Rev'd Prof. Ernest Nicholson (Class of 1956)



The Reverend Professor Ernest Nicholson, who has died aged 75, was a leading scholar of the Old Testament and served from 1990 to 2003 as Provost of Oriel College, Oxford.

An Ulsterman by birth, Nicholson made substantial contributions to the study of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) . One of his main preoccupations was the concept of the “covenant” which he saw as central to the development of what is distinctive in the faith of Israel.

In a major survey, God and His People; Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament (1986), Nicholson concluded that: “on the whole ... it is fair to regard 'covenant’ as a theological theory about God’s relationship with Israel ... Thus understood, 'covenant’ is the central expression of the distinctive faith of Israel as 'the people of Yahweh’, the children of God by adoption and free decision rather than by nature or necessity.”

His biblical scholarship and his expertise in Latin, Hebrew and Semitic languages brought Nicholson international renown and he travelled all over the world. Yet he was always happy to admit that as a boy he had failed his 11-plus, using the experience to encourage young people that anything could be achieved through hard work and application.

The son of a farmer, Ernest Wilson Nicholson was born into a Protestant family at Portadown, Co Armagh, on September 26 1938. After his disastrous 11-plus , he was educated at the town’s technical school.

He spent four years there but wanted to enter the Church and eventually mastered enough Latin to move to the grammar school, Portadown College. From there, Nicholson went up to Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied Theology and was greatly influenced by the Hebrew scholar Jacob Weingreen.

Nicholson went on to Glasgow University, where he took a PhD under CJ Mullo Weir. His thesis, on the literary history of the book of Deuteronomy, accepted the widely-held belief that the core of the book could be identified with the “book of the law” which was discovered in the Jerusalem temple in 621 BC and which influenced King Josiah’s reformation of worship in Judah. It was published in revised form (in 1967) as his first book, Deuteronomy and Tradition.

In 1962 Nicholson had returned to Trinity College as a lecturer in Hebrew and Semitics. In 1967 he moved to Cambridge as University Lecturer in Divinity with a fellowship at University (now Wolfson) College. After his ordination in Ely Cathedral in 1969, he became Chaplain, and later Dean, of Pembroke College. In Preaching to the Exiles (1971), he traced the history of the “Deuteronomic” tradition from its beginnings to the Babylonian Exile.

The Reverend Professor Ernest Nicholson, born September 26th 1938, died December 22nd 2013.

Nicholson moved to Oxford in 1979 to take up the post of Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, with a fellowship at Oriel. As well as serving as college Provost he was Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the university from 1993 to 2003.

As Provost of Oriel, Nicholson was known for his kindliness towards all members of his college, while his concern for student welfare was reflected in his appointment as chairman of a university committee on student health. A dignified man who valued tradition, he was an assiduous fundraiser and it was his idea to produce an official history of the college. The book, a substantial collaborative effort, edited by Jeremy Catto, was published in November last year.

At Cambridge, Nicholson had begun to turn his mind to wider issues concerning the origins of Biblical traditions in such works as Exodus and Sinai in History and Tradition (1973). At Oxford, in addition to God and His People (1986), he published The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen (1998).

Ernest Nicholson was a Fellow of the British Academy, which awarded him its Burkitt Medal for Biblical Studies in 2009.

He married, in 1962, Hazel Jackson, who survives him with their three daughters. A son predeceased him.

Professor Ernest Nicholson was installed as Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, by The Queen in 1990.

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