Larry W. Hurtado retired last week from his post as Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at New College, the faculty of divinity of Edinburgh University. His retirement had been postponed slightly in order to let him serve out his full time as Head, but it still makes him much too young for retirement–a fact made ironical by the impending lifting of mandatory retirement to occur in just a couple of months’ time at Edinburgh.
Larry and I go ‘way back–to 1990. I was in my third year of my first full-time teaching job, a history position at a small Reformed Church of America college in northwest Iowa. I thoroughly enjoyed Northwestern College and teaching history to its terrific students, but I was looking to get back into theological and religious studies full-time and a job had been advertised in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba. I had interviewed for the position (the other two finalists were, strangely, former classmates of mine: Bryan Hillis whom I had known at Chicago and the late Annette Campbell whom I had met at Wheaton) and was awaiting the outcome. The news then came that the department had opted for its own former student, my friend Bryan.
I was disappointed, but then Bryan decided to stay where he was (at Luther College, University of Regina, of which he is now president) and the department came ’round to me. Larry made two long telephone calls to me to woo me north, made necessary by my ambivalence over the department not coming to me first! I succumbed to his blandishments (Larry is a very persuasive guy) and a few months later Kari and I were back in Canada after a decade away. Larry and Shannon hospitably put us up in their basement guest suite for several days while we sorted out housing, and they became friends whose company we enjoyed often over the next ten years.
Larry was a wise “big brother” to me as I made my way in this institution so different from any I had previously experienced. He understood how to get along with the very wide range of people one finds in a mid-rank university, from brilliant scholars to good, ordinary folk to goldbrickers who ought never to have been hired, let alone tenured. Larry was a skillful politician, a tireless networker, and a hilarious compadre as we would laugh sardonically in his office or mine, or at the former faculty club, at the nonsense afflicting our department or faculty or university even as we manfully soldiered on. We frequently were a voting minority in our department on a wide range of matters–although never religious ones per se–and to fight the good fight for “RIGOUR” (as we would always say with the deepest voices we could muster) was a pleasant campaign in such company.
Alas, we suffered one annus horribilis in the mid-90s that seemed to spell the coming doom of our department as a place for serious research and teaching. Our faculty complement had declined in the face of continuing underfunding of the university, and Larry and I were now losing department votes pretty regularly on matters we thought shouldn’t even have come up for discussion. Shortly after that dispiriting year, he was recruited by several prominent institutions in North America and Europe and the good people at Edinburgh had the wit to make him an offer he was delighted not to refuse. After he was gone, the department seemed much less vital and certainly less hopeful. I left for Regent College two years later.
Larry has been the very model of the upwardly mobile, Horatio Alger American scholar. A truck driver’s son from a religiously indifferent Missouri home, the Holy Spirit got hold of him, made him a Pentecostal, and first sent him to the Assemblies of God school in his home state. From that inauspicious educational start, he went to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago to major in New Testament, impressing his professors despite the general disfavour with which Pentecostals were regarded by mainstream evangelicals of that sort at that time. Like the somewhat older Pentecostal NT scholar Gordon Fee, Larry decided to focus on the arcana of textual criticism, and studied with Fee’s own mentor, Eldon Epp, who had moved to, of all places, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. As most Americans know, Case is a school well regarded for engineering, computing science, and many other fields, but absolutely nowhere in regard to religious studies, and Biblical studies in particular.
Armed with this extraordinary pedigree, Larry did not gain academic employment and instead joyfully pastored a church in another suburb of Chicago for a while. But then an upstart little school on the very edge of the populated continent, Regent College in Vancouver, offered him a job. So Larry got into academia after all, and has stayed there so very fruitfully ever since.
To be sure, Regent didn’t keep him long, as its conservative policies, particularly as interpreted by some of its leaders, made it difficulty for Larry to stay. So he took a one-year post at the University of Manitoba–a post that turned into a steady string of promotions, tenure, research awards, interim department headships, committee chairs, and the founding directorship of that university’s Institute for the Humanities. Larry made a name for himself, and Edinburgh eventually cashed in on his hard work and excellent scholarly reputation to enjoy his talent, energy, drive, discipline, and companionability now these last dozen-plus years. The towers of New College are indeed a long way from the truckstops of Missouri.
Few scholars of his generation have had Larry’s connections. He has been on a first-name basis with the greats of his field, from “Ed” Sanders to “Jimmy” Dunn to “Tom” Wright to “Dom” Crossan to “Martin” (I’m pretty sure there was no diminutive used in this case) Hengel. He knows Don Carson and he knows Marcus Borg; he knows Marianne Meye Thompson and he knows Paula Fredriksen. He faithfully attends and participates in the meetings of the major scholarly societies and his work has been widely recognized and cited for decades, even as it has been largely unknown to Christian pastors, let alone lay readers. This steady scholarly output culminated in the magnum opus Lord Jesus Christ (2005), as well as numerous other books on “Christ devotion in the early church,” a field in which Larry is globally recognized by his peers as one of the top authorities. No one can now responsibly discuss how the early Christians moved from their earliest recollections of Jesus to their worship and theology of him as the God-man without reference to Larry’s groundbreaking and comprehensively synthetic work.
Along the way, he has been an avid churchman–at least, as much as Christian institutions would let him. To be sure, he has occasionally expressed frustration to me over coffee in the faculty lounge or, later, as we met at scholarly conferences that certain ecclesiastical or “para-congregational” agencies (my term for “parachurch” groups) seemed happy to wave crosses and Bibles around even as they made little room for genuine expertise in just what those crosses and Bibles meant. And because of his broad connections, this frustration could be prompted by evangelicals on the right, liberals on the left, or Christians in between.
Indeed, given how brilliantly and accessibly Larry speaks, it remains a scandal to me that he has not been asked to address major conferences such as InterVarsity’s Urbana, Lausanne meetings, WCC conferences, and more. But so few leaders of popular church movements do pay attention to scholarship nowadays that I am not as disappointed as I used to be. If you work for years as a faithful interpreter of Scripture and early church history at the highest levels, no matter how well you speak or write, I’m afraid you have to aim pretty low to show up on the radar of the people who seem to run those sorts of things.
Ah, well. Larry’s been kept plenty busy nonetheless. Now he is President of the British New Testament Society, mentor to a number of dissertation writers, contributor to conferences, and on the way to authoring yet more articles, chapters, and books. Retirement for him will be simply an open-ended research leave, and Larry’s always made good use of such opportunities.
So hats off to one of our time’s undersung giants of early Christian studies. And keep up with Larry’s musings on his new blog, available here.
Happy retirement, Brother Larry!