Obituary: Dr John Court

by
17 May 2019

The Revd Dr Stephen Laird and others write:

DR JOHN COURT, tall in stature and kind by nature, was well known among the international community of New Testament scholars. Although he was most recognised for his writings and research on the Revelation of St John, his interests extended far beyond his New Testament specialism to include the Old Testament; different areas of biblical interpretation; and the social history and archaeology of the Bible lands.

John, who died on 31 March, was born in 1943. His parents supported his love of learning, and he was awarded a scholarship to King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the city where he grew up. He read theology at St John’s College, Durham, where he obtained a first, before completing his Ph.D. (“Myth and History in the Book of Revelation”), under C. K. Barrett. John spoke about his influential tutor and mentor with great fondness and respect. He served as president of the Lightfoot Society, which hosted papers and presentations from eminent scholars.

It was at this time that he met Kathleen Chapman, whom he later married. This devoted couple collaborated on several publications in the field of biblical studies, and happily travelled to academic conferences together, often planning their overseas holidays around them. They were close to celebrating their 50 years of married life when John died.

John took up a post teaching biblical studies at the University of Kent in 1969, where he enjoyed the interdisciplinary ethos which was promoted and sustained by a collegiate system. He was instrumental in growing his academic department from small beginnings, and served as chair of the Board of Studies for Theology for many years.

During the 1990s, he developed an innovative undergraduate degree course that included periods of study at the University of the Holy Land and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as Canterbury. This attracted students of the highest calibre, who now thrive in many walks of life as a result of their formative experiences.

Meanwhile, the writing and research undertaken by John and his colleagues — who included Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Robin Gill — had become notable nationally and internationally for its relevance, accessibility, and interdisciplinarity: it was having an “impact” two decades before that term became a buzzword in places where academic productivity tops the agenda.

John’s name will always be closely associated with the Society of New Testament Studies: he became both international treasurer and general editor of its prestigious SNTS monograph series. This confirmed his international standing. His global peers developed an increasing respect for this “perfect English gentleman”.

John contributed articles on a range of topics to books edited by others, and reviewed for a several scholarly publications. His books reflect a wide range of interests. Approaching the Apocalypse: A short history of Christian millenarianism (2008) was one of several studies of Revelation. A later work, A Generation of New Testament Scholarship (2012), revisited famous New Testament scholars of the era before the Second World War, including Streeter and Dodd. Reading the New Testament (1997) surveyed a range of approaches to biblical interpretation.

The Penguin Bible Dictionary (2007) was a joint enterprise with Kathleen. Earlier, The New Testament World (1991), a well-illustrated Cambridge University Press volume, was also a joint effort that has stood the test of time, as a wide-ranging introduction to the New Testament books and their backgrounds. John’s publications can be characterised as sober, clear, and reliable.

In the lecture room, John had a quiet, thoughtful, and encouraging manner, through which he conveyed his erudition and scholarship. Former students have commented on his patience with those who struggled, often with their New Testament Greek. Those who knew John well became aware of his enjoyment of irony and strong sense of humour.

In retirement, besides continuing to publish and review (for the Church Times, among other publications), he read widely, gardened, listened to music, and taught religious studies for Canterbury’s U3A. John’s health had been in decline for some years, with blood cancer and Parkinson’s, but he had continued his contact with former students, of all generations, often greeting them at his home.

One of John’s final gestures was to donate large parts of his library to St Augustine’s College of Theology, determined that those training for ordination and other licensed ministries in the south-east of England should benefit from them. This act of generosity, together with his continued involvement with his parish church in the countryside near Faversham, is an important reminder that John remained a committed Anglican. Far from being undermined by scholarly investigations into the New Testament texts, his lifelong Christian faith was complemented by them.

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