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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Erich Zenger 1939–2010

Anyone delving into Old Testament studies in Germany and many other countries for at least the last two decades will encounter Erich Zenger as one of the first names. Zenger’s introduction to the Old Testament (Einleitung in das Alte Testament) counts seven editions over the course of thirteen years; it was translated into other languages of the world, including Russian and Korean. His intensive studies on the book of Psalms since the 1980s bore rich fruit in several major commentaries, where Zenger proves to be not only a careful scholar but also a passionate reader of the Bible and an ingenious conveyor of biblical theology. In his studies on the Pentateuch, but even more in his interpretations of the Psalms, we feel ourselves at the center of his activities: the ongoing search for the meaning of the divine name for the drama of life with its apparently conflicting experiences (“scheinbar gegenläufigen Erfahrungen,” Zenger 2000 on Psalm 73).

 On Easter Sunday, 4 April 2010, Erich Zenger died unexpectedly as a result of a tragic accident in Münster/Westfalen. Theology and exegesis has lost one of its most outstanding scholars since the Second Vatican Council. Erich Zenger was born on 5 July 1939 in Dollnstein (near Eichstätt in Bavaria). He studied philosophy, theology, and Oriental studies in Rome from 1958 to 1965. Extended visits to Jerusalem and Heidelberg also had a formative influence on Zenger. In Jerusalem, he learned about the significance of the Shoah for the identity of the young state of Israel, he discovered how important it was to deal with these events of the German past, and he realized their great theological challenge for Christianity and the church. In Heidelberg, Hans-Walter Wolff and Gerhard von Rad had a fascinating impact on Zenger. Their passion for the Old Testament was contagious. Their great intellectual acumen and their efforts to elevate the beauty of language, even scholarly language, set the standards for his work. The political awakenings in the late 1960s (the so-called Studentenrevolte), the emerging new political theology, and the theology of liberation taught Zenger that the biblical message of liberation has enormous political implications.

These experiences affected Zenger’s work for four decades. He started a brilliant career in academics and, at the age of thirty-two, was appointed professor of Old Testament studies at the Catholic University of Eichstätt. From 1973 up to his retirement in 2004, he served as professor of Old Testament studies (Biblische Zeitgeschichte und Exegese des Alten Testaments) at the University of Münster/Westfalen. Several times Zenger was visiting professor at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem. He was a close friend of P. Laurentius Klein, O.S.B., the initiator of the program “Theologisches Studienjahr Jerusalem” (an initiative enabling German-speaking students to study theology for one year in Jerusalem). After the fall of communism in 1989/1990, Zenger temporarily taught at Humboldt University in Berlin. He delivered countless lectures and papers at universities and congresses in Germany, Europe, and abroad. He was an important speaker and discussion partner in ecclesiastical institutions for adult education and at large-scale meetings of Protestants (Kirchentage) and Catholics (Katholikentage).

In retrospect, one can arrange his activities according to three stages. (1) In the first stage, during the late 1960s up to the early 1980s, Zenger elaborated a program of liberation within the biblical context and faith in God; here he was inspired by his focused studies of the book of Exodus. For Zenger, work as a historian trying to reconstruct the events of the exodus never was an end in itself but rather anchored the theological message within a deep and firm soil. He worked in close exchange with his colleague Peter Weimar and was supported by the archaeologist Robert Wenning. This commitment made Zenger one of the most important pioneers of historical-critical research on the Old Testament within Catholic theology after the Second Vatican Council. He often told his students the story about the defense of P. Norbert Lohfink’s dissertation at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome during the Second Vatican Council: under the auspices of the representatives of the Catholic worldwide church, the door was opened wide for free biblical scholarship. Zenger’s lectures at the university attracted hundreds of students, and whenever he interpreted texts from the prophets Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah, the echo from Sinai could be heard. Voice, gestures, facial play—everything the brilliant speaker was able to activate conveyed something of the fire that kindled him. For Zenger, exegetical methodology never was an end in itself; he understood himself as a “theo-logian,” providing voice and power for the Word of God. During the so-called “crisis in pentateuchal exegesis” in the 1980s, Zenger revised earlier positions and looked for new possibilities of consensus. His introduction to the Old Testament went through revisions and new editions every two or three years since its original publication in 1995, until finally several models for the origin of the Pentateuch were able to co-exist. This is an eloquent symbol for the broken consensus and for the limits of source criticism and redaction criticism in biblical scholarship.

(2) Zenger touched these topics time and again, although a new phase of his work began in the mid-1980s. It started with a crucial discovery that we as his doctoral students found very lively. During his work on the Psalms, Zenger realized the importance of the concatenatio, the relevance of the Psalms’ concatenation for their structure and interpretation. This began a new adjustment in Psalms research, which we can describe as “from exegesis of the psalms to the exegesis of the Psalter.” Later on, Zenger learned from students about the “canonical approach” at a time when the majority of German exegetes regarded the works of Brevard S. Childs as irrelevant, and so Zenger called his way of interpreting the Psalms “kanonische Auslegung” (canonical exegesis). The daily (and often nocturnal) study of the Psalms would determine his life from this point on. It is no exaggeration to say that the Psalms as an object of scholarly study became his way of life. Reading his interpretations of the Psalms published over the years, one notes how Zenger’s relationship toward the Psalms became more intimate, how his language of description developed more nuances and details, how the scholarly effort to sort and to classify receded. Those psalms involving a deadly serious struggle for the true God were his favorites.

It is not by accident that Zenger’s growing acquaintance with the Psalter, the biblical core and heart of Israel, coincided with an increasing commitment to a second field rooted deep in his personal biography. Drawing closer and closer to Israel’s prayers, he increasingly stressed Israel’s dignity and the unmatched significance of the Old Testament as “Eigenwort mit Eigenwert” (a word in its own right and with an intrinsic value). Here, too, the Second Vatican Council set a decisive impulse (see the declaration Nostra aetate on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions). But it was not until the late 1970s that the topic achieved true significance. Zenger stands together with important representatives of the Protestant Churches (e.g., Rolf Rendtorff) but also with colleagues from his own faculty in Münster, first and foremost Johann Baptist Metz. Beginning in 1976, Zenger attended the board “Jews and Christians” at the central committee of German Catholics (Zentralkommittee der deutschen Katholiken), and since 1994 he was a member of the working group “questions regarding Judaism” of the German bishops’ conference. Zenger’s exegetical work, his defense of the Old Testament as First Testament, his efforts for reconciliation and dialogue between Christians and Jews, and his untiring emphasis on the dignity of Israel, the chosen people, go hand in hand. In his seventieth year he was awarded the Buber-Rosenzweig medal, a justified honoring of this part of his life’s work.

Erich Zenger was a well-known academic teacher who directed dozens of dissertations. For seven of his students, he was the first advisor of their Habilitation. Many of those mentored by Zenger are now chairs of Old Testament studies at universities in the German-speaking regions. Zenger took no rest, he did not lag behind, he was always eager to learn and to revise his insights. Until the end, he was so alert that again and again he surprised even his closest academic friends by his curiosity and readiness to change his ideas.

(3) A third phase in Zenger’s career emerged within the last few years. It is not easy to describe this development with a single term. Maybe we can call it a “widening” in a variety of ways, continuing earlier concerns. For Zenger, it was always important to work not only as an academic. He was good at writing in an understandable and agreeable style and lecturing in an engaging way without being superficial or a sycophant. Especially his publications for a broader audience, such as the interpretations of the Psalms or the illustrated explanatory textbooks, have their own voice and come from the depth of Scripture. With the Stuttgarter Altes Testament he edited a very helpful commentary on the Old Testament in one volume, thus making exegetical knowledge easily accessible to a wider group of interested people. Part of this widening consists of projects dealing with the Septuagint or with midrashim. He took a clear stand in the current debate about the potential of violence in monotheistic religions and wrote wise and differentiated contributions on the matter.

He participated actively in the attempts of some of his students to integrate approaches from cultural and literary studies (often too easily disqualified as “postmodern”) into exegetical methodology and to develop the “canonical approach” further. In this context one should mention the efforts toward the “spiritual” sense of Scripture in the tradition of the church fathers. Zenger entered the discussion with sympathy and openness; in a study from 2009 on Psalm 42/43 he wrote that the spiritual dimension and function of the biblical texts have been neglected by historical-critical exegesis; recently one can also find vibrant attempts to rediscover this dimension in the project of canonical-intertextual and biblical interpretation (kanonisch-intertextuelle und Biblische Auslegung). Nevertheless, we cannot simply return to the methods and theology of the church fathers. Zenger’s 2007 article “Das Jesus-Buch von Benedikt XVI im Licht des Alten Testaments” (see http://www.con-spiration.de/texte/2007/zenger.html) reveals his struggle with the traditions of his own discipline, with the current theology and the expectations of the church, even as it points the way to the future. As a lasting basic insight of all biblical interpretation, Zenger states that the source and the criterion of all Christian talking about God and praying to God are neither texts of church councils nor encyclical letters nor the works of Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli but the Bible in its two parts. In its fascinating polyphony of its melodies and its literary contradictions, the Bible makes us aware that we will never grasp this simple message entirely, but only fragmentarily and approximately.

Erich Zenger, an experienced and skilled guide across the wide landscape of the Bible, has left us through his untimely and sudden death; all who knew and appreciated him feel deep sorrow. Several of his larger projects remain unfinished, although the results already achieved are impressive enough. Within ten years, twenty-five volumes of Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament appeared: Zenger initiated the series and had a hand in every single volume. Especially the monumental volumes on Psalms 51–100 and 101–150 (written by Zenger and Frank-Lothar Hossfeld) make this series an internationally well-known and outstanding commentary. The comments on Psalms 1–50 are available only in an older version in a different series; that Zenger was not able to finish the new volume on Psalms 1–50 and his “theology of the Psalter” highlights the heavy loss the scholarly community has suffered by his demise.

In a comment on Psalm 73, one of his favorites, Zenger describes how desire can widen into hope, to a hope that the community with God experienced on earth may last forever. Zenger here alludes to an experience that mysticism formulates as “God alone suffices.” Erich Zenger loved this life and God’s word in Scripture—may the living God grant him eternal joy within his everlasting presence.

A bibliography of Zenger’s works from 1968 to 2004 can be found in his Festschrift: F.-L. Hossfeld and L. Schwienhorst-Schönberger, eds., Das Manna fällt auch heute noch: Beiträge zur Geschichte und Theologie des Alten, Ersten Testaments: Festschrift für Erich Zenger (Herders biblische Studien 44; Freiburg: Herder, 2004), 674–93. A select online bibliography is available at: http://www.uni-muenster.de/FB2/personen/zrat/zenger.html, and an updated bibliography (including translations into English and other modern languages) appears in the German Wikipedia on Erich Zenger at: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Zenger.

Georg Steins, Universität Osnabrück

Thomas Hieke, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

 
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