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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Martin Hengel 1926–2009

Roland Deines

In the early hours of July 2, 2009, Martin Hengel, former President of the Societas Novi Testamentum Studiorum (1993–94), a distinguished and outstanding New Testament and ancient Judaism scholar, died peacefully in Tübingen after suffering from cancer for more than four years. He is survived by his wife Marianne Hengel, to whom he was married for fifty-two years. She supported his scholarly work wholeheartedly and accompanied him regularly when he was invited to lectures around the world. The Hengels’ home in Schwabstraße in Tübingen offered generations of scholars from all over the world hospitality, friendship, advice, and support. Thanks to this generosity, there was never any lack of visitors in their convivial home. This was also the place of the famous “Oberseminar” that took place on Friday nights from 8:00 to 12:00 p.m. during Hengel’s active time as Professor for New Testament and Ancient Judaism in the Protestant Faculty of the University of Tübingen (1972–1992). Numerous regular attendants of the Oberseminar received their scholarly training and, even more, their enthusiasm for the study of the sources during these seminar sessions.

Born in 1926 in Reutlingen, Martin Hengel and his four siblings grew up within an entrepreneurial family that owned a textile enterprise. The religious atmosphere in the family was shaped by the Lutheran pietism so typical for some parts of the southwest of Germany. Hengel saw the end of the Second World War as a soldier, and this experience formed his wish to do something meaningful with his life after so much hate and death. Therefore, in 1947 he began to study Protestant Theology in Tübingen and Heidelberg as preparation for ministry in the Church of Württemberg. In 1951 he began his work as an assistant pastor, but obligations in the family business forced him into two years of opera aliena. In 1954 he was able to return to his theological vocation as tutor for theology students in the Tübingen Stift and later as assistant of Professor Otto Michel. In 1957 he was again urged into the family-owned firm, and his dissertation (Ph.D.) on the Jewish freedom movement in the time from Herod until 70 CE (submitted in 1959 and published in 1961; translated as The Zealots [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989]) was written in the late evenings after his daily work for the textile business was done. Only a serious illness that brought him close to death allowed him to leave the family business (1964) and concentrate fully on his theological ambitions. His Habilitationsschrift, Judentum und Hellenismus, was submitted in 1966 and appeared in print in 1969 for the first time (translated as Judaism and Hellenism [London: SCM, 1974]). From 1968 to 1972 he worked as a professor in New Testament at the University of Erlangen, before he received the call to succeed his Doktorvater, Otto Michel, in Tübingen. Parallel to his career was the one of Peter Stuhlmacher, the former assistant of Ernst Käsemann: as did Hengel, Stuhlmacher stayed in Erlangen from 1968 to 1972 and then also received a call from Tübingen. Hengel and Stuhlmacher formed a lifelong friendship and worked together in mutual respect. During their active time they formed, together with Otfried Hofius and Hartmut Gese, what is now sometime called “the second Tübingen school.” A biblical theology in which Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and Son of God who gave his life as an atonement for the sins of the world was central for them. Hengel contributed important studies in this field (collected in, among others, The Cross of the Son of God [London: SCM, 1986] and Studies in Early Christology [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995]), although his major achievement was undoubtedly the overcoming of the dichotomy promoted most prominently by Rudolf Bultmann and his followers between a separated Palestinian and a Hellenistic Christian community, with the latter being responsible for a mythologizing high Christology. The religio-historical construct of Hellenistic syncretism forming over that of the originally “simple” gospel of Jesus was refuted by Hengel from many directions, and the influence and legacy of Bultmann during his formative years of study remained a decisive point of departure throughout his own work.The later development of Christology, if one follows in Hengel’s footsteps, proves to be not a heathenizing or mythologizing of Jesus but rather a proper explication of what Jesus was, did, and wanted. Two elements are therefore crucial throughout his work: the messianic claim of the earthly Jesus against any attempts to start with an “unmessianic Jesus”; and, perhaps even more provocative, the notion that Christianity emerged completely from within Judaism. His last monograph, Jesus und das Judentum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), written together with his co-author and collaborator for more than twenty years, Professor Anna Maria Schwemer, is the first volume of a projected four-volume Geschichte des frühen Christentums written by Hengel and a group of his alumni (he was working on the manuscript for the second volume almost until his very last days). In the introductory chapter he wrote that all would agree that Christianity grew from Jewish soil, but only a minority would agree if one added the word “completely,” on which he insisted. In Hengel’s view, Hellenistic thoughts influenced Christianity only through the mediation of Judaism and therefore was already in a way fully compatible with Jewish monotheism. Christianity is not a syncretistic religion but the offspring of the faith of Jesus’ Jewish followers, namely, that he was indeed Israel’s Messiah and God’s eternal Son. At the end of an autobiographical sketch written in 2002 (in Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft: Autobiographische Essays aus der Evangelischen Theologie [ed. Eve-Marie Becker; Tübingen: Francke, 2002], 18–29), he described as the center of the New Testament the theological unity of Christology and soteriology: “At heart is what God has done and does and will do for us [in Christ]. One could definitely characterize this with the term ‘salvation history’ (Heilsgeschichte) which is so obnoxious for many nowadays.” For the symposium held to celebrate his eightieth birthday, he requested “salvation history” as the topic because he felt the need to keep history and theology together within New Testament studies (as also can be seen from his presidential address for the SNTS, “Die Aufgaben der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft,” NTS 40 [1994]: 321–57). In his work he never followed any fashionable methodological trend but only his own historical “instincts,” which can be described as a medley made out of his enormous familiarity with ancient sources, practical and economic reason, common sense, an astonishing interest in the details of ordinary life, such as finances, health, and family relations—all this encompassed by the conviction that was seldom expressed but always deeply held, that God’s grace holds the seemingly contingent lines together. Because of that, he was able to see his life, his career, and his achievements as undeserved grace, although he worked hard for it until the last days of his life. Nevertheless, even his seemingly never-ending energy was received gratefully as a gift, as grace, and thus, as a result, he was very thankful.

His scholarly legacy is laid down in more than a dozen erudite monographs, many of which have been translated into numerous languages. His articles, some of them of monographlength, providing a wealth of details and references, are now collected in the seven volumes of his Kleine Schriften (1996–2009). He was glad and thankful to see this harvest finished before his end. The books are published by Mohr Siebeck Verlag in Tübingen, with whom Hengel was closely connected. He was the driving force behind establishing Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament as one of the major New Testament monograph series but also served as editor and adviser for other monograph series both by Mohr Siebeck and Brill. His entrepreneurial skills produced rich fruit in the theological book market as well.

His written legacy as well as his example as an inspiring teacher, patient and ever-helpful supervisor, loyal friend, and encouraging colleague who left no one unadvised will continue to influence, stimulate, and correct our discipline. His interest in the work of others and his constant support of scholars from all backgrounds and from many disciplines cannot be praised enough. His expertise in support of scholarly proposals and the letters of recommendation he has written amount to the thousands, and his letters and phone calls to stay in contact with his own students and also with colleagues and friends are legendary.

Hengel held honorary degrees from the universities of Uppsala, Straßburg, St. Andrews, Durham, Cambridge, and Dublin. In 1975 he was made corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and since 1978 he was a member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences (Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften). In 1999 he became a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“He was a scholar for us all,” Sean Freyne commented at the funeral. Hermann Lichtenberger, who followed him in his chair in Tübingen, reported from his last visit with Hengel two days before he died that he quoted as farewell the words of the old Simeon from Luke 2:29–30: “Lord, now you let depart your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Lichtenberger replied: “And you, you have taught many to see this Savior.” Professor Hengel replied with a gleaming smile. This was all what he wanted to achieve. Romans 1:16 is not just the verse Hengel was given at his confirmation, but he confirmed it with his life and example. May he rest in the peace of his Savior whom he trusted in his life, whom he preached and whom he taught, and of whom he was never ashamed.

Note: For a fuller treatment of his achievement and legacy see Roland Deines, “Martin Hengel—A Life in the Service of Christology,” Tyndale Bulletin 58 (2007): 25–42; Larry Hurtado, “Martin Hengel’s Impact on English-Speaking Scholarship,” Expository Times 120.2 (2008): 70–76.


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