Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Influence of John H. Walton on Biblical Studies

If you looked at my academic transcript, you might notice that although I studied at Wheaton College, I never officially enrolled in a class with John Walton. But if you concluded from this that he hasn't influenced me, you'd be sorely mistaken. Sitting in my classes or reading what I've written or what I assign my students to read, you'd see that Walton's influence is pervasive. I consider him one of my most influential mentors.

Actually, I did sit in on one class with Walton as a PhD student, his "Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds." That class opened up a whole new world for me--the ancient world of the Bible. Walton modeled for us how to read Scripture well by understanding the ancient context in which it was written. He repeatedly insisted that the Bible was written for us, but not to us. The benefits of access to written Scripture are enormous, but if we think that the Bible addresses us directly, we are bound to misunderstand its claims. 

One way to measure the influence of John Walton is by the work of his students. In August I had the joy of joining a Zoom call to surprise Walton with a Festschrift in his honor. The German term Festschrift means "celebratory writing." In this case, a group of more than 20 former students of Walton who are now biblical and theological scholars themselves contributed essays in his honor. The volume. published by Pickwick, is finally available! It's appropriately titled, For Us, but Not To Us: Essays on Creation, Covenant, and Context in Honor of John H. Walton.

I want to be in the ZOOM where it happens . . . (photo: C Imes)

John was totally surprised. We spent 45 minutes talking about his influence on us as scholars and as people. A few themes emerged. In addition to the ways he trains his students to do rigorous work and his commitment to accessible writing that will benefit the church at large, John is a wonderful mentor and friend. He churns out books faster than I can read them, yet he never seems hurried. He walks slowly and always has time for students. He once agreed to meet with me before 7am to discuss a paper I was writing. He and his wife Kim are famous for having students in their home, and he has a special place in his heart for the children who tag along. Each year he invites former students to have breakfast with him at the SBL annual meeting. He foots the bill and wanders happily from table to table, visiting with us and asking us about our work. 

John Walton thanked us for honoring him. Adam Miglio is the masked man in the background.

I'll never forget the time I encountered "Dr. Walton" in the hallway and he told me it was time to start calling him "John." Although John has never supervised a doctoral student, he has actively and deliberately invested in the next generation of scholars, treating us as colleagues and friends. We hope that our volume shows the fruit of that generous investment.

The title of my essay shows the indebtedness of my thinking to Walton. In the vein of his famous "Lost World" series of books, I've called it “The Lost World of the Exodus: Functional Ontology and the Creation of a Nation.” In it, I argue that Exodus is a creation story -- not so much the material creation of something from nothing, but the bestowal of order and function on the Hebrew people, making them a new nation. Here's a sneak peek: 

It's been almost two years of keeping this secret, so I'm delighted that we can finally share it with the world! Special thanks to Adam Miglio, Caryn Reeder, Kenneth Way, and Joshua Walton for their skilled editorial work, organization, and communication. It was an immense privilege to contribute to this project.