Robert W. Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar and Scholars Press, and the former executive secretary and past-president of the Society of Biblical Literature, has died at age 79. He was one of the most important figures in 20th-century New Testament scholarship.
Funk made his first significant contribution in 1961, when he translated from German and then revised the Greek grammar of Blass and Debrunner for English-speaking audiences. “Blass, Debrunner, Funk” quickly became, and remains, the standard reference tool for students and translators of the Greek New Testament.
In the 1960s Funk became a key figure in the movement known as the New Hermeneutic, which brought on the “linguistic turn” in American and European biblical interpretation. It was at the urging of Funk, and colleagues such as Amos Wilder and Dan Via in the Society of Biblical Literature’s Parables Seminar, that biblical scholars began to attend to the power of language to create and shape worldview. Funk’s book, Language, Hermeneutic, and the Word of God (1966) is widely regarded as a landmark in the New Hermeneutic. His essay in that volume, “The Good Samaritan as Metaphor,” is usually credited with shifting the modern interpretation of Jesus’ parables from understanding them as allegories or example stories to reading them as narrative metaphors. To capture this subtle aspect of the parables, Funk borrowed a phrase from Heideggarian linguistic philosophy: Sprachereignis, or “language event.” In the parables, Jesus used language and the power of narrative to create an event in the imagination of his hearers, through which the world might be imagined anew.