Reflections from Krister Stendahl’s Academic Neighbor

April 15, 2019
Krister Stendahl in 1980
Krister Stendahl in 1980. / HDS photo

In November 2018, the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature sponsored a session “Krister among the Jews and Gentiles,” to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of Krister Stendahl, who taught at HDS from 1954-1989, with a hiatus to serve as Bishop of Stockholm; he served as Dean of HDS from 1968-1979.

The following is a revision of comments presented by Marc Zvi Brettler, the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University, and the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies Emeritus and former chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.


I was Krister’s academic neighbor, down the hall from him when he taught at Brandeis University from 1991-1993. Encountering him changed my interests, my academic trajectory, and my life.

I grew up in the Boro Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, a self-enclosed Jewish world. I went to Jewish elementary and high schools. For college and graduate school, I went to largely Jewish Brandeis, where I studied Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Between my MA and PhD, I studied for two years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At all of these institutions, all of my Bible and Semitics professors were Jewish. I was encouraged to, and felt totally comfortable, calling the Tanach / Hebrew Bible “the Bible,” with no qualifier.

Krister changed that, and began to change my Jewish insularity, even before I met him in person. My first encounter with him was through his The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament, first published in 1954, which I found in one of the Cambridge book stores in the early 1980s. I could not really understand it—but I was amazed at the non-Jewish author’s command of Hebrew and Aramaic alongside Greek and Syriac, and I began to appreciate that its subtext was Matthew’s Jewishness. Krister’s section on Pesher and NT especially resonated with me, beginning to make the NT more accessible to me, more Jewish.

My next indirect encounter with Krister the scholar was via Moshe Goshen-Gottstein, who was interested in biblical theology, and especially in why Jews do not do biblical theology. In the early 1980s, while teaching a course at Brandeis on biblical theology, he assigned Krister’s 1962 Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible article, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary.” This was later reprinted as “Biblical Theology: A Program,” in Krister’s collected essays, Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide.

Years later I realized that the new essay title is the more appropriate one, and that this essay is better suited for a book titled Meanings. Now, as then, my understanding of the differences between Harnack, Barth, Cullmann and Bultmann is deficient, and thus I still have a hard time making it through the beginning of this essay. But Krister’s section on “What It [the Bible] Meant and What It Means,” and his honest discussion of negotiating between “meant” and “means,” resonated and continues to resonate with me very deeply. In fact, I introduced it to my co-taught Scripture class last semester at Duke University. Without Krister’s influence, I never would have been interested in teaching such a broad Scripture course that surveys the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an, and their interpretation.

Krister arrived to teach at Brandeis in 1991, five years after I started to teach there. He was the first Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Distinguished Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis. This is a remarkable chair—twin to a chair in Judaic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. Both chairs were endowed by the Worcester philanthropist Jacob Hiatt, his daughter Myra, and his son-in-law, Robert Kraft, now the owner of the New England Patriots.

Their aim was simple: to introduce the study of Judaism to the largely Catholic student population of Holy Cross, and to introduce the study of Christianity to the largely Jewish student population of Brandeis. In those days, such positions did not require long and complex searches, and the department chair of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies simply decided that Krister would become part of the department. After all, as a department we already included Islam and Arabic—why not Christianity? I do not recall any serious discussion about what it would mean to integrate the study of Christianity. It just happened—and in part because it brought Krister into the department, we were very happy.

But we, and I, did not really understand what we were getting into. After all, even though Islam and ancient Near Eastern Studies were taught in the department, they were typically taught by Jewish scholars. Krister shook things up for the better. He represented, to use a book and song title in a slightly misleading way, the beginning of Out of the Ghetto, which I welcomed. After retiring, he was succeeded for a year by E. P. Sanders, and then for much longer by Bernadette Brooten, a distinguished Harvard PhD, who shook up the department even more—for the better.

Krister gave a public talk during his first year at Brandeis on holy envy. It made such a deep impact on me—or more honestly, shocked me so—that I have a flashbulb memory of this event from 27 years ago: I can still see him standing there, bent over, as he spoke. I just could not believe what I was hearing. Here was a distinguished scholar, a committed Christian—former Bishop of Stockholm, former dean of the quite Christian Harvard Divinity School, insisting that it was possible to be deeply committed to a particular religion while being envious of aspects of other religions, and even wishing that they were part of your religion, implying of course that your religion was not perfect. This was very far from Boro Park Judaism, and I was dumbstruck. I trusted that he experienced holy envy, but I could not then possibly understand what this might have to do with me.

As departmental neighbors, we would chat, and he sometimes offered me reading material. Once he gave me his Facet Book pamphlet The Bible and the Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics (Fortress 1966), which first appeared in Swedish in 1958, where it was instrumental in the ordination of women clergy. That was my first real introduction to a certain type of biblical theology, of using the Bible in modern society to bridge the gap between what it meant and what it means. I was not then quite ready to accept such arguments from and for my own community, but they were safe coming from his community. Was he trying to convert me with this pamphlet? I do not know, and sadly never asked.

But this pamphlet was without a doubt part of my conversion to greater openness concerning such issues. And I remember several conversations with Krister concerning one of his favorite Hebrew Bible verses that was essential for his theology—Jeremiah 31:22b, “For the LORD has created something new on earth: A woman courts a man” (NJPS translation). Krister was quite convinced that it was time to enact this “something new,” and found the strong exegetical basis to do so.

Krister’s influence on me has been long-lasting. It was responsible for my decision to initiate with Oxford University Press a discussion of a follow-up to The Jewish Study Bible, which I had co-edited—ultimately resulting in the publication of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (co-edited with Amy Jill Levine; Oxford University Press, 2011; second edition 2017).

One of my goals for that project was to produce a “safe New Testament” that was annotated by Jews so that Jewish readers would read the New Testament without worrying that the book is trying to convert them. After getting to know Krister, and Ed Sanders, and Bernadette Brooten, I had outgrown an attitude reflected by many in the Jewish community, expressed clearly when one of my friends asked me right after The Jewish Annotated New Testament was published: “Why did you spend so much time working on that book?”

Krister’s work frequently appears in my public talks on The Jewish Annotated New Testament; such presentations are essential these days. In addition to discussing holy envy—and seeing many in my audience being as shocked as I was when I first heard the idea—I always find a way to sneak in my favorite Krister quote, from the beginning of Meanings: “The longer I have lived, the more I have come to like plurals. I have grown increasingly suspicious of singulars.”

I have also had some deeply meaningful encounters with the ghost of Krister. About ten years ago, Rebecca Pugh, an HDS graduate who had served as Krister’s research assistant in his last years, and who had studied Bible with me as an undergraduate at Yale in 1986, emailed me, saying that she was trying to publish a manuscript of Krister’s lectures on religious violence. She was looking for a Jewish response to his thoughts, since the rabbi who had originally commented on his lectures was deceased. This discussion ultimately led to the posthumous publication of Krister’s Roots of Violence: Creating Peace Through Spiritual Reconciliation (Paraclete 2016), based on a set of lectures that he gave frequently – and with added urgency and new material especially following 9/11. After Krister’s death, Rebecca did what is called in the Jewish tradition a chesed shel emet, a completely altruistic act of chesed / lovingkindness (for the recipient is dead and cannot benefit from it), and with the help of the Krister’s widow Brita, she published this manuscript.

This short book is well worth reading—it is vintage and mature Krister, quite literally speaking from the grave. It begins with a Hasidic prayer: “One thing I ask of you, Lord:  that I not use my reason against truth.” It pulls together thoughts from many western and eastern religious traditions as it tries to redefine one of the most central Christian ideas:  salvation. In his lectures, as elsewhere, Krister condemned neo-Marcionism, which remains much too prevalent, despite Marcion’s being condemned as a heretic. The following two sentences from my comments in this book attempt to encapsulate what Krister taught: “As a theologian and textual scholar, Krister, in this volume and throughout this career, reminded us that all Scriptures contain the good and the bad, the sublime and the painful, and it is our job as believers to uphold those traditions and Scriptures that will lead to blessing. These decisions can often be a matter of life and death.”

The killing of eleven Jewish worshippers at Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, and many other horrific acts of religious violence, show that Krister’s words are not hyperbolic: scriptural interpretation is sometimes a matter of life and death. When I taught my Duke University Scripture class soon after this shooting, I opened with a discussion of these horrific events, for I had learned from Krister that the personal, the religious, the communal, and the academic cannot each be put into neat, separate boxes, never influencing each other.

During several stays in Jerusalem over the past years, I have had posthumous encounters with Krister. Several times Jesper Svartvik, who held the Krister Stendahl Chair at Lund University and the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem, asked me to speak at the Institute on Jewish perspectives on the New Testament. Soon after entering, I found myself teaching in the Krister Stendahl classroom. I felt I had come full-circle, and in some way could honor Krister by teaching as a Jew about the New Testament in Jerusalem, a city he loved. And he loved Jerusalem in part because of its religious diversity and complexity. I began to speak. And I could almost see Krister smile, with the twinkle of those beautiful blue eyes.