E. Earle Ellis 1926–2010
S. Aaron Son
E. Earle Ellis, Research Professor of Theology Emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and the founder of the Institute for Biblical Research, passed away on March 2, 2010, just two weeks before his 84th birthday. His funeral service was held on the seminary campus during its regular chapel hour, and his body was buried in the DFW national cemetery. Ellis is survived by his sister, Mary Lou Ellis Wilburn, and her three children: David, Carol, and Timothy.
Ellis was born to Lindsey Thornton and Lois Belle McBride Ellis on March 18, 1926, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He served in the U.S. Army as Private and Second Lieutenant during World War II (1944–46). After being discharged from the military, he entered the University of Virginia with the intention to become a lawyer and earned a bachelor’s degree in pre-law (1950). His desire for law, however, evaporated as his thirst for the Scripture grew stronger. This thirst eventually led him first to Faith Seminary in Wilmington, Delaware, then to the Wheaton College Graduate School, where he earned both M.A. and B.D. degrees (1953), and then to the University of Edinburgh, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in just two years (1955). He did postdoctoral studies at major universities in Europe—Tübingen, Göttingen, Marburg, and Basel—and spent every summer in England doing research for the last twenty-some years.
Ellis served at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1985 until his death, first as Research Professor of Theology (until 1998) and then as Research Professor of Theology Emeritus (until his death). For twenty-five years, he provided an excellent example both for his students and for his colleagues. Many students considered it an honor just to sit in his class. Prior to coming to Southwestern Seminary, he taught at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey (1977–85); Bethel Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota (1960–77); The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky (1958–60); and Aurora College, Aurora, Illinois (1955–58).
Ellis was well known for his evangelical commitments, but his scholarship was respected not only by evangelicals but also by those who did not share the same theological views with him. He held a high view of the Scripture and never compromised his personal convictions in order to gain professional acceptance or respectability. He was, however, not rigid or narrow-minded. He always said, “Show me from the Scripture that I am wrong; then I will change my view.”
Throughout his career, Ellis produced numerous innovative and thought-provoking books and articles. His books include Paul’s Use of the Old Testament (1957), Paul and His Interpreters (1961), The World of St. John (1965), The Gospel of Luke (1966), Eschatology in Luke (1972), Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (1978), Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society (1989), The Old Testament in Early Christianity (1991), The Making of the New Testament Documents (1999), Christ and the Future in New Testament History (2000), History and Interpretation in New Testament Perspective (2001), and Sovereignty of God in Salvation (2009). Several of these books have been reprinted as many as six times. Ellis, who never married, often referred to these books as his children.
Through his meticulous writings, Ellis showed how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament and various preformed traditions, and he provided a fresh perspective on the history of early Christianity and also on the making of the New Testament documents. Furthermore, he demonstrated the importance of anthropology and how it affects other areas of theology, such as Christology, soteriology, and eschatology. Ellis was a strong proponent of the monistic view of humanity and understood humans as existing individually and corporately. This particular anthropology provided a basic framework for his interpretation and theology.
For the past several years, Ellis had been working vigorously on his commentary on 1 Corinthians for the ICC series. After having heart surgery about two years ago, he realized that his health was deteriorating, so he devoted his time entirely to this commentary. When he was taken to the hospital for replacement of his broken hip in January, he was just about to start working on chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. He thought that he would be off for a few weeks and be able to return to finish the last two chapters, but other complications arose, and he passed away within two months, without looking at his manuscript again. While in the hospital, until the moment of his death, he repeatedly talked about his commentary.
Ellis was very involved in facilitating and promoting biblical scholarship. He was a life-time member of the Society of Biblical Literature and served on the executive committee and editorial board of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas and also on the board of advisors for the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation. After completing his study in Europe, he wanted to establish in the United States a study center similar to Tyndale House, Cambridge U.K, so in 1970 he founded the Institute for Biblical Research, which over the years has grown tremendously and has become a platform for theological dialogues among evangelical scholars. Ellis’s dream for a study center never died away. It became a reality when he dedicated a two-story building adjacent to the Southwestern Seminary campus and named it the International Reference Library for Biblical Research in 2004.
Ellis’s scholarly contributions have been widely recognized. He received the von Humboldt scholarship three times (1968–69, 1975–76, 1990), the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship once (1975–76), and the Fulbright Scholarship once (1990). Wheaton College conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree (1982), and the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies honored him with the John G. Gammie Distinguished Scholar Award (2001–2). He was also honored with two Festschrifts: the first one, Tradition and Interpretation in the New Testament (1987), was edited by his longtime friend, G. F. Hawthorne for his 60th birthday, and I edited the second one, History and Exegesis (2006), for his 80th birthday.
I first met Earle Ellis twenty-five years ago, during my second year as a M.Div. student and his first year as a research professor at Southwestern Seminary. I later became one of his students and finished my dissertation under his supervision. Our friendship continued even after my graduation. We regularly met, ate, talked, and shared ideas together. Many things changed during these years, but there were two things that never changed: his undying zeal for the Lord and the Word and his diet. I tried to make him eat fish, but he never did!
During his funeral service, Paul Wolfe, the executor of Ellis’s estate, mentioned three items that he had discovered in Ellis’s office. The first item was Ellis’s long prayer list. It included the name of the president of our country at the top and many names of students, colleagues, family members, and friends. It also had a name, “Samuel—a shoeshine boy,” whom Ellis met at an airport. He was a man of prayer. The second item that caught Wolfe’s attention was many receipts for giving. Ellis was known for his thriftiness; he lived very frugally, but he gave very generously. He regularly gave to charitable organizations while he was alive and donated everything he had when he passed away. The third item that amused Wolfe was numerous IRS forms that Ellis attempted to edit. This was E. Earle Ellis. He was truly a fine Christian gentleman and a diligent scholar who was very focused and disciplined and who loved God, work, and people and gave everything he had.
Note: For a fuller description of Ellis’s life and achievement, see Gerald F. Hawthorn, “E. Earle Ellis: A Biographical Sketch,” in History and Exegesis (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 2–14.