When Prof Louis Jonker from Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Theology was recently named as a recipient of the Georg Forster Research Award, he received messages of congratulations from far and wide. Considered one of the top scholars in the field of Hebrew Bible and Old Testament studies, Jonker enjoys considerable recognition in his field, not only in South Africa where he has an National Research Foundation B-rating as an academic, but also internationally where he's known for his pioneering research and prolific publications.
Jonker, who teaches undergraduate and graduate students in Hebrew Bible and Old Testament studies as distinguished professor at SU, was nominated by Prof Dr Christian Frevel, a German colleague at Ruhr University Bochum for the Georg Forster Research Award, sponsored annually by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
This prestigious research foundation based in Germany grants the Georg Forster Research Award to researchers in all disciplines from developing and emerging countries who have above-average qualifications. The award is conferred in recognition of the winner's entire academic record to date. Award winners are invited to carry out research projects of their own choice in cooperation with specialist colleagues in Germany.
“It was a wonderful surprise to be selected as one of six academics internationally. I'm deeply humbled and grateful for the opportunity," Jonker says.
Prof Reggie Nel, Dean of Theology at SU, congratulated Jonker on his exceptional achievement. “It comes in recognition of a long career of outstanding teaching and research. It confirms his international stature in his field of Old Testament. Academics like Prof Jonker also contribute significantly to the standing of this faculty and University on our continent and further afield," Nel said.
For most of his career, the primary focus of his research has been the book Chronicles in the Bible and examining how old traditions were reinterpreted at a time of great socio-political upheaval in antiquity.
“I always thought I'd study Chronicles for seven or eight years and now I've been busy with it for more than 23 years!" Jonker says. He strives to understand the Bible as a multidimensional text that functioned in specific historical contexts. “We can't just take texts from the Bible and apply it to our current situation without understanding how these texts grew over a long period of time and functioned originally. In South Africa we've seen during apartheid what damage can be done when the Bible is taken out of context and used in service of an ideology.
“My contribution is not to take specific guidelines from the Bible, but to try and identify the historical interpretation methods and how it could still be relevant today. You can't read the Bible without historical consciousness," Jonker stresses. His keen interest in archaeology has always informed his work and he is passionate about fostering historical consciousness among his students. A few years ago, he and a colleague started a popular elective module for third-year theology students about the role archaeology plays in the interpretation of the Bible.
While in Germany, Jonker will join a team of researchers analysing the theological discourses of the late Persian and early Hellenistic periods. A grant of €60 000 (about R1 200 000) will allow him to do research in Germany for 12 months over the next three years. The funding will enable Bochum University to organise workshops and give South African postgraduate students the opportunity to participate in these workshops in Germany.
In recognition of his innovative work on Chronicles, Jonker was invited to write a commentary on the book for the Old Testament Library series. His commentary (of which the manuscript will be submitted to the publisher in the United States in late 2024) will replace the older commentary by Sara Japhet who introduced a totally new approach to studying and interpreting Chronicles. In addition, he has been contracted to write a commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah in the Oxford Commentary Series.
In total, Jonker has published five academic monographs, three co-authored books, ten co-edited volumes, and 102 essays and peer-reviewed journal articles in his career. His monograph, Defining All-Israel in Chronicles; Multi-levelled Identity Negotiation in Late Persian-Period Yehud (published in 2016 by Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen in the prestigious Forschungen zum Alten Testament series, won the Andrew Murray-Desmond Tutu prize for best theological publication in the period 2016–2017 in South Africa.
Before he became a fulltime academic, Jonker served for ten years as minister in the Welgelegen Dutch Reformed Church in Stellenbosch. He is still engaged in various enrichment programmes in church environments that aim to cultivate responsible and accountable modes of biblical interpretation. Jonker was commissioned by the Dutch Reformed Church to lead a team that has the task of formulating a policy document on interreligious dialogue and cooperation.