Study and work
Käsemann obtained his PhD in New Testament at the University of Marburg during 1931, having written a dissertation on Pauline ecclesiology, with Rudolf Bultmann as his doctoral supervisor. Käsemann was one of Bultmann's more well-known politically left-of-centre 'pupils'.
Käsemann joined the Confessing Church movement in 1933; in the same year, he was appointed pastor in Gelsenkirchen, in a district populated mainly by miners. During the autumn of 1937 he spent a few weeks in Gestapo detention for publicly supporting communist miners.
Käsemann was later drafted as a soldier. He returned to his theological work during 1946 after several years in the army and as a prisoner of war.
Käsemann was involved with what is known as the 'New Quest for the historical Jesus', a new phase of scholarly interest in working out what could possibly be ascertained historically about Jesus. Käsemann effectively started this phase when he published his famous article "The Problem of the Historical Jesus" during 1954, originally his inaugural lecture as Professor in Göttingen in 1951.
Käsemann developed what became known as the double criterion of difference in evaluating the historical reliability of the synoptic gospels. Put simply, what is historically reliable about Jesus can be deduced from material about Jesus which is neither plausible in a first-century Jewish nor an early Christian context. In addition to this, he proposed additional criteria, such as multiple attestation (does a particular story or saying of Jesus appear in independent traditions?) and coherence with other material already found to be reliable historical traditions about Jesus. Only the recent 'third quest' for the historical Jesus, which began in the later 1980s, began to question the absolute validity of these criteria.
Käsemann also began to take Jewish apocalypticism more seriously than most of his contemporary colleagues and thought it to be of vital significance for a reading of Paul. Indeed, he famously described apocalypticism as "the mother of Christian theology". Käsemann's commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, first published in 1973, became a standard work for that generation.
His daughter, Elisabeth Käsemann, was abducted by security forces in Argentina during the military dictatorship and subsequently 'disappeared'. It is thought that she was murdered around May 24, 1977.
Books by Ernst Käsemann (in English)
- Essays on New Testament themes. London, SCM, 1964.
- New Testament questions of today. London, SCM, 1969.
- Jesus means freedom: a polemical survey of the New Testament. London, SCM, 1969.
- Perspectives on Paul. London, SCM, 1971.
- Commentary on Romans. London, SCM, 1980.
- The Wandering People of God. Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1984.
Literature about Ernst Käsemann
- Way, D V 1991. The Lordship of Christ: Ernst Käsemann's Interpretation of Paul's Theology. Oxford.
- Zahl, Paul F M 1996. Die Rechtfertigungslehre Ernst Käsemanns. Calwer Verlag.
- Osborn, E F 1999. Käsemann, Ernst. In: Hayes, J H (ed) Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation Vol. 2, Nashville: Abingdon, pages 14–16.
- Harrisville, R A & Sundberg, W. Käsemann, Ernst. In: The Bible in Modern Culture: Theology and Historical Critical Method from Spinoza to Käsemann. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pages 238-261.
- The Modern Search for the Historical Jesus, by Robert B Strimple, page 136.
- Cited in Martin Hengel's work "Crucifixion", where he references Elisabeth in his book dedication