WASHINGTON D.C., April 10, 2013 — From April 5 – 7, Vanderbilt University and students from Daniel Patte’s decades long teaching career came together to host and organize a scholarly symposium to honor him on the occasion of his retirement. Daniel Patte is a modern day pioneer in the study of the New Testament and the Bible.
Patte has served on the Vanderbilt faculty for 42 years, yet continues even today with an almost childlike love for learning. The symposium in his honor comprised hours of complex and rarefied studies and papers on critical theory. But there sat the professor through it all with keen attention like a youngster on his first day of school.
At one point after a complicated paper on what is called “Paul’s Jerusalem Collection,” Patte told the presenter, himself now a professor, “You omitted an important application of your method that you did have in the second half of your dissertation.” The moderator, whose job it is ordinarily to be demur and keep these gentle and heady gatherings in order hollered out bewildered, “HOW CAN YOU REMEMBER THAT?!”
Vanderbilt always has been a special curiosity in the world of Biblical Studies. It is an Ivy type school with Boston like social and political impulses. But there it sits nestled in Southern magnolias, the shiniest gem in what is often called “the Buckle of the Bible Belt.” In the middle of this, or better maybe as the main perpetrator of this paradox sits Daniel Patte, trudging the rocky path of exacting critical inquiry, yet at once with peaceful charity, and a simple and fresh joie de vivre.
More than 50 people came to honor this important figure over the weekend, some from as far as Seoul, Korea. Thirty-five or so spent a long day at the symposium itself. Papers came from Patte’s students, ranging in their mid 20s to mid 60s. Each was written to honor the man who shaped their lives. Of the many scholars who applied, 10 were chosen to write and present on this special occasion.
Scholars often are accused of living in “an ivory tower,” meaning that they get lost in the world of their own ideas and lose touch with everyday life. It is true, unfortunately, that the world of scholarship sometimes feels distant and hard to understand. But that might be the case when any group of experts gets together.
They tend to use language from their own field that only they can understand. The same might happen if we tried to understand surgeons, guitarists, or even little league managers. There is no way around it, in house language is just hard to keep up with. But still we know, sometimes it is important to be around people who understand us best. This gives us the chance to reach the farthest into new thoughts and ideas.
It is easy to fall into the temptation to think of scholars as distant from “real life,” but this is not true. Daniel Patte, in decades of teaching, has turned out professional graduates who themselves teach100s of students every year, and sometimes have positions of even greater influence. These students then become preachers in churches, writers of books, deans of schools, and leaders of church denominations with millions of members.
Shouldn’t we hope that people with this kind of influence are serious about how they read the Bible?
The Barna group just published a study recently showing that nearly nine out of ten Americans, 88%, own a Bible. On average, American Bible owners have 3.5 Bibles in their home, and one-quarter of Bible owners, 24%, have six or more!
Surely we have to care about how our neighbors read the Bible! How about women’s rights? Minority rights? Should local churches respond to inner city riots? What should we, as a nation, do about the wrong we’ve committed against innocents? What about the role of religion in the horrible genocides of our time? Or our relations with members of non-Christian religions?
With such issues at stake, a good teacher surely then, will be very serious about their area of study. Patte is that kind of teacher in spades. He invests deeply in radical and pioneering work for understanding the Bible.
He is trying to make modern Christian life, and life in general, more responsible and careful about how we care for our communities and neighbors. He is trying to make society ever more inclusive by making space for every voice.
The small sampling of his students who spoke at his symposium are themselves now professors, department chairs, deans, denominational leaders, and more. As each one presented new work created just for this occasion, she or he introduced new hopes for greater, kinder and “truer,” more responsible horizons of Biblical interpretation. Each one paused to add a word for the man who helped shape their lives and their thought.
Is it now out to pasture for Dr. Patte? Hardly. I caught up with Dr. Patte at the reception in his home the night before the symposium. Dr. and Aline Patte, surrounded by children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren somehow forgot to age in the past 30 years and now look younger than me. I asked about his retirement. “Oh,” he said, “I will continue to teach, and finally, I will have time to complete my ‘Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans.’ It will be based on the 10 volumes on the reception of Paul’s letter to the Romans through History and Cultures that I’ve already published with colleagues. I expect this Commentary will require about 5 years to complete.”
Details of the symposium are here
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