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In memoriam Professor Seán Freyne

Chair of Theology (1980–2002), F.T.C.D.
* April 23, 1935, † August 5, 2013


It is with great sadness and immense gratitude that the Department of Religions and Theology remembers Seán Freyne, Founding Professor of the School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies, who died on August 5.

Sean FreyneAn eminent New Testament scholar, his work centered on the historical Jesus, reconstructing his life and self-understanding within Second Temple Judaism through an interdisciplinary study of Galilee in the cultural and political currents of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Appointed to the newly established Chair of Theology, he brought the wealth of his international experience to establishing and building up the School as a non-denominational academic unit in Trinity’s Arts Faculty. Having taught at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, at Loyola University, New Orleans, and at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, before returning to Ireland, he linked the School to the network of his professional contacts in the English-speaking world and in Europe. His work in professional bodies and journals and his lecture invitations brought him to universities in the United States, Canada and Australia, and many European countries, such as England, Scotland, Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany, France and Italy. He was long-standing member of the Royal Irish Academy and a trustee of the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. After his retirement, he spent the academic year of 2007–2008 as Visiting Professor of Early Christian History and Literature at Harvard Divinity School, and served as President of the International Society for the Study of the New Testament.

The School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies that he headed for so many years was shaped by his creative mind that bridged biblical studies, history and archaeology, hermeneutics and literary theory, theology and ethics not least in their liberation and feminist directions. In his publications and research initiatives he brought together multiple voices, deeply convinced that a pluralism of starting-points, disciplines and perspectives was needed to unlock the Bible in its own contexts and as a “cultural heritage” (Concilium 1995). In his debate with members of the Californian “Jesus Seminar,” he highlighted the “potent mix of wisdom and apocalyptic, creation and restoration, ... allied to his passionate concern for the poor, who had been marginalized by the temple system” as key to the understanding of Jesus; against interpreting him under the generalized category of the “Mediterranean” and subsuming his message under the individualized wisdom of detachment and frugality taught in urban centers by Cynic teachers, he insisted on the importance of not “removing him from his own tradition as this had been articulated by prophetic voices, Isaiah in particular” (Jesus, a Jewish Galilean, 163)
His 2009 article, "The Galilean Jesus and a Contemporary Christology" in Theological Studies identifies the themes that are taken up in Early Christianity from Jesus’s interpretation of his own tradition of Jewish monotheism: messianism, the role of the “nations” outside Judaism, and wisdom. His forthcoming final book, The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion – Matrix, Meaning and Mission is again committed to exploring the diversity of contexts into which Jesus’s message was translated in the first hundred years of its development: the languages and cultures of Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
The versatility, breadth and productivity of his intellectual command are shown in an article that interprets the gospels of Mark and John with the help of the two categories of selfhood developed in the philosophical anthropology of Paul Ricoeur, “idem” and “ipse”: “In Search of Identity. Narrativity, Discipleship and Moral Agency” (2010) has proved a highly evocative and memorable source for teaching.

His vision and his interdisciplinary expertise, his fundraising abilities and his joint success with his friends and colleagues in Trinity’s Classics Department in their grant applications to the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions that created the Centre for Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies provided the basis for teaching and research in Jewish Studies and in Islamic Studies; it recently gave rise to a new academic unit, the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies researching these traditions within Trinity’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultural Studies.
Invited to contribute to many television and radio programs, to newspapers and journals, he secured a respected public place for biblical and theological studies, having anchored the religious and intercultural knowledge they provide in the curriculum of a secular university. His final article in the Irish Times examined how the New Testament communities and their leaders dealt with tensions, disagreements and divisions, as his response to the recent threat of excommunication from an Irish bishop to politicians who consent to the planned abortion legislation.
Much-loved and greatly respected in the academic and the sporting communities he inspired and in public life, his funeral mass was attended by the current and the former Irish Presidents, Michael D. Higgins and Mary McAleese; his burial in Kilkelly, Co. Mayo, where he was born, was attended by the Taoiseach.

His immense gift for friendship, his understanding and advice were always available. He found time to visit the sick and the widowed, and left everyone more cheerful and trustful in life. Some responses from colleagues on the Editorial Board of the international theological journal Concilium of which he was a highly esteemed member stand for many other messages that convey their great sense of loss. They express their “heartfelt condolence” to the faculty blessed to have been his colleagues, to the students of the Department at Trinity, and to the members of his family: his wife Gail, their daughters Bridget and Sarah, and his sister Mary Keane.

“... he was always perceptive, insightful, and wise in his interventions.”

“... Ein leuchtender Stern, biblisch-schöpferisch und menschlich!“ (“A luminous star, biblically-creative and personable!”)

“... Riposi in pace. Addio, carissimo Seán. Grazie della tua amicizia.”


Selected Books by Seán Freyne

Last updated 29 April 2014 (Email).