Sunday, July 05, 2009

Professor Martin Hengel has passed away at 82

Evangelisch-theologische Fakultät
Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen

From Dr. Jim West at the listserve CrossTalk Friday, I learned that Professor Martin Hengel has died. On both the listserve and his website, Dr. West linked to an announcement in the Dorstener Zeitung:
Einer der weltweit bedeutendsten Experten für die Literatur des Urchristentums und antiken Judentums, Prof. Martin Hengel, ist am Donnerstag in Tübingen gestorben. Der evangelische Theologe wurde 82 Jahre alt, teilte die Württembergische Landeskirche in Stuttgart mit. ("Theologe Martin Hengel gestorben," Dorstener Zeitung, July 2, 2009)

One of the foremost experts in the world for the literature of early Christianity and ancient Judaism, Professor Martin Hengel, died on Thursday in Tübingen. The Protestant theologian was 82 years old, reported the Evangelical State Church of Württemberg. (Translation Mine)
Sad news. As I noted on CrossTalk:
I took part in Hengel's weekly Friday night seminar for five years (1990-1995) and am very sad to hear of his death. My condolences to his family. Rest in peace, Professor Hengel.
Now that I've had time to reflect, I believe that the seminar was not weekly but every fortnight, for when I was romancing Sun-Ae, I'd visit her place in Munich every second weekend, and she'd visit me in Tübingen on the weekends that Hengel's seminar took place. We'd eat dinner together early on Friday evening at a restaurant near the Neckar River, and toward 8:00, we'd part as I biked up the steep hill to Hengel's seminar, which was held at his home in a large study filled with several thousand books that lined the walls alongside an enormously long table where we late-night scholars sat.

Perhaps to keep theologians off the streets and out of trouble, the seminar ran until midnight, with a break for fizzy apple juice accompanied by salty, buttered rolls. That break was necessary, for the seminar was intense. I learned a lot in my five years of participation -- though trying to understand the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, all in the context of a German-language seminar, was daunting indeed. I never quite rose to the multiple occasions, but Professor Hengel was gracious anyway.

I recall one anecdote, an exchange that he and I had during one of those seminars. Hengel was musing about prophecy and historical contingency -- both of which he took seriously -- and wondered aloud as to what would have happened in the choice between Jesus and Barabbas if the crowd had clamored for the release of Jesus. I ventured to suggest:
"If that had happened, then Pilate would have thought, 'Hmmm . . . perhaps he really is dangerous'."

"And have had him executed anyway!" cried Hengel, completing my point.
And thus through Pontius Pilate's paranoid suspicions would biblical prophecy have been saved from a dreadful disconfirmation. Hengel laughed at that, amused by my 'cleverness', but that was probably the only intelligent remark that I ever uttered in his seminar, so I can't claim to have made a profound impression on the man.

He did, however, like a synoptic arrangment that I made of the four Coptic texts of the Gnostic Apocryphon of John -- enough to request a photocopy for his library -- and he also remembered me well when I saw him at a 2003 Johannine Conference in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he wished me the best in my continuing search for a university position in the field of Gnostic studies (though that blessing has yet to have taken effect).

This photo that I've borrowed from Dr. West's website shows Professor Hengel as I recall him:

"Requiescat in Pace," Professor Hengel . . . though perhaps I should say, "Ruhe in Frieden."

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