Larry Hurtado (1943–2019): Textual Critic, Christologist, Exegete, Scholar, Christian


By: Daniel B. Wallace

On November 25, 2019, one of the great biblical scholars of our time died too young. Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, succumbed to cancer. I learned of his passing after the annual dinner of the Evangelical Textual Criticism group, which was meeting at a pizza restaurant in San Diego during the Society of Biblical Literature conference that evening. We all knew he had cancer and had made a turn for the worse in recent days. But we didn’t expect him to slip into eternity so quickly. He was just weeks shy of his 76th birthday.

Larry was one of Eldon Epp’s students at Case Western Reserve University. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on text-critical methods in Mark’s Gospel that he employed to determine the flavor of Codex W. I found this work remarkably helpful in its clear articulation and solid logic. Larry was a longtime champion of proper methodology in textual criticism. E. C. Colwell’s mantle fell on his shoulders. I remember the two-day conference on NT textual criticism focusing on the coherence-based genealogical method in Münster in 2009. Just a few dozen folks were there; I was told by one of the organizers that every NT textual critic was invited, and all but one came. Hurtado was present, and he made his presence known. He offered objections and insights throughout the conference that far outshined almost all others. In short, even 35 years after his PhD on textual criticism, and 12 years after he moved to Scotland where his attentions were now focused on early devotion to Jesus, he still had it. He was up to date on the field. He never left his first love.

Larry’s career took him from Canada to Scotland. Even before he came to Edinburgh in 1996, he was expanding his expertise far beyond the arcane walls of textual studies. Most importantly, he founded the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins at the University. Larry became known for his work in early Christology, focusing on the worship of Jesus in the first few centuries of the Church. His work dealing with the binitarian transformation of monotheism that incorporated the worship of Jesus was truly ground-breaking. Larry published several detailed volumes on this subject.

He continued to show strong interest in things textual, too. He authored The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, a fascinating book that addressed a largely neglected field of research, viz., New Testament and Christian manuscripts as artifacts. This book was one of the catalysts that helped scholars see a difference between the text in a manuscript (i.e., the wording) and the manuscript itself (i.e., the material on which the text was written). Manuscripts include many significant things besides text, including helps for readers such as sacred names in abbreviation (known as nomina sacra), marginal notes, corrections, musical notations, Scripture references, section titles, colophons, subscriptions, and the like. Manuscripts are now treated as artifacts in their own right.

Larry was also on CSNTM’s International Advisory Board. In fact, he was the key player responsible for connecting the Center with the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin where we digitized some of the most important papyri known to exist (along with other New Testament manuscripts). You can hear why he values the work of digitizing manuscripts in this video, taken five years ago at SBL in San Diego. 

Finally, Larry was a friend and a Christian. His own devotion to Jesus Christ drove his scholarship. Some today think that they are wholly objective in their study of the Bible; this is a naïve view that was thrown out with historical positivism over a century ago. Hurtado never pretended to be completely objective, but he was willing to challenge his own presuppositions and test them under rigorous examination. He thus serves as a great model for us today. He will be missed but, I hope, emulated by the next generation of biblical scholars.