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Interview with Joseph Hellerman

I’m going to have to make this introduction brief because I need to go with my wife to her work in a few minutes. Joseph Hellerman is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot School of Theology. His books include When the Church Was a Family, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi, and Jesus and the People of God. Without further ado, I give you my interview with him.

Joseph Hellerman

First, tell us a little about yourself.

I am Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot School of Theology. I also serve as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, El Segundo, CA, a church that has become a laboratory, of sorts, for my vision for the church as a family.

My education includes an M.Div. and Th.M. from Talbot, and a Ph.D. in History of Christianity from UCLA. I wrote several academic monographs, including The Ancient Church as Family (Fortress, 2001), Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and Jesus and the People of God: Reconfiguring Ethnic Identity (Sheffield Phoenix, 2007). Most recently, I authored a book for local church leaders, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (B&H Publishing 2009).

I have a deep love for the local church, and have served for more than thirty years in various capacities in both full-time and part-time vocational church ministry. As a scholar-practitioner, my driving passion is to see Christians enjoy the benefits of authentic community in our local churches.

I am blessed to live with Joann, my wife of 29 years, in the home in which I was raised, in Hermosa Beach, CA. We have two adult daughters who are walking close to Jesus. When I am not involved in church or academic ministry, you might find me fishing in the Pacific Ocean, playing jazz piano, wine-tasting with Joann in Temecula, or mentoring inner-city pastors through World Impact’s Urban Ministry Institute.

What motivated you to enter your field of study? What keeps you going?

I found studying the Bible and biblical languages in seminary to be immensely satisfying, and, as a pastor, I decided that I wanted to influence future pastors in a broader way than I could if I were to remain full-time in the local church. So that started it all.

What keeps me going as a pastor-professor is the incredible honor of teaching and mentoring men and women who are giving their lives to make a difference in this world for our Lord Jesus Christ. They deserve better, but somehow God has chosen to use me in their lives. J

What issues have you had to overcome along the way?

Well, in my case, a five-year Ph.D. program (after four years in seminary!) became nine years long because (a) our senior pastor took another job during my first year in the program, and I had to fill the pulpit weekly, (b) my mother became terminally ill, and my wife and I took care of her in our little 2-bedroom, 750 sq ft house, with two young daughters, and (c) I fell on a jetty fishing and broke my hip right after I had completed my comprehensive exams, half-way through the program.

Obviously God’s “school of character” turned out to be a little different than the agenda I had set for my education, when I entered the program at UCLA in the Fall of 1989. But I would not have it any other way, as I look back on it today.

What is your favorite passage of scripture?

I really have to pick? OK, I’ll choose Philippians 2:5-11. Much of pastoral ministry has to do with the way we choose to leverage the authority we have as Christian leaders, as we minister to others in the body of Christ. Sadly, it seems that almost on a weekly basis I run into someone who has been hurt or otherwise abused by a pastor or another individual in Christian leadership, that is, by a leader who has used his authority in a self-serving way. When I wrote my book on Philippians (Reconstructing Honor), I was profoundly impressed by the way the Second Person of the Godhead leveraged his power and authority—solely in the service of others. We would all do well to become more like Jesus, in this regard.

Can you divulge any information on any new publication or project on which you are working?

I am teaching a full load and preaching every Sunday this Fall (2009), so I have no writing projects in the pipeline at present. I am finding a little “nerd time” here and there, though, to read the Aramaic Targums, and in the future I might explore the importance of the Targums for understanding the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. My father was a German Jew, and I have this thing for Semitic languages—I know, I know—a bit weird for a New Testament scholar.

If there is one author/theologian that you believe everyone should read, who is it?

This is a hard one. There are so many New Testament scholars I admire (Bauckham, Hurtado, Carson, Witherington, etc.). If I must pick one, however, I’ll finger N. T. Wright, not necessarily because I agree with his every conclusion, but because (a) he thinks creatively, (b) he thinks ‘big picture,’ and (c) he thinks historically/culturally first, and theologically second. I have probably learned more from N. T. Wright than from any other author/theologian.

Wright is not, however, an  author/theologian I think “everyone should read.” I would not want the people in my church feeding themselves solely on a diet of Tom Wright, for example, without a broader scholarly context in which to situate him. But a budding New Testament scholar (e.g., a seminary student with a rudimentary grasp of the field) would do well carefully to work his/her way through Wright’s trilogy on early Christian history.

What do you think are the biggest problems facing New Testament scholarship today?

Problem #1: The way the popular media champions the likes of Bart Ehrman, instead of putting forth a fine conservative scholar like Dan Wallace. [You did say you’re a DTS student, Matt?! J] That has become a major problem, I think, for people in the broader culture, and for some of our less-informed church members, as well.

Problem #2: New Testament historiography has been taken captive by our post-Shoah Zeitgeist, so that (especially liberal) scholars seem increasingly unwilling to entertain the remote possibility (a) that there might have been something awry with Second Temple Judaism (and its leaders), and (b) that Jesus might have offered some…er…much needed “course correction,” in this regard. J

Scholarship is always historically contingent, but it seems that cutting edge New Testament scholarship is presently over-determined by issues of power and discourse (under the domineering aegis of postmodern epistemological pessimism) and under-determined by evidence from the New Testament itself, read against the background of the social and historical realities of the ancient Mediterranean world. This is highly problematic for anyone who believes in authorial intention and an inspired New Testament text.

What areas do you think New Testament scholars will have to focus on in the next ten years?

Wow! (1) We’re well into the “not-so-New-Perspective-on-Paul” era, with all the opportunities that brings to integrate recent findings about Second Temple Judaism into our study of Paul, (2) the origin of the Gospels is up for grabs anew with the demise of the dominance of form criticism, and (3) we’ve got to deal with this American stream of revisionist historiography (where form criticism curiously still reigns supreme) that postulates a whole variety of “Christianities” during the first and second centuries—and that’s just some of the trendy stuff already in the pipeline!

More broadly, though, there will always be linguistic discoveries to be made (ongoing reflection on the tense of the Greek verb comes to mind). And continued archaeological digs will provide some new historical data. The work that Dan Wallace, Peter Williams, and others are doing in the area of textual criticism will also be increasingly important—particularly to reinforce our confidence in the New Testament text, in the academy and in the church.

I suspect, however, that the social and cultural world of Mediterranean antiquity—and the way these background materials inform our understanding of the text—will prove especially fruitful for the next generation of New Testament scholars. I hope so, at any rate. I have a former teaching assistant, for example, who is at UCLA comparing Greco-Roman ideals of honorable leadership with Paul’s view of leadership in his epistles. This kind of research has tremendous potential practically to inform the way we do church. And that, for my money, is New Testament scholarship at its best. But this is coming from a guy who does most of his work in this very area! J

Where do you believe are the best places for a student to study the New Testament either as an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral student?

Depends on goals, background, and a myriad of other factors. I went to UCLA ‘cause I live in LA—pretty mundane.

Lastly, if there is one piece of advice you could give to someone entering New Testament scholarship, what would it be?

The church. Do it for the church!

Please do not go into New Testament scholarship (a) because you got some warm fuzzies from that ‘A’ you earned in Greek exegesis, or (b) because you love to study the Bible. Go into New Testament scholarship because you want to serve the church.

I would (and do) discourage anyone who is not presently in a ministry position in the local church—and who plans to stay in one throughout his/her education—from doing a Ph.D. in New Testament. This doesn’t mean he/she has to be a full-time paid pastor. But it does mean, in my view, he/she should be teaching AND shepherding others in the local church throughout (and after) the academic training.

I have met with the same group of elders in my church every Tuesday morning for 10 years, simply to pray for one another and for our church family (no church business at these meeting). To these men, the august string of academic letters after my name mean nothing. These guys are my brothers in the Lord, first, and my partners in ministry, second. And because of the close brother-relationships we share, these men do more for my spiritual life (and, consequently, more to keep my scholarship biblical) than any of my academic peers in the field of New Testament studies.

You will likely discover (as I have) that the people in your local church who are not biblical scholars will teach you more about following Jesus than any scholar or any book you’ll ever read. I simply cannot overemphasize this truth.

So, if you are unwilling to (a) be a true brother in relationship with others in the local church, and (b) shepherd the flock of God, please do not bother with a Ph.D. in biblical studies. We don’t need any more non-relational “loners” in biblical scholarship. We have lost too many well-meaning conservative Ph.D. students to the enemy, simply because many of these folks did not keep their feet firmly planted in the nurturing relational soil of the local Christian church throughout their scholarly pilgrimage.  Sermon over. J

Thank you Dr. Hellerman for participating in this interview. Readers, any comments? Questions? Or otherwise? Leave them here and I’ll be back in a little bit.

MSE

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7 Responses

  1. Great interview. I appreciate his honesty regarding ministry and academics.

  2. Great interview!

    One of my favorite profs here at Talbot. I was enrolled in his NT ThM seminar, “Church as a Family” that he is teaching this semester but had to drop it due to funding/time constraints. His Greek exegesis class is what kind of opened the door for me in terms of biblical scholarship in the first place. An awesome teacher who also has a huge heart for the local church ministry (as you could probably tell in the interview)

    Thanks again for this!

    • I’m glad you liked it. He’s asked that I review his book, When the Church was a Family. I’m going to ask for it after I make my way through B&H’s current books. Have you read it? Any thoughts on it?

      I had a Greek prof that “opened the door for me in terms of biblical scholarship” as well. They are an awesome bunch.

  3. […] met him. Perhaps one reason is selfish: he wrote a blurb for a book I wrote. However I just read an interview with him and one particular response to a question posed to him caught my attention and confirmed my respect […]

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