Inspiring teacher of theology and authority on the New Testament
The Rev Christopher Evans, who has died aged 102, was one of the foremost teachers, and an outstanding investigator, of the New Testament. His brilliant, alert and inquiring mind persisted into extreme old age, enabling him to act as a bridge between the leading scholars of the 1930s and 1940s and those of the early 21st century.
In 1962, Evans became professor of New Testament studies at King’s College London, where he laboured at what was his life’s work, a vast and detailed commentary on St Luke’s Gospel, eventually published as Saint Luke in 1990, long after he had retired. What places St Luke among the greatest of New Testament commentaries is Evans’s magisterial blend of overview and detail. He never loses sight of the key questions about the character and purpose of the gospel; its dominant themes, such as concern for the marginalised, the centrality of the Holy Spirit and the place of prayer in the life of Jesus; and its sources. (Where did Luke get the substantial body of material unique to his gospel, such as the great parables of the good samaritan and the prodigal son? How much did he compose and how much did he find already formed?)
Evans was born in Birmingham and educated at King Edward’s school, which has a proud record of producing distinguished scholars and leaders for the church, such as EW Benson, former archbishop of Canterbury. In the early 1930s, a scholarship took Evans to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, an enclave of high Toryism and high Anglicanism, where he took a first in theology. There, he came under the influence of Sir Edwyn Clement Hoskyns, who introduced English New Testament scholarship to the findings of the German school of “form criticism”, as exemplified in the work of Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius. This emphasised analysis of the Bible in terms of the literary forms used, such as proverbs, songs and stories. Hoskyns’s combination of searching scholarship and deep personal devotion taught Evans that a critical approach to the scriptures could be the friend, and not the enemy, of faith and discipleship.
After a year at Lincoln Theological College, where he was taught by Michael Ramsey, later archbishop of Canterbury, Evans had a curacy of four years in Southampton, his only experience of parochial ministry. Evans returned to Lincoln in 1938 as a member of the brilliant teaching staff under Eric Abbott, the principal. GB Bentley lectured on ethics, Eric Mascall was responsible for doctrine and JH Srawley taught liturgy.
The college struggled through the war with a drastically reduced intake of students while heavy bombers from the Lincolnshire airfields roared over the cathedral en route for Germany. After six years of teaching ordinands, Evans was ready to move. The bishop of Lincoln offered him the chaplaincy at the teacher-training college in Lincoln. Evans, who in 1941 had married Elna Pasco, with whom he had a young son, Jonathan, agreed and stayed four years.
In 1948, his career as scholar and teacher took a leap forward with his election as fellow and tutor of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he could exhibit his talents in a more formidable academic setting. He swiftly became known as an inspiring New Testament tutor, forming a tutorial “circus” with JR Porter, the Oriel College Old Testament specialist, and Dennis Nineham, the brilliant young chaplain of the Queen’s College, to teach doctrine. With Nineham, Evans gave a memorable series of lectures on the Gospels and the Jesus of history, while not neglecting his pastoral duties.
It was always likely that Evans would be offered a chair; after 10 years at Corpus, he was appointed to the Lightfoot professorship at Durham, but, despite relishing its historic character, he never really settled in the city and the chance to return south came in 1962 with his becoming professor of New Testament studies at King’s College London, where he remained for the next 15 years, teaching and lecturing and continuing his challenging and questioning approach to the New Testament.
In 1977 he retired to a bungalow in the village of Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, a stone’s throw from the theological college there, where he was a frequent and honoured guest. The death of his wife in 1980 was a grievous blow, but he continued to live positively, tending to the students and staff of the college and keeping a host of friendships from earlier days. To one visitor, at age 98 and over a pub lunch, to the inquiry “What’s it like being 98, Christopher?” he replied: “Part of you feels that you shouldn’t be here.”
He is survived by Jonathan, who followed him into holy orders.
• Christopher Francis Evans, theologian, born 7 November 1909; died 30 July 2012