Conzelmann studied at the universities of Tübingen and Marburg (where he was influenced by Hans von Soden and Rudolf Bultmann) and, after World War II (in which he was severely wounded), he became the assistant to Helmut Thielicke at the University of Tübingen. He served at the same time as a pastor and, from 1948, as a religion teacher in a secondary school. In 1951 he submitted his dissertation and, in 1952, his Habilitation (Dr. habil.) at Heidelberg University. He then took a position teaching New Testament at Heidelberg and was called, in 1954, to the University of Zurich, where he was made full professor in 1956. In 1960 he was called to be Professor of New Testament at the University of Göttingen, where he remained until his retirement in 1978.
One of Conzelmann's major works was Die Mitte Der Zeit (Tübingen 1954), literally 'The Middle of Time', which was translated into English under the title, The Theology of St. Luke. This work, which approached Lukan theology by way of Redaction Criticism, paved the way for much scholarly discussion in the second half of the twentieth century. Conzelmann, along with other post-Bultmannian scholars, challenged the view that Jesus was an apocalyptic figure, but rather focused on the message of Christ as the kingdom of God breaking into the present. This was a challenge to the portrait of Jesus as expecting an imminent eschaton.
Conzelmann contends that Jesus' teaching about eschatology is unconnected to his words about God and ethics. These areas of his teaching are, however, linked by Jesus' understanding of himself "as one who opens up immediacy to God in every relationship" (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of The New Testament, p. 127).
Concept of Salvation History
Perhaps Conzelmann's main contribution to the study of Luke's Gospel was his contention that Luke changed the emphasis in Jesus' teaching from an expectation that he (Jesus) would return shortly after his death, resurrection and ascension (a belief in the imminent parousia) to seeing God at work in history and therefore that the early Christians needed to find ways of living as disciples of Christ 'in the long haul' through history. This theological emphasis was called Heilsgeschichte (usually translated into English as "Salvation History").
Conzelmann thought that history could be divided into three eras:
1. the Old Testament period (up to and including John the Baptist)
2. the period of Jesus' earthly ministry (which Conzelmann said was free from interference from Satan)
3. the era of the Church.
Conzelmann was the author (together with Andreas Lindemann) of the standard introduction to the New Testament in the German-speaking world: the Arbeitsbuch zum Neuen Testament.
- Die Mitte der Zeit: Studien zur Theologie des Lukas, 7th edition (Tübingen 1993) (translated into English as The Theology of St. Luke)
- with Andreas Lindemann, Grundriß der Theologie des Neuen Testaments, 6th edition (Tübingen 1997)
- with Andreas Lindemann, Arbeitsbuch zum Neuen Testament, 14th edition (Tübingen 2005)
- See e.g. Christopher Tuckett, Luke, (Sheffield Academic Press Guide) chapter 2.