Rev Professor John O’Neill, lecturer at New College and scholar of the New Testament
Born: 8 December, 1930, in Melbourne.
Died: 30 March, 2003, in Edinburgh, aged 72.
A MAN of immense energy and scholarship, John O’Neill was a much respected lecturer at New College, a valued colleague at Edinburgh University and much loved by a host of friends in the Church of Scotland.
He combined a profound knowledge of the Scriptures and a commitment to expand his own learning with a dedicated desire to impart it to others. Never one to avoid religious controversy, his opinions were always most care- fully researched and cogently argued.
John Cochrane O’Neill was educated at Melbourne’s Church of England School before reading theology at Melbourne University. He then took a doctorate at Ormond College of Theology and read for his PhD on the Acts of the Apostles at Clare College, Cambridge. That Book, and all the writings of St Paul, were to become a life-long passion.
In 1964, O’Neill returned to Australia to take up the post of Dunn Professor of the New Testament at Westminster College and taught widely within the college’s divinity faculty. He first came to Scotland in 1975 to deliver the prestigious Cunningham Lectures at Edinburgh University. His subject was a complex one but colleagues recall how O’Neill’s clear and dignified delivery entranced everyone present.
In the lecture, he expanded on his theory that Jesus went to Jerusalem not so much to encounter his destiny but more to gain time for his disciples and followers. Jesus, he argued, realised he was the Son of Man but could not, for political reasons, declare the fact openly. It was against Jewish law to claim such a position so Christ, O’Neill suggested, had to leave it to others to thus proclaim him.
The lectures caused some controversy but when O’Neill joined New College in 1985 as Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at Edinburgh University, he was rarely far from the spotlight. His lectures were attended by students of all ages and created an immediate buzz throughout New College. The debate on what O’Neill had lectured was continued passionately in the corridors and coffee rooms by both colleagues and students.
O’Neill always introduced a subject head on and almost pushed his students into disagreeing with him. One recalled: "He delighted in acting as something of an intellectual agent provocateur. He could often make some rather wild assertions which, ten minutes later, he would roundly denounce." Fondly remembered also are the "colloquies", which were an addition to normal lectures and during which everyone was encouraged to air opinions on religious and secular subjects.
Most scholars believe that the gospels of Matthew and Luke are based on the shorter but more intense gospel of Mark. O’Neill never totally accepted that theory and suggested that early Jewish writings were their inspiration and much of the details came from ancient Jewish texts.
But at New College, it is as a lecturer that O’Neill is most warmly remembered. A rugged, down-to-earth Australian who delighted in all outdoor pursuits (especially camping and swimming), he researched each lecture with a renewed enthusiasm. Even when he was an acknowledged expert on a subject, he rethought his arguments and brought his teaching up to date. It is not surprising that his honours and post-graduate New Testament Seminar at 11am every Monday was attended by many academics and leading ministers of the Kirk.
O’Neill was a great lover of reading and old books. He had built up a considerable personal collection but perhaps his pride and joy was when, as curator of New College library, he considerably expanded and enhanced the collection.
In 1991, he organised and then hosted in Edinburgh the annual meeting of the Society for New Testament Studies. The lengthy discussions and the informality of the occasion are particularly well remembered.
Many of his students also attended O’Neill’s "Dissertation Days" in the Lothians. His former student says: "Walks and lengthy discussions went rather well together. In a calm and relaxed atmosphere, we had much serious talk and laughter."
His students were allowed - indeed encouraged - to enter into debate on any subject but those who came ill-prepared were victims of O’Neill’s powerful intellect.
He took pride in any of his students’ success in the ministry and, after he was ordained into the Church of Scotland in the late 1980s, he visited many parishes throughout the country.
His writings were mostly on New Testament matters and St Paul. He advanced the theory - now usually accepted - that St Paul did not write all the letters. He expanded his theories with some acclaimed books. The Theology of Acts (1970), The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (1972) and Paul’s Letters to the Romans (1975) developed his theories in a most concise and erudite manner. Then, while at Edinburgh, O’Neill wrote some stimulating books about the gospels and Jesus, including Who Does Jesus Think He Was? (1995) and The Point of It All (1999).
O’Neill was a man of much ecclesiastical scholarship, but he remained practical and a great lover of the Scottish countryside, where he often walked. He was at once charismatic and straightforward, with a potent and probing intellect.
He is survived by his wife, Judith, whom he married in 1954, and three daughters.