Tuesday, June 11, 2024

J. K. Elliott (1943–2024)


Last week marked the passing of one of the great NT textual critics of the 20th/21st-centuries. J. Keith Elliott has been a staple of textual criticism as long (and longer) than I’ve been a student of the subject. I first heard him at a conference on the ending of Mark at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2007 as an undergraduate. That conference, later published as a book, was instrumental in pushing me to become a text critic.

Elliott taught for many years at the University of Leeds after having studied under G. D. Kilpatrick at Oxford from whom he picked up his thoroughgoing eclecticism. This method is known for putting primary (though not exclusive) emphasis on internal evidence and a willingness to accept a reading regardless of its source. 

As a proponent of this method, he could write negatively about “the cult of the oldest and best manuscripts” though he was careful to add that he did not treat all manuscripts the same. Positively, his approach meant he could be extremely careful and insightful when writing about matters of Greek syntax and authorial style. All this left me surprised when, in my viva, he left my criticisms of his method virtually untouched. I had claimed that the results of the CBGM basically made his method untenable. But he seemed completely unbothered and was nothing but a delight as an examiner. Even typos were forgiven!

Speaking of typos, he was a very close reader, as any who read his book reviews will know. He had plenty of practice as as the long-time book review editor for Novum Testamentum. Receiving a positive review from Elliott gave one a sense, not so much of pride, as relief. I will never forget him referring to what he considered to be a book’s overly sanctimonious acknowledgements as “cringe-making and toe-curling.” Besides moving me to keep my own acknowledgments short, this particular line taught me that good academic writing did not have to be stiff and boring; it could be careful and still colorful. Elliott’s writing was both. 

In my mind, his meticulousness as a scholar is encapsulated in two books on my shelf: his Bibliography of Greek New Testament Manuscripts and his Survey of Manuscripts Used in Editions of the Greek New Testament. The former he updated regularly and it is amazing to read it and see all that Elliott kept his pulse on. If readers would like a good sample of his work, Brill has kindly made his essay on thoroughgoing eclecticism open access.

Besides serving as an editor for Novum Testamentum and secretary of SNTS, Elliott served the IGNTP for 43 years in various roles as editor, secretary and member. (See the interview with Tommy at his retirement.) It surprised me to learn that Elliott was instrumental in the work of the Luke volumes as early as the 1970s. Much more surprising, but still indicative of the kind of person he was, Elliott was also a member briefly of the Majority Text Society for some years of the Dean Burgon society. Hixson will have to confirm this for me, but my understanding is that he was asked to give a talk at one of their meetings and he maintained his membership in order to get their newsletter and stay abreast of their work. He was ever the consummate bibliographer.

Elliott truly was a giant in our field. His passing feels like a great loss, one impossible to replace. But I take it as a moment to remind myself how important it is for those of us in the field to inspire the next generation. For myself, Elliott did that most of all through his speaking and writing. He remains for me a model of precision and thoroughness.

Posted below is a video of Elliott with Craig Evans to get a good sense of the man. (By the way, did you know Elliott has an IMDB page?)


  1. I was once told that the majority of theology, church history, and general Christianity books for sale at St. Phillips used book store in Oxford came from Elliott’s personal library. They were books he’d receive to review or for other reasons.

    I was able to confirm this with the manager of the bookstore earlier this year. While in the later years they’ve come from other sources, for a long time it was Elliot’s library that supplied the books at this famous used book store.

    1. Michael Dormandy6/11/2024 11:12 am

      Wow! I've been to the shops many times.

    2. Maurice A. Robinson6/11/2024 1:49 pm

      Correction : Elliott was never a member of the KJVO Burgon Society (they would not have let him join, for various reasons), but of the relatively short-lived "Majority Text Society" of Hodges, Farstad, and Pickering.

    3. Thanks for correcting that, MAR.

    4. I have a few books with his name on a sticker on the inside cover that I picked up there.

  2. I'm curious as to what you know about his spiritual life, confessional beliefs. Did he see the Bible as Holy Scripture?

  3. One of the most enjoyable things I ever did when I worked at CSNTM was facilitating the digitization of Legg's unpublished manuscript of Luke, which was in his possession. While CSNTM was working at Lambeth Palace, I took the train up to Harrogate, had lunch with him and his wife, brought the manuscript back to be digitized during the week, then the following weekend took the train back up to give it back to him. He picked me up at the station, drove me around Harrogate, and took me to his house for half an hour or so before dropping me back off at the station. He had some fascinating stories and was an absolute delight of a person. A bit quirky in person but in a very formal British way. When he showed me his office. I said, "So this is where you find all the typos?" "Haha yes, something like that." Whether or not you agree with his thoroughgoing eclecticism, it's hard to imagine textual criticism without him.

  4. Maurice A. Robinson6/12/2024 3:31 am

    One fascinating story he told me as we were driving through Raleigh NC some years ago was that he grew up in Liverpool and went to the same high school as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but chose a different and less income-worthy profession instead.

  5. Sic transit gloria Israel! I add my tribute to man who was not only a textual scholar but also a Christian gentleman, from whom, though I never met him face to face, I learned much. He allowed me, some years ago, many hours of telephonic conversation with him, not only guiding me in textual matters but also proffering much-needed personal advice. His truly broad and generous spirit was epitomised for me in an article that he sent to me, which he had written for The Majority Text Society in the Summer 2003 edition of their magazine — “John 1:18 - ‘God’ or ‘Son’ or ‘Stalemate’?”. In it, he said what was becoming clear to me, that “most theologically sensitive readings reflect early Christological debate”. And at the end of the article he wrote that “sometimes it may be wisest to print all the viable alternatives, without favouring any of them as the originals”. He had a deep desire to inform the ordinary Christian reader. RIP.

  6. I was greatly saddened to learn of the passing of Prof.J. Keith Elliott. He and I were both supervised by G.D. Kilpatrick in Oxford. Elliott was Book Review editor for Novum Testamentum, and for 30 years he recruited me to review books for that journal, often speaking highly of my work. Over the years he allowed me to review books of my choosing, some of which proved to be some of the most important books in the field. His contribution to NT textual criticism was of considerable importance, advancing the approach of Thoroughgoing Eclecticism, an approach which I also have followed. Beyond Textual criticism his contribution to the study of the New Testament and early Christianity is evidenced, not least, by his valuable edition of New Testament Apocrypha, published by Oxford University Press.. I will miss Keith Elliott's encouragement and friendship. Peter Rodgers