Remembering Ernst Jenni

Via Jack Sasson this very sad news.

The Faculty of Theology of the University of Basel mourns the loss of Professor emeritus Ernst Jenni, who passed away on November 22, 2022 at the age of 95.

Ernst Jenni was Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Philology at the University of Basel from 1958 to 1997 and was Dean of the Faculty of Theology five times (1961, 1967, 1977, 1985, 1991) during his nearly forty years of service to the University.

Ernst Jenni was born on February 17, 1927 as the son of a baker. Already as a teenager, he had a passion for languages, and in addition to the school subjects of Latin, Greek, and French, he learned English, Italian, and Swedish through independent study. Many further ancient and modern languages would follow later. His interest was never limited solely to Hebrew and other Semitic languages, but also included linguistics more generally, which is reflected in his own research on classical Hebrew philology.

In his dissertation on the word ʿōlām in the Hebrew Bible (“Das Wort ʿōlām im Alten Testament,” published in ZAW in two parts in 1952–1953), he showed that the original use of the Hebrew word ʿōlām referred to the “furthest time” and not to “eternity,” as it had often been understood in the scholarly literature. Through his careful exegetical and philological publications, Ernst Jenni established himself early on as a Hebraist of international importance. He regularly attended the triennial meetings of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT) and was its president in 2001. In his 2001 presidential address, which opened the seventeenth Congress of the IOSOT, he dealt with the subject of the “Polite Request in the Old Testament” (“Die höfliche Bitte im Alten Testament”), using as an example the invitation to the reception following his lecture (“Kommen Sie bitte nachher zum Umtrunk!” – *bôʾûʾel-hammišteh).

Ernst Jenni was innovative in his scholarship, yet he always remained unpretentious. He described his characteristic thoroughness as an “effort to demonstrate a theory not only through a few important examples, but to verify it, wherever possible, through every relevant occurrence” (E. Jenni, Studien zur Sprachwelt des Alten Testaments II, p. 8).

Beginning in 1986, Ernst Jenni was the first member of the Faculty of Theology in Basel to work with a computer, painstakingly creating a database of the 15,570 occurrences of the preposition bet in the Hebrew Bible, which served as the foundation for his 1992 book on the same subject. Later, he created further databases for his studies on the Hebrew prepositions kaph (1994) and lamed (2000). Ernst Jenni regularly followed developments in the field of general linguistics and applied its findings to classical Hebrew philology wherever possible. In doing so, he refined and modified his own views over the course of his career in light of new insights. For example, he revised his views on the Hebrew pi‘el verbal stem from a 1968 article (“Das hebräische Piʿel: Syntaktisch-semasiologische Untersuchung einer Verbalform im Alten Testament”) thirty years later on the basis of new insights from linguistics (“Aktionsarten und Stammformen im Althebräischen: Das Piʿel in verbesserter Sicht,” ZAH 13 [2000], 67–90).

Ernst Jenni’s passion for Hebrew philology accompanied him throughout his retirement, and he continued to publish until the end of his life. In 2021, his article “Hebräische Relationsverben: Nifʿal ohne Grundstamm. Von Murren bis Glauben” appeared in the Theologische Zeitschrift (77/1, pp. 3–44), and in 2022 his article “Qal-Passiv, Nif‘al und Passivpartizip” appeared in a Festschrift for his colleague Thomas Krüger in Zürich (Menschsein in Weisheit und Freiheit, ed. Veronika Bachmann, Annette Schellenberg, and Frank Ueberschaer, OBO 296, Leuven 2022, pp. 455–480).

Ernst Jenni has left an enduring legacy: pioneering studies on the syntax and semantics of the Hebrew verbal system, foundational works on Hebrew prepositions, and exegetical aids such as the Theologisches Handwörterbuch zum Alten Testament. Those who knew him personally remember with gratitude a fine person with a dry sense of humor.

His lexicon, co-authored with Westermann, is my regular companion in lexical studies.  His works are profoundly important.  May he rest in peace.  He can never be replaced.

Further information on him can be found at the University of Basel website, including a link to his extensive (36 page!!!!!) bibliography and the Festschriften which celebrated his scholarship:

Festschriften für Ernst Jenni:

  • K. Seybold (Hg.), Veritas hebraica. Alttestamentliche Studien. Ernst Jenni gewidmet zum 70. Geburtstag, Theologische Zeitschrift [ThZ] 53, 1997, 1-176 (= Heft 1-2).
  • Jürg Luchsinger / Hans-Peter Mathys / Markus Saur (Hg.), ” … der seine Lust hat am Wort des Herrn!”. Festschrift für Ernst Jenni zum 80. Geburtstag (Alter Orient und Altes Testament [AOAT] 336), Münster: Ugarit-Verlag 2007.

Literatur über Ernst Jenni:

  • Ernst Jenni, Ernst Jenni, in: S. Grätz / B. Schipper: Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft in Selbstdarstellungen (UTB 2920), Göttingen 2007, 61-73.