Seán Freyne, who has died aged 78 of cancer, was a theologian whose work on understanding the historical figure of Jesus through the prism of the Galilean society in which he grew up won international respect and acclaim.
He is credited with moving our understanding of that period on from a literal reading of the New Testament through extensive examination of historical, cultural and political contexts.
Former president Mary McAleese paid him this tribute: “Seán Freyne made an enormous contribution to the world of biblical scholarship and ironically to the kind of scholarship which, had he remained in a Catholic theology faculty, he would never have been allowed do because of the impact of enforced orthodoxy. Yet it’s precisely that scholarship which is really needed.”
He was also a cheerful and gregarious soul, with a lifelong passion for sport. Freyne was fond of quoting Plato: “The barbarians do not engage in sport or philosophy.”
Sport before philosophy
Moreover, he always emphasised the order in which the words appeared, sport before philosophy.
For Freyne it was a close run thing, He had captained the Mayo minor GAA team on its way to winning the All-Ireland football championship in 1953, and his interest in sport and the friendships he made through it never dimmed.
He was born in Kilkelly, Co Mayo, where his mother was a primary school teacher. His father died when he was four. His mother was teaching in nearby Tooreen, Co Mayo, so she built a house there in which she brought up her son and her daughter, Mary. Later, Seán attended St Jarlath’s College in Tuam before going to the seminary at St Patrick’s College Maynooth in September 1953. He graduated in 1960, and was ordained for the diocese of Tuam, but he was not destined for parish work.
He went to Rome for further studies. Returning to Ireland, he taught briefly at St Columban's College, Dalgan, Co Meath. He was professor of sacred scripture in St Patrick's College, Maynooth, for two years from 1974. His priesthood ended in 1976 when he married an Australian lawyer, Gail Grossman. Spells teaching at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Notre Dame University in Indiana, and Loyola University, New Orleans, followed.
But the next appointment in 1981 would be the crucial one. Trinity College Dublin was modernising under its energetic and far-seeing provost, Leland Lyons.
Franchise on theology
In Lyons's final year as provost, Freyne was appointed to the first chair of non-denominational theology. In domestic terms this was seen as a significant break with the past – the Church of Ireland would no longer have an exclusive franchise on theology in Ireland's oldest university.
In international terms the removal of denominational barriers was seen as groundbreaking. Moreover, Freyne was up for the challenge. His Galilee: From Alexander the Great to Hadrian, had been published in 1980, alongside other works examining the New Testament. Many more would follow, including the notable Jesus a Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus Story in 2004.
He advocated substituting theological imagination for rote memory, drawing on what archaeology and other disciplines tell us about Jesus's time on earth. By better understanding Christ's place as a Jew in Galilean society, people could rebuild understanding of the mysteries of faith. However this was a journey, not a destination, Freyne warned in his contribution to a 2006 discussion in The Furrow.
“Theology (is) an exercise in exploration in the faith that is always provisional and in constant need of revision as we strive for more adequate answers to the pressing questions that confront all of us – questions that are personal and cosmic.”
In 2007-8 Freyne was visiting professor of early Christian history at Harvard Divinity School. (Tooreen man appointed as visiting professor at Harvard, the Mayo News reported.) Freyne also had variously been president of the International Society for the Study of the New Testament, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a trustee of the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, and was director of the Centre for Mediterranean and Near Eastern studies.
He kept working to the end. His last article appears in the current issue of the Dominican publication Doctrine and Life; in it he defends the existence of Jesus against a challenge in a recently published book. His wife, Gail, and daughters, Bridget and Sarah, and his sister, Mary Keane, survive him.