Obituary: The Rev Professor John Cochrane O'Neill ; New Testament Scholar Who Encouraged Argument

By Mealand, David | The Independent (London, England), April 4, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: The Rev Professor John Cochrane O'Neill ; New Testament Scholar Who Encouraged Argument


Mealand, David, The Independent (London, England)


JOHN COCHRANE O'NEILL was a charismatic teacher and a writer of several impressive scholarly works, mainly on New Testament subjects. In his writing he displayed great skills of argumentation and much erudition. He would present a controversial case, confront serious difficulties, acknowledge objections, defend his view with a number of highly speculative moves, and often reach a surprisingly conservative conclusion.

Thus he could argue that Paul's letters had been heavily interpolated, yet proceed to extract from them a slim but consistent authentic core. For the gospels he could propose a plethora of sources which allowed him to cite any one of several different versions of a saying of Jesus as true and unaltered in its transmission.

John O'Neill was born in Melbourne in 1930 and was educated at Melbourne Grammar School. He studied History at the University of Melbourne and obtained first class honours there in 1951. The history school was strong at this time, Arthur Burns being particularly influential. O'Neill was probably also aware of the strongly analytical trends in the neighbouring Department of Philosophy.

Influenced by the preaching of George MacLeod, O'Neill went on to study for a BD at Ormond College Theological Hall, Melbourne, in 1954. He had already been selected as a senior tutor in history at the university in 1953, and in 1955 lectured in Church History at Ormond College. A von Humboldt scholarship took him to Gottingen. He then undertook a thesis at Clare College in Cambridge, where his supervisor was John A.T. Robinson (later Bishop of Woolwich). The thesis earned a doctorate in 1959, and was published in 1961 with the title The Theology of Acts in its Historical Setting. This book was well received and recognised as a serious scholarly contribution. O'Neill returned to Australia, was ordained in the Presbyterian Church there in 1960, and lectured in New Testament at Ormond College.

In 1964 O'Neill was invited back to Cambridge to Westminster College to be Dunn Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology. During this time in Cambridge he lectured to a wide range of students and published several further books. The Puzzle of 1 John (1966) was the first of a number of works in which he argued that central Christian motifs were to be found in earlier Jewish texts. Much use was made in this work of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a text which others regarded as containing Christian interpolations, but which O'Neill was convinced was wholly Jewish.

In 1972 there followed The Recovery of Paul's Letter to the Galatians. In 1975 he published a commentary, Paul's Letter to the Romans. This work argued that Paul's original writing had been much interpolated by scribes and by gnostics. O'Neill minimised emphases on wrath and sin and predestination, while focusing on the righteousness which God approves when one lives by faith. Others objected that the identification of non-Pauline passages was arbitrary and based too much on speculative reconstruction of an allegedly more consistent core for the letter. A book simply entitled Messiah: six lectures on the ministry of Jesus appeared in 1980 based on the Cunningham lectures given in Edinburgh. This signalled the great emphasis O'Neill placed on the whole theme of Messiahship in earliest Christianity.

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