Nachruf von Prof. em. Hubert Seiwert
17. Mai 2020
In Memoriam Kurt Rudolph (1929-2020)
I received the sad message that Professor Kurt Rudolph past away on May 13th, shortly after celebrating his 91st birthday. Kurt Rudolph was an outstanding historian of religion and one of the most influential German scholars of religion in the second half of the last century. He was most renowned for his works on the religion of the Mandaeans, Gnosis and Gnosticism, which have been translated in several languages. Equally important are his contributions to the methodology and self-reflection of the study of religion as an academic discipline. He ardently advocated Religionswissenschaft as a systematic and critical discipline based on sound historical research to counteract both ideological and theological agendas.
After a vocational training as a carpenter, Kurt Rudolph studied religion, Protestant theology and Semitic languages at the then Karl-Marx-University of Leipzig, where in 1956 he earned the degree of doctor of theology and one year later a PhD in history of religions. In 1971 he became professor of history of religions and comparative religion at the same university. Like his teacher and predecessor in Leipzig Walther Baetke, who as a historian of Nordic and Germanic religions had resisted the ideological encroachment of the Nazi regime, he insisted on painstaking historical research as the essential fundament of the study of religion. This insistence allowed him to safeguard the academic integrity of the discipline despite strong ideological pressure of the Communist government of East Germany. Although the political circumstances restricted direct contacts with his West German colleagues and the international academic community, his publications secured him high reputation abroad. In 1983 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews and from 1984 to 1986 he was visiting professor at the University of Chicago and UC Santa Barbara. During his stay in the United States, he decided not to return to East Germany and accordingly lost the chair at his home university and his membership in the Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities. In 1986 he got a call from the University of Marburg where he served as professor of history of religions until his retirement in 1994.
Kurt Rudolph, who also was an honorary doctor of the University of Aarhus, embodied in an exemplary way the study of religion as a self-reflexive and critical discipline. Long before methodological critique became fashionable, he addressed theological and ideological biases threatening the wissenschaftliche integrity and autonomy of the discipline. Besides his outstanding academic achievements, his name stands for the preservation of the Leipzig tradition of Religionswissenschaft in unfavourable times. The University of Leipzig has belatedly paid tribute to his merits by conferring an honorary doctor degree in 1996.