Preeminent New Testament Scholar Helmut Koester Passes Away at 89

January 4, 2016
Helmut Koester
Helmut Koester died on New Year’s Day, 2016, at age 89. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell

Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Emeritus, died on New Year’s Day, 2016, at age 89.

Koester was a leading scholar in the history of Christianity, New Testament exegesis and theology, the religions of the ancient Roman world, and archeology.

"Helmut Koester was a man of tremendous intellectual breadth and generosity," said Laura S. Nasrallah, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. "He had a deep knowledge of ancient languages and ancient history, and a deep concern for informed historical and theological readings of New Testament texts. He wanted to push forward knowledge in the academy and for that knowledge to serve the church—in his case, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"He forged connections between archaeologists and scholars of the New Testament, creating interdisciplinary connections before the term was even popular. Those intellectual connections resulted in life-long collegial connections and friendships into which he drew his own students."

Koester was born on December 18, 1926, in Harburg—a borough in the city of Hamburg, Germany. He served in the German Navy during World War II (1943–45) and was taken prisoner of war in 1945 by the American armed forces. After his release from POW camp, Koester studied theology under Rudolf Bultmann at the University of Marburg (1945–50). He then served as pastoral intern in the Lutheran Church of Hanover (1951–54). He was ordained into Lutheran ministry in 1956. Koester’s attachment to Bultmann and Bultmann’s teachings continued throughout his life; his two-volume Introduction to the New Testament was dedicated to Rudolf Bultmann.

Koester earned his ThD in 1954 from the University of Marburg, writing his dissertation on the synoptic traditions in the Apostolic Fathers. He was assistant professor at the University of Heidelberg (1956–59) when he came to Harvard to join the faculty as a tenured associate professor. He was named John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies in 1963 and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History in 1968. He retired in 1998 but continued to be active in advising and teaching until 2014 and in research and writing until his death.

Koester was editor of Harvard Theological Review from 1975 until 1999. His lengthy bibliography includes Trajectories Through Early Christianity (1971, with James M. Robinson); History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age (1982); History and Literature of Early Christianity (1987); and Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (1990); From Jesus to the Gospels (2007); Paul & His World (2007). In addition to authoring numerous books and articles, Koester was editor of the Encyclopedia of Archeology in the Biblical World and editor of many volumes in the Hermeneia commentary series.

The list of Koester's publications cannot adequately communicate the breadth and impact of his work. From the beginning of his career, his interest in the New Testament was developed alongside research into non-canonical texts, resulting from his ability to ground the texts of the New Testament within a broad context of literary and documentary works.

His early education in Germany steeped him in the Classics and in Greek and Roman history, and he continued to develop this knowledge in his travels to archaeological sites in Greece and Turkey over many decades. The deep friendships and collegial relationships that developed from these travels inspired his organizing of conferences and edited volumes on Ephesos and Pergamon as well as his editing of Archeological Resources for New Testament Studies (1987).

Koester took many generations of students to Greece and Turkey through courses at Harvard, and his work continues in the collegial relations he encouraged them to develop and in the research and publications they produce. These strong relations with students and colleagues resulted in a Festschrift presented to Koester in honor of his 65th birthday, titled The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (1991, ed. Birger A. Pearson).

Koester, alongside his wife Gisela, not only traveled with many generations of students to Greece and Turkey—introducing them to friends, food, and marvelous archaeological sites there—but also welcomed students into his home. Advisees were always invited to home-cooked dinners (often with ingredients from Koester's garden) and included in instrumental and vocal musical events at the Koester home in Lexington. The welcome and warmth of such occasions, as well as Koester's intellectual impact, was an inspiration for a volume presented to Koester in 2005: The Fabric of Early Christianity: Reflections in Honor of Helmut Koester by Fifty Years of Harvard Students (2006, eds. Philip Sellew and James D. Smith, III).

Among Koester's many fellowships, awards, and memberships were a Guggenheim Fellowship (1963–64) and American Council of Learned Societies Fellowships (1971–72, 1978–79). He was president of the Society of Biblical Literature (1991) and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity.

He was awarded honorary Doctor of Theology degrees at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1989 and at the Theologische Fakultät of the Humboldt University, Berlin, in 2006. He was on the editorial board of the prestigious Hermeneia commentary series, a role he enjoyed intellectually and collegially, serving alongside friends and colleagues, such as James Robinson, Hans Dieter Betz, Peter Machinist, Klaus Baltzer, and some former students, such as Harry Attridge and Adela Yarbro Collins.

Before his death, AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton University agreed to complete his commentary on 1 Thessalonians in the Hermeneia series at Fortress Press.

Koester is survived by his wife Gisela G. Koester (Harrassowitz) and children Reinhild, Almut, Ulrich, and Heiko, as well as three grandsons.

A funeral service will take place at 11 am, Saturday, January 16, at University Lutheran Church, 66 Winthrop Street, in Cambridge. The service will be followed by a reception and refreshments.

memorial service at Harvard will take place on Friday, May 6, at Memorial Church. Donations on behalf of Koester may be made to Lutheran World Relief, the Nature Conservancy,  or the “New Testament and Archaeology” fund at HDS, which Professor Koester generously supported himself. To donate to the fund, please email Lauren Wilson, associate director for campaign and donor relations at HDS, or call 617.495.5271.