Remembering Norman Perrin

I was reminiscing in my “Historical Jesus” class today about my studies with the late great Norman Perrin (1920-1976) as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I took my first course with him in Autumn, 1974, an “advanced N.T. course.” His textbook, The New Testament: An Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (Harcourt College Pub., 1974) had just been released. By that time, Perrin, who had been influenced in his earlier days by T. W. Manson and Joachim Jeremiah was quite thoroughly a “Bultmannian,” and one of the clearest thinkers in that regard I have ever encountered. His little book, The Promise of Bultmann, (New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1969), remains a classic, as does his little primer, What is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969). His earliest major work, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) set the stage of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” for a whole generation of colleagues and students–before it became fashionable to talk about a “new” or “3rd quest,” which I always took as more of a self-designation by a handful of younger scholars, in the shadow of Bultmann, Käsemann, Conzelmann, and Perrin, who imagined themselves as doing something quite new.

Perrin Stylized

I took a number of courses from Perrin including his incomparable course on the Gospel of Mark which influences me to this day in all of my teaching–second only to Jonathan Z. Smith and our work on Hellenistic Religions and Robert Grant dealing with “Augustus to Constantine,” as he put it so well. In my case, because we both lived in Park Forest, Illinois, I got to know Professor Perrin on another level. He did not drive a car much and the weather was often too harsh to try to take the train, so many dozens of times I gave him a ride up to campus in my car and we came to know each other very well in our endless private conversations on the hour commute back and forth. I mostly listened and what a treat it was–hearing his whole life and career, peppered with stories of his time in the British forces during the war years. I will never forget the word from his wife the day he died–Thanksgiving Day, 1976–that he had left us. It was quite a shock and a sad loss–he was only 56 years old. Perrin’s productivity was enormous and he was one of the hardest working scholars you could ever encounter. He rose from a working class UK background to a distinguished professor of New Testament at the prestigious University of Chicago–who influenced countless students and shaped the field of Christian Origins forever. I miss him enormously and 40 years seems like but a moment thinking back on those days at Chicago when I sat as a very naive and inexperienced graduate student in his classes and would not missed a word of his lectures or discussions.

Perrin Syllabus 1974

Anyway just today I pulled down from my bookshelves my original copy of Perrin’s New Testament: An Introduction and the one page syllabus we had used in that 1974 course dropped out! Talk about memory lane. I reproduce it here. It shows the advanced work Perrin expected of his students and the independent way he worked with us all. Sweet memories. What a time to be at Chicago: J. Z. Smith, Robert M. Grant, and Norman Perrin–for the study of New Testament and Early Christianity, how could it have gotten any better!

Further resources on Norman Perrin and his “pilgrimage” as he often referred to it see:

  • The Journal of Religion 64 (1984), Norman Perrin 1920-1976
  • David Abernathy, Understanding the Teaching of Jesus: Based on the Lecture Series of Norman Perrin (New York : Seabury Press, 1983).
  • Calvin R. Mercer, “Norman Perrin: A Scholarly Pilgrim” (Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1983).
  • Welton O. Seal, Jr., “Norman Perrin and His ‘School’: Retracing a Pilgrimage”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament (1984), pp. 87–107.
  • Welton O. Seal, Jr., “The Parousia in Mark: A Debate with Norman Perrin and ‘His School'” (Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, 1981).
  • Criterion, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 1977); personal tributes to Norman Perrin, from a memorial service held in the Joseph Bond Chapel, 30 November 1976