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Arthur Darby Nock

Frothingham Professor of History of Religion, Harvard University
1902 to 1963

For centuries Christian scholars have debated Paul’s Hellenistic influences. ‘Paul didn’t know enough about Hellenism to pass the mid-term exam in my under-graduate course,’ Arthur Darby Nock once commented (as recalled by one of his students Edgar Krentz). Born in the south of England in 1902 and trained as a classicist at Cambridge where he won a scholarship Nock was known to have three attributes: he was an eminent scholar and was said to have been ‘charmingly eccentric even in a world of eccentrics’. He was also one who did not pull his punches. ‘I am left in a terminological fog’ he wrote as he began a devastating critique on an opponent.

As an undergraduate he showed ‘a kind of genius with a prodigious memory and unerring linguistic skills’ (Crane Brinton). At the ‘unheard-of age’ (ibid.) of twenty before receiving his BA he became the annual reviewer of Latin literature in The Year’s Work in Classical Studies. In 1926 the year he was awarded an MA he was asked to introduce and translate Sallustius’s text. His edition was ‘extraordinary’. In the next few years he produced a flood of articles on almost every branch of classical learning but with a particular emphasis on early Christianity and its Hellenistic background. Already in his mid-twenties he was an international figure.

At the age of twenty-seven he was invited to teach at Harvard as a visiting lecturer; the following year he was offered a professorship in the History of Religion. Moving into Eliot House he became a permanent fixture on Harvard’s campus and in Harvard’s student newspaper The Harvard Crimson until his death in 1963. The Crimson once reported that needing to cross a busy street on his way from home to lecture hall he would march into the street brandishing his umbrella in a threatening way at approaching vehicles.

Nock continued to make his presence known at Harvard and abroad. He taught history classics and theology and advised the University’s library. In 1930 he embarked on a thirty-three year editorship of the Harvard Theological Review helping to make it a leading international journal. In 1937 he became a senior fellow. The fourteen volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History primarily published during the 1930s contains two chapters by Nock. They are said to be ‘small masterpieces of exposition’. Two imaginative and exacting studies Conversion and St. Paul were published as well as a formidable number of articles reviews and essays. In 1939 and again in 1946 Nock returned to Britain to deliver the Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen.

With three honorary doctorates membership in eight foreign academies and an associate editorship at Oxford, Nock’s erudition was recognized. Perhaps most remarkable while still at the peak of his intellectual powers he began to put his talents at the disposal of others. Arthur Darby Nock extended friendship and mentorship and collaboration to three generations. Upon his death The Crimson wrote ‘His death is a family loss. One of the last members of a vigorous and humane tradition he never used high learning to shut out the rest of the world’.

  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow