A Tribute to John "Jack" Elliott

Norman Gottwald
Published 22 December 2020

We are heartbroken at the sudden passing of CLBSJ cofounder and former Board President John H. “Jack” Elliott on December 13, 2020. Jack had recently retired from his position as President of the CLBSJ Board due to health complications from a fall. We were anticipating his recovery and looking forward to featuring his work in an upcoming Scholar-Activist Encounter. We still hope to present an event honoring Jack’s unique body of work. If you have a testimony of how his scholarship has impacted your path, please send it to info@clbsj.org.

Here, CLBSJ cofounder Norman Gottwald offers a personal tribute to Jack’s contributions as a biblical scholar and an activist.

John H. Elliott better, known as “Jack,” is solidly established in the scholarly world as a master interpreter of 1st Peter and an ardent advocate of social-scientific criticism in biblical studies. Precisely by insisting on social-critical method, Jack has been able to show that the “resident aliens and strangers” addressed in 1st Peter are actually Christ-believing social refugees forced to live on the margins of Greco-Roman society in Asia Minor. His detailed defense of that hypothesis in A Home for the Homeless (1981), and his magisterial commentary on the same book, have won him a primary position among Petrine scholars. Jack went on to provide the first systematic presentation of social-scientific criticism in a handbook whose title goes straight to the point, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? (1993).

Jack came to his studies with a solid training in the textual and historical tools of biblical studies, beginning with classical languages in high school and the full panoply of graduate theological studies at Concordia College and Seminary, capped by postgraduate study in Germany. His subsequent teaching at Concordia Seminary was cut short by the fundamentalist collapse of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. By a remarkable turn of fate, Jack was invited to join the faculty of the Jesuit University of San Francisco. About the same time, Jack and I, along with other Bay Area biblical scholars such as Anne Wire, Marvin Chaney, and Herman Waetjen, began to immerse ourselves in sociological literature and to apply sociological methods to biblical texts and topics in both Testaments.

A feature of Jack’s scholarship that has marked his way of working is his commitment to serious conversation with other biblical interpreters gathered in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and, most importantly, with the Context Group composed internationally of social and cultural critics meeting annually for more than twenty years in their quest to understand biblical texts through the lenses of social and political theory.

No aspect of Jack’s work exhibits his blend of academic rigor, church commitment, and social activism more vividly than his involvement over the years in the Sanctuary Movement, as his congregation, the University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, California offered asylum to war resisters and Central American political refugees. Jack viewed this ministry to the marginalized as inspired by the early Christian communities of “resident aliens and strangers” in 1st Peter. Less well known in his activist career, Jack played a major leadership role in the protracted, ultimately successful, struggle to unionize the faculty of the University of San Francisco, the first such successful campaign in the United States. Not to be overlooked was his teaching stint at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, in Rome, where he served as the first and only Lutheran since the reformation to be so honored.

Jack’s most recent project was our Library and Center for the Bible and Social Justice, which began as a vision that he, Herman Waetjen, and I shared, to establish a research library and educational center connecting biblically-informed activists and justice-oriented scholars in order to develop an empowering use of the Bible for advancing social justice today. The subsequent history of CLBSJ, established in 2011, has yet to be written, but we are thriving in large part because of the work of Jack as our first and continuing President and as the cool-headed chair of our monthly board meetings.

Finally, there was one consuming interest of “Jack’s” that I am uncertain how to celebrate, but I think it has to be recognized because it has engaged so much of his attention in recent decades. I speak of his research on the “evil eye” as a look or gaze believed to cause injury or misfortune, even death, to others. The results of his research are published in four volumes, an exhaustive work that is almost certain to dominate the field for a century or more to come. I mention this “evil eye” project because it shows how extensive and intensive Jack’s research has typically been and it shows his willingness to explore topics that others would call tangential to biblical studies, but which in the end are likely to make an unforeseen contribution to biblical exegesis.

In conclusion, aside from my affection for a long-standing friend, I find it difficult to exaggerate the work that Jack has accomplish as scholar, teacher, and agent for social justice, not to forget his towering achievement as co-founder of our cherished Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice.

Selected Bibliography

The Elect and the Holy. An Exegetical Examination of 1 Peter 2:4-10 and the Phrase basileion hierateuma. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 12. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966; reprinted, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR, 2006.

Doxology: God’s People Called to Celebrate His Glory. St. Louis, 1966.

The Christ-Life: Jesus Christ the Sacrament and Sacramental Living. Chicago, 1968.

Proclamation: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year. Series A. Pentecost 3. Co-authored with Bruce Vawter. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975.

1 Peter: Estrangement and Community. Herald Biblical Booklets. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1979.

A Home for the Homeless. A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981; 2nd edition 1990; reprinted Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR, 2005; translated into Portuguese and Spanish.

I-II Peter/Jude in: R. A. Martin and John Elliott, James, I-II Peter/Jude. Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982; translated into Chinese.

What is Social-Scientific Criticism? Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993; published in Great Britain as Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament. An Introduction. London: SPCK, 1995.

1 Peter. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 37B. New York: Doubleday/Random House, 2000.

Conflict, Community, and Honor: 1 Peter in Social-Scientific Perspective. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007.

La primera carta de Pedro. Edición bilingüe y comentario. Biblioteca de Estudios Bíblicos 141. Transl. by Francisco Javier Molina de la Torre. Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 2013.

Beware the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World. 4 vols. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015-2017.