John Sailhamer: In Memoriam

I learned on Twitter earlier that John Sailhamer has passed away.  Due to his failing health over the last decade, his last major project – The Meaning of the Pentateuchwas published way back in 2009. In our consumer-driven, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately American culture, that may as well have been a century ago. But Sailhamer’s influence has always been more about his positive impact on students than his publishing per se. If you read his books – The Pentateuch as Narrative, Introduction to Old Testament Theology, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, even Genesis Unbound, as well as his commentaries – it seems obvious that these arise directly out of his teaching. And if you talk to his students, they’ll confirm that this is in fact the case.

This is why I feel a great loss at Sailhamer’s passing, even though I never had him for a class. One of the greatest regrets of my life is not taking him for Hebrew or Old Testament my first year at SEBTS; he left the next year for Golden Gate. But in God’s providence I still feel as though I’ve been under his guidance, since during my time as a secretary at SEBTS I served two “Sailhamerites,” as we called them. Every day, for almost 4 years, I worked as an administrative assistant for these men, so that while I was making copies or filling out reimbursement sheets for them they were schooling me in the ways of Sailhamer.

At first I was skeptical; I hadn’t taken Sailhamer or anyone else that followed him during my M.Div, and it was only through serving these men that I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then I began my first semester of doctoral work and took a Hermeneutics seminar. Suffice it to say that Sailhamer’s hermeneutical idiosyncrasies came up a number of times, and I needed to find out why. I picked up Introduction to Old Testament Theology, and I was hooked. I was convinced that the shape of the canon is hermeneutically crucial, that meaning is text-centered, and that intertextual links between biblical texts are the building blocks of the canon and of good theology.

Due to other factors, I had already changed my concentration to biblical theology, and now I changed my dissertation topic almost immediately – the canonical shape of the New Testament. Jonathan Catanzaro and I started a “Canonical Theology” student group. My first published article, written mostly while I was still at SEBTS, was due to Sailhamer’s impact on how I read the NT. To say, therefore, that Sailhamer’s influence on me during my doctorate was substantial would be a vast understatement.

Over the years I’ve shifted a bit on some of these issues; for instance, I no longer agree that historical background is inconsequential in understanding particular texts. I sometimes don’t find Sailhamer’s intertextual connections, or, more often, his theological conclusions given those connections, convincing. But the foundations of Sailhamer’s approach, namely a close literary and intertextual reading coupled with canonical consciousness, still drive the way I read the Bible. Even though I never had a class with Professor Sailhamer, he remains one of the top five people who have influenced how I read and understand Scripture.

Because of this, I was incredibly excited to meet John a few years ago when I was still at California Baptist University. One of John’s close friends at SEBTS, Bob Cole, who also was one of those Sailhamerite faculty I served, took me with him to see Sailhamer in SoCal. At that point John’s health had declined such that he was consigned to what amounted to an electrical, driveable recliner; he fell asleep often, usually while one of us was talking to him; and he could barely speak. But I will, with the Lord’s help, never forget that he seemed to have the entire Hebrew Bible memorized, even in his condition. Bob and I would mention this or that text, and John would slowly but surely convey how that text was linked to other texts, parse the verbs, note other grammatical connections. He couldn’t walk, could barely talk, and couldn’t stay awake, but the man had hidden God’s Word in his heart. And it was because he did that over the course of decades he influenced so many to read the Old Testament as an eschatological messianic book, a book that’s goal and content is Christ.

Thank you, John, for your labors. May you rest in the peace of Christ.

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15 thoughts on “John Sailhamer: In Memoriam

  1. Forever influenced by a great man of God who reminded me that Scripture is tied together in ways that we have never imagined. Can only imagine the conversations he is having with the authors of the different books at the Lord’s throne.

  2. Pingback: The Passing of John Sailhamer

  3. Thank you for this post. I had Dr. Sailhamer (“with one m” as he would frequently say) for 4 courses in his last 2 years at SEBTS. He was an amazing classroom teacher – Brilliant, funny, engaging, and profound. A decade later every time I exegete a passage I still think, “how would Sailhamer make connections with this text.” I have 3 photos in my office – 2 of my wife and 1 of myself and Dr. Sailhamer.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful post. Dr. Sailhamer was the best teacher I’ve ever had. I’m profoundly grateful to the Lord for him because he always pointed us to the text. What a wonderful legacy.

    Nick Roark

  5. Yes he will definitely be missed. I was fortunate enough to study under him for 2 years at Western Seminary in Portland, and also to have him as my MA supervisor for a project on the book of Obadiah. He was funny, approachable and engaging despite being a world-class scholar who could sight-read Hebrew as easily as we read our English texts. I remember watching Simpsons episodes after class, and us students going to Flying Pie pizza in Portland and having great discussions about OT theology. It’s not often that a professor has such an impact, but I still make use of his work many years later. He will be missed greatly.

  6. Hi Matt: Thanks for posting about John.. I am Bob Cole’s (SEBTS) little brother–Bob went into academia. I went into the Pastorate (34 years now) It was my privilege to do my first dissertation under John Sailhamer in the late 80’s on the use of “Halak” in Genesis. It was John who introduced me to the canonical approach to the OT. Never was the same after that. He was a giant. Now, I am utilizing his same approach in a diss. in Luke Acts, showing that Paul in Acts is Jesus’ twin in the Third Gospel. Do you want to hear some stories about Bob? Tim Cole, ponypastor@gbcemail.org

  7. Matt, thank you for sharing this about Dr. Sailhamer. He was indeed a giant. He had a profound impact on me. I had the privilege of studying under him at SEBTS. He will be missed.

  8. I had the joy of personally knowing John and his family during my time at TEDS. Not only did I have him as a professor, but he and his family would welcome me to their home every Sunday after church to share a meal together. I am sad to learn of his passing, but am so grateful for the years of fun and fellowship we shared.
    Praying for Patty and the family.

    • Hi Steve…I remember you from Deerfield and possibly a trip you made to California? I left remarks concerning John and his memorial service on this blog.
      paul sailhamer

  9. I had Dr Sailhamer for Hebrew Exegesis at Trinity. He was without doubt the most brilliant man I ever met. I eeked through first year Hebrew with a C- and was bored to tears. The very first day of class with Dr. Sailhamer the Hebrew text came alive for me. It was an 8am class that I was never late for and never missed. He had the ability to inspire his students and infuse them with a passion for the Hebrew text. I have had the privilege of studying under a good number of brilliant Bible scholars, but no one matched John Sailhamer for depth of knowledge or humility before God.

  10. I am John’s brother. My life has been in pastoral service and conference work. I am touched by the thoughts you have shared about John. I too audited a number of his classes and wished I had been able to take his courses when I was in Seminary. I am 20 months older than john. The things you all have shared about John definitely have the “ring of truth.” You describe the same man I loved and admired. In his days of confinement I could often cheer him up by remarking how good it was that he didn’t wait for retirement to write his books! Almost to the end I could get a smile out of him with that thought. I also reminded him that even though he was confined to his wheelchair and bed his books and students were at work 24/7 literally around the world. We thank God for that and for the insights into John that you have all shared. Thank you!
    Paul Sailhamer (that’s like sailboat with an “s” and hammer with one “m”)
    Fullerton, CA

  11. Here’s another side of John perhaps rarely seen: his gracious, humble spirit. Several years ago I taught an adult Sunday school class on the Minor Prophets, one book per week, at the church where John attended here in Roseville, MN, and John attended that class. I’m by no means a Bible scholar, so you can imagine my “fright” having him in our class. And yet week after week, he was an encouraging participant and “student.” To me, it was a bit like having a kindergarten child teach the teacher. Yet strangely I never felt intimidated by his presence, only encouraged by him to let the Spirit of God use the text to speak to each of us in the class. He was a gift of the Lord to our class and our church.

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