Aarhus University Seal

A Brief History of the Discipline

New Testament at Aarhus University A Brief History of the Discipline

By Kasper Bro Larsen and René Falkenberg

The study of the New Testament as the primary textual basis of Christianity has always been central to theology in Aarhus. A brief overview of the history of the discipline can only cover a few highlights. Please join us on a guided tour from the first full professor through the methodological paradigm shifts after the 1970s to the increased internationalization of the Aarhus exegesis in the 21st century –and some notes on the situation today. 

Johannes Munck: The First Professor of the Discipline

The history of New Testament research and research on the early Christianity at Aarhus University begins before the establishment of the Faculty of Theology in 1942. As early as in 1938, Johannes Munck was employed as professor in the field, initially under the Faculty of Humanities. He held the post until his death in 1965 (Fig. 1). Munck was an internationally recognized scholar and a dynamic university administrator. As a researcher he began in the field of patristics with a doctoral dissertation on Clement of Alexandria (1933), but he had his greatest impact as a visionary critic of the existentialist exegesis of the Bultmann school. Within Pauline studies, he directed attention to the fact that Paul’s collective and ethnic agenda had been overlooked in Protestant individualistic exegesis. Munck thus became an important forerunner of the ‘New Perspective on Paul,’ which emphasized Paul’s Jewish background. The central works by Munck were in this regard Paulus und die Heilsgeschichte (1954; English edition in 1959) and Christus und Israel: Eine Auslegung von Röm 9-11 (1956; English edition in 1967).

As administrator, Munck was co-founder of the Faculty of Theology and became its first Dean. During the Second World War, he served as president of Aarhus University (1943–45). He took the initiative to form a Danish exegetical society, Collegium Biblicum, and was the first chairperson of the society (1947-60). As president of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (1959-60), he held the annual meeting in Aarhus in 1960. Munck received honorary doctorates from the universities of Oslo (1960) and Glasgow (1961).

Translations of Ancient Jewish and Christian Texts

Johannes Munck was co-initiator of the Danish translation of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha including, for example, the Letter of Aristeas and the Books of Enoch and Adam. In modern research, these extra-canonical writings are crucial to the understanding of ancient Judaism in which the Christ movement originated. The translation was an admirable accomplishment, and De gammeltestamentlige pseudepigrafer was published over the course of three decades (1953-76; published in one volume in 2001). This laid the foundation for extensive translation and dissemination work from the exegetical scholars at Aarhus University.

In addition to contributing to the authorized Danish translation of the Bible in 1992, Aarhus New Testament scholars have regularly published translations of non-canonical Jewish and Christian texts. One example of this was when Greek professor Jørgen Ledet Christiansen and associate professor Helge Kjær Nielsen published a translation of the New Testament Apocrypha, Nytestamentlige Apokryfer, in 2002. Søren Giversen, who was professor in 1975–98, was a very active translator. He published translations of Manichaean, Hermetic, and Nag Hammadi texts, but most important was the two-volume work with the Apostolic Fathers, De apostolske Fædre (1985), which was published in a second edition in 2001-02 under the title Oldkristne tekster. In addition to this, he founded the Aarhus tradition of studies of Coptic texts, including the Nag Hammadi writings, for example the Gospel of Thomas, Thomasevangeliet (1959; second edition in 1990).

New methods in the field of exegesis

The years around 1970 marked a significant turnaround in international Bible research. University exegesis, which had hitherto seen itself primarily as a theological discipline of historical studies, began to draw inspiration from other humanistic fields such as anthropology, sociology, and literary criticism. At the same time, for better or worse, an increased independence of exegesis in relation to the other theological disciplines took place. Winds of change also blew in Aarhus, e.g. with the publication of the anthology Skriftsyn og metode in the DKNT series (1989; second edition in 2007). However, it was Ole Davidsen's dissertation The Narrative Jesus: A Semiotic Reading of Mark’s Gospel (1993) that was the culmination of this development (Fig. 2). The dissertation broke new paths both exegetically and methodically by reading the Gospel of Mark as an independent narrative using semiotic and narratological analysis. As a representative of the methodical innovations, Ole Davidsen became the inspiration for a new generation of exegetes in Denmark. He worked as professor of the discipline in the period 2002-05.

Increased internalization

During the recent decades, New Testament exegesis in Aarhus has looked increasingly toward a broad international horizon. In 2006–2018, Eve-Marie Becker held the position as the discipline’s first female professor in Denmark. Becker came to Aarhus from the University of Erlangen in Germany. During her time in Aarhus, she also worked as a visiting professor at the universities of Erfurt, Atlanta, and Jerusalem. Becker also shaped Aarhus exegesis with externally funded collective projects such as Homines Novi: Literary Self-Configurations from Cicero and Paul to Augustine and Epistolary Leadership in Cicero and Paul.. Associate professor Jan Dochhorn (2007–2014) was another international element in Aarhus theology and did not least contribute with strong Judaic and philological competencies.

Visiting researchers from different professional traditions and countries often visit the Aarhus research environment, and Aarhus University is thus a natural host of international conferences and research projects in the field. Aarhus initiated the annual Aarhus-Oslo-Münster seminar and hosts a biennial Johannes Munck Lecture. In continuation of this work, an international publishing series, Studia Aarhusiana Neotestamentica (SANt, 2013–), was established, published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht in Göttingen (now at Brill, Leiden) and edited by employees associated with the New Testament research unit (Fig. 3).

The tendency towards increased internationalization has characterized the university as a whole in recent years, and there is no indication that the development will change for the time being – this also holds within New Testament exegesis. The Aarhus University exegesis today is no less than before a visible player in international academic scholarship and a communicator of biblical studies to the Danish public.

The New Testament exegesis today

At the present, professor Kasper Bro Larsen and associate professors René Falkenberg and Jacob Mortensen form the permanent New Testament group, which also includes a group of PhD students and postdocs who work within the field (see www.nt.au.dk/en). Kasper Bro Larsen wrote his PhD dissertation on the recognition scenes in the Gospel of John, using Homer's works and Greek dramas and romances as comparison. The dissertation was published as Recognizing the Stranger: Recognition Scenes in the Gospel of John (2008). René Falkenberg wrote his PhD dissertation on a Coptic Nag Hammadi text, the Epistle of Eugnostos, which is dependent on Paul's thinking and Plato's philosophy. He has previously published the text under the title Grundlaget for erkendelse (2003). Jacob Mortensen, who has special focus on the apostle Paul and the Paul-within-Judaism perspective, became associate professor 2021. Thus, all three scholars draw inspiration from ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman sources in order to shed new light on the gospels and the New Testament letters in their historical context.

Research dissemination and teaching are also important areas. The dissemination of theological knowledge to the Danish public takes place through lectures, articles, essays in daily newspapers, and on the internet, including in the online journal Bibliana (see www.bibliana.dk). Occasionally, monographs are also published for the general public, for examples Kasper Bro Larsen’s book Jesus (2018) at Aarhus University Press. However, most of the permanent staff's time is spent on teaching the students and supervising assignments and theses (Fig. 4).

In the bachelor's degree programme, New Testament exegesis consists of four compulsory courses, namely Introduction to the Bible and New Testament exegesis 1, 2, and 3. The latter three courses have a 1 ½ year Greek course as qualification criterion. Introduction to the Bible, presents Old and New Testaments texts to the students, including their the content, dating and historical context. New Testament Exegesis 1 contains study of the Gospel of Mark with synoptic parallels in Greek and deals with Gospel reasearch and methodology.  New Testament Exegesis 2 deals with epistolary literature with special emphasis on Paul's letters. Finally, the Gospel of John is interpreted in New Testament 3. In addition, students may choose electives in New Testament subjects and decide to write a bachelor's thesis within a specific New Testament area.

In the master's degree programme, there is one compulsory New Testament subject, which mainly focuses on Paul’s Letter to the Romans or New Testament theologies. Last but not least, the theological degree programme can be completed with a master’s thesis in New Testament studies.

Kasper Bro Larsen (b. 1972), professor, PhD.

René Falkenberg (b. 1970), associate professor, PhD.

The text has been published in Danish in: Teologi i Aarhus - mellem fortid og fremtid.