Always a Student: Remembering François Bovon

MRB November 14, 2013 0

David W. Pao and David H. Warren pay tribute to their teacher, François Bovon

François Bovon Slider

On 1 November 2013, the world of New Testament studies lost one of its brightest stars, François Bovon. To many of us who had the privilege to study under him, we have also lost our teacher, friend, and mentor. His academic accomplishments are well known. Longtime time Professor of New Testament (1967–1993) and Dean of the Faculty of Theology (1976–1979) at the University of Geneva, and then Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion (1993–2010) at Harvard University, François also served as the Editor of the Harvard Theological Review (2000–2010) and President of the Société suisse de théologie (1973–1977), the Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne (1981–1987), and the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (2000–2001). He was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala (1993), and an ordained minister of the Église évangélique réformée du Canton de Vaud (Switzerland) and of the Église protestante de Genève (Switzerland).

François’s breadth of interest and expertise is reflected in the numerous books and articles he had authored. His interest in the Lukan writings spans from the publication of his doctoral dissertation (under Oscar Cullmann), De vocatione gentium: Histoire de l’interprétation d’Act. 10, 1-11, 18 dans les six premiers siècles (1967), to his magisterial multivolume commentary on the Gospel of Luke — published in several modern European languages in the prestigiouss Evangelisch-katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (4 volumes, 1989–2008 [German]), Commentaire du Nouveau Testament (4 volumes, 1991–2009 [French]), Hermeneia (3 volumes, 2002– [English]), Biblioteca de estudios bíblicos (4 volumes, 1995–2010 [Spanish]), and Commentario Paideia (3 volumes, 2005– [Italian]) series. A fellow Lukan scholar, Prof. I. Howard Marshall, has named this set of commentaries the best commentary on the Gospel of Luke in any language. François’ comprehensive mastery of this field of scholarship is also reflected in the several editions of his review of modern Lukan scholarship, the final edition of which is titled Luke the Theologian: Fifty-five Years of Research (1950–2005)(2006).

Another major area of François’s contributions to scholarship lies in the study of early Christian apocryphal writings. In 1974, he discovered a manuscript of the Acts of Philip at the Xenophontos monastery in Greece that fundamentally altered the scholarly opinion on this ancient work. With this discovery, scholars now learned that the original text of the Acts of Philip was much longer than previously thought, and that its longer, original form contained some surprises that contradicted many of the scholarly conclusions about the religious views of its author and its contents. With his colleagues Bertrand Bouvier and Frédéric Amsler, François published a critical edition of this text in 1999 as Acta Philippi: Textus. In 2013, in collaboration with Christopher Matthews, he finally published an English translation of this apocryphal work that takes into account this important discovery, The Acts of Philip: A New Translation. Beyond his involvement with individual apocryphal works, François also founded an association for the study of Christian apocryphal literature (Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne or AELAC) in 1981. After a life-long study of these texts, in an attempt to move beyond the label of “apocryphal” literature, François proposed another label aptly described in the title of his recent article published in the Harvard Theological Review: “Beyond the Canonical and the Apocryphal Books, the Presence of a Third Category: The Books Useful for the Souls” (2012).

His expertise in both canonical and extracanonical literature allows him to provide a deeper understanding of the development of the early Christian movements. A selection of his more than 200 published articles are collected and translated for English readers in three recent releases: Studies in Early Christianity (2003), New Testament and Christian Apocrypha (2009), and The Emergence of Christianity (2013). In these articles, François includes voices from both the center and the so-called margins of the early Christian movement, and he evaluates them critically while avoiding the mistakes committed by those in the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (History of Religions School) of the previous era of New Testament scholarship.

In the classroom, François was the consummate teacher. His vast knowledge of modern biblical scholarship spanned both sides of the Atlantic so that he could provide his English-speaking students with the riches of European contributions, with which many of us were less familiar. His knowledge of ancient patristic writings added a depth to his lectures that placed several modern theological debates in a new dimension. He instilled in us a desire for discovery. In his approach to the biblical text, he always brought a vivid sense of freshness, even for those of us who were veteran students, for he knew how to combine scholarly inquiry with a child-like wonder and curiosity.

In his books and articles, François was a brilliant writer. His constant desire for every voice to be heard imbues the black ink of his writings with a variety of colors with which he endeavored to display all the diversity of opinion that exists on any topic from antiquity to modern times. Only after such a survey of opinion does he ever venture to offer his own, never lacking in courage or conviction, and never lacking in courtesy or kindness toward those with whom he differed. He knew how to infuse dry subjects with wit and humor, and even with irony, often viewing old topics from a new perspective.

François was a scholar’s scholar. Those of us who were privileged to work beside him on his publications were always amazed at his ability to sight-read any ancient text in Greek or Latin as well as modern scholarly works in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English. And François read ancient scholarship as well as modern. His mastery of both areas is reflected in his commentary on Luke, where, besides dealing with critical works by modern scholars, he summarizes for each pericope the contributions made by ancient scholars like Irenaeus and Tertullian, or Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine, medieval scholars like Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, and reformation scholars like Luther and Calvin, under the section, Wirkungsgeschichte (“History of Interpretation” in the Hermeneia edition). These sections were a sort of “Ancient Christian Commentary” on Luke, a unique feature for biblical commentaries at that time, and before the now well-known series by that name made this angle of research popular. And we were surprised to find in his footnotes not only the names of well-known modern scholars like Bultmann or Barth but even our own names, for François was always very careful to give full credit to anyone who had helped him in his work. Even if he could not yet cite a publication from our hands, François would include our names in a footnote and would record his debt to a conversation where he had asked us for our own thoughts on a given passage.

Perhaps such concern to give full credit to his students stems from the fact that he never really ceased to be a student himself. Yes, he was a renowned scholar. And he was our professor, our teacher. But like us, he was also always a student. And perhaps it was this humble spirit of a student in him that often caused him to look to us, his students, as his teachers. In fact, when we first saw him on the Harvard campus, in the fall of 1993, just before classes began, he was in the library. He stood out from the other patrons as he rushed about from one bookshelf to another. Who was this new face? He looked too old to be a student (he was fifty-five at the time), but his rapid, hurried pace seemed more like that of a student than the slow, dignified gait that we saw with most professors. What made François stand out from the other faculty was his gentle, humble spirit that never allowed him as a teacher to forget that he was still a student, and as someone who always treated his students as his teachers!

Starting in 1996, François began a tradition of meeting with one or both of us for a good meal on the Friday evening in November before the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature. On that first Friday evening, the conference was held in New Orleans. The three of us walked around the downtown area looking for a good restaurant, not knowing where we were going. Finally, we stumbled into a fine looking establishment. At the time, we both were still poor doctoral students, and we were shocked at the prices on the menu. Every item was individually priced, and the prices were outrageous. Immediately sensing our anxiety over the prices, François assured us that it was his intention to buy us dinner. He enjoyed our company, and he looked forward every year to this special time together. Last November was the last Friday meal with François. Visually it was obvious that he was finally losing his battle with cancer. This time the student insisted on paying for his teacher, and François acquiesced, as if he knew that it was the last opportunity for this student to repay him—be it ever so little—for the many kindnesses received from his own generosity. We celebrated the appearance of the third volume of his commentary on Luke in the Hermeneia series, which was released on November 1, 2012, and which ended up being the very day on which he would die one year later.

To his students, François was a trusted advisor who was always available. We remember numerous evenings at his home when we were pleasantly surprised by his hospitality. His interests in the work of his students is best illustrated by the publication of a collection of papers that were written mostly by students in the first doctoral seminar he conducted at Harvard in 1993–1994: The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: Harvard Divinity School Studies (1999). His own article in this volume, “Editing the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles,” remains one of the most significant and helpful guides for those working with ancient manuscripts of early Christian apocryphal works. As participants in that seminar and in this publishing project, both of us learned valuable lessons not only in the writing of an article but also in incorporating critical comments from our colleagues and mentor as we go through the process of rethinking and reevaluating our own positions and arguments. Together with his colleagues, many of us who studied under him in the 1990s appropriately honored him with a Festschrift presented to him on the occasion of his 65th birthday: Early Christian Voices: In Texts, Traditions, and Symbols (2003).

David W. Pao (PhD Harvard, 1998)
Professor of New Testament and
Chair of the New Testament Department
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL)

(Bovon’s first research student at Harvard)

David H. Warren (ThD Harvard, 2001)
Associate Professor of Bible
Faulkner University (Montgomery, AL)
(Bovon’s first research assistant at Harvard)