Helmut Koester (1926-2015/6)

HelmutKoesterApril2015Sad news for the field of Christian Apocrypha studies–and for the study of ancient Christianity more generally–as word spread yesterday that Professor Helmut Koester had died at his home in Lexington, Mass. at the age of 89. An obituary was posted by his Lutheran church in Cambridge.

There is much that could be said (and many great stories that could be shared) about Professor Koester, but for the field of Christian Apocrypha studies, his signature achievement is nothing less than giving birth to the study of the Christian Apocrypha in North America. During his teaching career at Harvard Divinity School, which spanned an amazing 55 years, he mentored a great many scholars of the CA. In addition, his close collaboration with James Robinson (the two of whom co-wrote the enormously influential Trajectories Through Early Christianity) helped to establish Claremont in California as the other center of CA studies in the US. Koester’s theories about the Gospel of Peter, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Egerton Gospel, and other CA texts are daring and provocative, though certainly controversial.

The following paragraph, from Brent Landau’s article, “The ‘Harvard School’ of the Christian Apocrypha,” sums up the unparalleled place in CA studies occupied by Koester:

“Suffice it to say that Koester’s theories have not commanded universal assent; indeed there are even many scholars who I would associate with the Harvard School who have serious misgivings about one or more of these theories. As such, Ulrich Luz, in his review of Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels said, with an obvious mix of admiration and disagreement, that the book “is not so much an introduction into the Gospels as it is an introduction to Koester, and as such, it definitely has its great merits.” I would frame it slightly differently: even if Koester is ultimately proven wrong in many of his theories, he is brilliantly, spectacularly wrong.” (p.68 of Forbidden Texts on the Western Frontier: the Christian Apocrypha in North American Perspectives)