It is with deep sadness and shock that we share the news of the deaths of Dr. Rolf Paul Knierim, 90, and Mrs. Hildegard Emma Knierim, 89, who were killed on Saturday, September 29, in a traffic accident on their way back to California from New Mexico.
This past July, many family members and friends gathered from around the globe to celebrate Rolf’s 90th birthday, and the untimely deaths of Rolf and Hildegard has stunned all who knew them. CST Professor of Hebrew Bible, Dr. Marvin Sweeney, says, “If ever there was a couple bonded together as if they were one body and soul, it was Rolf and Hildegard.” The couple met as children at the ages of 5 and 6 years and dedicated their lives to serving others.
Dr. Knierim was a beloved professor at CST for many years and was Emeritus faculty. Mrs. Knierim, an intellectual in her own right, devoted her life to caring for Rolf and their large family. Through the years, Rolf mentored more than thirty Ph.D. students, and together Rolf and Hildegard hosted many of them in their home.
In the edited volume, Problems in Biblical Theology: Essays in Honor of Rolf Knierim, put together by some of Dr. Knierim’s students, Hildegard wrote:
(In his study) Rolf tackles the problems, academic or personal, that his advisees incur. And he does that uncompromisingly, honestly, straightforwardly, with openness and fairness, analyzing the problems, giving advice, showing a possible way through, offering support and encouragement where necessary. True, sometimes a session might have become less comfortable for the student on the receiving end, but, don’t be mistaken, your problems were troubling your Doktorvater too…Left alone, Rolf Knierim the scholar will turn to his desk to encounter The Book. His dialogues with the prophets and scholars of yore are intense and his quest to understand their writings and discover their underlying concepts is relentless.
In addition to contributing to Dr. Knierim’s Festschrift, Mrs. Knierim developed her own intellect as well by sustained involvement in reading groups and in her church. In fact, Mrs. Knierim once dreamed of becoming a medical doctor, but World War II prevented her from realizing that goal. Rolf also was compelled to overcome many difficulties during World War II as he was forced into military service at the age of 15. After the war, he pursued his education in theology in the hope of rendering service to others, and she gave birth to their five children: Johannes, Eva, Eberhard, Barbara, and Gabriele—who ultimately realized her mother’s dream by becoming a medical doctor herself.
Students of Dr. Knierim include CST Circulation Librarian, Koala Jones, and CST Professor of Hebrew Bible, Dr. Marvin Sweeney. Here are their reflections:
Koala Jones remembers:
Rolf was a passionately opinionated man who used words with razor sharp accuracy. He could squeeze more information out of a single passage of scripture than I have ever seen anyone else do. His door was always open to students, except from noon to 2:00 pm, when his European lunch with a nap was protected. An office visit with Rolf was always an event. It was never over in 30 minutes, or an hour. No, he just kept pouring his wisdom and knowledge into you. He also made you work to convince him of every point. It had to be supported with facts, by the text, and with the strongest argumentation possible. Although I did not complete the degree, Rolf never ceased to check in on me as if I had. He always expressed his care and concern for my well-being. As to Hildegard, she was the consummate hostess and always made me feel welcomed. She was so gracious, and together, they were the most loving couple. I truly miss them but am filled with thanksgiving that they were in my life.
Marvin Sweeney recalls:
Rolf was a brilliant scholar and teacher. He earned a Doctor Theologiae degree from Heidelberg University under the direction of Gerhard von Rad. In his teaching, he always reminded us that the authors of the Bible knew what they were talking about and that it was our task to discern what they had to say. I recall one class session where he made the point of the need to listen to a text by expressing what his open Bible was saying to him, “Knierim, you shut up, and let me speak!” Hildegard also was a brilliant human being who made sure to develop her own intellect as well by sustained involvement in reading groups and in her church. She even contributed to Rolf’s Festschrift. She was always a cheerful and welcoming presence to all who visited her home! She faced challenges with courage and faith, including serious injury to Eberhard as a result of a car accident (he recovered) and the early death of Barbara. She was a key factor in ensuring the good health of herself and Rolf so that they could remain vitally active throughout their later years. She, too, was a unique personality, and she will be missed by her many friends.
Claremont United Methodist Church was the religious home of the couple for some fifty years, and their current pastor, Rev. Mark Wiley, M.Div. ’80, was also once a student of Dr. Knierim. His reflection here is an excerpt of the words he shared with his congregants in the church newsletter. There he reflected on his experience in the classroom and of what he continued to learn from the couple as their pastor. He said:
I first met Rolf when I took his class on 8th century prophets, and what I will always be indebted to him for is resolving one of the great theological dilemmas. How do we reconcile God as all-powerful judge who demands justice with the God who offers mercy and goodness? Dr. Knierim led us through Hosea 11, pacing back and forth as if driven by the Spirit of God itself. The passage begins, he said, with God speaking as a trial judge. The judge is reading Israel the verdict. First comes the evidence against Israel. “I saved you,” God says, “but you betrayed me. I fed you like a mother breastfeeds her children, but you worshipped other gods.” And the list of sins goes on. Then, Knierim says, “God announces the punishment. God will abandon Israel, walk away, send them back into slavery. God will punish them for what they have done to God. God is just. God gives them what they deserve.”
But then Knierim says, “We see into the heart of God. Even as God acts justly, God weeps for having to dispense such justice.” “How can I give up the child I love,” laments God. The justice is breaking God’s heart. The text could have ended there. This is where most theologies stumble or split. But Dr. Knierim points to one more verse, one almost missed. God says, “But I am God, not a human being. I choose not to execute my fierce anger.” God chooses grace above all. Justice and mercy may always be in conflict, but God resolves the differences by offering grace: love with no strings or conditions. And that would be enough to build a ministry. And for decades it was enough. But what I have seen as their pastor, that I never saw as a student, is that Rolf and Hildegard embodied this grace in their love and affection for each other. We cannot make sense of tragedies. But knowing God always chooses grace gives us hope. Though in Rolf, hope looks much too tame. It’s more like a conviction sustained by unassailable assurance. Conviction that Rolf and Hildegard are alive and well in that place we call heaven. Conviction that Rolf and Hildegard are still inseparable still bonded in love. Conviction that their death, that our death, is not the end of their story, but only the ending of a chapter in their story. Conviction that even now they are starting a new chapter in which one day we shall again be together.
President Kuan’s experience with Dr. Knierim began decades before they met. He says:
I was a graduate student of the Old Testament in the 1980s and learned quickly that Professor Knierim was a revered figure in the field, distinguishing himself in the areas of form criticism, tradition history and theology, having been a student of Gerhard von Rad. A former Old Testament professor of mine at Emory University, the late Professor Gene Tucker, worked closely with Professor Knierim in editing the series, Forms of the Old Testament Literature. As such, Professor Knierim’s writings were some of the must-read works. I had the good fortune of getting to know him when I came to CST as the President and Professor of Hebrew Bible in 2013. My last conversation with him happened this summer after worship at Claremont UMC. His passion and commitment to the scientific study of the Bible was absolutely unwavering. Hearing from his former students, I have a deep appreciation of his contribution to CST and to the lives and professional careers of his students.
Rolf and Hildegard Knierim were influential people whose passion, hospitality, and scholarship were far-reaching within the academy, within the church, and around the world. So, our final reflection on the couple comes from Thomas G. Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. He says:
I am heartbroken to learn of the deaths of Rolf and Hildegard, friends of many years. I first met Professor Knierim in 1989 when he came to speak during an annual Wesley Week at the seminary in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I was teaching as a young missionary. Our shared German backgrounds and interest in Wesleyan history and theology gave us a natural affinity. The next year, on my first trip to the United States, the Knierims hosted me in their home in Claremont, California, introduced me to the Claremont School of Theology faculty and showed me the sites of Southern California, including Death Valley and Palm Springs. We stayed in touch from that point forward. I treasure an autographed copy of his landmark book The Task of Old Testament Theology and have remembered and celebrated the lives of Rolf and Hildegard by rereading marked passages. I thank God for their witness to faith and goodness.
Dr. Knierim earned a Dr. Theol. degree from Heidelberg University under the direction of Professor Gerhard von Rad, and ultimately published his Inaugural Dissertation and Habilitation as Die Hauptbegriffe für Sünde im Alten Testament (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gerd Mohn, 1965; 2nd edition, 1967). At Claremont, he mentored some thirty-three Ph.D. students and taught in the academic and ministerial programs at CST and CGU. His students loved to recall his distinctive German accent and his unique forms of English expression. He was a meticulous scholar, as exemplified in his writings, such as The Task of Old Testament Theology: Method and Cases (Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1995) and his Forms of the Old Testament Literature commentary on Numbers, co-authored with the late George W. Coats (Numbers [FOTL 4; Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2005]). He was a unique personality who will be missed by his many students, colleagues, and friends.
A Memorial Service will be held for Dr. and Mrs. Knierim on Saturday, November 10 at 11:00 a.m. at Claremont United Methodist Church, 211 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont, CA 91711.
Condolences may be sent to:
The Knierim Family, 1371 Carthage Court, Claremont, CA 91711