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Theology department remembers Gary N. Knoppers

| Monday, January 21, 2019

With a devotion to academics, faith in God and charity to others, Gary N. Knoppers was someone who fully embodied the Notre Dame spirit.

“He attracted many wonderful students to our department, graduate students [and] others, taught the honors classes and students really loved him,” chair of the department of theology Timothy Matovina said. “What I appreciated most was that he was just a genuinely good human being, a Christian man.”

Professor Knoppers, the John A. O’Brien professor of theology, died of cancer at 62 on Dec. 22. An expert in biblical studies and ancient Hebrew and Near Eastern history, he came to Notre Dame in 2014 after 25 years at Penn State University.

Mark Lackowski, a Notre Dame fourth-year doctoral student, said Professor Knoppers assumed a presence in the theology department right away.

“I’ve been told that when he came in, immediately, he was looking to build bridges, connections with other faculty members [and] with students and he basically wanted to get people talking to one another, working together,” Lackowski said. “ … He was just someone who was good at connecting people, fueling people, making people feel comfortable to bring whatever expertise or whatever perspectives that they had to the table and putting those all into conversation with each other.”

Professor Knoppers used his scholarship to inform and strengthen his faith, Matovina said.

“You can be a real critical scholar of the Bible, know the languages and know the history, but also be a person of deep faith coming out of those studies and out of your whole life,” he said.

According to a Jan. 10 University news release, Professor Knoppers received the 2014 R.B.Y. Scott Award for Outstanding Book in Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies for his book “Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of Their Early Relations.”

The book explores the Samaritans’ “relationship with Judeans and the ways in which different factions of Judaism were negotiating their identity, religiously, politically [and] socially,” Lackowski said.

“[The book] goes to the heart, in some ways, of his scholarship, which is the complexities and dynamics of the political and historical situation of the Jews,” theology professor Abraham Winitzer said.

Professor Knoppers also received the R.B.Y. Scott Award for Outstanding Book in Old Testament Studies for his work for the Anchor Yale Bible series in 2005, according to the release.

Most recently, Professor Knoppers was writing commentaries on the Book of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, Lackowski added.

“Gary was always interested in the relationship between the different Jewish groups within ancient Israel,” he said.

Lackowski said he first met Professor Knoppers while interviewing to be a Ph.D. student.

“[Interviewing] is nerve-wracking experience,” he said. “You meet all the professors, they ask you questions about your work, and things like that.”

Lackowski said Professor Knoppers made him feel welcome immediately.

“Gary just had a way in which he kind of put people at ease, as it were, even though he was this big name in the field,” he said. “He was just a very warm and kind person.”

Over the course of their time together, Professor Knoppers grew to be more than just a professor to him; he became a mentor and friend, Lackowski said.

“Gary was very attentive and inquisitive and patient with me, and he knew exactly what to say and when to say it to help me clarify an argument or solve a problem that I’m dealing with my work,” he said. “But always in these conversations, beyond some of the more technical stuff related to academia, he always had a really humorous anecdote from all his years in the academy, and he would always inject some levity into the conversation.”

Professor Knoppers unfailingly put those around him first, Lackowski added.

“Even when he was struggling with his own health or his treatment schedule, he still somehow found time to write an email or call or meet to discuss what I was doing,” Lackowski said. “ … He was always just very generous with his time that way.”

Theology professor Gary Anderson said he will always remember hearing Professor Knoppers warmly greet his colleagues every morning.

“He was just an incredibly gracious, generous man,” Anderson said. “Watching and seeing that graciousness and generosity in action was probably my warmest memory [of him].”

Winitzer said in everything he did, Professor Knoppers brought his kind and considerate nature with him.

“He liked to laugh, he liked to smile … and, by the way, that extended all the way to the last time I saw him,” Winitzer said. “ … [He] really, really cared. Just a caring person, a caring and a thoughtful person in the realest sense of the words.”

Matovina said Professor Knoppers’ work will shape Notre Dame for years to come.

“He was only here five years, but already he was working with, doing some great work with graduate students who will carry on his legacy, because they’ll go off and be professors themselves with the formation and the training they had from Professor Knoppers,” he said. “But in the department, just his goodness, his community spirit will be his legacy and will be deeply missed.”

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