BMCR 2010.09.33

Deissmann the Philologist. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche Bd. 171

, Deissmann the Philologist. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche Bd. 171. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010. xxiii, 649. ISBN 9783110224313. $217.00.

Gustav Adolf Deissmann (1866-1937) has usually been remembered as either ‘theologian’ or ‘ecumenist’. In both fields his work has been valued, but in neither has he been lastingly esteemed as surpassingly great. Indeed, it is only in the last decade that his contribution has been much discussed at all. Albrecht Gerber seeks to show that, in both range and degree, Adolf Deissmann’s achievements are far more extensive than has been recognised. Gerber’s provocatively entitled Deissmann the Philologist is the first systematic study of that figure’s undertakings and contributions as a whole. It brings together a wealth of detailed research and is enriched by 209 pages of appendices in which primary materials relating to Deissmann’s life and achievement are published for the first time.

The structure of the book offers an effective compromise between thematic order and chronological sequence. Part One focuses on Deissmann’s university career in theology and philology. Gerber begins in Chapter 1 with Deissmann’s groundbreaking contribution to postclassical Greek philology: it was he who showed that biblical Greek was not some special Hebraic form set apart from the pagan environment, but that it belonged to a widely used koinē, different indeed from the classical or atticising forms of high literature, but common in epigraphy and papyri. Deissmann was not the first to challenge the belief in the existence of a separate ‘Hebraistic’, ‘Holy Ghost’, ‘Jewish’, ‘Christian’ or ‘biblical’ Greek, but it was he who developed a comparative philological method and painstakingly collected the material that made it possible to establish the argument on a firm footing. His early trilogy, Bibelstudien, Neue Bibelstudien and – the most famous and most popularising of the three – Licht vom Osten, were substance and fruits of this labour.

In Chapter 2 Gerber tells a more sorry story about a great but unrealised ambition in lexicography. In Deissmann’s day, lexica focussed on the high, classical literary language, thus distorting the sociolinguistic reality of the ancient world. Deissmann planned a lexicon that would make effective use of his new philological expertise and methods to bring about a deeper understanding of ancient Greek in general. This would have been a valuable project and one for which he was well qualified, but despite extensive collection of material, he never produced the book and his papers for it were ultimately lost or destroyed.

Chapter 3 bears the title of the book and traces Deissmann’s engagement with philology. As a young man Deissmann had wanted to be a classical philologist and entered the theology faculty only in accordance with the will of his father, the elder Pfarrer Deissmann. His career was marked by both philological achievement and innovative, interdisciplinary endeavour. His doctoral work was on the preposition ἐν, as it so perplexingly appears in the frequent Pauline formula ἐν Χριστῷ, and he later published a fine text, edition and commentary on Septuagintal papyri. In a lecture series delivered in the U.K., he argued for founding ‘New Testament Philology’ as a new sub-discipline of the Theology faculty with strong links to Classics. The lectures did not result in any restructuring of universities and were published only in English, but in his own career Deissmann effectively modelled the combination of theology and philology, enjoying an international reputation in both fields during his lifetime.

In Part Two, the focus shifts from university life to Deissmann’s ‘study tours’ in Anatolia. In 1906 Deissmann was invited to join Friedrich von Duhn’s trip for philologists to Anatolia, Greece and Crete, to see the sites and to study inscriptions and monuments in situ, and this trip exposed him to a whole new way of thinking about the ancient world. Enchanted with his discovery of the lokalgeschichtliche Methode, he designed a similar tour for theologians to visit the Levant and Egypt in 1909, to help them contextualise biblical history, sociology and archaeology. In Deissmann’s œuvre, the fruits are chiefly represented by his lectures on Paul delivered in Sweden and subsequently published in English. They have been criticised for conservatism and lack of engagement with scholarly literature, but this critique misses Deissmann’s intention. He wanted to share his lively new insight into the apostle’s experiences, gained from travel, and thereby to liberate Paul from his ‘eighth imprisonment’ in the dogmatic systems of armchair theologians.

Chapter 5 traces Deissmann’s involvement in the excavations at Ephesus. One of the most important sites for Christian, Jewish and pagan archaeology, it had been the object of significant archaeological work in the nineteenth century, but with the First World War and subsequent annexation of the region by Turkey, progress had ceased. Through the exceptional efforts of Deissmann and others, international funding was obtained to resume the labour. As in his earlier philological endeavours, so in his approach to Ephesus, Deissmann refused to compartmentalise ‘pagan’, ‘Christian’ and ‘Jewish’ or to prioritise between them in the excavations. He was not a trained archaeologist, but his wider expertise enabled him to participate effectively in four successive seasons of the excavations. He continued as chairman of the ‘Treuhänderschaft Ephesus-Grabung’ until his death.

After the first two thirds of the book dedicated to Deissmann’s academic achievements contextualised within his personal biography, Gerber moves on in Part Three to discuss Deismann’s involvement in the wider political, social and ecclesial life of his time. It was a particularly volatile, tense and painful period of German history and Deissmann did not shun engagement in its affairs.

Chapter 6 highlights Deissmann’s early involvement in politics in the Wilhelmine era as it moved into World War I. He was a friend and close supporter of the Christian socialist politician, Friedrich Naumann. Deissmann himself signed two starkly nationalistic Aufrufe early in the war, along with other leading intellectuals of his day. However, he quickly repented of his initial support for such German national Protestantism and turned his attention increasingly to trying to bring about international Völkerverständigung. It was with a view to this that he established his Protestant Weekly Letter or Evangelischer Wochenbrief, to which Gerber devotes Chapter 7.

The idea for this bulletin came from Matthias Erzberger, leader of the Roman Catholic Deutsche Zentrumspartei, who in 1914 invited Deissmann to edit a Protestant-oriented weekly bulletin for an American readership, to form a counterpart to Roman Catholic war literature. Deissmann welcomed the opportunity chiefly because it proffered a means of strengthening international Christian solidarity. The audience was carefully targeted, consisting chiefly in an international educated elite who would trust the reputation and integrity of its editor and be receptive to the bulletin’s work. Erzberger’s role in their production meant that Deissmann was largely able to avoid censorship. For seven years, the Wochenbriefe provided a forum for discussing the phenomenon of ‘Der Krieg und die Religion’ and helped build an international community of educated Christians.

In Chapter 8 Gerber gives a wider perspective on Deissmann’s religious beliefs and activities. Like other Germans he had been persuaded at the start of the war by a version of Luther’s Zweireichlehre, which taught a stark dualism of realms on earth: the spiritual and the worldly. In the name of such a teaching, those who claimed to be ‘spiritual’ waged war on the ‘worldly’. Deissmann soon became disenchanted with this theology and moved toward a more pluralistic, non-denominational, pacifist stance. Through his Protestant Weekly Letter he came into contact with Quakers, with whom he developed a strong rapport. He publicly defended the Jews from hostility shown by some contemporaries, and he took part in some of the earliest and most significant international ecumenical gatherings, including the first Christian world conferences at Stockholm (1925) and Lausanne (1927). Based on Paul’s teaching of the unity of all humanity before God (e.g. Gal. 3:28) he hoped for the mystical Una Sancta, the unity of all people before God. For him this was a Christian vision, and yet he was ‘fundamentally undogmatic’ (p. 315). Pietistic at heart, he distinguished theology as an academic discipline from the quest for humanitarian unity in which religious diversity was mutually enriching. Gerber questions whether Deissmann should properly be called an ecumenist ‘in a strict sense’ at all, for his long-term utopian vision contrasts sharply with the short-term religio-political objectives of most contemporary German ecumenists (p. 341).

Chapter 9 bears the poignant title, ‘From Zenith to Eclipse’. Gerber tells of the zenith of Deissmann’s career between 1929 and 1932, as he was elected to the Berlin Rektorat, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded three honorary degrees from as many different countries. But this is followed by the sad note of the erosion of Deissmann’s work and spirit under the increasing pressure from Hitler’s Gleichschaltung policy. When he passed away in 1937, his friends said that Deissmann had died of a ‘broken heart’. Despite his international reputation during his lifetime, his work quickly passed into obscurity. Gerber attributes this partly to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the 1940s onward, which shifted attention away from Deissmann’s emphasis on profane Greek and onto the Jewish background to the New Testament. Additionally, Deissmann was eclipsed along with other German luminaries by World War II.

This is an immensely learned book which provides fascinating insight into the intellectual biography of a prominent, educated German whose life spanned Germany’s difficult path from unification under Bismark to dictatorship under Hitler. As an appraisal of Deissmann it suffers slightly from ambiguity about what constitutes the kind of ‘greatness’ that is worthy of the attention of the present generation of scholars. At times it seems that Gerber wants Deissmann to be studied for his own sake, because he was a heroic and inspiring figure who may not have achieved everything he set out to, but who deserves attention because of the range and quality of his individual endeavours. At other times it seems that Gerber reserves greatness for those who have significantly changed how society thinks and operates. Overall he provides a strong argument that Deissmann made major contributions to the understanding of postclassical Greek, including biblical Greek; to bringing about the international support for excavation at Ephesus that made it financially and humanly viable, and to building up solidarity among Christians across the globe during and after World War I, partly in the context of the early ecumenical movement, but also beyond and outside it. The tale of Deissmann’s less successful ventures balances and enriches the personal portrait of this extraordinarily wide-ranging individual.

The title of Gerber’s book is arresting, but the book itself only partly bears out its implication. Gerber admits that Deissmann never formally trained as a philologist, would not have been called one in his day (because such epithets were then applied on the basis of formal education, not of achievement), and that in later life he lost his youthful ambition to be one. Gerber does usefully bring out the significance of philology to who Deissmann was and to what he achieved, but to call Deissmann a ‘philologist’ is to undermine the other part of what Gerber is arguing, namely that it is the multifaceted, interdisciplinary, interfaith, inherently pluralistic approach of Deissmann to every aspect of his career, both inside and outside the academy, that most characterises his achievements, his failures and his methods. It is this even more than his philological contribution that demands that we question the labels of ‘theologian’ or ‘ecumenist’ that have been applied to him.

Indeed, although it is not Gerber’s argument, his book provides the material on which to base a plausible claim that it is Deissmann’s interdisciplinary and pietistic approach that makes him particularly a man of our times. The philological, archaeological and ecumenical areas of his achievement are still of scholarly interest, but it is in his efforts to bridge divides between faculties and between peoples of different faiths and cultures, and in his mystical, undogmatic piety, that he speaks especially to the spirit of the early twenty-first century. However, whatever the precise nuance of Deissmann’s significance, Deissmann the philologist is an excellent book of outstanding scholarship, without rival in providing a powerful and moving discussion of Deissmann’s achievement and endeavour.