“Verses on dome originally stood not for power, but for resistance”

Biblical scholar Eve-Marie Becker explains the historical origins of the Bible verses on the Berlin Palace – “Biblical origins should not be ignored in the debate: historical accuracy is important, especially since the history of the impact that the Prussian king had is disputed”

Prof. Dr. Eve-Marie Becker
Prof. Dr. Eve-Marie Becker
© privat

Press release 7 November 2022

According to New Testament scholar Prof. Dr. Eve-Marie Becker from the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”, the Biblical origins of the inscription on the dome of the Berlin Palace suggest that the words expressed not the will to power, but resistance in a situation of powerlessness. “Historical origins should not be ignored in disputes over Biblical quotations, and historical accuracy is all the more important in this case because the history of the impact that the Prussian king had is disputed: Frederick William IV is an ambivalent figure, and it is unclear how far he, being well acquainted with theology, arranged to have the inscription mounted in order to demonstrate his God-given power or to express humility”.

As Becker points out, the inscription, which Prussian king Frederick William IV (1795-1861) had mounted in 1844, consists of one verse each from the Acts of the Apostles (4:12) and Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (2:10). “Both are assertions of faith written by Peter and Paul, marginalized Jewish followers of Jesus, who were imprisoned in the mid-1st century CE and later executed”. Current debates that say that the Biblical words primarily express Prussian claims to power or symbolize Christian colonial rule ignore these origins, says Becker. “Given the context of the early Roman imperial period that these Biblical words lead us to, they should be read not as a staging of political power, but as a sign of personal resistance by individual men who, in a situation of powerlessness, wanted to prove their trust in God and thus provide for the common good. The words may also have been familiar as such to the Prussian king, who had received an education in theology”.

“Combination of two Biblical quotations not unusual”

Becker emphasizes that the combination of two Bible verses is nothing unusual. “So-called mixed quotations in which two Bible verses are combined in such a way that they explain each other, like the words of Peter and Paul here, are common in the Jewish-Christian tradition. The fact that Peter and Paul, who stood for different and sometimes competing currents in early Christianity, verbally complement rather than contradict each other in this inscription is another feature that may owe itself to the Prussian king’s striving for political harmony in church matters”.

Becker discusses the historical background of the Biblical quotations: “Faced with imminent condemnation and death, Peter and Paul seek to spread hope in the world by recalling in the two verses the death and resurrection of Jesus”. Both men were later executed for their profession of faith in Christ. “Paul, awaiting his death sentence in a Roman prison, derives the ethical principle of humility from Jesus’ maximum self-abasement that led to his death on the cross”.

According to Eve-Marie Becker, previous research assumed that Paul was quoting an early Christian hymn in the passage from Philippians. “Today, though, there is much to suggest that these words were in fact written by Paul himself in prison. The words therefore by no means originate from colonialist times, as current debates sometimes imply, but are historically plausible statements made by Jewish followers of Jesus from the middle of the 1st century CE, who had to assert themselves and their faith under complex political conditions”.

Dome of the Berlin Palace
Dome of the Berlin Palace
© Frank Schulenburg

As for Acts, Becker explains that, “in chapter 4 of Acts, its author, the evangelist Luke, has Peter, who has also been charged for having healed a man paralyzed from birth, profess his hope of salvation in Christ”. It is not clear, then, whether Peter actually said these words, which were primarily meant to interpret the healing story. “What we can say, however, is that Luke demonstrates great empathy with Peter in his work. We do not get much closer to the historical Peter than through Luke’s writings”.

The inscription that the Prussian king Frederick William IV (1795-1861) composed from the two Bible verses was reattached to the palace’s façade when it was reconstructed, and reads: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth”. (vvm/sca)

Reference: E.-M. Becker, Der Philipperbrief des Paulus: Vorarbeiten zu einem Kommentar (NET 29; Tübingen/Basel: A. Francke Verlag, 2020) Open Access