Martin Hengel (1926-2009) was a German scholar. Professor of New Testament and Ancient Judaism at the University of Tübingen, Germany, was one of the great scholars of ancient Judaism in the twentieth century.
He was born in 1926 in Reutlingen, and studied in Tübingen and Heidelberg. His Doktorvater in Tübingen was Otto Michel. He finished his dissertation on the Zealots in 1959, but he was occupied with his family’s textile business until 1964. In 1967, however, he completed his Habilitation thesis on Judaism and Hellenism, that won instant recognition as a classic in the field. He served as professor of New Testament in Erlangen from 1968 to 1972, when he was called to succeed his Doktorvater in Tübingen. He remained there for the rest of his career, as professor of New Testament and early Judaism, and director of the Institut für antikes Judentum und hellenistische Religionsgeschichte.
Hengel’s master work on the influence of Hellenism in the land of Israel transformed the field. Henceforth Hellenistic Judaism referred to a period, not only to Diaspora Judaism. The main lines of this thesis stand, even if the extent of Hellenistic culture in Judea was somewhat exaggerated, and some specific theses, such as his reconstruction of the Hasidim, have not stood the test of time. He later extended his survey of Hellenistic influence, in much less detail, through the first century of the Common Era. But while his initial work demonstrated the Hellenistic character of Judaism in this period, the main thrust of his life’s work was to demonstrate the primary importance of Judaism as the context in which early Christianity developed. In this respect, his work was meant to counterbalance that of Rudolf Bultmann, who had privileged the role of syncretistic and Gnostic materials in early Christianity. Hengel did not neglect the Hellenistic elements, but his primary influence was on the Jewish context.
Hengel’s mastery of ancient texts, Jewish as well as Hellenistic, was unrivalled. He was prodigiously productive. At the time of his death he was working on the eighth volume of his Kleine Schriften, and had published, with Anna-Marie Schwemer, the first volume of a comprehensive history of early Christianity. He served as editor of several major scholarly series (WUNT, TSAJ, AGJU). His presence made Tübingen a center of international scholarship, to which scholars of every nation went on pilgrimage. He received no fewer than six honorary doctorates, and was a member of several prestigious academies.
Martin Hengel was a giant, who towered over the world of ancient Judaism and early Christianity by the force of his personality, erudition, and productivity. We will not see his like again.