Heikki Räisänen in Memoriam
December 10, 1941 – December 30, 2015
Heikki Räisänen, arguably the most prominent Finnish scholar in biblical studies, died in Helsinki, Finland, on December 30th following a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Heikki was appointed Professor of New Testament Exegesis at his alma mater, the University of Helsinki, in 1975 and remained there until his retirement in 2006. Prior to his retirement, he was appointed Academy Professor, a title he held for five years.
In his autobiography Struggle and Interpretation: A Story of a Biblical Scholar (in Finnish, 2014), Heikki described his conflicts with literalist Bible believers and struggles at the University. Throughout his career but especially in the 1980s, he experienced difficult times. “True believers” and even some of his colleagues, particularly in the department of Systematic Theology, attacked him publicly, sometimes rather viciously. As an ordained Lutheran pastor, he was twice charged with heresy, and twice acquitted.
There were also challenges from the University of Helsinki itself: Should there be a Faculty of Theology in a public university? That controversy came to a celebrated end in 1994 when the Academy of Finland named Heikki’s research team as the University’s top ranked research unit, or “Center of Excellence.” This not only meant laurels for the team, it also insured funding for the next six years. In 2000, another project led by Heikki garnered Center of Excellence status. Subsequently a team in philosophy of religion at the Faculty of Theology followed suit. The Faculty thus redeemed its place in the University, and those who had been Heikki’s loudest critics were silenced.
Heikki Räisänen was the author of more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles in Finnish, Swedish, German, English and Spanish. (In addition, he spoke Italian and French and was fluent in ancient Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Arabic.) By 1975 when he arrived at the University of Helsinki, he had already begun to focus on Islam (Das Koranische Jesusbild [The Qur’anic Jesus Image], 1971), publishing three monographs on the subject. At the same time he published a number of works on the gospel of Mark.
Later, no doubt inspired by Krister Stendahl’s “new Paul,” Heikki, like so many others even to this day, turned to Pauline studies. The titles of his books—Paul and the Law (1983) and Jesus, Paul and Torah (1992)—reflect this interest, as does his keynote address, “A Controversial Jew: Paul and His Conflicting Convictions,” presented in 2007 at Westar Institute’s Fall national meeting in Santa Rosa, California. His most influential work, however, may be Beyond New Testament Theology (1990), in which he suggests a comparative religion approach to the New Testament and abandons the “doctrinal-concepts” approach. This idea is also evident in his last large theological work, The Rise of Christian Beliefs (2010).
Heikki was known as an outstanding scholar. His lecture style was low key, but always sharp, never dull. He was also known to be a loyal friend, one who supported his students when life became challenging, even outside the realm of academic pursuits. He was an avid soccer player—his team was called “The Ball Players of Nazareth’s Workers”—and a cross-country skier.
Heikki told me about his diagnosis when we last spoke in July. His attitude was realistic and calm, but hopeful. In a recent interview he said that he is not afraid of dying and that he believes, but does not “teach,” that there is nothing coming after this life. That this is it.
I am honored to have known Heikki since 1973, the year I enrolled in my first New Testament Exegesis class which he taught at the University of Helsinki. Though my own field is philosophy of religion, he and I became good friends over the years. The numerous conversations we had were always uplifting, edifying and memorable. I am not alone among those who miss his intellect, kindness and caring.
Rest in peace, my friend.