François Bovon, 1938-2013

November 4, 2013
François Bovon, 1938-2013
François Bovon. Photo: Justin Knight

Preeminent New Testament scholar and religious historian François Bovon passed away Friday, November 1, in Aubonne, Switzerland, after a long illness. He was 75.

Bovon was Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, where he was associated for two decades. He joined the faculty in 1993, teaching New Testament and early Christian literature, and he was chair of the New Testament Department from 1993 to 1998 and again from 2001 to 2002.

"It was always a great pleasure to be François' colleague," said Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at HDS. "His careful exegetical detail and critical engagement were pervaded with a deep passion of faith and intellectual honesty, curiosity, and courage that was inspiring. He was truly a gentleman, a person for whom the name 'gentle' is most definitely appropriate. He brought a bit of European formality, reserve, and elegance to grace our faculty—all with unreserved kindness and a good cheer that I for one learned to count on and will miss terribly."

Prior to his arrival at HDS, Bovon served at the University of Geneva's divinity school, both as a professor for 26 years and as a dean from 1976 to 1979. During his tenure at Geneva, he also held numerous visiting professorships in Switzerland and Italy.

Having studied first at the Universities of Göttingen, Strasbourg, Edinburgh, and Lausanne, he completed his doctoral degree at the University of Basel summa cum laude with a dissertation on the Gentile mission in Acts 10-11.

From 2000 to 2010 he was editor of Harvard Theological Review, one of the longest-running scholarly theological journals in the United States.

In recent years he developed his teaching and research in two directions: the exegesis of New Testament texts, particularly the Gospel of Luke, and the publication and interpretation of non-canonical Acts of the Apostles, particularly the Acts of Philip, legends of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and apocryphal fragments.

"François was a friend who happened to be a colleague at the Divinity School," said David D. Hall, Bartlett Research Professor of New England Church History at HDS. "For me, he was a living link to the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition—my native tradition and his—and for him a tradition that was also familial, as his father was an important minister within the Swiss Reformed. It was also something to be re-examined, as happened when he studied with Karl Barth.

"He was far more than the sum of these influences, theologically and otherwise, a quietly independent thinker, ever attempting to connect the intricacies of textual scholarship with the formation of clergy within the wider Christian world."

Bovon made a significant contribution to a better understanding of early Christianity with his publication of a fourth-century text describing the apostle Philip. The manuscript, which he discovered with his colleague Bertrand Bouvier in a monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece, describes a community of celibate vegetarians in which both women and men served as priests.

His critical edition of the Acts of Philip, done in collaboration with Bouvier and Frédéric Amsler, was published as volume 11 in the Corpus Christianorum: Series Apocryphorum by Brepols in 1999.

Bovon was a prolific writer. Throughout his over 40 years in academia, he published more than 200 articles, book chapters, and essays on early Christian studies and Christology. He was the author, coauthor, editor, or contributor to numerous books.

Some of his most recent publications include New Testament and Christian Apocrypha (Baker Academic, 2011); The Last Days of Jesus (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); and his critical commentary on Luke, in three volumes, published by Fortress Press as part of its Hermeneia series and translated into English, German, French, and Spanish.

He was president of the international Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas in 2000-01, a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, and was selected as a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology for 2002-03.

Bovon was also an ordained minister of the Église évangélique réformée du Canton de Vaud (Switzerland) and of the Église protestante de Genève (Switzerland).   

"He was intending to incorporate the numerous texts he had recovered in a book-length study of them, but his illness and other responsibilities got in the way of completing it," said Hall.

"Francois bore those experiences and his illness without complaint, although visibly benefitting from the many gestures of love and support he received from former students and others within and outside the university.  He deserved those gestures, and more, for he gave fully of himself to students, friends, colleagues, and institutions."

He is survived by Martin, his son; Karin Bovon, his daughter-in-law; four grandchildren: Camille, Julie, Romain, and Antoine; and his sister, Monique Bovon. His son Pierre Bovon is deceased.

A funeral service for Bovon will be held Thursday, November 7, at 2 pm, in the Auditoire de Calvin, in Geneva. A memorial service at Harvard will be planned for early in 2014.