Department 1 (Rainer Hirsch-Luipold)

Commentary on the Gospel of John in the series Das Neue Testament Deutsch.

In every volume, this complete and current general commentary on the New Testaments offers translations, explanations, overarching thematic excurses, and suggestions for further reading. Over the years, the scholarly quality, lucid expositions, and sensible pricetag have established the series as a go-to resource for pastors, teachers, students, and ecclesial personnel (publisher's text, trans. Institute for NT – Bern).

Commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians for the series Theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament.


Since the ground-breaking project on “Plutarch’s Writings and Early Christian Literature” initiated by H.D. Betz 40 years ago, the discussion on the use of “parallels” to the New Testament has changed considerably. While efforts to bridge the “Hellenism-Judaism” divide have been made, studies of Hellenistic and early imperial philosophy led to renewed reflection on the validity of the “religion-philosophy” divide. Since the publication of Athanassiadi and Frede’s volume of collected essays in 1999, a fervent dispute about the existence of a “pagan monotheism” has emerged. Plutarch, the Platonist philosopher and priest of Apollo at Delphi, is a central figure in all these discussions. He seems to be particularly close to the more philosophical writings of the New Testament in many respects (genre, ethics, figurative language, theology, views on women, love, marriage etc.). The very fact of his enormous reception history within Christianity signals that this author was thought to be more than a mere parallel – he appeared at times as a kind of a pagan Greek “Church father,” similar to Seneca in the Latin West. Since the 1970s, the study of Plutarch’s voluminous works has boomed with major developments in the analysis of his literary and philosophical technique as well as of his hermeneutics of religious traditions and the importance of theological reflections for Plutarch's philosophical mind-set.

1.1 Background and Rationale of the Project

Does history bear traits of divine involvement? Early Christianity’s response to this question was the claim that the life of its central salvific figure, Jesus Christ, was the manifestation of a divine intervention in history which served to inaugurate a new era in the history of humanity’s knowledge of God. Yet there were biographically grounded presentations of history in other cultural and religious contexts: in the Greco-Roman world the bíoi of Plutarch, the Platonic philosopher and priest of Apollo, as well as further literature centered on the persons of Socrates, Solon, Pythagoras, Orpheus, Hermes, the Seven Sages, and Alexander the Great; in the literature of Hellenistic Judaism, the works composed by the Jewish philosopher-exegete Philo of Alexandria on Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, as well as literature situated in the tradition of Solomon, Enoch, or the Twelve Patriarchs.

1.2 Overall Objective and Specific Aims

The aim of the project is to examine how biographically grounded presentations of history - that is, literature focused on, oriented toward, or inspired by an exemplary individual - in Jewish, Christian, and pagan texts of the 1st cent. BCE-2nd cent. CE construe history as containing resonances of divine involvement. The primary objects of study are the New Testament Gospels and Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Greeks and Romans. More specifically, the project aims:oto provide a lexical analysis of the terms describing the involvement of God, the gods, or different divine agents in the course of history both in Plutarch’s Lives and in the New Testament Gospels (subproject 1). The findings will be employed in a reciprocal interpretation of the two corpora;oto develop a refined methodology of transcultural textual analysis for the study of the New Testament Gospels and biographical literature contemporary to them by implementing a reciprocal interpretation across cultural and, more specifically, religious boundaries, instead of the traditional “one-way street” approach which moves from ancient biographies to the Gospels (subproject 2);oto elucidate, with special reference to the concept of (true) life and humanity’s search for it, the religious-philosophical dimension of such portrayals of divine resonances in history through examination and comparison of Plutarch’s Lives and the New Testament Gospels, integrating also Jewish literature, namely Philo of Alexandria’s writings on the Patriarchs (subproject 3);oto provide two accompanying case studies of exemplary texts, namely Plutarch’s Life of Numa (the Roman priest-king and lawgiver) and the Gospel of John (a portrayal of Jesus as the incarnate divine Logos). The texts will be edited, translated, and interpreted with a team of interdisciplinary experts (SAPERE; subproject 4).

1.3 Methodology

The project will combine approaches from lexicography, genre studies, philosophy of history, philology, and theology in order to develop and test a new methodology for the transcultural textual analysis of biographically grounded construals of history. Starting from the ancient use of resonance as a metaphorical concept to account for the experience of divine interference within the course of history (see below, 2.1), the project will also supplement the sociological theory of resonance (Rosa 2016) with a corresponding theological dimension. Accompanying exemplary case studies (Gospel of John; Plutarch’s Life of Numa) will serve to test the methodology.

1.4 Outcome

In monographs (subprojects 1-3), exemplary interdisciplinary commentaries on individual writings (subproject 4) and a volume of a planned conference “Resonances of the Divine in Biographically Grounded Presentations of History in Jewish, Christian, and Pagan Texts of the 1st cent. BCE-2nd CE”, we will (1)develop and test a new method of transcultural and reciprocal textual analysis on the basis of an assessment of genre studies in the fields of New Testament and classical philology.(2)implement a novel approach to biographically grounded literature as a means of constructing a theological discourse about the involvement of the divine in history in Early Roman Imperial times.(3)contribute to bridging the gap between religion/theology and philosophy/ethics in the investigation of historical writings by including recent studies on Plutarch’s religious-philosophical worldview.

The series SAPERE (Scripta Antiquitatis Posterioris ad Ethicam Religionemque pertinentia) is dedicated to writings of later antiquity on ethical and religious issues. It is edited by Prof. Dr. Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (spokesman of the editorial board), Prof. Dr. Irmgard Männlein-Robert (Tübingen) and Prof. Dr. Dr. Matthias Becker (Heidelberg). Until December 2022, the series was edited by Prof. Dr Heinz-Günther Nesselrath (spokesperson of the editorial board), Prof. Dr Reinhard Feldmeier and Prof. Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold on behalf of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences. So far, 42 volumes have been published, initially by the Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (Vol. 1-9), later by Mohr Siebeck (from Vol. 10). The aim and task of the series is to make hitherto neglected Greek and Latin texts of later antiquity accessible via an interdisciplinary commentary procedure in such a way that they can appeal to an interested educated audience beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries.

SAPERE – Writings of Later Antiquity with Ethical and Religious Themes


Theological implications of anthropological conceptualization in Hellenistic Judaism, early Christianity and pagan-religious Platonism.

According to traditional theological conceptions, the human being can appear on the one hand as the "image" of the ineffable God, yet on the other hand as a bottomless abyss of desires. This traditional understanding sets an apparently irresolvable paradox before all religious-philosophical anthropology: as the image of the divine, the human being ought to provide an epistemic bridge between the corporeal world and the transcendent God, and yet bears – as a fallen creature – within itself an abyss which represents the utmost alienation from God.

The project investigates the manner in which the theological implications of this fundamental paradox were put to productive theological use by authors within religious Platonism from the early Roman Imperial era to Late Antiquity (1st–6th cent. CE). To this end, the concepts, images, and arguments found in Jewish (Philo of Alexandria), pagan (e.g. Plutarch and Plotinus), and Christian texts (e.g. Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite) will be examined. These ideas culminate in a new apophatic anthropology which finds a fuller expression among the Church Fathers and transforms the bottomless abyss into unfathomable depths which leads to the ineffable divine.


In cooperation with the Inselspital and the Theological Faculty of the University of Bern, this project examines the manner in which persons with epilepsy interpret themselves with a religious lens and how their epilepsy is interpreted in religious terms by interested third parties. This has two subprojects: 

  • a clinical study of epilepsy patients who have undergone brain surgery;
  • an historical study of the religious interpretation of epilepsy in various historical sources, be they medicinal literature from the Corpus Hippocraticum and from Galen, be they the stories of the Bible and the Church Fathers. 


Is monotheism necessarily a cause of conflict? This project, pushing back against this common assumption, investigates the social and ethical integrative power of monotheist positions by looking at the way God’s uniqueness is presented in one of the most productive and influential ancient philosophers: Plutarch of Chaironeia. He wrote in the 1st -2nd centuries of our era, as a Platonic philosopher and priest of Apollo in Delphi, about the most diverse religious traditions and phenomena. Our hypothesis is that Plutarch’s project of showing that the many gods and cults of polytheism all lead back to the worship of the one god is aimed at unifying the various religious and cultural traditions in a common religious and philosophical search for truth. In this way, he tries both to grasp the various traditions in their independence whilst also subordinating them to a single system of values. Our project is a contribution to the on-going debate about pagan monotheism, and opens perspectives for contemporary strategies for dealing with conflicting claims to truth, often in a religious context. 


IRC – Religious Conflicts and Coping Strategies

A focal point of theological study in Bern is the thoroughgoing connection between the study of ancient languages and theology. We offer language education and the opportunity to attain philological competence for participants at all levels of higher education through reading seminars, language tutoring, workshops, and individual counseling. To foster such efforts, we offer consultation concerning detailed philological questions to scholars working on diverse projects and, in this regard, we aim especially to support our junior scholars.

The project concerns the complete revision of BAA. The following is envisaged: the semantic definition of all lexems; the consistent rubrication of all entries according to semantic criteria; the localization of lexemes in semantic fields; the minimization of "Luther-Idioms"; the expansion of lexicographical evidence, particularly papyrological and inscriptional findings.

SNF Project: "Das 'Evangelium der Natur'. Der griechische Physiologus und die Wurzeln der frühchristlichen Naturdeutung" (The 'Gospel of Nature'. The Greek Physiologus and the roots of the early Christian interpretation of nature).

What does the pelican have to do with Christ or the unicorn with the Virgin Mary? Answers to such questions can be found in the Physiologus, a Greek text probably written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD. Taking up biblical and pagan motifs and hermeneutics, it offers for the first time a Christian, Christological overall interpretation of nature. The symbolism of the Physiologus found its way into art, literature and heraldry via medieval bestiaries. The meaning of this Christologically interpreted imagery, which is deeply rooted in ancient natural theory and biblical motifs, often remains a mystery today. The present SNF project The 'Gospel of Nature'. The Greek Physiologus and the Roots of Early Christian Interpretation of Nature aims to uncover the roots of this ancient symbolism of nature in the Physiologus and thus to develop a hermeneutical key to its interpretation.

Other contributors: Dr. Zbyněk Kindschi Garský

Das ‹Evangelium der Natur›. Der griechische Physiologus und die Wurzeln der frühchristlichen Naturdeutung

DFG project: "Sophist. On the defamation of the opponent as an intellectual".

We gain two different "sophist images" from Plato and from Flavios Philostratos: the sophist makes the weaker argument the stronger one. He is a gifted soul-catcher, a manufacturer of verbiage, victory in the argument counts, truth is secondary (Plato, 5th/4th century BC) - The sophist is a highly respected, prominent show orator, an aristocratic pop star of the imperial era, often also a respectable diplomat or politician in his home town (Flavios Philostratos, Vitae Sophistarum, 3rd century). Despite the positive assessment of the first and second sophists in modern research, there is a continuous tradition of negative voices about the sophist in ancient literature. Sophist criticism is also found in Jewish and Christian literature. Hence my thesis: "Sophist" is the designation of an author's intellectual opponent. The aim of the thesis is to present the literary development of sophist criticism from Plato (5th/4th century BC) to Iulius Pollux (2nd century AD) and a more precise historical and social location of the intellectual opponent.

The interdisciplinary reserach group is led by Prof. Dr. Rainer Hirsch-Luipold and investigates the connection between philosophy and lived religion during the New Testament era. Further information can be found on the project's Homepage.