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 Pentateuch – was 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.