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In Memoriam: Martin Hengel, Professor Extraordinaire

July 2009

You may have missed it in the news of late. With the deaths of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays, and especially Michael Jackson, the media were preoccupied with others’ obituaries. Even if no other towering figure had died the first week of July, it is doubtful that the U.S. media would have done much, if any, coverage on the death of Martin Hengel. Why? Because he was a New Testament scholar, a German living in Germany, not well known outside of scholarly circles, and a theological conservative. Any one of these would relegate notice of his passing to the back pages of Section C, but the combination put the kibosh on any notice. However unnoticed, his passing marks the end of an era, unlike the deaths of the other four mentioned above.

Martin Hengel was 82 years old when he died (b. December 14, 1926; d. July 2, 2009). He was Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at Tübingen University, Germany. Tübingen is often viewed as the school from which the roots of modern theological liberalism sprang, largely because of F. C. Baur and David Strauss. These 19th-century scholars, especially Baur, applied Hegelian dialectic to New Testament studies (i.e., thesis vs. antithesis, struggling with each other end up resulting in a synthesis of both). Baur had been one of Hegel’s students; he applied this dialectic to the authorship of the NT writings, resulting in seeing only four authentic letters by Paul and seeing John as written sometime after 160 CE. Strauss deconstructed the miracles in the Gospels, explaining them all on naturalistic assumptions.

To be sure, there were some conservatives who were associated with Tübingen University over the years. There was Adolf Schlatter, who was born just eight years before Baur’s death (1852, 1860). And long before either of them was Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s right-hand man. Melanchthon earned his bachelor’s at the age of 14 at Heidelberg and his master’s at either 17 or 19 at Tübingen. But in general, since the days of Baur the school was noted for its radically liberal stance.

Martin Hengel was a shining exception to this. He did not hide the fact of his Christian faith. Nor did he shrink from the historian’s task of investigating the primary sources. Indeed, Hengel was considered by many as the master of the primary materials in their original languages. His many volumes on early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism are testimony to this fact.

He was a myth-buster who out-liberaled the liberals. In his Studies in Early Christology, he makes a statement about the parallel dangers from “an uncritical, sterile apologetic fundamentalism” and “from no less sterile ‘critical ignorance’” of radical liberalism. At bottom, the approaches are the same; the only differences are the presuppositions. A true liberal is one who considers all of the data, rather than being prejudiced and selective. Hengel, in this respect, was a liberal’s liberal. Yet he came to conservative conclusions.

In the past two years, we have witnessed the deaths of Bruce Metzger, C. F. D. Moule, and now, Martin Hengel. In my view, they were the greatest living NT scholars of their respective countries (America, England, Germany). Metzger and Hengel were generally conservative; Moule was moderate. All were brilliant.

The above points can be found all over the Internet. For the remainder, I wanted to mention a personal anecdote.

Six years ago, in April 2003, I had the privilege of dining with Professor Hengel at his home. I was in Tübingen on sabbatical and I had written to Hengel, asking him if he could use his influence to open doors for me to photograph the two Greek New Testament manuscripts housed at the university (one of which is still not catalogued). I sent out the letter one late afternoon; he received it the next morning (I love German efficiency!). He didn’t know me, but he just so happened to be having lunch that day with Dr. Bruce Longenecker, a friend of mine whom I got to know on my previous sabbatical in Cambridge. Bruce was a Humboldt scholar, spending his semester in Tübingen. I did not know that Bruce was in town, nor did he know that I was in town. At lunch, Hengel read my letter to Bruce and asked if he knew me. Bruce said yes, and assured Hengel that I was not a crackpot. That was good enough for Hengel. Later that day, Professor Hengel called me on the phone, telling me that he had gotten permission for me to shoot the manuscripts. He asked if there was anything else he could do for me. So I asked if I could take him out to a meal. Instead, he invited me to his home for dinner.

Europeans tend to eat later than Americans. I had been invited to come for dinner at 8 pm, which suited me fine. Germans tend to reserve their biggest meal of the day for lunchtime. This was something that I had forgotten.

I arrived exactly on time (after knocking on the wrong door one or two times before getting the right place!). The Hengels lived in a duplex high above the city. The first thing that struck me about the home was that it was essentially a library with a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. Very neat and tidy, but the library was extensive. Wall-to-wall books and row upon row of shelves in the middle of the room. And a great number of the books, if not the majority, were primary sources, most in their original languages. At the end of the room was a large picture window that looked out over the city.

Mrs. Hengel served tea. Professor Hengel prayed. Then, large, piping hot pretzels were brought out of the oven, one for each of us. Served with mustard. I thought, “That’s a nice appetizer.” I then presented Professor Hengel with a NET Bible. He was impressed with the notes especially. He spent several minutes looking over various passages and notes, commenting with approbation. He had not touched his pretzel. Mrs. Hengel, slightly exasperated, said, “Martin, eat!” “I am,” he declared. “I’m feasting on the Word.” Reminiscent of the pericope about the woman at the well, I thought.

Hengel and I talked about New Testament studies. He was most interested in what Dallas Seminary was doing with patristics. I mentioned the few courses we had in this area, which disappointed him. He noted that the New Testament was a rather small fraction of the size of the great body of patristic literature. “But Martin,” said his wife, “Isn’t the New Testament infinitely more important?” “Yes, of course, Dear,” said the good professor.

We discussed the authorship of various New Testament books, the value of higher criticism, and where German scholarship is today. An hour passed. Mrs. Hengel asked if I wanted another pretzel. I thought that it was a bit strange that she had not brought out dinner yet, but since I was getting quite hungry and not knowing when the main course would be served, I said yes.

I turned to more personal subjects. I told Hengel that I had heard that he was fascinated with American Indians. “As a child, yes, but that was a long time ago.” Oops. Boy, were my sources wrong! An awkward moment. Not knowing to quit when I was behind, I then asked him what it was like growing up under Hitler and the Nazis.

He sighed, and took a long pause. He then revealed that he had been drafted as a teenager, very late in the war. But he wanted nothing to do with it, so he went AWOL, hiding out until the war was over. This took some time adjusting to. As an American evangelical who was also politically conservative, I had come to see desertion of one’s military duties as a high crime and great sin. But I didn’t see things through the grid of Nazism. What would it be like to be drafted into Hitler’s army? In one sense, this is what the Nuremberg trials were about: the ethics of (dis)obedience to a human authority when it was diametrically opposed to a higher authority. Since America was on the right side of the war, these were issues that I had not worked through nearly as much as many Germans had. I hadn’t even been born yet when WWII ended, but I’ve been fascinated by it and have spent some time reading about the principal characters. I have since tried to put myself in the Germans’ shoes and think through how I would view my own national heritage. Especially after visiting Dachau just a few weeks ago, I began to understand better the national identity of Germans today. Whatever else Dachau teaches us, it certainly underscores the unspeakable depravity of the human heart that resides in us all. Dachau and Auschwitz and the rest of the concentration camps were not the result of a uniquely German Weltanschauung; they represent what all of us are capable of. If it weren’t for the work of God’s Spirit today restraining people from acting out the atrocities of their fertile, yet wicked minds, the whole world would be a Dachua or an Auschwitz. Or, as Paul told the Romans, “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things” (Rom 2.1, NET).

We came back to New Testament studies. We spoke about Christology, William Wrede, textual criticism, Marcion, and other topics. Then, all of a sudden, without warning, Professor Hengel rose to his feet and thanked me for the evening. It was time to leave. The dinner was two pretzels, a bit of mustard, and hot tea. As I walked out, I looked at my watch. It was precisely 10 pm. There had been no clock that Hengel would have seen, as I recalled. He just knew it was 10 o’clock. Two hours for dinner and a conversation. I left the home of this very German couple, grateful for the privilege of finally having met the great Professor Hengel. I drove down the hill, stopped at a little fast food Chinese restaurant, and got the main course of my evening’s dinner. In retrospect, I was fed far better at the Hengels’ home than I was at the Chinese restaurant. It was an evening I shall not forget.

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