Jaroslav Pelikan, 82; Yale Scholar Studied History of Christianity

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Yale University professor Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the world’s foremost scholars of the history of Christianity, has died. He was 82.

Pelikan died of lung cancer Saturday at his home in Hamden, Conn., his son, Michael, said Monday.

In a career spanning 60 years, Pelikan wrote more than 30 books, using sources in nine languages and dealing with literary, musical and doctrinal aspects of religion.


A former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Pelikan was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

His works include the acclaimed five-volume text “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine,” which followed the story of Christianity from its origins to modern times.

Pelikan’s “Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages,” published in 2005, explored how people of different faiths interpret the Bible. He said language and cultural differences led to varying interpretations of the Scriptures.

His conclusion, he said in an interview with National Public Radio last year, was that “Christians and Jews need each other in an effort to understand the sacred text they share.”

Though renowned as an expert theologian, Pelikan preferred studying history and rarely waded into modern religious debates.

“There ought to be somebody who speaks to the other 19 centuries,” he said in a 1983 interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “Not everybody should be caught in this moment. I’m filing a minority report on behalf of the past.”

Pelikan joined the Yale faculty in 1962 and later was designated a Sterling professor, an honor reserved for the university’s most distinguished professors.

The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Pelikan in 1983 to deliver the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government confers for achievement in the humanities.

He twice delivered the Guifford Lectures in Scotland, considered one of the foremost lecture series dealing with religion, science and philosophy.

Pelikan also founded the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress in 1980.

In 2004, Pelikan and 91-year-old French philosopher Paul Ricoeur shared the $1-million Kluge prize that honors scholars in such areas as history, sociology and anthropology -- fields not covered by the Nobel prizes.

Also that year, Pelikan published a book comparing the way the Bible and the U.S. Constitution have been understood and applied. The book, “Interpreting the Bible & the Constitution,” cited 72 Supreme Court rulings, 94 Christian creeds and numerous Bible verses.

Born in Akron, Ohio, Pelikan earned his bachelor’s degree at Concordia Theological Seminary and his doctorate at the University of Chicago.

He was an ordained minister of the Lutheran Church before turning to academic life. He later converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.