Honoring Stephen H. Levinsohn: The Backstory

We announced the Steven Runge’s presentation of  Discourse Studies and Biblical Interpretation: A Festschrift in Honor of Stephen H. Levinsohn to Levinsohn on the blog on July 5. Here is the story behind this event.

We all have people who’ve played a pivotal role in shaping and equipping us. It has been a great blessing working with Logos to produce projects like the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament, the Lexham High Definition New Testament, and A Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament. But these projects didn’t just come out of a vacuum. They began with a dissatisfaction with how I was taught Greek and Hebrew, and the inspiration of a mentor who showed me a way forward.

When I studied languages in seminary, I left feeling like I hadn’t gained the proficiency needed to really use them effectively in ministry. I soon found many others felt the same way about their language training, like something was missing. The question was, what exactly was that “something?” I felt called to find more effective ways of using biblical languages in ministry, but had little idea of where to start. I began praying that God would raise up a mentor who could equip me to do what I felt called to do.

The person that God raised up was Stephen Levinsohn. Levinsohn has spent his career as a Bible translator with Wycliffe and as an International Linguistics Consultant with SIL International. He was translating in the jungles of Columbia before I was born. By the time I’d finished seminary in 1999, Stephen had worked with literally hundreds of languages, becoming one of SIL’s top discourse specialists.

I stumbled across an article he had written in 2000 that was exactly the kind of work I wanted to be able to do. Levinsohn spent most of his year teaching translators, going to the remote corners of the world where the translators were located rather than having them come to where he lived in England. After several years of correspondence I hit a wall in my learning. I had read about all I could digest, and really needed face-to-face time where I could ask questions and get ideas clarified. I asked if there was any way I could go on one of his trips with him to learn more about what he did.

It just so happened that due to a medical issue Levinsohn was unable to travel for a few months, so he had arranged to teach a discourse analysis class in England. Thankfully, it was offered in the dead of winter, the easiest time for me to shut down my construction business. The skills I learned from that course, along with his continued mentoring, have proven invaluable to fulfilling my calling of helping pastors and students better understand the Bible in its original languages.

So how do you thank someone who’s had such a big influence on you? Well in the academic arena, former students and colleagues of a professor will write articles, collect them in a book called a Festschrift, and present them to the honoree on some special occasion, like their retirement or significant birthday. About two years ago I began laying the groundwork to organize such a book for Stephen Levinsohn. I contacted scholars he’d worked with, arranged for a special session when the book could be presented, and then served as editor for the project. John Barry of the Publications department did an incredible job overseeing the project and helping me through the process. The goal was to surprise Levinsohn and present the book to him at the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in London this July.

On the morning of July 4, 2011, a group of scholars gathered for the sole purpose of honoring a career missionary’s contributions to biblical scholarship. Everything came off without a hitch, Levinsohn didn’t find out about any of it until the day before! Several of the contributors read papers we had written, and that night we had a lovely dinner overlooking the Thames River. What a memorable day!

Mentors have played an incredibly significant role in shaping me, and I believe its important to recognize their contribution. Seeing Stephen honored has been a bucket-list item for years. His work has largely gone unrecognized since much of it is focused on translation. His mentoring has saved me years of learning things the hard way.

Many times in the last year when I’d be telling someone about the Festschrift project and why I was doing it, I’d choke up or get tears in my eyes. It wasn’t business, it was very personal. It struck me that although God had given me a calling, I could not have done it without mentors like Stephen equipping and preparing me. During one of my last conversations with Stephen on the trip, he reminded me of the importance of 2 Timothy 2:2, asking “Who are you pouring into?” It was a great challenge.

If you have wondered about discourse studies and what it has to offer for interpreting the Bible, I’d strongly recommend ordering Discourse Studies and Biblical Interpretation: A Festschrift in Honor of Stephen H. Levinsohn. The list of contributors is a who’s who of biblical scholars working in this area. And on a personal note, think about those people who’ve played pivotal role in shaping you. Find some way of letting them know the impact they’ve had on you; don’t let it go unspoken. And be sure to pass on what has been entrusted to you!

If you could do a tribute project for a mentor who has been a huge influence and inspiration in your life, who would it be? Leave us a comment and tell us about them.

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