Karel Deurloo (1936 – 2019) stamt uit een Zeeuws geslacht; zijn vader en moeder zijn afkomstig van het eiland Tholen. Een groot deel van zijn jeugd bracht hij door in Amsterdam, waar zijn vader als belastingambtenaar werkzaam was. Na het Hervormd Lyceum besloot Deurloo theologie te gaan studeren aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam. In 1967 promoveerde hij op een onderzoek naar Kaïn en Abel (Genesis 4). Nog in hetzelfde jaar werd hij hervormd jeugdpredikant in Eindhoven. In 1971 keerde hij terug naar Amsterdam als studentenpredikant. Deurloo volgde in 1975 zijn leermeester prof. dr. M. A. Beek op als hoogleraar Oude Testament aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam. In 1996 werd hij door de toenmalige Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk tot hoogleraar Bijbelse theologie benoemd. Van Deurloos hand verschenen tientallen wetenschappelijke artikelen en zo’n dertig boeken. Hij geldt als een van de belangrijkste vertegenwoordigers van de Amsterdamse School, bekend om zijn focus op de Bijbel als geheel en het zo zuiver mogelijk weergeven van bronteksten. Deurloo heeft een eredoctoraat bij de Karels Universiteit te Praag (2009) en bij de Faculteit voor Protestantse Godgeleerdheid te Brussel (1995). Prof. Deurloo is getrouwd met Jettie Deurloo-Sluijter en heeft twee dochters, Janneke en Hermine.

Karel Deurloo, July 2009

A Man of Letters

Karel Deurloo as a Theologian

By Rochus Zuurmond – from Unless Some One guide me, festschrift for Karel Deurloo

Professor K. A. Deurloo (‘Karel’ for his friends) is a remarkable figure among Dutch theologians, both in the Church and the University. An amiable man and a prolific writer, broadcaster, lecturer and preacher, he is well-known and well-loved by many. If it is true that in the Netherlands the Bible is still read and studied by relatively many, that is to a great extent due to Karel Deurloo.

He has that gift, not too widespread among academics, of scholarly reliable popularization.

Together with his friend and colleague Nico Bouhuijs he wrote in the sixties and seventies a whole series of books (“Dichter bij …”) on parts of the ‘Old Testament.’[1] They have all been best-sellers and if they are not sold out booksellers may still have them in stock. Rightly so, because they are well-written, well-researched and original in content. Karel Deurloo does not write the kind of book that ‘ages’ quickly.

Remarkable is also his gift to write for children. Rewriting and explaining the Bible for children is not everyone’s occupation, but Karel Deurloo is a master at it. Obviously a ‘Children’s Bible’ has to simplify the text, but many authors tend to confuse this with psychologizing and moralizing the stories. No such superficiality in Deurloo’s rendering. No doubt on purpose he avoids the word ‘Children’s Bible’ and calls his little works of art “exegetical tales for tiny ears.”[2] Well aware of what could (and often will) be read into the stories he remains the true exegete, who knows himself in every situation a servant of the text.

International Work

The two focal points of Deurloo’s work have now been mentioned: the Church and the University. The University is the University of Amsterdam, but I must add immediately the Theological Faculty in Prague (Czech Republic).

Through charm and persistence, Deurloo managed to establish a working relationship with Protestant theologians in Prague, in the ’70’s. For his relentless efforts to keep open the lines of communication during those difficult times, he has been publicly honored. After the Velvet Revolution, the relationship grew into full cooperation between the two faculties, with student exchanges, study weekends, and guest lectures at both ends.

Prague was not the only international theological contact of Deurloo. Black South African students used to come to Amsterdam during the apartheid period to study at the University of Amsterdam; some obtained their doctorate with Deurloo. It resulted in a lively contact with theological faculties in South Africa to this day. In the United States, Karel Deurloo cooperated (and still cooperates) closely with Martin Kessler (footnote 4). Mention should also be made of his professional friendship with the German Old Testament scholar B. J. Diebner. The two men have in common a high degree of originality and a most fortunate capacity for organizing things. Both have managed to get an interesting periodical running: Diebner his DBAT (Dielheimer Blätter zur Archäologie und Textüberlieferung von Antike und Spätantike) and Deurloo his ‘Amsterdamse Cahiers voor Exegese en Bijbelse Theologie’.[3] Maybe these men have not universally been looked upon as pillars of the academic establishment, but their contribution is vast, challenging, and influential.


Deurloo as a biblical theologian is firmly rooted in the Dutch tradition founded by K. H. Miskotte.[4]

It would be somewhat misleading to speak of the ‘school’ of Miskotte in the Netherlands. Miskotte did not have ‘followers’ who copied him. Very few could do that in the first place. What happened was that theologians of all denominations, Protestants and Roman Catholics, became inspired by his style and the general trend of his theology. With that in the background they went their own way, in church or society.

Miskotte was never engaged in theology per se. Everything he wrote stood in the wide context of culture (in particular literature and music), politics (anti-fascist and more or less on the ‘left’), and the queries and questions of every day’s life. When as a student one had to visit professor Miskotte, his favorite question was: “What are you reading?” If then one answered with the title of a theological publication Miskotte, slightly irritated, would say: “Yes, of course, but what are you reading?” What he expected was a novel or poetry, or a book on art or history or philosophy. In Miskotte’s view there were two kinds of theologians: those who ‘read’ and those who don’t. Deurloo, although he never actually studied with Miskotte,[5] definitely belongs in the first category: he ‘reads.’ And – by the way – he is also an amateur musician of some distinction.


Among Miskotte’s pupils, Frans H. Breukelman (1916-1993) was outstanding. Breukelman also ‘read’, but it is hardly an exaggeration to say that he was possessed with one particular book: the bible. Miskotte had set a trend that persists among Dutch theologians to this day. Already in the thirties he had shocked traditional Christianity by asserting that much of the spirit of the Old (and consequently also the New) Testament was still present in Judaism. He told students of theology that they could learn a lot from ‘liberal’ Jewish theologians, philosophers and writers like Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. No surprise therefore that Breukelman, inspired by Miskotte, took Jewish studies very seriously.

For Breukelman, even more than for Miskotte, this also included traditional Jewish biblical interpretation, as found in Talmud, Midrash, Targum and medieval Jewish commentators. The focus however was very much on the ‘Verdeutschung’ (‘Germanization’) of the Old Testament by Buber and Rosenzweig and the hermeneutic (and by implication theological) principles underlying that translation. For Breukelman this was not just a matter of translation technique, but it had roots deep in his awareness of Scripture as a text that has to be proclaimed. Scripture (Hebrew ‘MIQRA,’ ‘that what is called out, proclaimed’) as literature, creates its own ‘world,’ permanently challenging our world view. Scripture is not only a document about past events, being ‘proclaimed’ it is also an event in its own right.[6]

Like many others in the Netherlands, Deurloo learned much from Breukelman: an eye for textual detail as well as for the structure of literary units,[7] the conviction that theology as a discipline is basically indivisible, the value of Jewish exegesis and Jewish hermeneutics.[8]

Among academic theologians, it never was very fashionable to admit indebtedness to Breukelman, but Deurloo is an exception; he has often openly expressed his gratitude. In all truthfulness it must however also be said that Deurloo’s talent for popularization, combined with the amicable way he used to express his views among his opponents and his influence as a professor and long-term dean at the theological faculty of the University of Amsterdam, definitely helped Breukelman to develop his particular gifts. This does not only apply in the case of Breukelman. As a professor Deurloo has always been extremely helpful to students as well as colleagues- a hard working, honest, generous academic if there ever was one.

Old Testament

Deurloo’s approach of the Old Testament had been duly prepared by his predecessor on the Amsterdam chair of Old Testament studies who was also his teacher: Prof. M. A. Beek. Beek too had called the attention of his students to the importance of Jewish studies and the pivotal position of the Massoretic text. Nevertheless, Deurloo’s appointment as a senior professor in 1975 marks a turning point in Old Testament studies in the Netherlands. For the first time Miskotte’s theological heritage was fully acknowledged. For the first time in decades the interest shifted clearly away from the history of the supposed development of the text to a much more balanced approach in which the text as such was in the center. In view of scholars like von Rad for the Old Testament (and in a way Bultmann for the New Testament) it was not for the first time, but certainly against the tide, that the boundaries between biblical studies, literary research and dogmatics were academically permeated.

To a great extent and in general terms this sums up the way Deurloo approached the Old Testament. It is marked by that felicitous mixture of scholarly detachment on the one hand and love for the text on the other. Some criticized it for being ‘a-historical’, but that is a misunderstanding. Nobody will deny that a text ought to be understood in its historical context, but this rule should apply to the exegete as well. There is no platform outside history from which scholars can proclaim timeless truths about the ‘meaning’ of a text. The exegete should be aware of this, otherwise all kinds of undetected, culturally dominated presuppositions enter his discourse. Totally unavoidable that may never be, but it is always wiser to see the danger than to deny its existence. Objectivity must be pursued but objectivism ought to be avoided. A precarious balance! Exegetes like Deurloo succeed to a large extent because they have acquired a ‘relationship’ with their text which transcends the object-subject gap.

Biblical Research

It is difficult to pinpoint in detail Deurloo’s characteristic position in the field of Old Testament studies. His work is very wide-ranging, covering almost every kind of biblical research.

I will name only a few topics. Primary is probably his emphasis on ‘intertextuality’ within the Old Testament. Deurloo wrote e.g. interesting articles on Palms being dependent on other parts of Scripture. No wonder that the concept of intertextuality has been taken up by many of his pupils and is the subject of many Amsterdam dissertations.

Another important point is his breach with the traditional theory of the ‘four sources’ of the Pentateuch. ‘Breach’ is probably too strong a word. Although in the details there is much incertitude, the existence of ‘sources’ cannot and need not be denied. The question is how they function in the text and in the exegesis of the text. Should e.g. exegesis of the Book of Genesis be replaced by exegesis of the hypothetical ‘sources?’ Was the final ‘Redactor’ of the Pentateuch a rather thoughtless compiler or must we rightly call him (using his ‘sources’) the author? Deurloo would have no hesitation to stress the pivotal position of the Massoretic text and call ‘R’ the actual author.[9] With approval he quotes Rosenzweig who argued that ‘R’ should not be read ‘Redactor’, but ‘Rabbenu’.[10]

With Diebner Deurloo shares a tendency to date Old Testament literature rather ‘late’, i.e. with very few exceptions post-exilic and in the final redaction originating from the Hellenistic period, i.e. after 330 BC.[11] An exception is the Book of Jeremiah which in its original (not necessarily final) form is supposed to come from the early days of the Babylonian exile. Many other books of prophets are considered to be prophetic utterances of various provenance, collected after the example of Jeremiah. Next to ‘close reading’ and ‘intertextuality’, research into the Book of Jeremiah has under Deurloo’s influence become a typical ‘Amsterdam’ kind of subject.

Close reading and an ear for the poetical also implies attention for textual details. Once that happens translation becomes a problem. It is no longer good enough to assess the ‘meaning’ of a text in language A and then to ask: “how does one say that in language B?” It was Breukelman who already in the fifties argued vehemently against translations that read smoothly but only translated a very superficial level of the text. It did not make him many friends, but people like Miskotte and Deurloo, having good taste as well as sensitivity for literary fineness, understood what he meant. Deurloo and a small group of colleagues translated parts of the Old Testament in Dutch, trying to translate as ‘ideolect’ as possible.

Although general opinion among translators during the last decade has been moving away from the ‘Good News’ type of translation, it is rather sad to see that Deurloo has been excluded from cooperation on the New (Dutch) Bible Translation. However, that leaves room for subtle, lethal criticism. He recently published an article about the New Translation of the Book of Jonah criticizing among other things their translation of Jonah 1:2 “The evil they are committing there cries out to heaven”… in an article under that very same title.[12]

The Church

Something must be said about Deurloo’s position in the church. Like many of the older generation theologians in the Netherlands Deurloo began as a minister in a village or town, then became a student pastor (chaplain) at one of the State Universities and from there, having taken a doctorate, was promoted to professor at the faculty of theology.

All ministers of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands must have an academic degree (comparable to a masters degree) in theology at one of the four National Universities before they are admitted to the ‘Church Seminar’ which then, in two years, gives them additional training for the ministry. Professors at the State University are appointed solely by the State, professors at the Church Seminar[13] are appointed by the Church, but only when approved by the State. It is not unusual for a professor at the Seminar to hold also a position in the department run by the State, but it is typical for Deurloo that after a long and distinguished career as a professor at the State University of Amsterdam he decided to spend his last five academic years as a professor of Biblical Theology[14] at the Amsterdam Church Seminar. It reflects his fundamental opinion that Theology may go wherever it needs but has its home in the Church.

Part of the heritage of Miskotte is the understanding that theology can only temporarily, for reasons of convenience, be split up in academic specialisms. In the end theology, as a scholarly subject, is indivisible. That includes dogmatics. No biblical scholar operates in a vacuum. You cannot move in one field without sooner or later finding yourself wandering in an adjacent field. There is no escape: scholarly opinions on the Scriptures somehow or other always touch on dogmatic theology. Those who proudly assure us that they have no dogmatic theology mostly have one as well, but a poor one.

Karl Barth

There can be little question which type of dogmatic theology is fundamental for Deurloo. It is Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world this frequently leads to misunderstanding. Say ‘Barth’ and you are immediately labeled ‘neo-orthodox’, ‘quasi-liberal’ or ‘revelation positivist.’ ‘Barth’ is supposed to be out of date and out of touch. This is not the place to put that right, although it sounds a bit odd when it comes from people who have just escaped the latest release of nineteenth century fundamentalism. ‘Modern’ is a very relative notion.

For Deurloo, as for Miskotte and Breukelman, Barth’s theology of the Word lies not only beyond Fundamentalism. It also lies beyond a theological Liberalism that collapsed in the trenches of the First World War, beyond a ‘Natural Theology’ that plunged the German Christians in the abyss of Nazism, beyond a ‘Religion’ that was already shot to pieces by Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, as much as beyond their respective forms of atheism.

The idea that a ‘Barthian’ would have to agree with everything Barth wrote is ridiculous. Deurloo’s exegesis of parts of the Old Testament often differs from Barth’s exegetical excursions in the small print of his Church Dogmatics. But the basic structure of his Dogmatics: simplex cognitio Dei[15], the threefold character of the Word[16] and Revelation as the ‘Aufhebung’[17] of Religion, remains. It is exegetically extremely fruitful. It leaves room for any kind of scholarly research, apart from the kind that would a priori refuse to listen seriously to what these texts have to say. In many ways it is very modern and up to date, much better capable of seeing eye to eye with modern literary theories and modern concepts of man than many of its predecessors. Deurloo’s oeuvre itself, and the work of a multitude of pupils, touching on all aspects of biblical studies, is there to prove it.

Rochus Zuurmond

This article is published in the ‘Festschrift for Karel A Deurloo’ on the occasion of his retirement as a Professor at the University of Amsterdam: Unless someone guide me. (Amsterdamse Cahiers, Supplement Series 2), Shaker Publishing: Maastricht, 2001.

[1] Deurloo rarely speaks of the ‘Old Testament’ but prefers the Jewish acronym ‘Tenakh’, to avoid the idea that the ‘Old Testament’ is somehow a thing of the past.

[2] E.g. ‘Een kind mag in het midden staan: Exegetische vertelsels voor kleine oren’, Baarn 1982 (first impression). There is more, written in cooperation with Karel Eykman. See the bibliography.

[3] The ‘Amsterdamse Cahiers’ now have an international English language follow up: Amsterdamse Cahiers, Supplement Series, edited by Shaker Publishing in Maastricht, The Netherlands.

[4] K. H Miskotte (1894-1976).Some of his extensive oeuvre has been translated into English, e.g. When the Gods are Silent (New York / Evanston: Harper & Row, 1976) and The Roads of prayer (New York: Sheed & Wark, 1968). Martin Kessler wrote an excellent biography of Miskotte: Kornelis Miskotte. A Biblical Theology (Selinsgrove: SUP and London: Associated University Press, 1997).

[5] Deurloo studied in Amsterdam, Miskotte taught in Leyden. In those days there was a great chasm fixed between these two and no crossing over.

[6] See also note 16 about the threefold character of the Word according to Karl Barth.

[7] Breukelman’s structural analysis of Old Testament and New Testament stories preceded in many ways the French schools of structuralism in literature by some decades.

[8] Closest to Breukelman’s type of exegesis, although in some ways quite different, comes rabbi Benno Jakob, in Das Erste Buch der Tora, Berlin, 1934.

[9] One should of course not impose modem requirements of what we would call a ‘book’ or an ‘author’ on a text more than 2000 years old! In that case a lot of Old (and New!) Testament authors could be accused of plagiarism.

[10] ‘Rabbenu’, Hebrew for ‘Our Teacher’ is in Judaism the common title of Moses. ‘Moses’ not as a historical figure, but as a literary figure, a virtual author representing the unity of these books.

[11] Diebner often dates even (much) later than that.

[12] “Het kwaad dat ze dear doen is ten hemel schreiend,” Om het levende Woord IX (Kok: Kampen, 1999) p.p. 61-64. It reminds me (RZ) of an article, many years ago, of another friend of Miskotte: the late poet Thomas Naastepad. He wrote a scathing article on one of these new popular translations under the apparently simple title “Let the reader understand” (quote from Matthew 24:15! … ).

[13] Their Dutch title (‘Kerkelijk Hoogleraar’) is sometimes misleadingly translated ‘Church Professor.’ They are ordinary senior professors, part of the faculty staff, with a special assignment by the Church.

[14] There is no point in defending here the usefulness of ‘Biblical Theology.’ Those who categorically oppose the concept should stop arguing on the basis of a few anecdotal examples or general definitions, but look at what actually happens in studies by e.g. Miskotte, Breukelman and Deurloo, sometimes (though not by their own wish) referred to as ‘the Amsterdam school.’

[15] ‘God’ can only be known through his Word (cf. next footnote)

[16] The Word as Revealed in Christ (1), Witnessed in Scripture (2) and Preached in the Church (3).

[17] German ‘Aufhebung’ with its two aspects: abolition at one level and at the same time integrating at a different level.

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