Krister Stendahl, who played a crucial role in shaping the life and work of Harvard Divinity School (HDS), just as he was also a pioneer in the broader realm of ecumenical relations, died on April 15 at the age of 86.
At the time of his death, Stendahl was Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Divinity Emeritus and former dean of the Faculty of Divinity. 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.
Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, called Stendahl “a giant in the Harvard family. He converted the world of [HDS] to a much wider, ecumenical world … and was one of the world’s most respected pastoral and theological voices. He was the person around the table who was so insightful in looking at the ways the gospels required a kind of theology of the neighbor.”
Eck added that Stendahl “wrote and presented and advocated for women’s ministries in the churches.”
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, spent much time traveling as unofficial diplomats in the interests of Christian-Jewish relations. Perhaps most notably in this regard, Stendahl 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.
HDS Dean William A. Graham said Stendahl broke from the restraints of past scholarship by bringing more women into religious studies and by building bridges between scholars of different faiths.
“He was tremendously open to the study of religions outside the Christian tradition,” said Graham.
Stendahl was also “an absolutely brilliant lecturer,” said Graham, who vividly remembered a graduate course in the Old Testament he took from the senior scholar in 1966.
Born in Stockholm and educated at Uppsala University, 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. That same year, he came to Harvard as a professor of New Testament studies, recruited as part of 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.
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 — 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.
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: The Bible as Document and as Guide” (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: “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 Divinity School events, sitting in the front row in the Sperry Room and often asking penetrating questions. He was also a regular visitor to the offices of HDS faculty and staff alike, sitting for a few minutes of chat.
In “Why I Love the Bible,” an essay printed in the spring 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.’”
Stendahl 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 p.m., in Harvard’s Memorial Church.