Memorial Minute for François Bovon

April 9, 2014
Memorial Minute for François Bovon
François Bovon Photo: Justin Knight

At a faculty meeting on April 7, 2014, HDS professors Karen L. King and David D. Hall presented the following 'Memorial Minute' to pay tribute to their late friend and colleague.

New Testament scholar and religious historian François Bovon passed away November 1, 2013, in Aubonne, Switzerland. Bovon was Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, where he was associated for two decades.

Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity, on Bovon's scholarship and career

François Bovon arrived in 1993 at Harvard Divinity School, where he served as the Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion until his retirement in 2010. During these years, his presence distinguished and graced our faculty. His many contributions to the Divinity School in scholarship, teaching, and service will be long felt and appreciated, and memories of his personal presence will continue to be cherished by all fortunate enough to have known and worked with him. 

He brought to us an unrivalled and infectious enthusiasm for ancient texts and a deep respect of tradition. At the same time, his heart and mind were always open to embrace new ideas and challenges. His personal reserve and dignity were complemented by a kind and generous nature, unfailingly considerate and respectful of others. At the core of who he was lay a profound devotion to God and to His service.

François Bovon was born March 13, 1938, in Lausanne, Vaud, Switzerland. At the Collège classique cantonal and then at the Gymnase classique cantonal, he was a prize-winning student of classical Greek and Latin languages and literature. He studied at the Universities of Göttingen (1960-61), Strasbourg (1961-62), and Edinburgh (1963-64), before completing his Doctorate in Theology (Dr. theol.) summa cum laude at the Universität Basel in 1965.

His dissertation, De vocatione gentium. Histoire de l’interprétation d’Act. 10,1-11,18 dans les six premiers siècles, published in 1967, was the first of many path-breaking works on the Gospel of Luke. In addition, he received a licence en théologie from the church Université de Lausanne in 1961, and was ordained a minister of the Église évangélique réformée du Canton de Vaud (Switzerland) and of the Église protestante de Genève (Switzerland).

François arrived at Harvard with a long and distinguished career already behind him. Before moving to Cambridge, he had spent 26 years as Professor of New Testament at the University of Geneva (1967-1993), where he also served as Dean of the Faculty of Theology (1976-79).

Internationally, he was recognized by numerous honors and invitations to speak at universities and conferences. He served as president of the Société suisse de théologie (1972-77) and the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (2000-01). The University of Uppsala conferred on him an honorary doctorate (1993). He served on numerous editorial boards, and at HDS became editor of the Harvard Theological Review (2000-10).

He brought with him an extensive bibliography, and at Harvard, continued to add to this impressive oeuvre. It includes published monographs, commentaries, edited and co-authored volumes, collections of essays, and nearly 200 articles. Many of these were or have subsequently been translated into a number of European languages, including German, French, English, Spanish, and Italian.

His work is distinguished not only by its quantity but by its sophistication, quality, depth, and originality—and by his own spirit, conveyed best in his own words. He begins his three volume Hermeneia commentary on the Gospel of Luke with a description that could be applied to all of his scholarly work: 'I wish to examine [Luke's] Gospel with the sober reserve of a scholar and with the confidence of a believer. For I hope in this manner to arrive at genuine understanding. I also realize that this becomes possible only if God leads me to his Word.

As an interpreter, I never face the text alone. I am always accompanied by the long series of my predecessors, and by the still larger throng of Christian readers...When I read, the theologians and teachers of long ago, as well as students and colleagues of today, are enriching company.'

One side of his work focused on historical-critical exegesis and theological interpretation of New Testament literature and theology. Particularly notable here is his magisterial, multivolume commentary on the Gospel of Luke, which is recognized as a classic in the field and appears in five languages. Accompanying this work is a study of the history of scholarship on Luke, Luc le théologien. Vingt-cinq ans de recherches (1950-1975), and a study of the last days of Jesus, Les derniers jours de Jésus. Textes et événements.  

A second major focus of research delved deeply into early Christian apocryphal literature. In 1981, he cofounded and was the first president of a project, 'Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne,' that has produced the critical editions and translations of a large and extremely complex body of neglected early Christian writings, opening up new worlds for historical and theological exploration. 

In collaboration with Bertrand Bouvier and Frédéric Amsler, he also produced the critical edition and French translation of The Acts of Philip. Both areas of study include a broad range of interpretative essays, on topics such as law, canon, apocalyptic, women apostles, and parables. Among his most innovative contributions, however, is the realization that ancient Christian literature encompasses not only two categories (canonical and rejected literature), but a third highly important category: useful books.

François brought his broad knowledge and enthusiasm to students at Harvard. Doctoral students in particular honor his gifts as a mentor and trusted advisor, and he welcomed students as collaborators. He was always generous with his time and hospitality. Many have spoken about the personal encouragement and support they received long after graduation from HDS. His warm and graceful presence as a scholar, a colleague, a friend, and a mentor is missed deeply.

David D. Hall, Bartlett Research Professor of New England Church History, on his relationship with Bovon

Let me speak personally about François, though in doing so, I rely on what several of you and others who are not present have said to me. I begin with a few scenes or occasions.

Some of us have gathered in the library, invited by François to hear him thank those of the library staff and doctoral student community who have aided his research—each by name, and, at the close, offering us refreshments. 

'The library had no better friend,' Russ Pollard wrote to me some weeks ago, noting how François would charge the staff with 'the most interesting and obscure bibliographical requests...the ones that make our jobs fun,' noting, too, that he came in person to the library as much or more than anyone else on the faculty; and evoking François' 'pure delight' at discovering a variant version of the Apocrypha, so exciting to him that he 'called several of us into the reading room' so they could see for themselves.  

Some of us have gone to Fayerweather Street for dinners or drinks, which he arranged for classes, for visitors to the University, for others outside the Divinity School, and for those he welcomed as friends. The dinners were unusual for their frequency—he was surely the most hospitable of the senior faculty—and for the quality of the meal, which he prepared himself.

Some of us served with him on the editorial board of Harvard Theological Review, a task for which the rewards are few and the burdens quite tedious. Some of us served alongside him during the years he administered the ThD program within the Committee on the Study of Religion, a position obligating him to balance rules and obligations with a sympathy for the sometimes troubled situations of the students.  

Someone who co-taught him for several years recalls how, 'in all the things that he did, from teaching to personal relations, he acted with a deep sense of responsibility,' insisting that, for each class he taught—meaning, each session of the courses he taught—that 'nothing be left to chance or improvisation; everything was carefully organized and planned according to a strict budgeting of time.'  

Others who knew him as a teacher have emphasized the ways in which he encouraged each and every student to affirm his or her intellectual independence. 'Warm, encouraging, enthusiastic'—these were the first words someone not in New Testament studies used as she reflected on the ThD introductory seminar she took with him.

A fervent Christian who took two of the courses he taught through the Extension school told me that, the more she listened to François, the more she came to appreciate the spirit he brought to the study of the New Testament. She told me too of how he urged her to become more 'critical' in her papers and showed her what this meant. When she learned of his cancer and wrote him a note, not expecting him to remember her, he wrote back at once, appreciating her words and telling her he remembered her well, a note she has preserved in her Bible.

'He was utterly without a sense of self importance,' a colleague of ours wrote me, and his 'deep humility allowed him to be an excellent mentor; he truly wanted students to do their own research, not his, and always sought ways to support their individual trajectories, even when he only partially endorsed them.'

The François we remember was a person of unusual self-discipline and composure. Recalling his 'work ethic' and 'holy aversion to wasting time,' a colleague who twice went with him to Mt. Sinai and elsewhere recalled a hot summer day when, in the afternoon, everyone stopped working except for François and his dear friend and scholarly collaborator Bertrand Bouvier, 'both of them continuing to toil away together on their next project.'  

Yet he was also a cosmopolitan lover of life and the world around him in ways I think of as characteristic of Europeans of his generation—opening a bottle of wine at the end of those hot days at Mt. Sinea, at home in so many places in Europe, and remembering with a special pleasure the places in France and elsewhere his father took him to. 

He was also keenly local, a veritable Genevois who, for many years, sailed a single-handed sloop on Lac Leman, a Lausianian as well, spending some of his student years at a 'college' in that city; and above all, a passionate lover of the Alps and his little chalet at St. Luc, which he was able to revisit twice in the final months of life thanks to his sister, Monique Bovon.   

He was characteristically European in another way, for what one of you spoke of as the 'basic conviction' that animated his scholarship was a 'belief in the archeology of written sources, and in the importance of that pursuit for any kind of historical reconstruction.' To say this another way, he carried him all his life a model of scholarship, culture, and the arts faithful to the traditions of taste and hierarchy that, for some Europeans, comes with the drinking water or perhaps with the wine. 

Yet he was unusual in being able to learn from and adapt to aspects of the culture he found here. Again I evoke a particular scene, a gathering to celebrate the publication of Jon Levenson’s Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel. Holding in his hands a copy of the book open to a particular page, François spoke with unusual emphasis about how Jon's book and, more generally, being in America, had brought home to him the importance of the Jewish context for understanding the New Testament and early Christianity.

At the same time, he found his new homeland perplexing, his own ethics at odds with the lapses of transparency that occurred from time to time, and never more so than when the future of the Harvard Theological Review seemed in doubt—for him, an emblem of the kind of scholarship he respected and, as he said to the editorial committee, a journal known everywhere in Europe.

His friends here in Cambridge rarely, if ever, heard him speak about faith or belief. As someone who knew him well said in response to a query of mine, what he thought or believed in the realm of theology was a 'mystery,' and another remarked that his personal views on matters of faith were 'an aspect of his life that he kept very much to himself.'

He knew, of course, that what he was saying about Jesus as understood by Luke, as well as what he himself was saying about the so called apocryphal texts, jostled the assumption that the New Testament was impeccable. He knew, in other words, that he was trespassing on what his father's generation must have taken more or less for granted.

In an essay published in 2010, after remarking that there are as many portraits of Jesus as there are students of the Bible, he identified himself with 'une tendance critique,' founded on the presumption that most of the titles for Jesus that appear in the letters of Paul and the other evangelists occur in text passages that are 'les moins anciens.'

Taking account as well of the discrepancies between Acts and the epistles, he noted in the same essay, 'one must be willing to admit that the Jesus of history never regarded himself as a messiah.' I dare say, he continued, that Jesus preferred to be discreet, speculating that this sense of discretion was Jesus' means of avoiding triumphalism of the kind that was being voiced elsewhere in the ancient world.

When the question arose some years ago of spelling out a vision for the Divinity School, François said that we must reckon with tradition and underscored the word 'Christian' in response to a query by someone else who asked, 'what tradition?'

Like the Jesus he found in Luke, he preferred discretion to overt profession and certainly to triumphalism. Yet the point he made about the Christian tradition leads us back to his massive resume of commentary on Luke-Acts and its apparatus of patristic, Catholic, and Protestant reflection throughout the sweep of Christian history.

A theologian who, from time to time, preaches on Luke, wrote me that invariably she turns back to François' commentary and finds it immensely helpful for just this reason. Tradition, yes, a tradition rich in overlapping, competing, sometimes conflicting voices, and yet always capable of nourishing the church in our own times.

Anyone who was close to him during the time of his illness recognized, as one of you said so tellingly to me in a letter, the stoicism that framed that entire history. When the moment came for him to learn from Dr. Haddad the results of the tests he was having at the Dana Farber, I went with him, knowing from experience that these can be overwhelming moments for the person who is ill. Hunting up a scrap of paper and a pen as soon as Dr. Haddad began to speak, I wrote down the essentials of what he was saying, while François sat motionless.  

May I remind you of its essentials? A rare form of thyroid cancer, so rare that no pharmaceutical company was interested in finding a cure for it; surgery, of course, followed most likely by radiation and chemotherapy, but as means of slowing down the inevitable progress of the cancer, with a five year window of life, more or less. Driving back to Fayerweather Street, he said nothing, although thanking me a day or two later after I printed out a summary of Haddad's diagnosis.  

The diagnosis made it clear that, someday, the moment would arrive for saying goodbye. Well before this moment, the friendship between us had expanded to include my wife Hannah and his friend Valerie. I hope I surprise no one here if I say that some of the happiest moments of his life at the beginning of this century had to do with being in love with a compatriot who would soon became a doctoral student at another American university, although finally deciding to return to her homeland and teach there.

The September evening he arrived at our house after returning from Europe and announced that he was in love was a remarkable moment for him and for us—a moment when we saw a different François from the sometimes somber father whose older son had taken his own life.

Eventually, his relationship with Valerie shifted to a different key, yet she was among the most caring of those who looked after him in the final months and among those who, to this moment, most mourn his death. For his circle of close friends here at Harvard and elsewhere, the next sign that we should prepare ourselves to say good bye came with his decision to return to Switzerland, a decision he put off until a medical crisis made him realize that his situation was becoming too precarious.

The 'plan' was to continue to spend two or three months, if not longer, in Cambridge and elsewhere; and he returned for the Socieity of Biblical Literature Conference that met in Chicago in 2012, though visibly weakened by that experience.

When I drove him to the airport in December, little was said, although we spoke—as we had spoken so many times before—of traveling together in France or Switzerland—this time without the conviction that this might ever happen. Instead, in mid-June, I went by train to Lausanne and then on to his apartment. It took him a long time to come to the door, but soon we were eating dinner at a restaurant a few dozen yards away—that is, I eating dinner and he drinking a glass of beer and taking a few bites of a risotto.

Exhausted by the tourism he had arranged for the next day, he ate virtually nothing for lunch and even less for dinner; went to bed after lunch and again immediately after dinner, and arose late the next morning, prompted by his sister's arrival and my deadline for getting to the train station.

Volunteering to collect his mail from a mailbox on the first floor, I found a stash of newspapers and much else, evidence—together with repeated failures to understand his email password, his lingering in bed, and the weight he had lost—that the end approached.

The pen had been put down, the proofs no longer being corrected...and when the moment came to part so I could catch my train, he said a few enigmatic words with a faint smile: “goodbye Mr. Chips.' That, a handshake and hug, were it—but not quite.

Ten or twelve days before his passing, Monique wrote that he wanted me to know that he was patient. It is haunting to have learned from one of you that, in the final weeks, he lay with his face turned away from the view of Lac Leman he had from the window of the room in the hospice. Waiting...with a calmness, a patience, for the goodbye that, for those of us who believe in the resurrection, may in human time be a long goodbye, but from the standpoint of eternity be something quite else.

Paul writes in Galatians: 'But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness gentleness, self-control; against which there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.'

All of us who knew and loved François can recognize him in these words written so long ago, the François we admired as a teacher and colleague, loved as a friend, and, in so many ways, witnessed as a Christian.