Maine is the first place Dr. David Trobisch has lived where his accent has been properly identified. Trobisch grew up speaking French at home. His German father never really learned English and his American mother rarely spoke German, so they compromised and spoke French to their five children.
The son of Lutheran missionaries, Trobisch has lived on three continents, speaks three languages fluently, reads six living languages and three dead languages, and has published books in German and English. Trobisch recently joined the faculty at Bangor Theological Seminary as an associate professor of New Testament.
He will deliver the seminary’s opening convocation, “The Gospel According to Matthew as an Example of Early Christian Fiction,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4, in the campus chapel. The lecture is open to the public.
“I wanted to introduce students to my approach to the Bible,” he said earlier this week, explaining why he selected this topic. “Most people read the Bible as a historical text written by eyewitnesses. … Only the book of Luke really sets out a history, and none of the New Testament was actually written by the people the books are named for, except six letters written by Paul.”
Trobisch and many other Biblical scholars currently are writing about and discussing at conferences the discrepancies between the life of Jesus as described in the New Testament and the historical records that exist from the first and second centuries.
The discussion has spilled over to the pages of the secular press, making the covers of weekly news magazines. Earlier this year, the seminary’s annual three-day convocation titled, “The Ongoing Search for the Historical Jesus,” drew standing-room-only crowds.
Trobisch said he will compare the stories told about Jesus in the Book of Matthew to author Barbara Cooney’s retelling of stories about her great-aunt in her book, “Miss Rumphius.”
“`Miss Rumphius’ is told in the first-person singular by a little girl named Alice, but the author’s name is not really Alice,” he said. “Because this is a work of fiction, people do not have a problem accepting that. The Gospel according to Matthew is similar in that it tells a story from the perspective of Matthew … however, it does not name the author.
“Throughout Barbara Cooney’s book are references to `making the world a more beautiful place,’ which is how the book ends. Throughout Matthew there are passages similar to the ending, when Jesus instructs the disciples to `go out into the world and I will be with you until the end of time.’
“The point I want to make is that you don’t have to look at the book of Matthew from a historical perspective to enjoy,” Trobisch said. “You can enjoy it as you would any other book.”
Debates over the interpretation of the New Testament and its meaning are not new, said Trobisch. He cited Paul’s letters as the “first scholarly debate” over the interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. “Such dicussions are one of the things that has kept Christianity going for such a long time,” he said.
One of the problems in authenticating early New Testament texts, such as the Gospels, is the way in which books were produced before the invention of the printing press, Trobisch said. Before the 15th century, all books had to be copied by hand, and texts then, as now, were revised to meet the actual needs of the people who used the books.
Trobisch said the unknown author of Matthew “does not really make up the words, but uses material from stories” told about the life of Jesus, as well as Old Testament predictions about the Messiah.
“There are many examples of early Christian stories that did not make it into the New Testament, such as the writings of Jesus’ brother, James, who was writing before Jesus died,” said Trobisch. ” … The author of the Gospel of Matthew simply chose to tell the stories as Matthew.”
Trobisch added that when the New Testament was first published, it was not published by the church. There were similar, but competing versions available, which were produced privately, similar to the way different books by different authors are published about public figures today.
“The version [of the New Testament] we now have is the one that made it in the marketplace of the first century. However, by the second century, we have the organized Catholic Church taking over” reproduction of the Bible, he said.
“Students are sometimes frustrated when introduced to modern biblical scholarship,” Trobisch observed. “It destroys the picture they’ve had of Jesus for most of their lives … But early Christians, too, struggled to see and understand what Christianity was all about.”
Trobisch was born in 1958 in Ebolowa, Cameroon, the third of five children. When he was 6, the family moved to Austria, where in 1968 Trobisch published his first book, “Pumplehoober’s Adventures.”
“It is a children’s book,” Trobisch wrote in the seminary newsletter this spring, ” … and after seven editions it is still in print in Germany. It was translated into English and Swedish as well. The book covers in a humorous way my childhood as the middle child and a child’s somewhat distorted perspective of what missionaries do in Africa.”
Trobisch has worked as an editor, translator and consultant. He has taught at the University of Heidelberg, Southwest Missouri State University and Yale Divinity School. He is an active member of the Multimedia Translation Project of the American Bible Society.
“It has been my dream to live in the United States and pick up my mother’s tradition,” he said. “My priorities in seeking a position were to have colleagues I could be comfortable with and high diversity in [the religious backgrounds of] faculty members and students. I believe I will have that here.”
“Dr. Trobisch is an outstanding scholar and teacher with an international reputation,” said Dr. Ansley Coe Throckmorton, president of the Bangor Theological Seminary. “He brings distinction to this school, and a new dimension to its life.”
Trobisch, who has signed a three-year contract and purchased a house in Bangor, is looking forward to the cold and snow he enjoyed as a child in Austria. He said he and his wife, Vera, who worked as a special education teacher in Germany, are enjoying the slower pace of life in Maine.
“Life in Germany was very busy. We had hardly any free time,” he said. “My wife’s job was very stressful, so she can use some of Maine now. … I am excited, I am thrilled, I am looking forward to being part of the very fine faculty and student body. This means we are [able] to make the move [from Europe] to the New World.”