bible and the culture of the time in a way that was accessible to the Saxon audience who listened to the songs sung in the mead halls of Saxony.

Also, the author of the Heliand skillfully wove into the story ways in which the Saxons would identify with the story as if it were talking about themselves. One way that has already been noted is that the Galileans are considered to be good “Northern people,” as the Saxons would have considered themselves. Herod is not considered a rightful king, but is rather a ruler foisted upon the conquered Jews by Fort Rome just as the legates who ruled over Saxony were foisted upon them by the “Roman” emperor who conquered them[13]. Also, Herod is considered to be a madman of an earl, whose cruelty reminds one of Charlamagne (whose cruelty threatened the Saxons)[14]. Also, the way in which the head-tax (which the Saxons were required to pay) is over and over again emphasized by author, who sympathized with the plight of the people but advised the Saxons to pay reminds the Saxons of the evils of submitting to empire and thoughtfully compares the situation of the Saxons under oppression to the Franks to the oppression of the Jews before them[15]. Also, in a way not later recognized, the author of the Heliand sought to compare the exiles among the Jews for unbelief to the exiles among the Saxons[16], though later on the Saxons’ own religious doubts an disloyalties were forgotten, and so this passage was only recognized as an insult to the Jews. Through these means the author of the Heliand placed the Saxons within the world of the Bible in a way that they could understand it from their own worldview.

What were the consequences of this skillful work? For one, the Saxons were led to conversion through persuasion rather than coercion, and were thus brought to a more lasting faith. In another way, the Saxons were taught a version of the Gospel that was relevant to their personal concerns and hostile to the establishment of despotic empires. Also, the Saxons were taught an active faith that emphasized loyalty and warrior values (but not aggression) and also that emphasized the importance of words and the power of fate. However, one must respect the skill of the author of the Heliand in skillfully bridging the gap between the Saxon culture and the truths of scripture.

The Bridge Building of Missionaries

Indeed, one may say in general that the task of a missionary is much like that of a bridge-builder. Trying to bridge the chasms between faiths, one seeks to find a common ground for communication based on the common grace that God has provided to all, where a path can be found to God’s truth because of the law that has been written in all men’s hearts. Whether one is trying to preach the truth to different cultures or different generations, the task is the same—finding those openings that allow the presentation of the gospel in language that the audience understands.

As has already been noted above, the author if the Heliand is skillful in presenting the Gospel in a way that can be understood by his audience while remaining faithful to scripture. He re-tells the Gospel story as a series of epic poems, so that the form is no longer a barrier to understanding for his Saxon audience. Then, he transforms the location from the Middle East to Northern Europe, so that his audience can visualize the Son of God as the Son of the All-Ruling Chieftain, an identity they can grasp that preserves the all-powerful nature of God in a culturally acceptable way. Through the genius of the anonymous storyteller, the Saxons were able to see aspects of God that they could understand that brought them to accept the truth of the Bible, rather than being forced to show a hypocritical faith by the superior power of the Frankish monarchy. Conversion, rather than coercion, was the wise strategy demonstrated by the Heliand.

The author of the Heliand is not alone by any means in utilizing this strategy of conversion through a skillful knowledge of the culture of the audience. Paul, for example, demonstrated his awareness of Greek culture when speaking to them on Mars Hill. In Acts 17:22-31, until his reference to the resurrection offended Greek religious sensibilities, he was able to speak to them in their own language about the true God being the Unknown God to them (a lesson from Greek history, from the Cretan Epimenides, who instructed the Athenians to build a statue to the Unknown God to stop a plague in the 6th century BC). He then chose, using a knowledge of the Greek poet Menander, to present the truth that all human beings are the offspring of God[17]. In this way Paul spoke to the Greeks as Greeks, thus allowing his audience to understand the truths of God through their own language and experience, rather than feeling as if the truth was something alien to them. Likewise, Paul again used his knowledge of the Greek philosopher Epimenides (whom Paul calls a prophet of the Cretans) to instruct Titus on the reputation of Cretans for being liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons in Titus 1:12[18]. From these examples we can see that Paul used his knowledge of the culture of his times to create a bridge from the truths of scripture to the culture of his heathen Greek audience.

Such a method is also used today in the more successful missionary efforts that have been made in such areas as New Guinea and Southeast Asia (among such people as the Karen). For example, many cultures themselves have cultural bridges that can aid their understanding of the Bible. To give a personal example, when visiting Ghana, I found that the Ashante people gave children born on Saturday the name of their Creator God, Kofi, and that on that most holy of the days of the week the Ashante people held their funerals. Without giving undue credit to heathen religion, one may at the same time note that this tribal religion preserved a vital truth about the 7th day Sabbath, which provides a bridge to biblical teaching. Missionary Don Richardson, for example, has noted that among the stone-age Sawi people of New Guinea, an understanding of Jesus Christ as the “peace child” led them to understand the serious nature of his betrayal and death[19]. In a similar fashion, the author of the Heliand called Christ God’s “Peace Child” in order to convey the same truth to his Saxon audience[20]. Apparently it is a common truth that a peace child is necessary to bring mankind to peace with the heavens, to those who are willing to take advantage of this bridge to understanding of the Bible. Likewise, other peoples, like the Karen, had religious traditions about the book of God that allowed them to respond fervently to the truths of scripture once someone could preach it to them in their own language, so fervently in fact that they sought to teach those precious truths to others[21]. Truly, the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.

Lessons For Us Today

What lessons, therefore, can we take advantage of from the author of the Heliand and from those others who have (like him) successfully preached the truths of God to previously unchurched and pagan cultures? For one, in order to effectively preach the truth of God we must have a firm understanding of the culture to which we are speaking, so that we can speak the truths of God in a language that may be understood. Second, we must be alert to aspects of that culture that are particularly amenable to analogies with the Bible. As Christ spoke in parables that took advantage of the agrarian culture of his time, so we also can speak in word-pictures about the truths of God in ways that our audience may understand, rather than try to force unfamiliar concepts which our audience will not understand and may react negatively toward. Finally, we must remember that persuasion is a better method than coercion if what we wish is genuine conversion on the part of our audience.

First, successful cross-cultural communication depends on a firm knowledge of the culture we are trying to reach. To talk down to our audience, or to insult them as barbarian, is to lose the opportunity to speak to them, because they will only hear our insults and ignore our truth. To be able to speak in the cultural idiom of our audience demonstrates respect in that we have taken the time and trouble to understand another culture. If we can study the literature and music and idioms of our audience, and know their history and social structure, we can then present our message in ways that will be understood and perhaps accepted. At the very least what we say will reach our audience rather than be rejected as a foreign imposition. A foot in the door is better than a door in the face.

Second, our understanding of the culture we interact with may provide poignant opportunities for teaching truth. For example, does the culture have traditions of worship n the 7th day (like the Ashante)? If so, then they may be more amenable to learning about the Sabbath, when God rested after Creation. Is the culture experiencing oppression from an imperial state—if so then the Bible is full of suitable stories about oppressive taxation and even the threat of genocide, as the Heliand makes clear (as would the Book of Esther). Does the culture recognize a need for redemption and reconciliation with the heavens, an understanding of sin and recompense? If so, there are obviously suitable bridges that can be found to bring the audience to an awareness of truth. Once one knows a culture, one can find what elements of that culture are particularly amenable to biblical culture, and then one can more effectively speak to those people, knowing the audience will be receptive.

Third, one must remember that conversion cannot occur from the top down, but rather springs from the inside out. It cannot be forced, but instead must spring from internal conviction. Too many people are enamored with the idea of hierarchial government, and the power that people have over those they consider inferior—such a style of government will not lead to genuine conversion or to the maturation process necessary in Christianity. Instead, those who lead must seek to serve, to give honor and respect to those they wish to teach. This world needs more servants, and fewer lords. Even better, seeking leaders among the culture we seek to reach allows them to take ownership in their own growth, which means that even the perception of a need for control lessons, because self-control is so much in evidence. It is persuasion and the ability to help others find success and improvement wherein we find our greatest power, not in lording it over others as the heathen do. Let us remember this when we seek to teach others, and so follow in the footsteps of Paul and so many others.


In conclusion, let us appreciate the Heliand for its beauty and for what it means. Like all creations, it was made for a reason—in this case, to persuade the Saxons, who had been baptized by force by the tyrannical Emperor Charlemagne, to be faithful Christians (as they understood it). As such, the work is a stellar example of how the Bible may profitably be translated from its original cultural milieu to a new one, for the benefit of its audience. It remains today a compelling example of epic literature, even in translation. Let us therefore learn from the Heliand that the best way to preach to a culture is to meet them on their ground, to show them the truth in their own tongue, and in language that they relate to. Then, maybe our own works can remain for later generations to read, to think on, and to appreciate, so that the mustard seed of faith may blossom into a great and noble tree, a fitting place for the birds of the heavens to rest in long after our travels on this earth are done.

[1] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 88, 93.
[2] Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara, From Homer To Harry Potter: A Handbookon Myth and Fantasy (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 66.
[3] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 229-230.
[4] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 15.
[5] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 16.
[6] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 54-56.
[7] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 97-99.
[8] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 120-121.
[9] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 122-123.
[10] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 126-127.
[11] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 147-148.
[12] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 187.
[13] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 5.
[14] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 29.
[15] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 41-42, 104-105, 125.
[16] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 76.
[17] Earl D. Radmacher, editor, The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 1853.
[18] Earl D. Radmacher, editor, The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 2067. As a humorous aside, this reference to Epimenides was a classic paradox to Greek philosophers of the time, called “The Cretan.” The paradox went as follows: All Cretans are liars. Epimenides is a Cretan. Epimenides called all Cretans liars. If a Cretan says he is a liar, he is telling the truth, but then how can he tell the truth that he is a liar. It is clear that despite the wisdom of the philosopher Epimenides, his people were held in low esteem, but this did not stop Paul from seeking to evangelize among them.
[19] Don Richardson, Eternity In Their Hearts (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2005), 97-98.
[20] G. Ronald Murphy, translator, The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 127.
[21] Don Richardson, Eternity In Their Hearts (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2005), 82-86.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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