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In Memoriam: Prof. Henk Jan de Jonge (1943-2022)

With the passing of Henk Jan de Jonge on 16 April 2022, Leiden University has lost one of its most characteristic, learned and devoted professors.

Em. prof. dr. Henk Jan de Jonge: 1943-2022

Of Leiden schools

Henk Jan de Jonge was born in Leiden in 1943. He studied classics in Leiden in the 1960s and combined this, his first love, with the study of the New Testament, early Christian literature and patristics. His first job brought him to the Leiden Faculty of Theology, where he assisted in the monumental project of a critical edition of the Greek text of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, under the supervision of the Leiden professor of New Testament Marinus de Jonge, with whom he shared much more than the coincidence of their family names. The two professors De Jonge and their students constituted a “Leiden school” of historical-critical research of early Christian literature that aimed at historical precision and reliability, often in vigorous debate with a historically grown academic consensus that did not meet their standards of scholarship, and with more modern hermeneutic approaches.

Research themes

Henk Jan de Jonge obtained his PhD in Leiden in 1983 with a dissertation on the long and bitter debate between Erasmus and the Spanish humanist Diego López de Zúñiga (Stunica) over the text of the New Testament. In this, a second line of his impressive academic production became evident: the study of the reception, textual history and exegesis of the New Testament in early modern Europe. He combined these two lines of research – the historical-critical study of earliest Christianity and the history of Biblical exegesis in early modern times – at the highest academic level until his premature death. This led to many authoritative publications and editions in both areas and a large international scholarly network.

His stern interpretation of his field of research and teaching and its relevance implied that Henk Jan attempted to contribute to the study of the pivotal themes of earliest Christianity: the death, resurrection, and commemoration of Jesus. The centrality of these themes and his unyielding defense of historical-critical scholarship often brought him in conflict with others and gave rise to public debates, live and in writing, to which he successfully brought his sharp pen and equally sharp tongue.

Career in Leiden

After an early start as lecturer in New Testament studies in the University of Amsterdam, Henk Jan returned to the Leiden Faculty of Theology in 1985. In 1987, he was appointed to a chair by special appointment on the History of Biblical Exegesis in early modern times, and in 1991 he succeeded Marinus de Jonge to the Leiden Chair of New Testament and early Christian literature. He acted as dean of the Leiden Faculty of Theology twice and left a distinctive mark on academic theology in the Netherlands during his long service to his chair. Apart from his academic publications, he impacted the field in various ways: in first instance through his teaching and supervision of doctoral candidates. He was known as a demanding teacher and supervisor. In addition, he frequently engaged in public debates on central themes in early Christianity and their current relevance for scholarship, church, and society. He was strongly committed to the Église Wallonne in Leiden, and to the history of francophone Protestantism in the Netherlands.

Henk Jan was deeply involved on all possible levels in the life and the history of Leiden University. This involvement ranged from historical work on Scaliger to the arduous task of drafting the Latin diplomas for new study programmes and for honorary doctorates. The strong affection he felt for Leiden university was mutual: he acted as dies orator and had the distinctive privilege of placing the cappa on Queen Beatrix’ shoulders on the occasion of her Leiden honorary doctorate in 2005. He acted as pro-rector during PhD defences with great regularity and with a legendary sense of decorum.

Travels with Homer

It is never easy to retrieve the person behind the academic persona, and as a scholar, Henk Jan de Jonge was in many ways larger than life: at times imperious and always critical, committed, and precise. He was also a family man, spending his summers on a Greek island of choice in the company of his family and a Teubner edition of Homer. He was a remarkable and witty speaker and raconteur and someone who was capable, sometimes, of self-mockery. His colleagues, doctoral candidates and students all have a large stock of anecdotes about Henk Jan, but also an indelible memory of him, and we will all miss him very much. That is, of course, even more strongly the case for those who mattered most to him: his wife, Marjan, his sons, Hans, Casper and Lodewijk, and their families.

Text: Ab de Jong, professor of Comparative Religion and Religions of Antiquity, Leiden University

More information

Henk Jan de Jonge managed a personal website, which contains a complete overview of his publication record:

Go to Henk Jan de Jonge's personal website
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