Review of German and Theology Summer School in Mainz

I recently attended the 2nd Annual German (and) Theology International Summer School in Mainz, Germany hosted by the Johannes-Gutenberg University. Sarah Prime from St. Mary’s, Twickenham gave a short review of her experience on the Historical Jesus blog. Her positive review is one reason I found and consequently enrolled in the Summer School. I can echo many things she mentioned, such as the multi-cultural nature of the students hailing from several different universities, the overall format of the school, and the weekend excursions. I do want to go into just a bit more detail with my experience for a two main reasons: 1) to give the Summer School a bit more exposure; 2) to give advice to Christian Origins/Theology students who wish to improve their German and are actively seeking a German language summer course.

Overlooking the Mainzer Altstadt. Courtesy Christian Koehn via Flickr.


Mainz (pronounced kind of like “MINE-tz”) is located in central-west Germany in the Rhine valley. From the Frankfurt airport, Mainz is about 30 minutes away by train.


Because of the excellent transport links to and from Frankfurt, international travel is very easy. In our group, most students flew into Frankfurt, but some took long-distance trains and one even took a coach from London.

As a group, we were fairly spread out throughout the city. Most were in walking distance of our classroom, but the walks varied from 20-45 mins. I was in a host family in Mainz-Kastel, located on the eastern bank of the Rhine. Walking to the morning classroom would take well over an hour for me, so I took the bus each day which took about 30 minutes depending on traffic. Weekly bus passes are cheap (17.50€ vs. 2.75€ each way) with a student discount–just make sure you apply for a student fare card (Kundenkarte) before purchasing. You will get fined 60€ if you don’t have this card!

If you are taking public transport, you will have to overcome a number of hurdles. Some of them are quite difficult and others are just bureaucratic, but all of them are frustrating. German transit is very unfriendly to non-German speakers, and bus drivers are famously gruff and unhelpful. Several students (including me) were quite frustrated with this aspect of our stay.

If you are considering going and are interested in public transit, feel free to contact me below for advice.

Mainz from the Rhine. Courtesy Ruck Fotografie via Flickr.


The summer school generally followed a consistent pattern: grammar/translation in the morning (9:15 – 12:45PM), a long break in the afternoon, and lecture in the late afternoon. I’ll detail each of these below. Here is an overview of a typical week in the school.

Mon. Tues. Wed. Thurs. Fri.
9:15AM -12:45PM Grammar and Translation of Luther Grammar and Translation of Schleiermacher Grammar and Translation of Schleiermacher Grammar and Translation of Goethe Grammar and Translation of Luther
2:00PM -4:00PM Optional Lectures Optional Lectures Optional Lectures Optional Lectures Optional Lectures
4:15PM -5:45PM Lecture on German Theology: From Luther to Barth Reading/Translation groups: Schleiermacher in Context Lecture on German Theology: From Luther to Barth Workshop: Classic German Theological Works

Grammar and Translation

Since grammar lessons are fairly straight forward, I’ll focus on our translation.

On the first day, we were given our workbook (“Einführung ins theologische Deutsch”) totaling some 130 pages! The follow authors and works were included though most were just snippets:

  • Martin Luther – “Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen” (1520)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – “Das Göttliche” (1783)
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher – Über die Religion (1799) and Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche ins Zusammenhange dargestellt (1836)
  • Karl Barth – Römerbrief (1919)
  • Friedrich Gogarten – “Zwischen den Zeiten” (1920)
  • Karl Holl – Lutherrenaissance (1921)
  • Rudolf Bultmann – Jesus (1926)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Nachfolge (1937) and Ethik (1949)
  • Martin Hengel – “War Jesus Revolutionär?” (1969)
  • Jürgen Moltmann – Der gekreuzigte Gott (1972)
  • Ruben Zimmerman – “Fiktion des Faktischen” (2015)

We didn’t make it through every text during the program, but we did get through the majority of these works. After being assigned one of these texts, we separated into groups of 2-4 and worked on a paragraph or so of the text. After a while, we would reassemble and read our translations aloud to the teacher. The class had an informal feel. We all had the opportunity to ask grammatical questions to the teacher or translation group or give push-back on the given translation if need be. I was also very happy with the selected works.

Note that these texts will change from year to year depending on the interests of the incoming students. Our cohort included a large amount of NT Ph.D. students, so we focused on the NT instead of the OT. Following years will include different authors. I’m told if you register early enough, you can let the organizer’s know what your interests are, and they will plan the subject matter accordingly.


The JGU Protestant Theology department led each lecture. For the first week, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Volp taught about the historical context in German theology from Luther to Barth. In week two, Prof. Dr. Friedrich W. Horn and Dr. Eckart Schmidt introduced us to several scholars, but we focused primarily on Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Hengel. In week three, Prof. Dr. Volker Küster introduced us to intercultural theology and missiology in the 21st century. I was very happy to hear about German theology and contexts from German scholars, and I was introduced to some excellent literature in German of which I was unaware previously.

As an example, we were introduced in the first week to the different ways German scholars have interpreted Martin Luther throughout history. First, Luther’s image as a religious and social revolutionary became a nationalistic icon in Germany as a type of “heroic German” which the Third Reich famously utilized. In contrast, other German Luther scholars also saw in Luther an academic monk who though rebellious in nature was more interested in an academic debate than a revolution. These, of course, are broad-stroke summaries, but it was great to hear these types of conversations that have gone on in German scholarship.

Wiesbaden Altstadt, just across the Rhine from Mainz. Courtesy Ralf Krause via Flickr.

Research/Library Access

Each participant receives a username and password in their welcome packet. This username allows you to use the internet, online resources, and check out library books. We received an introduction to these resources during our first week. Our access to electronic resources lasts several weeks, but we were able to ask for electronic access for up to a year if we wished. The online library page is somewhat frustrating–all databases are not connected to the main search engine. I was able to find most items easy enough. I should mention that eduROAM works perfectly with JGU’s internet.

Both the theological library and the central library had plenty of spaces to research. The NT room had an impressive amount of works. And, if you look hard enough, you could find a few books from Rudolf Bultmann’s personal library donated some time ago!


For 2016, the JGU summer school was 1,200€. The cost includes accommodation and tuition but not food or public transport. My host family was kind enough to provide me with food, but I don’t think other families did the same. Even so, groceries are very cheap in Germany, and lunches at the Central Mensa (cafeteria) only cost between 3.50€-4.50€ depending on what you get. Transport is relatively cheap; I paid about 75€ in total (including train tickets to and from the airport). If you’d rather walk or bike, Mainz is very bike friendly. My host offered this option, but I can barely walk and chew gum never mind negotiate traffic on a bike! Biking or walking will save around 50€.

While this amount may seem expensive (and 1,200€ is certainly nothing to sneeze at), most summer schools through the DAAD have similar costs. If you look at the Goethe Institut, most courses are more expensive for the same amount of training.

If you apply early enough, some small scholarships are distributed to help stave off costs.  Many of us coming from UK universities were able to have a least a portion of costs paid by the university. Be sure to check with your supervisor before applying if money might be an issue for you.

The Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte in Mainz. Several students lived in the dorms here during the Summer School. Image via Wikipedia.

Final Assessment

Would I recommend this specific Summer school for Biblical studies/theology students? Yes without hesitation for three reasons.

First, we studied theological texts. Other DAAD or Goethe courses focus on spoken German whereas theological texts are written in a completely different register than conversational German. At least one friend attended a Goethe Institut course to improve their German and learned basic conversational language such as ordering beer from a pub. While this is certainly an invaluable skill, it won’t help when reading Bultmann (unless you happen to be at a German pub!).

Second, the JGU summer school wasn’t designed to be a holiday. We were all exhausted at the end of our stay and for good reason! We were there to study German, and we did so. I was very pleased the course gave more contact hours. Though the schedule itself may need some tune up, I have no doubt that they are very near the “perfect” balance of language training and lecturing.

Third, and perhaps most important, my German improved substantially. Although it is difficult to quantify my language acquisition, my knowledge of the German language and reading speed of German literature has noticeably improved. I am also more confident in my abilities to tackle German articles and translate them myself (instead of heading for Google translate immediately!).

My special thanks to Prof. Dr. Ulrich Volp and Frau Rachel Friedrich for squeezing me into the school less than 2 weeks before it began (!) and to my hosts Profs. Ruben and Mirjam Zimmerman and their lovely family for hosting me on such short notice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s