Remembering Abraham J. Malherbe: Personal Reflections
by James Tabor
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. They rest from their labors and their works do follow them.
Abraham J. Malherbe, retired distinguished Professor of New Testament at Yale, died suddenly and unexpectedly this past Friday, September 28th. He was 82 years old. He will be sorely missed by all who knew, respected, and loved him, not the least of which are his thousands of students over his half-century of teaching at Abilene Christian University, Dartmouth, and Yale. There is a moving tribute to his life and career on the Yale web site here.
I first met Dr. Malherbe in the Fall of 1963 at Abilene Christian College (now Abilene Christian University) in Abilene, Texas. I was a beginning freshman and he was a beginning professor with his newly awarded doctorate from Harvard Divinity School. I was only 17 years old. I signed up for his course, titled simply, “1st Thessalonians.” That course changed my life and set me on my own life-long career as a New Testament scholar. Growing up in the Churches of Christ I had a fervent interest, even a passion, for the Bible–and the New Testament in particular. Dr. Malherbe was my first exposure to the academic study of the field we call “Christian Origins.” That same semester I began New Testament Greek with Robert L. Johnson, a revered and challenging professor in Classics and Koiné. Of course November 22, 1963, was a day none of us would ever forget that semester–and I was in classes that Friday when we got the word that our President had been shot.
I will never forget either course. We spent the entire semester on the short letter of 1 Thessalonians and I was able to make some beginning use my Greek, which I was learning day by day. 1 Thessalonians is our earliest Christian document, composed around 50 CE, and it offers us our earliest glimpse into the newly emerging Jesus movement as it forged its way into a Greek cultural context under the preaching and leadership of the apostle Paul. The letter of 1 Thessalonians ended up becoming a life-long concentration of Dr. Malherbe’s and he wrote extensively on its contents, including the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary (1 & 2 Thessalonians), which is a wonderful model of his scholarship. Dr. Malherbe gave no exams in the course. The only major requirement was a final paper–a five-page exegesis of a passage from the letter. I chose 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 in which Paul addresses the apocalyptic hopes and expectations of his followers, working endless hours on that paper. I still have the original with Dr. Malherbe’s neat expository comments in pencil. The A- grade I received gave me as much satisfaction as anything I had ever done before in my life. I also still have my nearly 50 year old copy of Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece that I purchased that year for college.
Prof. Malherbe gave me my start in my lifelong focus on studying Paul. I ended up writing my dissertation at the University of Chicago on Paul’s “Ascent to Paradise” (2 Corinthians 10). One of my last college memories of Dr. Malherbe was my senior year, visiting with him in his book-lined office at his home, both of us with our Greek New Testaments open, and talking about Colossians 2:14-16 and Galatians 4:10, and what the Greek reference to the ta stoicheia tou kosmou (“elemental spirits of the universe”) might mean in Paul’s understanding of the Law of Moses.
The 1960s were high and heady days at Abilene Christian College. Many of my classmates who were in those two courses with me went on to get Ph.D.’s and follow an academic career–including Dennis Smith and Thomas Robinson. Even before the arrival of Malherbe, who had studied with A.D. Nock and Helmut Koester at Harvard, faculty like Everett Ferguson and LeMoine G. Lewis, both distinguished Harvard graduates themselves, had begun to forge a new direction in terms of biblical scholarship for the college, founded in 1906 by members of the Churches of Christ. Frank Pack, distinguished in his own right, had left to take over the Dept. of Religion at Pepperdine in 1963 and Malherbe was his replacement. I later wrote my M.A. thesis at Pepperdine under the direction of Dr. Pack–who died in 1998–also at the age of 82. James Thompson has a wonderful article chronicling this significant history, “The Formation of an Academic Tradition of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University” published in The Restoration Quarterly and available here on-line.
My guess would be that over the years, first at Abilene, and subsequently at Dartmouth and Yale, Prof. Malherbe probably inspired or produced as many Ph.D. students in New Testament studies as anyone of his generation. I remember sitting in the Society of Biblical Literature seminar some years ago on the “Social World of Early Christianity” and counting at least 20 out of the 45 or so professors gathered for the session as students of Abraham Malherbe. At least a dozen of them traced back to our Abilene Christian College days.
I last saw Dr. Malherbe at the Atlanta 2010 meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. We ran into each other twice in passing and both times, once when we were with our wives, and a second time with the two of us alone, we spent some precious time catching up and reliving old memories. Dr. Malherbe was strong and healthy, he hardly seemed to age, and the characteristic twinkle in his eye, along with his wit and sense of humor, was in full display. You can watch a video of one of his recent presentations on a return visit to Abilene Christian Unviversity here. It captures the essence of his style and personality for those who never heard him speak. His premature death has left me feeling deeply sad and nostalgic. I was looking forward to seeing him in Chicago at our annual SBL/AAR meetings in November. My heart is with Phyllis and the girls as well as his whole extended family. Truly a light has gone out in our world.