Howard Marshall

Howard Marshall, a respected New Testament scholar, passed away on 12 December 2015. As a supporter of the Scottish Bible Society and an active volunteer with our Aberdeen Action Group, Howard is an example of someone who impacted many people’s lives. This article by John Drane gives us insight into Howard’s life and the profound legacy that he left behind. 

I first met Howard Marshall when I was a young student in the University of Aberdeen, and he was a relatively recently appointed lecturer. My advisor of studies told me to go and see him to enrol in his introductory class in New Testament Greek. I remember climbing the spiral stone stairway in King’s College to find his office, somewhat apprehensive and expecting to find a serious looking man surrounded by a mini-library of complicated tomes on the New Testament and associated topics. My first surprise was to discover that he occupied an office so small that there was scarcely room for him and a desk, and certainly no space for what as a new student I imagine the trappings of academia might look like. It was more like a broom cupboard: a tiny space divided from another office by a partition so thin that if both offices were occupied at the same time it was impossible not to overhear the conversation from next door – indeed, to see it as well, as the partition was mostly glass! Later in his career, Howard migrated to bigger spaces, but that impression from my first meeting has never left me, for here was a man who – like St Paul – was content in whatever circumstances he found himself.

Unlike many academics (theologians included), image and status were not part of Howard’s worldview, and he was never ambitious at the expense of other people.

In the years following that first meeting, Howard soon established a reputation as a serious scholar and looking back now, we can rightly regard him as one of the most influential voices in New Testament scholarship of the end of the twentieth century and beyond. He left a remarkable legacy for future generations in his books – almost 40 of them. All of these works were of meticulous scholarship and at least one of them a work of extraordinarily detailed attention to the actual words of the text, namely his revision of Moulton and Geden’s concordance to the Greek New Testament – all 1100 pages of it – and one of the first things he published after his retirement. Not that I would downplay any of the others; his contributions to the study of Luke and Acts have become standard works in their field, along with countless articles in journals, encyclopedias, and popular Christian magazines. There must be millions of readers throughout the world whose thinking has been expanded through meeting Howard in the pages of his books and articles, not to mention all those who were encouraged in their faith through the many Bible study notes that he wrote for Scripture Union and others.

Then there are his many doctoral students. No-one seems to know how many (not even the University of Aberdeen), but I’ve been able to identify more than sixty by name, and there would certainly be more, so I reckon that he must have supervised at least 80 or 90 successful PhD candidates, many of whom are now well known scholars in their own right. And he was a familiar face at the conferences of many different organizations – the British New Testament Society, the International Society for New Testament Studies, the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians, and above all the Tyndale Fellowship, whose affairs benefited from his input more or less throughout his career.

Much more could be said about Howard’s contributions to scholarship and his international connections.

But for Howard study of the New Testament was much more than just a job. Martin Luther coined the phrase that “work is worship”, and that’s the way Howard regarded his scholarship.

My colleague at Fuller Seminary, Joel Green (and himself one of his PhD students), recalls a conversation in which Howard told him that writing his commentary on the Greek text of Luke’s Gospel was “an act of worship”. But Howard’s devotion went much further than academic study of the intricacies of the Greek text of the New Testament. He also played a full part in the wider life of the church, leading a Crusader class for boys in Aberdeen for many years and actively promoting the faith in his own local context, most notably in the Aberdeen School of Christian Studies which he (along with others) both founded and ran for some considerable time. He was also a regular preacher in the Methodist churches of north-east Scotland, and right up to the time of his death was encouraging these many small communities in their worship and witness.

After being one of his students at the start of his career, I later became one of Howard’s colleagues during the final years of his time in Aberdeen university. Though by now, Howard had a worldwide reputation for meticulous scholarship, little had changed in his daily habits. He was still cycling to work, and though I think the bicycle was a newer model I could swear that his green anorak was the same one he was wearing when I was a student. His habits hadn’t changed either, as he got off his bike and proceeded to unpack what seemed like a small library from his trouser legs before walking across the quad in Kings College to meet with his students. I never did quite discover how he managed to conceal so many books about his person – and to ride a bike at the same time – but it was a feat that was well noticed by students in both generations.

Just a couple of years before I first met him, Howard had gained his PhD from Aberdeen university, with a thesis entitled “Perseverance, Falling Away and Apostasy” – and as I reflect on Howard’s life, those three words seem an appropriate way of summing him up. He certainly persevered, working on academic projects almost to the end; his unshakeable faith was the exact opposite of falling away; and almost imperceptibly his contribution to evangelical theology arguably moved some of the goalposts that had previously defined the nature of apostasy. He was ahead of his time in advocating for what today would be described as an egalitarian position on the ministry of women and men, and in several of his books he redrew some significant boundaries in relation to how the Bible might be understood in a changing cultural environment. Students had a nickname for Howard, and in the years after the release of the Star Wars movies they called him Yoda.

As one former student said to me, “he was small in size, but exuding wisdom and grace, and pointing to one beyond himself”.

I couldn’t think of a better way of summing up a remarkable life, for which we thank God even as we pray for grace to follow in his footsteps.

With thanks to John Drane for this article.