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Jaroslav Pelikan; Professor Of History, Religious Studies

From News Services
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jaroslav Pelikan, 82, a Yale University professor of history and religious studies and one of the world's foremost scholars of the history of Christianity, died May 13 at his home in Hamden, Conn. He had lung cancer.

Dr. Pelikan wrote more than 30 books, using sources in nine languages and dealing with literary and musical as well as doctrinal aspects of religion. He was a former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

His works include the acclaimed five-volume text "The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine" (1971-89), which followed the story of Christianity from its origins to modern times.

Dr. Pelikan's "Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages," published in 2005, explored how people of different faiths interpret the Bible. He said language and cultural differences led to varying interpretations of Scripture.

In an interview with National Public Radio last year, he said his conclusion was that "Christians and Jews need each other in an effort to understand the sacred text they share."

Although renowned as a theologian, Dr. Pelikan, a Lutheran convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, preferred studying history and rarely waded into modern religious debates.

"There ought to be somebody who speaks to the other 19 centuries," he said in a 1983 interview with the Christian Science Monitor. "Not everybody should be caught in this moment. I'm filing a minority report on behalf of the past."

The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Dr. Pelikan in 1983 to deliver the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government confers for achievement in the humanities.

He twice delivered the Guifford Lectures in Scotland, considered one of the foremost lecture series dealing with religion, science and philosophy. He also founded the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress in 1980.

In 2004, Dr. Pelikan and 91-year-old French philosopher Paul Ricoeur shared the $1 million Kluge Prize, which honors scholars in such areas as history, sociology and anthropology -- fields not covered by the Nobel prizes.

Also that year, Dr. Pelikan published a book comparing the way the Bible and the U.S. Constitution have been understood and applied. The book, "Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution," cited 72 Supreme Court rulings, 94 Christian creeds and numerous Bible verses.

Jaroslav Jan Pelikan Jr., the son of a Lutheran minister who had emigrated from what is now Czechoslovakia, was born in Akron, Ohio, on Dec. 17, 1923.

He was named for an older brother who died in infancy a year earlier, which he later said placed on him the burden of having to achieve enough for two people.

He was a graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis and received a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1946. He taught at the University of Chicago before joining Yale's faculty in 1962. He later was designated a Sterling professor, an honor reserved for the university's most distinguished professors.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Sylvia Burica Pelikan of Hamden; three children; a brother; and three grandchildren.

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