Robert M. Grant, influential historian of ancient Christianity, 1917-2014

Robert McQueen Grant, whose incisive studies of ancient Christianity made him one of his field’s most influential scholars, died June 10 at his home in Hyde Park. He was 96.

Grant was the Carl Darling Buck Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he taught from 1953 until his retirement in 1988.

A prolific and widely respected theologian, Grant wrote more than 30 books and numerous articles over a career that spanned more than six decades.

Grant’s scholarship was characterized by “philological exactness, a deep knowledge of the ancient world, and philosophical and theological finesse, together with a tight prose style and dry wit,” said Margaret M. Mitchell, dean of the Divinity School and the Shailer Matthews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature. “He was an excellent scholar and an unforgettable human being."

Grant’s landmark works, including The Letter and the Spirit, The Earliest Lives of Jesus, and Augustus to Constantine: The Rise and Triumph of Christianity in the Roman World, anticipated many trends in New Testament scholarship by emphasizing social history and situating early Christian literary culture within the context of the wider Greco-Roman world.

Grant summarized his approach to biblical interpretation at an address before the American Academy of Religion in 1968 when he argued that “the New Testament should not, and indeed, cannot be studied apart from the time and the space in which the Christian movement began,” Grant said. “I claim that in teaching early Christianity, we must teach it as history.”

“Robert Grant was unique,” said David Tracy, the Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Catholic Studies in the Divinity School. “No other 21st-century historian of early Christianity possessed his range of interests, his lucidity of prose and his exactitude in historical facts. His influence will remain immense.”

Grant was a demanding teacher who inspired enduring loyalty from his students. “He trained a generation of very great Patristics scholars,” said Grant’s colleague and friend Bernard McGinn, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School. “He was a great scholar who published extensively, but he was also a very great teacher who shaped the discipline through his students and his writings.”

Grant was born on Nov. 25, 1917 in Evanston, Ill. Theology was a family affair for the Grants—his father, Frederick C. Grant, was also a renowned Biblical scholar who spent much of his career as a professor of Biblical theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Grant’s father-in-law, Douglas Horton, was a leader in the ecumenical movement and served on the faculty of the Harvard Divinity School.

Grant went on to receive a BA with distinction from Northwestern University, a Bachelor of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and a master's and doctorate from Harvard University. He was an ordained minister in the Protestant Episcopal Church.

Before coming to UChicago, he taught in the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. While at UChicago, he published such major works as Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought; Eusebius as Church Historian; Greek Apologists of the Second Century; Heresy and Criticism; Irenaeus of Lyons; and Paul in the Roman World: the Conflict at Corinth.

Alongside his interest in New Testament studies, Grant also undertook significant research on German U-boats, a topic that had fascinated him since childhood. He published several books about U-boats and their activities, including U-Boats Destroyed: The Effects of Anti-Submarine Warfare 1914-1918 and, most recently, U-Boat Hunters: Code Breakers, Divers and the Defeat of the U-Boats 1914-1918.

Over his extended career, Grant received Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, and held many honors, memberships and leadership roles in scholarly societies. He was president of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Chicago Society for Biblical Research, American Society of Church History and the North American Patristics Society. Grant was elected to the American Academy of Art and Sciences in 1981.

Grant is survived by his wife, Peggy (née Margaret Huntington Horton), their children, Douglas, Peter, Jim and Susan; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Services will be private. A memorial will be held in September at St. Paul and the Redeemer Church in Hyde Park, with details to be announced.

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Headshot of Robert Grant

Prof. Emeritus Robert M. Grant

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