Adolf Deissmann

The following article on the work and influence of Adolf Deissmann, by Greg Horsley, is reproduced from the Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation edited by Stanley E. Porter (New York: Routledge, 2007). I have added a few explanations of terms in square brackets. —M.D.M.


Deissmann was arguably the internationally most influential German professor of New Testament between the two World Wars, and prior to that a contributor of seminal importance to the contextualizing of the social world of early Christianity and to the understanding of the linguistic matrix of the LXX and New Testament. The son of a Lutheran pastor, Deissmann was educated at a Gymnasium in Wiesbaden, university studies at Tübingen (1885–1887) and Berlin (1888), followed by his Habilitation at Marburg; Privatdozent 1892. Ordained in 1890, he rejected an approach in 1921 to become diocesan bishop of Nassau. Three distinct facets of Deissmann’s adult career and interests may be identified: postclassical Greek, the archaeological and social context of primitive Christianity, and international ecumenism. Bibelstudien and Neue Bibelstudien were trailblazers for their quarrying of inscriptions to illuminate features of the Greek of the LXX, and were an earnest of his plan to produce a lexicon of the New Testament, as emerges most clearly in some of his letters to J.H. Moulton (q.v.), his closest English friend (Horsley 1994). This dictionary was to be his opus vitae [life work], and in conjunction with various other publications shows him to have been a philologist manqué [one who aspired to be a philologist but failed] rather than a typical New Testament professor focused on theology. Deissmann’s collegial friendship with Ulrich Wilcken (1862–1944), arguably the preeminent papyrologist of his generation, stimulated his interest in the papyri and ostraca as they began to emerge in increasing numbers from the sand and ancient rubbish heaps of Egypt. The marriage of this interest with his LXX concerns led directly to his publication of the first volume of the Heidelberg papyri, which included numerous LXX and early Christian texts. His friendship since schooldays with Theodor Wiegand (1864–1936), excavator of Miletos and Priene, and later Director of the Antiquities Section of the Prussian Museum in Berlin, was revived when Deissmann was able to join classical philologists on a study tour to various archaeological sites in 1906. This combination of interests in the realia [artifacts] of ancient places, their nonliterary texts, and in the forms of Greek in use at the turn of the era all came together in his remarkable Licht vom Osten, a book which was as influential as any on early Christianity to come out of Germany last century because of his gift to popularize his subject (Deissmann’s regular visits to Britain ensured a ready readership in English as well for this book), while at the same time providing a substantial new perspective on the social level of the Christian groups. That perspective can now be seen to be distorted partly by his own situation in early twentieth-century Germany and his early links with the Nationalsozialer Verein [National Social Alliance] (Horsley 1994: 200). On the other hand, his views of the nature of the Greek of the Bible were largely set aside by a renewed and exaggerated assertion of the Semitic background to the language of the New Testament. While the first Christians were not necessarily mostly lower-middleclass workers as Deissmann proposed, his appreciation of the language situation still deserves to be taken seriously. In the centuries-long debate between Purists and Hebraizers, Deissmann was certainly not the latter; but neither can he be neatly classified as the former (Horsley 1989: 38–40). As a provincial, Deissmann felt out of place in Berlin initially, and in a letter to Moulton soon after he arrived there in 1909 he described it as a ‘vampire’ because he could not make progress on his lexicon (Horsley 1994: 206–10). However, the change of direction which the war effected on his life — his Evangelischer Wochenbrief [Protestant Weekly Letter] was a conscious attempt to keep open channels of communication between Christians on both sides of the conflict — meant that Berlin as the intellectual and political center was the place for an international figure to be; and to that extent he embraced it as he became increasingly engaged in ecumenical work after the war (Markschies 2005). It was the latter turn in his career rather than the move to Berlin which put paid to [decisively prevented] his lexicon being completed. Instead W. Bauer’s second (1928) and third (1937) editions of the New Testament lexicon, building substantially on E. Preuschen’s first edition (7 fasc. 1908–10, which Deissmann reviewed antipathetically; complete one vol. edn. 1910), appeared in his lifetime and were recognized by Deissmann to be a considerable advance in New Testament lexicography. Yet his ancient world interests were not abandoned entirely. Deissmann was the prime mover in raising funds for the renewal of excavations at Ephesus by the Austrian Archaeological Institute after the war; his close friendship with Joseph Keil (1878–1963) ensured the successful resumption of work there (of which Deissmann was himself an active participant) from 1926 (Gerber 2005). Before the end of the 1930s Deissmann’s academic influence was on the wane, with deprecatory allusions by others to ‘Deissmannism’ (Ros 1940: 34–44; Horsley 1989: 39, 82); yet some reassessment is warranted to recognize him as a pioneer in his area of research and in his influence on others (Horsley 1989: 37–40). A biography covering both his scholarly and ecumenical endeavors is in progress.

References and further reading

Deissmann, G.A. (1895) Bibelstudien, Marburg: Elwert. –––– (1897) Neue Bibelstudien, Marburg: Elwert (ET of BS and NB in one vol., Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1923). –––– (1905) Die Septuaginta-Papyri und andere altchristliche Texte, Veröffentlichungen aus der Heidelberger Papyrus-Sammlung, 1, Heidelberg: Winter. –––– (1908) The Philology of the Greek Bible, London: Hodder & Stoughton. –––– (1909) Licht vom Osten, Tübingen: Mohr, 4th edn. 1923 (repr. Milan: La Goliardica, 1976; ET of that edn, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927). –––– (1911) Paulus. Eine kultur- and religionsgeschichtliche Skizze, Tübingen: Mohr, 2nd edn. 1925 (Swedish edn. already pub. Stockholm: Olaus Petri Foundation, 1910; ET of 1st German edn. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912; ET of 2nd German edn. 1927). –––– (Dec. 1914–Dec. 1921) Evangelischer Wochenbrief, privately printed (ET: Protestant Weekly Letter, 1914–17). –––– (1927) Die Stockholmer Bewegung. Die Weltkirchenkonferenzen zu Stockholm 1925 und Bern 1926 von innen betrachtet, Berlin: Furche. –––– (1930) Die Schicksale des Neuen Testaments. Rede zum Antritt des Rektorats der Friedrich-WilhelmsUniversität zu Berlin am 15. Oktober 1930, Berlin: Preussische Druckerei- und Verlags-Aktiengesellschaft. –––– (1936) Una Sancta. Zum Geleit in das ökumenische Jahr 1937, Gütersloh: Bertelsmann. –––– and G.K.A. Bell (1930) Mysterium Christi. Christological Studies, London, Hodder & Stoughton (German trans. Berlin: Furche, 1931). Gerber, A. (2005) ‘Gustaf Adolf Deissmann (1866–1937): Trailblazer in Biblical Studies, in the Archaeology of Ephesus, and in International Reconciliation’, Buried History 41: 29–42. Harder, G. and G. Deissmann (1967) Zum Gedenken an Adolf Deissmann, 7 November 1866 – 5 April 1937, Bremen: privately printed (includes further bibliography by D.) Horsley, G.H.R. (1989) New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 5: Linguistic Essays, Sydney: Macquarie Univ. Ancient History Documentary Research Centre. –––– (1994) ‘The Origins and Scope of Moulton and Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, and Deissmann’s planned New Testament lexicon. Some unpublished letters of G.A. Deissmann to J.H. Moulton,’ Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 76(1): 187–216. Markschies, C. (2005) ‘Adolf Deissmann — ein heidelberger Pionier der Ökumene’, Zeitschrift für neuere Theologiegeschichte 12: 47–88. J. Ros (1940) De Studie van het Bijbelgrieksch van Hugo Grotius tot Adolf Deissmann, Nimwegen: Dekker & van de Vegt.