Professor John Collins looks back on stellar academic career

By Timothy Cahill ’16 M.A.R.

As he embarks on retirement after two decades as professor at Yale Divinity School, few acts sum up John Collins’ unique service to the school and its students better than his September 2015 convocation sermon in Marquand Chapel.

The professor slated to offer the address, which formally opens the academic year and welcomes new students into the YDS community, was called away suddenly on a family emergency. Collins, the Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation, was recruited to pinch hit in the pulpit.

Given the short notice, no one would have been disappointed had the world-renowned Hebrew Bible authority simply extracted a lesson from the Scripture verses read at the convocation service. “Does not wisdom call and does not understanding raise her voice?” Proverbs 8 had declared. “Learn prudence; acquire intelligence…for wisdom is better than jewels.”

But in place of an exegesis on the ancient text, Collins took up its challenge. “You may be inclined to measure your accomplishment here by whether you get a job at the end of it, or are admitted to a good doctoral program,” his sermon began, evoking YDS’s identity as a professional school. “But for today, I want to …think in terms of broader goals that will affect the kind of persons we will be for the rest of our lives.”

Collins based his remarks on nineteenth-century theologian and cardinal John Henry Newman, whose lectures celebrated the university as a place where diverse perspectives come together in service to a greater good. Collins reminded his chapel audience that the highest virtue of a divinity education is the moral wisdom embedded in its theological discourse. This moral vision is “all too often absent in professionally oriented education,” he observed. And while “many parts of the university are concerned with morals and values and with the ends of human activity,” what sets the Divinity School apart is that “these issues are front and center.”

“What we can and should bring to the university conversation,” Collins said, “is an insistence on questions of value, and a refusal to settle for short-term utilitarian answers.”

Opening Convocation 2015: Watch the video (Collins at 16:30)

Collins’ interest in morals and values was not the subject of a single homily, but the mature fruit of a distinguished career extending from the 1970s to the 2020s. It’s a career, observes Greg Sterling, the Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School, of exceptional scholarly depth and range.

“John knows and interprets with real expertise the Hebrew Bible [and] the Semitic side of Second Temple Judaism,” Sterling told me. “It’s not unusual to be an expert in, let’s say, the Dead Sea Scrolls and maybe even extend that over into the ‘Apocrypha’ pseudepigrapha. John not only handles that material well, but he also has long been one of the world’s leading experts on Hellenistic Judaism [and] knows a good bit about virtually all of the Jewish material that’s been preserved.”

“He’s also a wonderful writer,” Sterling added. In an all-campus email announcing Collins’ retirement and other faculty milestones, the YDS Dean praised the professor as a member of the “Book-a-Year” club, having “authored 26 scholarly books, edited another two dozen, and published an astonishing 336 academic articles.”

Another scholar might have looked contentedly on a reputation as a foremost authority in so many fields. But Collins, while maintaining his scholarly work, also spent the past decade developing a popular seminar titled “What are Biblical Values?” The course, which ran from 2012 through this past semester, applied the professor’s vast expertise to engaging students on the most controversial issues of the day, from abortion to race to the environment.

The hermetic world of Biblical scholarship is not necessarily a place one goes to wrestle with incendiary current events. For Collins, though, the “What Are Biblical Values?” class—and the book of the same name that grew out of it, which he dedicated to the YDS students whose seminar participation helped him develop the material presented in the book—was the natural culmination of an intellectual road that began in an Irish farming village and led ultimately to Yale.

Irish foundations

Collins was born in 1946 in Newport, a farming village of 200 people in County Tipperary. When I asked about his early childhood, he began with a description not of his family, but of his education.

“The decisive start to my story was when I was 12 years old,” Collins related in a recent telephone interview. That’s when a local schoolmaster helped his star pupil win a scholarship to Rockwell College, a private boarding school run by the Catholic Holy Ghost Fathers (aka the Spiritans).

“I did five years Greek and Latin there,” Collins said, “and that, you might say, was the foundation of my scholarly career.”

An enthusiasm for learning had been instilled in the rural lad long before the age of 12, however. It was nurtured first by his parents, who despite having both left school at 14 kept an old chest filled with books ranging from Irish poetry to Greek texts, and then by an older sister who, in preparation for her career as a grade-school teacher, delighted in tutoring her younger brother.

John Collins elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences: Read more

After five years of tutelage from the Holy Ghost Fathers, Collins joined their religious order with the intention of becoming a priest. He spent a year in “a very monastic kind of novitiate,” after which he was permitted to attend University College Dublin, the Catholic university founded by Cardinal Newman.

There, his seminary masters allowed Collins to study Classics (Latin and Greek) on condition that he also study Hebrew, to prepare him as a Bible instructor. At the same time, the Second Vatican Council, the ecumenical conclave convened by Pope John XXIII in 1963, was revolutionizing the life of Catholics everywhere.

“Within a period of about five years, [Vatican II] radically changed the Catholic Church,” Collins said. “This was the time when the Church consented to modernity. It raised the question of how you square a very traditional religion with a very different and, in many ways, a more advanced culture.”

The faith necessary for the priesthood was challenged by the rational, evidence-based method he was learning as a scholar.

“If you are examining the historicity of something, it doesn’t matter what you believe going into it,” Collins says. “What matters is what evidence you have. That’s the heart of it.”       

After completing his master’s degree at UCD, Collins was awarded a fellowship to study abroad and applied to Harvard.

“At the time, it didn’t occur to me that you’d need to apply to more than one place,” he said, “but luckily, they took me.”

Coming to America

Almost immediately upon arriving at Harvard in 1969, Collins met two people who would become lifelong friends and companions. The first was a savvy young New Testament scholar from Boston named Harold Attridge. The second, from Seattle, was an equally brilliant Early Christianity scholar and, Collins thought, rather more attractive. She was Adela Yarbro, his future wife. The three young academics would all eventually make their mark on Yale Divinity School history. 

But that would not happen for three decades. “We arrived at the same time at the Harvard Ph.D. program in Religious Studies,” says Attridge, whose career included serving as YDS dean during a crucial period of transition at the school. The retired Sterling Professor of Divinity recalls his first impression of the Irishman. “He was obviously a bright, engaging guy.” Attridge and Collins were in several advanced seminars together, ranging from basic Aramaic to advanced Syriac manuscripts.

Among their Harvard professors were John Strugnell and Frank Moore Cross, two of the original editors preparing the translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The 2,000-year-old “library” of Jewish writings was discovered in caves outside Qumran, Israel, in 1947, the year after Collins was born. Research on them was still relatively new when Collins began his scholarly career, and he quickly entered the circle of specialists in the field. By the 1990s, he was editing fragments of the texts himself, and in 1994 helped found Dead Sea Discoveries, the main English-language journal on the Scrolls.

At Harvard, Attridge remembered his friend as being “on the fun-loving side, but not to the detriment of his scholarly interests. He was very serious about his studies.”

Leaving the priesthood

He also became very serious about Yarbro, and it was then he decided to leave the seminary and the religious order.

“If I’d gone on in the priesthood, I couldn’t have gotten married,” Collins explained. “But also, it was apparent to me that I wanted to be an academic.… There were several of us who went to Harvard as Catholic seminarians or priests and left subsequently.”

In the early 1970s, the newly married, newly minted Ph.D. holders began publishing and becoming known, individually and as a rising academic couple. “In 1985,” Collins continued, “we were invited to Notre Dame, and we were there for six years, and then we were recruited by the University of Chicago and were in Chicago for nine years.”

They had been recruited to Notre Dame by Richard McBrien, a progressive priest and chair of the theology department who was looking for dynamic young Catholics to be part of the faculty. When he asked the Collinses if they knew anyone who might be suitable, they immediately thought of their old colleague Harry Attridge, who at the time was laboring in the vineyards deep in the heart of Texas.

“At the time, I was the token Catholic on the Southern Methodist University School of Theology faculty. I’d been under a mandate from my beloved spouse to find another job within ten years,” he quipped. “Eight years in, I got the offer from Notre Dame.”

The three Harvard amigos were together in South Bend from 1985 to 1991. “Our kids grew up knowing their kids,” Attridge said. “We get regular reports and give regular reports on the kids and grandkids. And I think it might have been at Notre Dame that we started playing bridge together, and we’ve been doing that ever since.”

One day in 1986, Collins answered his office phone to find on the other end a Ph.D. student from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley named Gregory Sterling. He’d read Collins’ books and decided to cold call him to ask his advice on a dissertation topic. Two years later, Collins, along with Yarbro Collins and Attridge, served on the committee at Notre Dame that hired the future YDS dean to his first faculty job.

Attridge moved to Yale Divinity School in 1997, and in 2000 he was on the faculty search committee facing openings for both Old Testament and New Testament scholars.  

“John and Adela were responsible for my going to Notre Dame,” Attridge said. “I returned the favor and was involved in recruiting them here. Getting both of them was viewed by everybody as a very definite plus.”

“John’s presence on the Hebrew Bible faculty heightened the profile of that faculty,” Sterling said.

‘Pastoring’ students

Samuel Adams ’06 Ph.D. met Collins in 1996 while a first-year Master of Divinity student at Chicago, where he took Collins’ introduction to the Hebrew Bible and his language course in Biblical Hebrew. Adams, now McNair Professor of Old Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), was instantly impressed by his professor. “He had a passion for critical inquiry, coupled with a penetrating and creative approach to the text,” Adams said.

Adams began doctoral studies in Hebrew Bible with Collins at Chicago, but when his professor was recruited to Yale, he moved to New Haven as well.

“For me, there wasn’t a better mentor in the entire field.”

At Yale, Adams worked as Collins’ teaching assistant, where he learned a lesson that resonates in his own teaching today.

“You need to be accessible, you need to be enthusiastic, and you need to build trust,” he explained. “I worked with John closely during my doctoral years, meeting with him regularly. But he took the same interest in the life and career of a first-year M.Div. student as he did in me.”

This was precisely the experience Jennifer McCleery ’17 M.Div. had in Collins’ “Biblical Values” seminar. McCleery, now a pastor at Talmadge Hill Community Church in Darien, Ct., says Collins’ course was “maybe the most beneficial class” she took while training for the clergy.

“It made me realize that we have very facile ways of using the Bible to justify [our positions],” she said. “People want to commandeer the Bible to justify a particular stance, but when you peel back the layers on whatever the subject is, you realize you don’t know the text as well as you think you do. Now, years later, as a pastor, it stops me a bit and makes me think, what are the reasons I believe what I believe? Are my beliefs caused by what our culture has built up around the Judeo-Christian tradition, or is this actually what the text says?”

As much as she appreciated the class, McCleery was concerned about the outcome of her final seminar paper. She was in only her second semester at YDS, and she went to Collins for clarification about where her interpretation had gone wrong.

“And he was willing to sit down with me and spend a significant time talking through it,” she remembered. “I think about that paper all the time. It stands out as a singular memory because of the process that happened afterward. It was during the course of that conversation that the learning took place.”

McCleery characterized Collins’ attention to student questions as “pastoral.”

Although the professor long ago abandoned the priesthood, perhaps the priesthood did not entirely abandon the professor. In their memories of his teaching methods, both Adams and McCleery described something very much like an intellectual “shepherding” of their critical skills toward a deeper understanding of Scripture.   

Sterling observed something similar. “John’s sensitivity to theological issues,” he said, “meant that students had a faculty member who… understood the contemporary issues generated by [Scripture] and wasn’t afraid to address them directly.”

On the subject of retirement, Collins admitted, “I’d much prefer to be twenty years younger and not facing it…. I will definitely miss the classroom, the interaction with the students, which I’ve always felt, you know, kind of kept me young. It’s good to be around young people, and I think the students at YDS have been wonderful.”

He is currently “in the middle of writing a commentary on a Community Rule from the Dead Sea Scrolls” and will be editing a new translation of apocalyptic literature. After that, he said, “I might seriously retire from the more technical side of Biblical scholarship. I think something more like the Bible and human rights would be a very interesting project to work on.”

Even in retirement, he will continue to bring questions of value to the conversation.

Timothy Cahill ‘16 M.A.R. writes on religion and art. His forthcoming book is titled Selling Norman Rockwell: Art, Money, and the Soul of an American Museum.

June 14, 2021