January 18, 2024
Yale Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling made the following announcement today.
It is my sad duty to inform you that Yale Divinity School has lost a beloved and highly influential member of our community. Internationally recognized New Testament scholar and former Dean Leander E. Keck ’57 Ph.D. died earlier this week at age 95.
Through his administrative and academic leadership, Lee Keck had an impact on YDS that has long outlived his active service and will endure for many years to come. During his decade as Dean (1979 to 1989) Lee, among other accomplishments, established the School’s first formal fundraising program, raising money for vitally needed endowed scholarships and professorships. I cannot emphasize how important this decision was for the future of the School. As a scholar and educator, he greatly influenced New Testament studies and touched a generation of students. In the words of his former student Krista Tippett ’94 M.Div., Lee was “one of the great minds of twentieth-century Biblical studies … He wove a lifetime of scholarship with a life steeped in the practical, human, and societal implications of [the] texts.”
Born in North Dakota and raised on a farm in a German-speaking household, Lee never forgot his roots. His son David wrote of his father: “My father is a peasant (playing with the German word for farmer and peasant Bauer) who became Dean of Yale Divinity School but never forgot that he was a peasant.” He combined the confidence and directness of his upbringing with the sophistication of his adult life. I will never forget something that Lee said to a large audience of Pauline scholars at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature: “The trouble with Pauline studies is that there are too many second-class minds working on one first-class mind.”
Lee was educated at Linfield College in Oregon and went on to earn his B.D. (today’s M.Div.) at Andover Newton Theological School and then his Ph.D. at Yale, completing his degree in 1957. Lee began his academic career at Wellesley College, where he served as an instructor in Bible history from 1957 to 1959. From there he moved to Vanderbilt Divinity School, where he was Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, from 1959 to 1972. He joined the faculty of the Candler School of Theology at Emory in 1972 as Professor of New Testament.
Lee Keck was appointed Dean of Yale Divinity School in 1979. During his decade of leadership, Lee guided YDS through a challenging period marked by inflation and other economic problems that not only vexed America but created enormous financial pressures at Yale, including a new imperative to balance budgets. Lee took on the challenges with the determination and optimism that were characteristic of his leadership. As he declared at his installation, “The future is as promising as we have wit and wisdom to proclaim. Human hurt is too deep, moral issues too pressing, for us to be satisfied with less than our best.”
In addition to his success at fundraising, Dean Keck created a long-range plan for faculty hiring during a time of numerous retirements, and a strategic plan for the School’s long-term financial health. During his deanship, YDS established four endowed professorships and two dozen new scholarship endowments of $50,000 or more while forming what is now the Dean’s Advisory Council. After ten years of service as Dean, he rejoined the faculty as Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology, serving for another decade before retiring.
Lee’s scholarship and writing were first-rate. A specialist in the letters of Paul, he wrote numerous books for both academic and popular church audiences. Among them are Who is Jesus?, Paul and His Letters, Jesus in the Gospels, Mandate to Witness, A Future for the Historical Jesus, and The Church Confident—the latter presenting his 1993 Beecher Lectures in book form. He was also the general editor and senior New Testament editor of The New Interpreter’s Bible. He and J. Louis Martyn co-edited a Festschrift to honor Paul Schubert that has had a significant impact on the study of Luke-Acts, Studies in Luke-Acts. He remained active in his scholarship even in retirement. He was able to complete a work on which he had labored for fifty years with the editorial assistance of his son David, Renewing New Testament Christology (2023). It is vintage Keck.
His ability to translate scholarship for public audiences earned him favorable newspaper recognition across the country. Evidence of the high esteem in which he was held, Lee was elected President of the Society of Biblical Literature and received honorary degrees from institutions including his undergraduate alma mater, Bethany College, Atlantic Christian College, Texas Christian University, and Davidson College.
Dedicated to the church, Lee was ordained as both a Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister. Through his books, he contributed greatly to congregations’ theological knowledge. He had a confidence that all Christians could engage in theology. As he wrote of Paul, “His convictions were deep enough that he did not avoid the hard religious questions that engage us still. It should not surprise us, then, that we too can become theologians by engaging his thought.”
Lee Keck is survived by his wife, Ann, and two sons, Stephen Lee and David Alderson. Some years after the death of Lee’s first wife, Janice Osburn, Lee found love again with Ann Childs, the widow of deceased Yale faculty member Brevard Childs. They divided their time between Bethany, CT; Cambridge, England; and Chautauqua, N.Y., until their final years together in Hamden, CT.
The family is planning a memorial service on Saturday, January 27th, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. in Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School. A reception will follow from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The public is invited. Memorial gifts to the Leander E. Keck Scholarship Fund are encouraged and can be made here. If you have questions, contact the YDS Development office.
Midway through his deanship, Lee reflected that YDS had unsurpassed qualities but that “the greatest years of this School may well lie in the future.” I think such a statement is as true today as we enter our third century as it was when Lee made it in 1985. Equally true today is the point Lee made at the beginning of his deanship—that the challenges of the day compel our best efforts in our varied callings.
As we remember Lee Keck, may we all draw encouragement from his buoyant spirit and deep commitment, and may we take up the challenge he laid before this community 40 years ago. For as Lee put it, the human hurt is too deep, and moral issues too pressing, for us to be satisfied with less than our best. Farewell, my friend.