Former Div School Dean Dies at Age 86

Krister Stendahl, former dean and professor emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School, will be remembered by his colleagues for many things—among them, that he was “very Swedish.”

Having left his homeland for a Harvard professorship in 1954, the New Testament scholar made his mark on the Harvard community and beyond with an understanding spirit that sought continuity in faith and integration in academia, said Divinity School professor Harvey Cox.

“He was sort of a democratic socialist of the Swedish style—that was an integral part of his personality,” Cox said.

Stendahl passed away last week at the age of 86, after several years of declining health.

Cox described a Passover seder his wife held that Stendahl attended annually. Cox’s wife also invited a colleague whose husband’s religious beliefs were opposed to Stendahl’s—he was “very convinced that the Greeks had it right with polytheism,” Cox said.

“Year after year, this would come up,” he said. “Krister was always very wry and always reflecting humorously the argument about the need for polytheism...It was really quite understanding of him to do it that way—not to become involved in a heated debate, but to accept this guy for what he was.”

This conciliatory nature carried over to his scholarship, Cox said. Stendahl eschewed displacement theology, which says that Christianity supplanted Judaism during its development, focusing instead on the continuity between the two faiths. Stendahl was also deeply concerned with interfaith matters, Cox added.

Revered Peter J. Gomes, a divinity professor and the minister of Memorial Church, said that Stendahl’s work on the Gospel of Matthew published in 1954 remains the foremost authority on the subject.

Gomes added that the period when Stendahl was editor of the Harvard Theological Review was considered the high point of the publication’s scholarship.

On first impression, Stendahl could be “very formidable,” Gomes said. “It was very clear that he knew a great deal. Sometimes you thought his questions were determined to hang you up.”

“But when you got to know him, there was a very wry and delicious sense of humor,” Gomes added. “He was never dull—he was always intriguing and interesting.”

Stendahl is also well known for trying to bring marginalized groups into the fold, particularly women and minorities. He pushed for the ordination of women into the ministry and the priesthood, presided over the development of the women’s studies program at the Divinity School, and worked to increase the number of black students at the school, Cox said.

This effort was reflected in his personal life too. Gomes said that the Lutheran minister “did everything in his power” to help encourage his wife’s scholarship in Scandanavian and comparative literature and culture.

“They were an intellectual power couple before that was a popular phrase,” Gomes said.

Stendahl took the helm of the Divinity School in 1968, the same year that Gomes graduated, and thus presided over his Commencement ceremony. But in an unlikely turn of events for a Harvard Commencement ceremony, the day was rained out. Stendahl was bestowed the responsibility of deciding which of the students were going to be able to fit inside Sanders Theatre, Gomes said.

“With great humor, he drew names out of his hat—he wore a tall silk hat like Abraham Lincoln,” Gomes said. “It bound us to him. When I went to see him just last Saturday...I asked him ‘Do you remember our Commencement?’ He smiled broadly—clearly he did.”

After serving as dean of the Divinity School until 1979, Stendahl returned to his home country to serve as the Bishop of Stockholm from 1984-1988. He then returned to the Divinity School as its first chaplain, a position he held until taking a professorship at Brandeis from 1991 until 1993.

As Gomes’ graduating class holds its 40th reunion this June, he said that much of their collective experience will have departed with Stendahl’s passing.

“We will feel the loss considerably,” he said.

A service in his honor is planned for Friday, May 16, at 3 p.m. in Memorial Church.

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at