Research through Passion and Collaboration: An Interview with Martti Nissinen

(for a Finnish version of this interview, please click here)

Martti Nissinen, Professor in Old Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki, is a world-renowned researcher whose expertise includes the study of historical prophetism, assyriology, and gender studies. Nissinen is the director of the Centre of Excellence in Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions at the Faculty of Theology in Helsinki, which hosts over 40 researchers from various countries. I had a morning coffee discussion with him and got to know his path as a researcher. 

Passion and collaboration are concepts that are not always linked together with research. These are, however, at the core of the work culture that professor Martti Nissinen wants to build in the ”Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions” -Centre of Excellence that he leads. ”In these centres, the most important part is that they enable us to build structures in which people work as part of something bigger”, Nissinen describes. ”That’s when one does not simply build his own career but goes forward as a member of a community. This is what I see surrounding me in our centre and this is something I want to support: both scholarly and communal passion.”

So, what does Nissinen’s path as a researcher look like? What kind of efforts have led to the situation in which academic biblical studies are conducted in Finland with internationally remarkable resources and know-how? The short answer is: with passion and collaboration. But let’s hear what Martti has to say.

Scholarship on Prophecy and Assyriology for Well Over 30 Years

Nissinen’s interest in the critical study of the Bible was awakened already in the beginning of his bachelor studies in theology. ”I thought Hebrew was loads of fun!” He notes with his laid-back Savonian Finnish dialect that cannot be translated into English. ”I found the questions of biblical studies to be extremely fascinating. At that time in Finnish society, there was a big discussion revolving around Heikki Räisänen’s research and statements [Note: Räisänen was the head of a former Centre of Excellence at Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology. He is a former Professor of New Testament Exegesis and currently Academy Professor Emeritus.], which were considered too liberal by many. I found that discussion both interesting and incomprehensible. I had grown up in the midst of such kind of Lutheranism in Kuopio, a town in eastern Finland, that I had not encountered biblical fundamentalism before.”

Many Finnish scholars from the fields of Biblical Studies and Assyriology inspired Nissinen to delve deeper into research. Ilmari Soisalon-Soininen was his first teacher in Old Testament studies, but when Nissinen began to work at the Faculty of Theology in Helsinki as a research assistant, right after graduating as a Master of Theology, Timo Veijola had recently become Professor of Old Testament studies. That was 30 years and four months ago. Ever since, Nissinen has worked at the University of Helsinki. He got his first permanent job in 2007 when he was appointed as Professor in Old Testament Studies to continue the important legacy of Soisalon-Soininen and Timo Veijola.

It was a seminar held by Soisalon-Soininen that determined the main theme of Nissinen’s research until this day. ”I started studying prophecy because the title of Soisalon-Soininen’s seminar was ’The Historical Background of the Proclamation of the Prophets’. For my first text analysis, I was given a passage from the book of Hosea; it was quite random, those texts were just given out. I then wrote my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on that.” The supervisor of Nissinen’s doctoral dissertation was Veijola from whom he learned the critical approach to the study of biblical texts.

Today, Nissinen is one of the leading experts in the scholarship of the historical phenomenon of prophecy in the ancient Near East. During his upcoming sabbatical, he wishes to bring together, inside the covers of (at least) one book, the work he has done with the subject in 25 years. Nissinen will spend six months of his sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

After graduating as a Master of Theology, Nissinen realized the need to study Assyriology and Semitic languages. ”It was first and foremost because Simo Parpola was preparing a publication on Assyrian prophecies, which he then taught me in his Neo-Assyrian language course. I got the opportunity to read these texts before anyone else since they were yet not published. I got to take a road less travelled. This experience very much determined my scholarly interests.”

As his academic role model, Nissinen names also Professor Oswald Loretz, who passed away in April 2014. Nissinen wrote parts of his dissertation in Loretz’s guidance in Münster, Germany, in 1986-87. ”Loretz taught me not only Ugaritic but also critical thinking and method. ’Sie müssen eine Methode haben, Herr Nissinen!’ It is this Parpola-Veijola-Loretz triad that I got my most important influences from.”

Martti Nissinen
Martti Nissinen
Homosexuality and the Bible 

Later, Nissinen also worked on topics related to gender studies. ”My wife Leena founded, in the year 1990, the first ever support centre for prostitutes in Finland. In those days, people said that there is no prostitution in Finland and that such a service would not be needed. Pretty quickly, however, Leena was confronted with every possible aspect of human sexuality.” Soon thereafter, Leena was inquired whether she knew anyone who could give a presentation for the employees of the Lutheran congregations in Helsinki on Bible and sexuality. ”That was the first time I spoke publically on this subject and once again a new thing began to inspire me.”

In the years 1992–93 Nissinen lived in Spain with his wife, where he started to write a book on the topic of Bible and sexuality. At the same time, there was a lively public discussion in Finland concerning homosexuality. A professor of Neurology, Jorma Palo, wrote in the country’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat that homosexuality is one form of healthy human sexuality. Also the Lutheran archbishop, John Vikström, stated in a nightly radio show that it is not the churches task to police what people do in their own bedrooms, and that it is not good for any man, regardless of his sexual orientation, to be alone. The conservatives of the Church were not pleased. Vikström’s comments resulted into complaints that were dealt by the diocese’s leadership and also in the secular court.

”I was so utterly fascinated by all of this that I decided to focus my book on homosexuality.” Nissinen’s book Homoeroticism in the Biblical World was published first in Finnish and then as an expanded English version in 1998 by Fortress Press. Until this day, this book has been an important part of the societal discussion, especially in the United States where it is a strongly polarized topic. ”A whole other book—Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice—was published to argue against my own book! For example the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has carefully debated these two books in their own conversations.”

”Recently, I have been less proactive but I am still known as a pro-gay person. I’m glad to be one! It is important to note that ’the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath’. If we have laws and regulations that don’t work for the good of human beings, but enable distressing, dishonouring, and discriminating, then it is important to value human beings more than any old or new laws and regulations.”

Why Should We Study Ancient Texts?

”I think interpretation of gender is a prime example of why also these ancient texts need to be studied in detail. Otherwise, we don’t see in modern discussions that these things have a long historical background whose understanding really matters”, Nissinen describes the importance of historical scholarship passionately. ”In this case, for example, if we don’t see the historical backdrop, we don’t understand that the concepts of sexual orientation and sexual minorities are relatively new. These concepts are really important to use, but the fact that they are used is a result of certain historical developments that were unknown to the writers of biblical texts and their contemporaries. There have always been people with same-sex orientation; however, the existence of an individual sexual orientation was understood not until the late 19th century. Everything written before that begins from a different set of presuppositions.

Generally speaking, why do the Bible and other ancient sacred texts matter? Why is Nissinen, for example, alarmed of the recent trends in the Finnish high school curricula, where the Bible has practically vanished? ”Just because, whoever lives here in the western world, she cannot escape the fact that the Bible is one of the most important building blocks of our cultural heritage and identity. It is a part of general knowledge to know the basics of the Bible and part of a more refined knowledge to know more than the basics of it. The school is responsible for the general knowledge, we are in charge of the more refined aspects.”

Nissinen underlines that the study of the Bible and other sacred texts has to live up to the highest of scholarly standards. The continuity of research is important and Nissinen frequently applauds the Faculty’s previous Centre of Excellence that was led by Heikki Räisänen. ”New scholarship builds on earlier research and new research questions are always formed. Gender studies, for example, has brought such a set of questions for biblical studies that has not been previously exploited.”

New research is also needed because new ancient texts, manuscripts, and archaeological sites are constantly discovered. ”There’s lots of stuff to study and there always will be! Scholars need to be awake and realise which new ways of asking questions are relevant.”

Excellence in Research is Born in Communities

The idea for the Centre of Excellence was refined when the University of Helsinki arranged, in 2010–2012, an evaluation of research in which researchers could take part as research communities. Two team leaders of the current centre, Anneli Aejmelaeus and Juha Pakkala, had the idea to structure the wide array of research around the concept of change. When the research community excelled in the evaluation, they decided to apply for the status of a Centre of Excellence. The area of research was expanded to cover changes both in texts and in cultures and traditions. The application was worked on during the years 2012–2013 with a great ambition and hard work.

”I’m extremely satisfied with our centre”, Nissinen states. ”In the award-winning novel ’He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät’ (“They Know not What They Do“) by Jussi Valtonen, there is a fictitious research unit of natural sciences at the University of Helsinki in the 1990s. The unit is inward, inbred, and ostensibly international. In the novel, an American researcher is astounded that research money is given out even on such grounds that you come from the Savo region of Finland.”

”Biblical studies was not like that in the ‘90s. Our professors Räisänen, Aejmelaeus, Veijola, Sollamo, Soisalon-Soininen, and others were truly international. Also our Centre of Excellence is something else. It is not introverted since from the beginning of our operation we have held so many international symposiums that you cannot count them with your two hands. It is not inbred since our recruitment is always international. It is international counted by any available criteria. This is not mere hype or us trying to chase fame, but this is something out of which real scholarship emerges.”

Lately, in several different contexts, people have been worried about the trend in universities to underline gain, profits, and results, thus scholarly ideas do not seem to have enough peace to evolve. ”We hype excellence, narrow our expertise, and are extremely gain-oriented”, Nissinen sums up some of the anxieties that people seem to have. ”This is a legitimate worry, but I don’t agree with the statement that there is no more passion or a spirit of ’doing together’ left in the university. It is not true because I conduct my research as passionately as possible, and so many people around me do the same.”

Text: Ville Mäkipelto