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Krister Stendahl (1921-2008)

September 2008

StendahlBiblical scholar Krister Stendahl, former dean of Harvard Divinity School and former bishop of Stockholm, died on April 15, 2008. He was 86.

Stendahl’s research spanned the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. He advanced the cause of ecumenicism and championed the rights of minorities, including women, gays, lesbians and African-Americans, particularly in the religious sphere. Stendahl was born in 1921 in Stockholm, Sweden, where his father worked as a harbor administrator. His family was not very religious; rather, his faith arose during a painful bout with arthritis when he was 16. His illness informed his later reading of religious texts, leading him to identify with and meditate on Jesus’ pain.

Stendahl studied at Uppsala University, where he was ordained in the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) in 1944. He served as a priest and as chaplain at Uppsala until receiving his doctorate there in 1954.

He immediately moved to Harvard Divinity School (HDS), where he was professor of New Testament. Fourteen years later, in 1968, he became dean of the school.

During his tenure as dean (until 1979) Stendahl oversaw a dramatic increase in the diversity of students and faculty at HDS, especially in terms of women and racial background.

As bishop of Stockholm in the 1980s, Stendahl facilitated efforts to end Sweden’s state sponsorship of the church.

Afterward, he returned to HDS as the school’s first chaplain before accepting an appointment at Brandeis University in 1991 as the first Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Distinguished Professor of Christian Studies, where he remained until his retirement in 1993.

In addition to his academic positions, Stendahl was chair of the World Council of Churches’ Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People and co-director of the Osher Center for Tolerance and Pluralism at the Shalom-Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, both of which he used to develop positive Jewish-Christian relations. Stendahl worked for much of his life to encourage interfaith dialogue among Christian denominations as well as between Christians and Jews. He urged people to see the good in the other’s beliefs. He also advocated for the ordination of women in the church. When asked why he had spent so much of his career focusing on the roles of women and Jews, 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.”—D.D.R.

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