Krister Stendahl, 1921-2008

April 16, 2008
Kristier Stendahl
Krister Stendahl

Krister Stendahl, who played a crucial role in shaping the life and work of Harvard Divinity School, just as he was also a pioneer in the broader realm of ecumenical relations, died on Tuesday, April 15, 2008, at the age of 86. He had been in failing health for several years.

At the time of his death, Stendahl was Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Divinity Emeritus and former Dean of the Faculty of Divinity at Harvard. But while he had been affiliated with the University since 1954, Stendahl, through his biblical scholarship, teaching, interfaith work, and church and academic leadership, exerted the kind of profound influence on other people's lives that transcends a single institution or country.

In his native Sweden, for example, he was Bishop of Stockholm from 1984 to 1988, leading a reform effort on issues such as women's ordination, gay and lesbian rights, and the relationship of church and state. In the early 1990s, he was the first Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Distinguished Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University, where he helped inaugurate a program designed to enhance shared values among students of many religious backgrounds.

After his retirement from the Brandeis position in 1993, he and his wife, Brita, a writer and scholar in Scandinavian and comparative literature and culture, spent much time traveling from their Cambridge and Nantucket homes as unofficial diplomats in the interests of Christian-Jewish relations. Perhaps most notably in this regard, Krister became co-director of the Osher Center for Tolerance and Pluralism at the Shalom-Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in 1994, and did much to facilitate American scholars' working visits to the Holy Land.

Born in Stockholm and educated at Uppsala University, Krister Stendahl was ordained in the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) in 1944. He served as a parish priest and as chaplain at Uppsala before receiving a doctorate there in 1954, with a dissertation on the Gospel of Matthew and the Dead Sea Scrolls. That same year, he came to Harvard as a professor of New Testament studies, recruited as part of Harvard President Nathan Pusey's initiative to rebuild a Divinity School that had virtually faded from view before Pusey arrived. Fourteen years later, Stendahl became Dean of a Harvard Divinity School that could claim a world-class faculty and that was adding a new degree, the master of theological studies, which would significantly adjust its identity by attracting religion students who were not planning on church ordination, to study with those who were.

During his tenure as Dean, from 1968 to 1979, Stendahl presided over the continuing transformation of the School, whose student body, faculty, and curriculum grew and became much more diverse, especially in regard to women and African Americans and to studies in religion specifically linked to those groups. Throughout this time—one of the most tumultuous political eras of American history, on college campuses and elsewhere—Stendahl successfully guided HDS with an astute, sometimes blunt decisiveness that was tempered by his wry humor and his enormous gift for listening, which were part of a complete, and consistent, pastorly presence.

In an interview published in the Winter 2007 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Stendahl reflected on what qualities had served him well over the course of such a variegated career. "I would," he said, "apply the same rules for good leadership that I often do for effective interfaith dialogue: let the other define herself ('Don't think you know the other without listening'); compare equal to equal (not my positive qualities to the negative ones of the other); and find beauty in the other so as to develop 'holy envy.' " Indeed, as he led HDS in the 1970s, and later, Stendahl was chair of the World Council of Churches' Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People, a commission that prepared the way for much important interfaith work of the last 30 years.

Over the course of his long academic career, Stendahl's scholarly work and his writing addressed many different topics in theology, history, and the arts of ministry and many contemporary issues of church and society. There was, however, a constant thread of pondering, and trying to redefine, relations between Jew and Christian as well as the roles that women play in religious life. Asked once why Jews and women became such a focus for his scholarly work, especially in such books as The School of St. Matthew (1954), The Bible and the Role of Women (1966), Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (1976), and Meanings (1984), he replied: "The Christian Bible includes sayings that have caused much pain, both to Jews and to women. Thus I have felt called to seek forms of interpretation which can counteract such undesirable side effects of the Holy Scriptures."

After his term as Bishop of Stockholm, in the late 1980s, Stendahl returned to HDS to become the School's first chaplain, a much more important undertaking than the title at first suggested, given the ethos of religious pluralism, and related pedagogical approach, that had developed further at HDS in the 1980s. At the time, Stendahl explained his vision for his new assignment, which lasted till his Brandeis appointment in 1991, in this way: "In our community there is no one form, name, or liturgy which can claim the allegiance of all. To be a chaplain in this place therefore must mean to help worship happen in many forms at many times and to guard fiercely the freedom of every person to pray and speak in ways important to him or her—lest the specter of 'pluralism' mute authentic expression of devotion."

Stendahl received many significant awards in his lifetime, including the first Distinguished Service Medal from the Association of Theological Schools, in 1988, and, with Gerhart Riegner, the Ladislaus Laszt International Ecumenical Award from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, also in 1988. In 1993, he and Brita Stendahl together received the first Myron B. Bloy Memorial Award from the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life.

In recent years, Stendahl was a regular presence at Harvard Divinity School events, sitting in the front row in the Sperry Room and often asking penetrating questions of a speaker or a panel. He was also a regular visitor to the offices of HDS faculty and staff alike, sitting for a few minutes of chat that inevitably turned into the blessing of sage advice for those visited.

In "Why I Love the Bible," an essay printed in the Winter 2007 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Stendahl concluded with this paragraph: "Finally, let me leave you with a word which is the one that, in my own long love relationship to this book, I want to have in my mind when my end comes. It reads, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, like this—'And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.'"

Krister Strendahl is survived by his wife, Brita; his sons, John and Daniel; his daughter, Anna Langenfeld; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A memorial service  is planned for Friday, May 16, at 3 pm, in Harvard's Memorial Church.

—by Will Joyner