Consummate Scholar, Committed Teacher: Carl Holladay Retires from Candler


Claire Asbury Lennox
June 5, 2019

True to scholarly form, Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament Carl R. Holladay has given good thought to what his 39 years on the Candler faculty mean in their fuller context: “Almost half the school’s life,” he says. And in those nearly four decades, Holladay, who retires this year, has undoubtedly made his mark on Candler, generations of students, and the broader field of New Testament studies.

Holladay came to Candler in 1980 and remembers the “generative context” that the school and his fellow faculty members provided from the start. “I found myself surrounded by a circle of dazzling colleagues, talented and energetic, from whom I learned so much,” he says. “I found myself having to stand on tiptoe, just to see over the ledge what was going on—high-order scholarship that stretched my own intellectual horizons, people doing field-defining research and writing influential articles and books that became referential in their respective fields, and beyond.”

In the years since then, Holladay himself has joined the ranks of Candler faculty whose scholarly influence has been felt far beyond the Emory campus. With research focused on Luke-Acts, Hellenistic Judaism, and Christology, he has authored eight books, including A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ (Abingdon, 2005), which is used extensively by seminaries and ministers, offering historical context as well as an orientation to religious, theological and ethical issues surrounding Jesus’s message.

He’s been the recipient of prestigious fellowships and honors, including a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award, a Luce Fellowship, and a Festschrift titled Scripture and Traditions: Essays on Early Judaism and Christianity in Honor of Carl R. Holladay (Brill, 2008). In 2017, Holladay was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies. A member of the Society of Biblical Literature, he has also served on editorial boards for multiple scholarly journals, and as the 2016-17 president of the Society for New Testament Studies.

In looking back on his broad academic pursuits, Holladay stresses the importance of the visionary leadership of the deans he’s served under at Candler, from James L. Waits to current dean Jan Love. “Each of them supported me and my work generously—with research leave and travel and research funds, but, most importantly, with their personal and moral support.” At Candler and Emory, Holladay says, he has experienced both “freedom of thought and expression. I was allowed to pursue the questions I thought were important, and to answer them in my own way.”

And no matter how far his scholarly work has taken him, Holladay has certainly given his time and talents to Emory, including as a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, a faculty member in the Laney Graduate School’s Graduate Division of Religion (he also served as co-director from 2010 to 2012), and as Candler’s associate dean of academic affairs from 1983 to 1991, and dean of the faculty and academic affairs from 1992 to 1994.

In the midst of his numerous accolades and leadership roles, former Candler students think of Holladay first as a mentor who provided immeasurable support in seminary and after, helping them to find their voice, whether it was in the world of ministry or academia.

Christy Bonner 03T got to know Holladay as her academic advisor, Contextual Education professor, and New Testament professor, and calls him an engaging teacher who took the time and energy to invest in his students, from their papers to their vocations. She says he was integral in helping her discern her next steps after graduation.

“The feedback and support Dr. Holladay offered as we considered the many possibilities regarding my particular future in ministry were invaluable. I am grateful to him for encouraging me to continue my education beyond Candler, and for the recommendation he provided when I applied for a DMin degree,” she says. “I know I am only one of many who have been impacted by his wisdom, teaching skills, and encouragement. I hope he knows what a difference he has made in my life, and in the lives of so many students.”

Erich Pracht 18T credits Holladay with his own academic development at a pivotal moment, as Pracht discovered his desire to be a New Testament scholar. Holladay guided him through “that critical phase when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in New Testament studies, but needed help understanding how to adequately prepare and a great deal of direction in refining my research interests,” he says.

Pracht also acknowledges Holladay’s role the first time he was published in an academic journal, recalling that his classes emphasized that students should take ownership of their reading of biblical texts—“that we should be creative, take risks, and develop interpretations that are ‘ours.’” Thanks to that philosophy, Pracht’s first academic publication was a modified version of a term paper he wrote for Holladay’s course on the Gospel of Mark. “I am now working on a dissertation on the Book of Acts, and I truly believe that my time as Dr. Holladay’s student made me more prepared for this pursuit.”

Holladay’s faculty colleagues appreciate his approach as well. Associate Professor in the Practice of Practical Theology and Methodist Studies Thomas W. Elliott Jr. 87T 97T, who has experienced Holladay as both a professor and a colleague, calls him a “careful, thoughtful, meticulous scholar of the New Testament who challenged us after much study to ask, ‘What can we really say here?’ After three years of taking classes from him, 26 years in the pulpit, and six years as his colleague at Candler, I still hear his voice when I am doing exegesis.”

Steven J. Kraftchick, professor in the practice of New Testament interpretation, borrows one of Holladay’s favorite quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson to describe a defining trait of his longtime friend and colleague: “The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.” Kraftchick calls the line a watchword for Holladay’s writing, from his academic work to sermons and lectures. He then quotes directly from Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner’s Handbook (Westminster John Knox, 1st ed., 1982), co-authored by Holladay: “Text criticism is ‘based on common sense and ingenuity.’ To do that work well requires tireless attention to specifics, and an expansive imagination. In a nutshell, that has defined Carl’s careful and consistent work on the New Testament. There are scholars who give us the data, but too often nothing about the ‘so what.’ There are scholars who are happy to provide an ingenious interpretation, but often at the expense of the texts themselves. Carl never succumbed to either, but rather his work combines both: a keen eye for every detail and interpretive sentences that, in the words of Emerson, do not ‘omit the thing’ one meant to say.”

Associate Professor of New Testament Susan E. Hylen 04G also experienced Holladay as a professor during her years of study in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion. “Carl has a keen eye for textual and historical detail. The breadth and depth of his knowledge of the New Testament and Jewish writings of the period is truly remarkable. All of his scholarship, from his introductory textbooks to the most technical of his work, shows his finely-honed historical judgment and his love of the church.”

Holladay’s praise for his fellow faculty members is no less than theirs for him. “Although the scholar’s life sometimes appears to outsiders as highly individualistic, even solitary, it is inescapably social and, in its best form, collegial. One of the greatest benefits I have enjoyed at Candler has been the company of friendly, but honest critics—colleagues not only willing to listen to my ideas, to read my work, but to critique it,” he says. “Caring colleagues to keep you honest and make you better—what a rarity!” He also praises the rich resources of Pitts Theology Library, which he calls “the jewel in Candler’s crown, and a source of sheer delight. Over the years, I found that visits to Pitts could calm the soul like no other place could.”

In his office on the fifth floor of Candler’s Rita Anne Rollins Building, Holladay’s bookshelves are slowly emptying into boxes—a tangible sign of the start of a new chapter, coupled with thanks for all he can glimpse in the rearview mirror. “My debt of gratitude to Emory and to Candler is huge. No one said it better than Lou Gehrig: ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’”

Watch Holladay’s 2014 Convocation sermon on “Imagining the Future.”