Thursday, January 02, 2014

R.I.P. Birger Gerhardsson (1926-2013)

During the holidays, on 25 December, one of Sweden's finest exegetes ever, Prof. em. Birger Gerhardsson, passed away at the age of 87. Gerhardsson was born in 1926 in Vännäs. He studied in Uppsala and became ordained priest in the Church of Sweden in 1953. During 1953-58 and 1961-64 he was teacher at Fjellstedtska skolan in Uppsala and in 1961 he received his PhD and docentur at Uppsala University, after successfully defending his thesis Memory and Manuscript; Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. 

In 1965 Gerhardsson became professor in New Testament exegesis at Lund University; a position he held to his retirement in 1992. However, he continued to be very active in the research seminar for many years to come. Thus, I had the occasion to learn to know Gerhardsson as a scholar and friend during my own studies at Lund University in 2003-2006. I remember his encouragement and advice, and the several personal letters he used to write on various occasions, e.g., when I had presented him a copy of my dissertation.

In relation to my own special area, textual criticism, and my extensive collations of Greek MSS, I particularly remember him sharing about his own ordeal as doctoral student, when Prof, Harald Riesenfeld assigned him to collate and study a lectionary MS in Uppsala (Uppsala Gr. 4 = Gr.-Al. L1256). "In order to study Greek MSS, you need a lot of 'sittfläsk' ['butt flesh']." Gerhardsson's patient collation work and "sittfläsk" resulted in the article,  “Ein griechisches Lektionar,” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 24 (1959): 72-88. Incidentally, Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson have both been presidents of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS) in 1968 and 1990, respectively.
In Gerhardsson's 1992 farewell lecture (available in Swedish here) he gives a retrospective view of his research, listing his favorite subjects: tradition and transmission, the role played by Israel's confession of faith (the Shema) for Jesus and Early Christianity, New Testament Ethics, and the Gospel of Matthew. These areas are reflected in Gerhardsson's many publications (see selected bibliography below), but of course Gerhardsson is most well-known for his work in the first area.

In a 2009 tribute to Gerhardsson,  Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (ed. S. Byrskog and W. Kelber; Waco: Baylor, 2009) — a volume of essays which gives an excellent overview and evaluation of Gerhardsson's groundbreaking research — his student and successor at Lund University, Prof. Samuel Byrskog writes in the introductory chapter (p. 4):

Few scholars have influenced New Testament scholarship in the areas of orality, memory, and tradition more profoundly than Birger Gerhardsson. Today, as these topics have again become important in biblical scholarship, his pioneering work takes on a new light. . . . The discussion of his ideas, even when there is disagreement, is a manifestation of the crucial importance of his work.

Gerhardsson will be missed not only by his family, but by many colleagues and friends in Sweden and all over the world.

Selected bibliography

In this bibliography I list some of Gerhardsson's studies, primarily as they are now available in reprints and translations.

Tradition and transmission
Memory & Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity with Tradition & Transmission in Early Christianity (Dove and Eerdmans, 1998)
This is a reprint of the revised edition of Gerhardsson's thesis (1961), augmented with the follow-up booklet Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (1964), and a signficant foreword by Jacob Neusner (who refers to it as "an act of penance" since Neusner had reviewed Gerhardsson's original study three decades earlier "in an uncomprehending and unappreciative, indeed dismissive way.").

The Origins of the Gospel Traditions (Fortress and SCM Press, 1979) 
= Die Anfänge der Evangelientradition (Brockhaus, 1977).

The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition (Hendrickson, 2001)
A revision of the The Origins of the Gospel Traditions

The Gospel Tradition (Gleerup, 1986)
Also published in The Interrelations of the Gospels (ed. D. L. Dungan; Peeters, 1990), 497-545.

The Shema and New Testament Ethics
Hör Israel! Om Jesus och den gamla bekännelsen [Shema] (Liber, 1979)

The Shema in the New Testament: Deut 6:4-5 in Significant Passages (Novapress, 1996).
Seventeen studies written over a period of 30 years collected in one volume.

The Ethos of the Bible  (Wipf & Stock, 2005)

The Gospel of Matthew
The Testing of God's Son: (Matt. 4:1-11 & PAR), An Analysis of an Early Christian Midrash (Wipf & Stock, 2009; originally appeared 1966)

The Mighty Acts of Jesus according to Matthew (Gleerup, 1979)
The parables
The Good Samaritan — the Good Shepherd? (Gleerup, 1958)

Jesu liknelser [the parables of Jesus]: en genomlysning (Novapress, 1999)