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The death of Robert W. Funk in early September has special significance for the Society of Biblical Literature, its members, and its fields of reference. While the obituaries that have appeared on the SBL Forum mention this connection briefly, it seemed significant enough to spell out in more detail for readers of the Forum.

Most of what deserves to be reported is already treated in detail by Ernest W. Saunders in the SBL Centennial Publications Series number 8, Searching the Scriptures: A History of the Society of Biblical Literature, 1880-1980, edited by Kent Richards (SBL and Scholars Press 1982). The index to this slim volume contains more references to Bob Funk than to any other individual, focusing especially on the decade of his greatest contributions to the Society, starting in the mid 1960s. A series of quotations follow:

With the choice of Robert W. Funk [as Executive Secretary] in 1967, a long period of change and development affecting every aspect of the Society's life began. (p. 49)

The six-year period of Robert W. Funk's leadership as executive secretary (1968-1973) inaugurated a new era in the history of the Society in which he played a decisive role. Without his imagination and engineering skills it might not have been brought off. A top-flight scholar whose publications testify to his competence, he possessed the twin gifts of an inspired imagination that dreams dreams and sees visions and technical skills that can convert these ephemera into structures. Few combine the two roles. But Funk [was] equally at home in the diverse worlds of poetics and practice, brain storms and balance sheets, the catholic world of scholarship and the particular discipline of Christian studies. As such he is a controversial figure, but no one would challenge his seminal influence in reshaping biblical studies in America in general or the guild of biblical scholars in particular.

[There follows a long litany of accomplishments noted by SBL President Walter Harrelson at the end of Bob Funk's term in 1973:] "The reorganization of the Annual Meeting, the establishment of Seminars, the reduction of costs of publication of the Journal, the extraordinary expansion of the Society's program of publication [i.e. what became Scholars Press], the articulation of the Society's work with that of the American Academy of Religion, the formation of the Council on the Study of Religion, the strengthening of ties with the American Council of Learned Societies and with its other constituent members, the development of connections with federal funding agencies [e.g. National Endowment for the Humanities], the extraordinary management of the records and funds of the Society, the development of the Society's regional associations into a much stronger group of scholarly societies, the establishment of the Association of Regional Secretaries, the bargaining with hotels for good rates at annual meetings— these and many more accomplishments we owe to Bob Funk in very large measure. . . . He has set an example for all future Executive Secretaries which it is unfair even to mention to his successor." (pp.63f)

[On Scholars Press, "founded in 1974":] And behind it all were the energies and the daring of Bob Funk, functioning in the kaleidoscopic roles of editor, advertiser, administrator, scholar, purchasing agent, stock boy, technician, troubleshooter, and prophet. Koheleth and Gutenberg would have been dumbfounded. In 1975 the Press was incorporated into a Center for Scholarly Publishing and Services, based at Missoula, and presently located in Chico, California. (p.91, with a footnote to Funk's history of SP published in Scholia 9-10)

[In 1975, Bob Funk was President of the SBL, and his address dealt with "The Watershed of the American Biblical Tradition: The Chicago School, First Phase, 1892-1920"]

[Finally, regarding the 1980 "centennial event" at which Bob Funk was among those recognized for "distinguished contributions to the cause of biblical scholarship" and presented with an award for "skills in statecraft" at the banquet:] In the midst of this ceremonial euphoria delegates were surprised and sobered by the announcement of a structural reorganization of Scholars Press and the resignation of its founder and chief officer, Robert W. Funk. Both Scholars Press and the Society in the first century [of its existence] had been led by this scholar-administrator into a new understanding of their natures and tasks and had been challenged to move in new directions. Funk would be remembered as one of the outstanding leaders in American biblical scholarship, a latter day Moses who perceived a promised land ahead of him and laid claim to it. (p.67)

So let it be, a quarter of a century later, as we look back on the influence and accomplishments of our remarkable colleague whose energetic and controversial presence will be sorely missed.

Robert A. Kraft, President of the Society of Biblical Literature,

Citation: Robert A. Kraft, " Robert W. Funk and the SBL," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2005]. Online:


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