Will there ever be another Martin Hengel?

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We asked a recently graduated PhD student of ours, Prof. Chris Keith of Lincoln Christian College, to contribute to the blog. Chris is interested in literacy in the ancient world and already has his second monograph ready for publication. Here is what he wrote . . .

 Helen Bond invited me to contribute a guest post to the CSCO blog and I am grateful to oblige. I just submitted the manuscript for a monograph to T&T Clark and had planned a bit of digital vanity with a short post about it. Today, however, I received in the mail/post a copy of the late Martin Hengel’s Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle and it sparked another idea. While reading it, I wondered silently, “Will there be another Hengel?” and thought, “I should ask Helen (Bond, who did part of her doctoral work under Hengel) and Larry (Hurtado, who was, as I understand it, a personal acquaintance of Hengel’s) whether they think there will be another Hengel, and what it would take for a young scholar to develop into that type of scholar.” Since they both contribute to this blog, then, I offer this post as my query, and open it to anyone else reading.

I’ll offer a bit more background on why I wondered these things. First, one of the common complaints in “the guild” is over-specialization; i.e., scholars becoming too narrowly-defined in their work. Instead of being a “NT scholar,” one is a specialist in “Johannine narrative criticism” or “characters in Luke” or “apocalyptic metaphors in Paul.” No doubt this is a product of the huge number of members of “the guild” and the need for each to get published in a focused area, but Hengel is a prime example of a scholar who avoided this type of myopic focus over the course of a career. I admire (and am intimidated by) the vast topics that he addressed in his career, with intimate knowledge of each topic and the pertinent primary and secondary sources.

On this count, then—Can there be another Hengel under the current academic climate of (perhaps necessary?) specialization? Second, I wonder if theological education in general is sufficient to support the type of broad knowledge necessary to be a scholar of Hengel’s caliber. Much like with Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus, it astounds me that Hengel wrote Judaism and Hellenism at the very beginning of his career! How many young scholars today would be capable of producing such a study??! Certainly not this one or anyone of his acquaintance. I had this thought similarly once when reading F. F. Bruce’s autobiography. Bruce discusses how he began to study Greek and Latin at an early age and how it paid dividends in his academic work. I immediately wondered whether future critical commentaries on the Greek texts will be poorer since most scholars now begin their language training in their early-20s at the earliest. So, on this second count—Can there be another Hengel under the current state of theological education?

Obviously, Hengel (and Schweitzer and Bruce) are atypical in the best sense of the word and it would be foolish for anyone to use them as their only scholarly barometer of success. The short answer to the question is, of course—No, there will never be someone quite like Hengel. With that caveat asserted, though, I pose these questions more broadly to Helen and Larry and the rest of the CSCO blog contributors and readers. What do you think? Will there ever be another Hengel? What would it take for a young scholar today to get to that stage? I would also be interested in hearing any personal anecdotes from those who knew Hengel. What made him tick? What made Hengel . . . Hengel?

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7 responses »

  1. Pingback: Will There Ever Be Another Martin Hengel? | Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

  2. This is a fantastic analysis with much wisdom for upcoming students of New Testament Studies and Early Christianity. I deeply appreciate the work of Martin Hengel. His advanced intellectual rigor played a significant role for me in changing my mind from majoring in the study of Philosophy to New Testament Studies.

  3. Pingback: Week in Review: 01/22/2011 « Near Emmaus

  4. Thanks so much for your comments, Chris. Yes, as you say, I studied with Hengel for a year in Tuebingen and was continually impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge of the first century. Every time I thought I’d unearthed something new it turned out he’d written an article (or at least a substantial footnote) about it already. His large book-lined study had another room off it where he seemed to keep his primary sources (his geniza, I thought). If he’d brought out a few previously unknown codexes I don’t think I’d have been too surprised . . .

    Clearly Hengel was in his own league, with only a few others there to keep him company. To make matters even more impressive, some of his early work was written while he was still in charge of the family business. I do think, though, that there are some aspects of the German system which encourage people like him: the stress on languages, Latin, Hebrew and Greek, even before you move on to theology; the habilitation or second doctorate which has to be on a different topic to the first (and which is needed to teach in a university); also the culture of research assistants (many of Hengel’s books were written with help from assistants of some kind or other). Someone like Hengel could thrive in that kind of a system, and provide both depth and breadth in his work. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about him is the fact that the prose in his books is always clear and succinct, with all the detail reserved for the hefty footnotes (which you could chose to read or ignore).

    In the British system, where we are expected to have a book out every 5 years or so, its difficult to change topic too radically, especially if you have a heavy teaching/admin load or other commitments. This does encourage people to stay in their area and to be hesitant about approaching something new without a clear publishing contract in hand. That’s not to say that there aren’t other generalists out there, some of whom are very impressive, but I do think its difficult now with the huge constant pressure to publish. And much harder for younger scholars to work on a range of interests (and equally difficult sometimes to publish in a semi-popular format). I remember Hengel telling me that ‘good research takes time’; he was right, of course, but I’ve thought about his words many times as I’ve been rushing to meet a deadline!

    Will there be another Hengel? I hope so; we need both generalists and specialists, and more importantly people who can combine both.

  5. Dear Chris (and others interested),
    I am quite sure what my dear acdemic teacher (I was his student assistand from the 2nd semester on, and worked with him till my habilitation) would have said: Don’t use your time for silly blogs, but read souces: Irenaeus in Greek, Tertullian in Latin, Qumran in Hebrew, Nag Hammadi in Coptic, learn Syriac, possibly Armenian and Geez. Read Classics and History – and use sober reasoning. He had no TV, no movies, no hobbies, but worked. Steadily, without the rush to publish quickly (a saying, he had from Elias Bickermann: “Don’t publish ‘Halbgebackenes’!” – i.e. premature things). That’s the ‘secret’. But who will do so – and who can do so in the structures of contemporary academia?
    Warm greetings,
    Jörg Frey

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