In memory of Rudolf Pesch

* Sept. 2, 1936   † Jan. 13, 2011

Only few exegetes receive the honor of being cited by the Pope. It happened to Rudolf Pesch in the Jesus book of Pope Benedict XVI – and not just once but three times. This demonstrates not only the German Pope’s high appreciation of the historic-critical exegesis. It also demonstrates that for Rudolf Pesch, as an exegete of the New Testament, the Bible is not only a historic and literary document but a guideline for the Christian existence of today.

Born in Bonn in 1936, married and father of two children, he had all chances of pursuing a university career after completing his doctoral studies on modern history (“The ecclesial-political press of the Catholics in Germany before 1848”, 1964) and the New Testament (“The imminent eschatological expectation. Tradition and editing in Mk 13”, 1967). His early specialization on the Gospel of Mark reveals quite a bit about his academic interest. He always wanted to go back to the very beginning, to the original Jesus, to the original words of Jesus, to the original form of the Gospel, to the original Epistles of Paul which he reconstructed with the help of clever literary-critical hypotheses from the canonic ones, back to the earliest traditions of the Church which he found in the Acts of the Apostles. His collections of writings with over 600 works (among them the substantial considerations on the Gospel of Mark, the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans) demonstrates enormous diligence and high productivity on high academic standards.

After a decade of professorship of Biblical studies at the University of Frankfurt/Main (1970-1980), his professorship of New Testament exegesis at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau as from the year 1980 represents the highlight in his academic career. The fact that a layman was appointed to this renowned Chair was spectacular news. Hence, the education of candidates for the priestly ministry and theologians was entrusted to a representative of the younger generation of exegetes who mainly dedicated their research to the historic-critical method.

However, the works of Rudolf Pesch have always been characterized by and incorporated in an existential way of living out one’s faith. At the end of the 1960s, he got to know the “Integrated Community” (today: “Catholic Integrated Community”). It was not only the “vita communis,” the shared entrepreneurial activities and the concept of living together in so-called integration houses, which impressed him about it but the serious involvement with modern theology and exegesis as well. Through symposiums and personal encounters (in particular with initiators of the community, Traudl Wallbrecher and her husband Herbert, and the theologian Ludwig Weimer who was to become a student of Ratzinger at a later date) he discovered not only the exegesis but also the structure-congruent experience of a Christian community as hermeneutic key elements for the correct understanding of the Bible.

The realization that the same belief he had found through academic methods with Jesus and his disciples was still possible within a community of the 20th century turned him into a fighter “against the double truth” (which is the title of his lecture on the occasion of Karl Rahner’s 80th birthday in 1984), against the falling apart of theological knowledge and daily practice of faith.

In the same year, he came to a decision which he referred to as his “calling to Munich”: He left his Chair in Freiburg in order to live and work within the Catholic Integrated Community. At this place, as he declared in his farewell lecture, he had “discovered and understood on the basis of specific historical experience what repentance, belief, a parish, the people of God, the history of salvation, the sacrament, assembly, mass and theology really meant.” The university and ecclesial environment did not understand his departure and interpreted it as a provocation. However, for some of his students (among whom there is also the author of these lines) it was the initial impulse to also go to this place where theology is not only taught but actually lived.

In the following decades, Rudolf Pesch carried out his historic and exegetic work to build a bridge between the texts of the Scripture and the experiences of this community constituted on the basis of the New Testament.

A new issue he focused on was the encounter between Jews and Christians which emerged out of the question about the causes of the Shoah and the vision of the one people of God which was manifested by the “Urfeld Circle.” From 2000 until 2002 he lived in Israel. His clear-sighted conclusions have been published in some papers of the past years.

In 2008, at an age when other people retire, he returned to university. Together with other theologians of the Catholic Integrated Community, exegetes, dogmatists and church historians he established the “Chair for the Theology of the People of God” at the Pontifical Lateran University. For him, it was a way to give back – in the form of interdisciplinary collaboration – the experiences of Church and the theological insights he was able to make. In his last lecture, he once again crossed the borders of his discipline and discussed the differentiation of the biblical faith and the religions referring to theologians such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer und Franz Rosenzweig. The radical nature of his search for truth and authenticity in his scientific research and life is what we should strive for and take as an incentive.

Prof. Michael P. Maier, Jan. 27, 2011
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