I was saddened to learn from my colleagues at the Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, that my long-time friend Petr Pokorný has died. They have shared with me an obituary written to commemorate his passing, and his funeral service, with a standing-room only crowd, was held last Saturday.
Petr was born on 21 April 1933 and died on 18 January 2020, at the age of 86. He led a long and healthy and productive life during turbulent and changing times. His wife, Vera Pokorna, died about three years ago, and he no doubt missed her greatly after over fifty years of marriage. Petr was riding his bicycle daily up until last December, and was continuing to be a productive scholar in his several areas of expertise.
Petr received his doctorate and his Habilitation from the Comenius Protestant Theological Faculty (now the Protestant Theological Faculty) of Charles University, taught for a year in Greifswald (then under communist German control) and then from 1968 in the Protestant Theological Faculty (from 1972 as professor) until his formal retirement. He was an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and served two pastorates before becoming a professor. Petr was honored with a further Doctor of Historical Sciences, as well as three honorary doctorates from Bonn, Budapest, and St. Petersburg. He also served as president of SNTS, worked with the United Bible Societies, and founded the Centre for Biblical Studies soon after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.
For those who know of Petr’s accomplishments as a New Testament scholar, I probably don’t need to repeat his major publications. Most of his works were written German, although many were translated into English, Czech, and other languages. He was a recognized expert in the Synoptic Gospels and the Deutero-Pauline letters, and especially in Jesus research, where he had a love for Jesus of Nazareth. His major works in English are a commentary on Colossians, a commentary on the Gospel of Thomas, a monograph on the Song of the Pearl (a Coptic text), a work on the origins of Christology, and one on the development of the Gospels. He published a number of other works in German, hopefully still to be translated into English.
These are the facts, and they by themselves constitute a significant career for a New Testament scholar. However, Petr did not arrive at such stature by means of an easy road. We must remember that he lived over half his life under communist oppression in Czechoslovakia. As a result, even though he submitted his doctoral dissertation in 1959 on the body of Christ in Ephesians, he was not examined on it until 1963. Similarly, he completed his Habilitation in 1962 but was not awarded the degree until 1967. Such was the kind of nagging reminder that being a theologian was not in favor with the governmental authorities. I met Petr in the mid-1990s and attended and presented a paper at the SNTS meeting held in Prague in 1995. This was one of the most spectacular SNTS meetings I have ever attended. Petr had magnificently planned everything, and so we were treated to incredible food and conversation in marvelous surroundings, including an unforgettable reception on-board a river cruise ship in the Charles River, and a concert featuring Chopin’s Etudes in the Czech National Museum by one of their most renowned classical pianists. Petr knew how to treat his guests well.
We formed links between our two institutions—mine being what has now become Roehampton University, in London, England—and this led to some exchange programs. I thus continued my association with Petr and the Protestant Theological Faculty throughout the 1990s, making several visits to the university and doing research and writing there. I got to meet a number of the other professors who had endured the days of communism, some paying an unbelievably high price for their Christian commitment. For example, one of them was demoted to janitor until the fall of communism, when he was then elevated to the position of Dean.
In 1997, I wrote several sections of my book on Paul in Acts as a visiting scholar in Prague, while enjoying one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe—with great vistas, enchanting buildings, and incredible food and drink. Prague was not destroyed during World War 2, so many magnificent medieval buildings are still standing. As a result of our collaboration, Petr also came to Roehampton, and I still remember his lecture on hermeneutics to my doctoral students. I believe that Petr’s book on hermeneutics, entitled Hermeneutics as a Theory of Understanding (ET 2011), is by far the best introduction to hermeneutics available for those in biblical studies. I strongly recommend it.
As Petr’s official guest, in 1999 I had the privilege of attending the celebration of the 650th anniversary of the founding of Charles University (1348) and being one of the speakers invited to help inaugurate the Centre for Biblical Studies. This Centre had been a dream of Petr’s since communist times. He once commented to me how during the communist era the churches had been requisitioned and some had become centers for atheism, but now that communism had fallen, the centers for atheism had disappeared, as they had no further financial or moral support. During the time of celebration and inauguration of the Centre, my wife and I had the opportunity to be in Petr and Vera’s home and to enjoy their hospitality. They were wonderful hosts and genuinely kind people.
In later years, I had the chance to see Petr at the historical Jesus research project that he founded with James Charlesworth at Princeton Theological Seminary. I have no doubt that it was Petr who saw that I was invited and able to contribute papers to a couple of the publications from that project.
In the years to come, I think that there should be growing respect and admiration for the efforts that Petr invested in overcoming the political constraints of his beloved country. He emerged as one of the overcomers, who could enjoy the fruits of faithful and constant work done under difficult circumstances. I also think that academia should gain further respect for Petr’s wide and important scholarship. The fact that his works have mostly been in German has limited his influence in English-speaking circles. However, he had a rare ability to bring Germanic scholarly rigor to bear on complex and difficult hermeneutical issues with a genuine piety and regard for spiritual consequences. Few scholars of this or any age have or have had that ability.
— Stanley E. Porter