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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive William L. Petersen (1950-2006)


William ("Bill") Petersen was born in Laredo, Texas, 19 January 1950, and died on 20 December 2006 of a rapidly metastasizing kidney cancer (discovered only in July). His sudden and untimely death has removed from us and from biblical and early Christian studies a multi-talented, insightful, and creative scholar in the midst of his productive career. His loss is keenly felt, both in North America and in Europe.

Petersen, since 1999, was Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Religious Studies Program and also Professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. Earlier he was Associate Professor in both of those divisions (1993-1999 and 1995-1999, respectively), and Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins (1990-1993). From 1998 to 2006 he served as Director of the Religious Studies Program at Penn State. Before joining that faculty, he was Visiting Assistant (1985-1986) and Assistant Professor (1986-1990) of Early Church History and Patristics at the University of Notre Dame.


Petersen was educated at the University of Iowa (B.A., 1971) with a double major in religion and in psychology, and at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (M.Div., 1975), again with a double major in New Testament and in systematic theology. At graduation he received the prize for the highest grade point average in his seminary program. He began doctoral studies at McGill University in Montréal (1975-1977), but then moved on to the University of Utrecht (Rijksuniversiteit te Utrecht) in the Netherlands, from which he received the Dr.theol. degree in 1984. His promotor was Gilles Quispel, and Tjitze Baarda, R. van den Broek, and G. Mussies were also on his committee. A revised version of his dissertation appeared in 1985 as his first book, The Diatessaron and Ephrem of Syrus as Sources of Romanos the Melodist (CSCO 475 [Subsidia 74] Peeters, 1985).

Petersen's brief career left us with what must now become his magnum opus: Tatian's Diatessaron: Its Creation, Dissemination, Significance, and History in Scholarship (VCSup 25; Brill, 1994), a massive volume, described by reviewers as "indispensable," "magnificent," "a masterly treatment comprehensively setting out all the problems and issues," and a "great achievement, the presentation of the most comprehensive companion to Tatian's Diatessaron ever written."

In 1988, Petersen organized a conference at the University of Notre Dame on "Gospel Traditions in the Second Century" that brought together "eight leading scholars from six nations," and he edited a volume of the papers under the same title (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989). He also co-edited two volumes of essays, one on Origen of Alexandria: His World and His Legacy (with Charles Kannengiesser; University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), and Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-Canonical: Essays in Honour of Tjitze Baarda (with J. S. Vos and H. J. de Jonge; Brill, 1997).

Petersen's broad and deep knowledge of languages essential for understanding the origins and early history of Christianity enabled him to publish across a broad spectrum, including thirty-some articles and chapters in books on various aspects of the gospels, gospel harmonies, apocrypha, canonicity, 2 Clement and the Apostolic Fathers more generally, the Heliand, the Syriac New Testament, Tatian, Ephrem Syrus, Aphrahat, Justin Martyr, Origen, Eusebius, Romanos the Melodist, Shem-Tob, and text-critical investigations. To these must be added more than a dozen brief encyclopedia articles in such works as TRE, RGG4, and ABD, as well as some thirty book reviews in major North American and European journals.

During his short life and career, Petersen produced this extensive stream of publications that soon will come to an end: the proofs of at least two articles were still awaited, and a few book reviews were in process. In a message five weeks before his death, Bill wrote to me expressing his fear that he would be unable to complete his commentary on 2 Clement for the Hermeneia series. Yet, he evinced some satisfaction because he had arranged for a colleague to publish the preliminary book on the New Testament text of 2 Clement that is partly complete, and also because his article on a similar subject would appear in one of the next issues of Vigiliae Christianae. Finally, he expressed regret that he would not have time to finish a book on Judaic Christianity on which he had been working, which treats the earliest pre-Pauline Christians and their understanding of Christianity.

Petersen's scholarly lectures and papers were always a treat — clear, insightful, critical — and during twenty-two years he made forty-nine presentations in twelve countries. Thirty-five of these were invited papers, including four keynote addresses in four European nations. Obviously, many of these papers have not been published, and it remains to be seen whether he left any indications as to what might be done with them. With or without additional items, however, Petersen's publications will continue their positive influence upon his chosen fields for coming generations of scholars.

For 1997-1998, Petersen was named a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (the research arm of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences), where he coordinated a six-person research team working on "The Text of the Gospel of John in Tatian's Diatessaron," under a grant of a quarter million dollars. He also was awarded six grants for research or release from teaching at Penn State, among other research awards at Oxford and the Collegium of the Finnish Academy of Sciences and Letters (Helsinki).

Petersen's editorial activities reveal an unusually deep and generous commitment to scholarship in his chosen fields of New Testament textual criticism and early Christianity. Currently or recently he was Co-Editor in Chief of both Vigiliae Christianae and of its series of Supplements (since 1998); a member of the editorial board of four international journals: Journal for the Aramaic Bible (since 1999), New Testament Studies (1999-2002), TC. A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism (since 1995), Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies (since 1997); on the editorial board also of the SBL series, The Text of the New Testament in the Greek Fathers (since 1988), and was the editor-designate of Studies and Documents (to have begun in the near future). Finally, he served as Editor of the "Early Christianity" section of the SBL series, Texts and Translations (1996-2000), as well as a member of the American Executive Committee of the International Greek New Testament Project (IGNTP) since 1988. His memberships in learned societies included the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, SBL, the North American Patristics Society, and the International Association of Manichaean Studies.

Those of us at a distance have assumed that Bill Petersen was a superb teacher and congenial faculty member, and now his departmental colleague at Penn State, Professor A. Gregg Roeber, confirms that Bill conducted "immensely popular" undergraduate introductory courses in New Testament and Early Christianity and upper division courses on major Christian thinkers, and that he provided extensive committee service to the College of Liberal Arts and to the Graduate School, contributing to the "cultivation of a civilized collegial atmosphere" at the University. Many of his distant colleagues also will be unaware that, in his early years, he summered in the Colorado Rockies, where he began his lifelong love of downhill skiing. He became a highly competitive skier, mastering the most challenging courses in North America and Europe.

This lengthy compilation of facts and statistics, however, hardly takes "the measure of the man." In the field of New Testament textual criticism, he was insightfully provocative and faced the real issues in our field head on, with candor and honesty. When he felt it necessary, his papers and some noteworthy book reviews could be severe in their exposé of methodological weakness or scholarly inexactness, though never acrimonious. Clarity in his presentation of papers at SBL and SNTS was a given, and all of us found them a pleasure to hear. His comments in committees were always succinct and to the point — he did not "suffer fools gladly." Perhaps most important of all, as a person, Bill was ever buoyant, jovial, and optimistic, yet always serious in his commitments, genuine in his relationships, and caring of his fellow human beings. Already he is deeply missed by those who knew him and worked with him.

William L. Petersen is survived by his life partner of sixteen years, Mark Biedrzycki, M.D.

Eldon Jay Epp, Visiting Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School

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Citation: Eldon Jay Epp, " William L. Petersen (1950-2006)," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=631

 
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