on the occasion of Ernst Käsemann’s birthday

Ernst Käsemann was born on this day in 1906. In biblical studies he is often remembered for a lecture he gave in 1953, in which he argued that it is possible to learn about the historical person of Jesus from the material in the New Testament Gospels. It was a major shift at the time, and it eventually paved the way for a lot of exciting research and study we enjoy today.

To me his main significance is the doctoral dissertation he wrote, published in 1933 with the title Leib und Leib Christi: Eine Untersuchung zur paulinishen Begrifflichkeit. The title in English is Body and Body of Christ: A Study of Pauline Conceptuality. His was the first thorough study of the background of Paul’s use of the concept of a body to identify the church. For some reason the book has never been translated into English, but since my own topic was closely related to his, I had to start with a discussion of his thesis to establish my own. Academic German from the 1930’s is hard. I wasn’t surprised that it was hard for me, but I felt a little better when a German classmate agreed with me.

Käsemann wrote a lot about the book of Romans and proposed some significant ideas about the meaning of “justification” in Paul’s letters, ideas that are still resonating in the current discussions on that topic. Some of his conclusions I don’t necessarily agree with, a lot of them I probably don’t really understand properly yet, but as an exegete and theologian he has helped us think about important questions in new ways, and for that I’m grateful on his birthday. Lest we forget.

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