Earlier this month, I learned that Duane Christensen has died.
I corresponded with Christensen for a number of years, mostly via a web list he moderated, through which I was also privileged to meet Ernest McClain and a number of other renegade scholars of the ancient world. It is a deep regret of mine that we did not meet in person. Christensen was the author of a number of books on Biblical theology, including a translation and close reading of the book of Nahum for the Anchor Bible, and a two-volume study of Deuteronomy for the Word Biblical Commentary. He was a quietly brave and unceasingly hard-working scholar, pursuing a far-reaching research agenda that perceived the underlying architecture of both the Hebrew and the Christian canons as organized around deep structural principles. Many have seen a chiasmus-structure in scripture, but Christensen was bold enough to assert that this structure was far reaching and pertinent on many different scales, and he spelled out the textual and historical repercussions of this claim with persistence, faith, and open-minded intelligence. He developed a analytic protocol that pursued things down to the level of the syllable and the letter. He was extremely sensitive to the fact that scripture was always intended to be sung in a liturgical context, and his readings of Biblical books were always conducted with an eye to the setting of worship where they would have been used. Taking seriously the detail of the Masoretes' work, Christensen contended that the text of scripture had been engineered according to numerical and prosodic principles to approximate a breath-taking precision, but his hypothesis did not collapse into the unscientific permutation-mongering of Bible-Codeism. (My favorite books of his are those where he lays out this thesis most broadly, The Unity of The Bible and The Explosion of the Canon.) Moreover, he was always ready to engage anyone who asked (as I did, often), Why? His answer was essentially that certain numerical values were treated as divine, and there was a powerful incentive to encode these as frequently, and on as many textual levels, as possible. And while he marshaled a great deal of evidence in the form of close reading (and counting) to demonstrate his contentions, his readings never did violence to the surface meanings of the text.
These contentions of Christensen's often brought him into conflict with the Documentary Hypothesis, and he was not shy about regarding it as superfluous. Christensen felt that consideration of the Bible must begin with the text at hand, not with hypothetical reconstructions of D, J, E and P, and he was equally indifferent to imaginings of proto-Mark and -Matthew and of an imaginary document called "Q". I disagreed with him about some of this (more about the Old testament than the New), and we argued respectfully several times. This was in itself an index of his stature as a human being. His accomplishment and learning were tremendous, but he deigned to give respectful hearing to the objections of a guy who had small Greek and less Hebrew, who was more or less thinking out loud. This was my first impression of him, and it was confirmed over and over.
Christensen's scholarship was impressive, and so was his risk-taking. His methods seemed to some readers over-reaching. He often corresponded with researchers who were far from the mainstream of scholarship, and whose somewhat far-out work would raise eyebrows among more conservative academics. The provenance of the claims, however, was anything but crankiness; indeed, to some degree, Christensen (as he himself affirmed) was working out implications of the work of his former teacher, the formidable David Noel Freedman. It is more important, however, to note that his scholarly work was of a piece with his pastoral concerns, which were many and deep. For years, up until his death, he and his wife were volunteers at San Quentin prison, where he offered both spiritual counsel and lessons in Hebrew and Biblical theology. In this connection he had developed an entire curriculum for learning the language and studying the scriptures. My respect for him derived not from the fact that he did this work "as well as" his scholarship, but from the fact that his scholarship and his pastoral work were all of a piece. He had an indifference to the usual distinctions between practical this-worldly concerns and the usually abstruse academic pursuits; everything had ramifications on everything else. I learned a great deal from him, but most important was the way he brought this concern for beginners (often beginners in very difficult circumstances) together with uncompromising quality and detail of serious research. This made him, in my estimation, an unsurpassed role model.
Requiescat in pace.