The Rev Professor C. F. D. Moule

New Testament scholar and long-serving Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at Cambridge


Charles Francis Digby Moule, priest and theologian: born Hangchow, China 3 December 1908; ordained deacon 1933, priest 1934; Curate, St Mark's, Cambridge 1933-34; Tutor, Ridley Hall, Cambridge 1933-34, Vice-Principal 1936-44, honorary member of staff 1976-80; Curate, St Andrew's, Rugby 1934-36; Curate, St Mary the Great, Cambridge 1936-40; Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge 1944-2007, Dean 1944-51; Faculty Assistant Lecturer in Divinity, Cambridge University 1944-47, University Lecturer 1947-51, Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity 1951-76; Canon Theologian (non-residentiary) of Leicester 1955-76; FBA 1966; CBE 1985; died Leigh, Dorset 30 September 2007.

For over 50 years C.F.D. Moule, Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University from 1951 to 1976, held a pivotal place in the discipline of New Testament studies, retaining a position of critical orthodoxy in the midst of a maelstrom of contradictory voices.

Known to generations of students and friends as Charlie, he was small in stature and lean of frame and bore more than a faint resemblance to the Wind in the Willows Mole, with his ageless sharp features, small, round tortoiseshell-framed spectacles, the twinkle in his eye and head slightly leaning to one side.

The Lady Margaret's Chair is the oldest of the Cambridge Divinity Chairs, being founded in 1502, and is traditionally filled by a New Testament scholar (its previous holders include Erasmus, J.B. Lightfoot and F.J.A. Hort). Moule brought to the Chair great distinction both by his scholarship and character, holding together in sharp focus profound learning with a deep sense of Christian vocation. With characteristic diffidence he wrote in his book The Holy Spirit (1978):

Words are feeble things – never adequate for the job; yet priceless things – seldom dispensable. They are dangerous things, for they are so fascinating that they tempt the user to linger with them and treat them as ends instead of means. But the Word became flesh; and a word that is not in some way implemented goes sour and becomes a liability instead of an asset.

In the company of scholars from a wide variety of backgrounds from the last century such as Vincent Taylor, T.W. Manson, C.H. Dodd, W.D. Davies, Matthew Black and Barnabas Lindars, Moule combined scrupulous attention to detail with common sense.

Central to the life of the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge was the New Testament Seminar which he chaired for his postgraduate students. Many were to hold Chairs across the globe, including the just retired holder of the Lady Margaret's Chair, Graham Stanton.

Thoroughly immersed in the world of the Bible and working in an age in which quality was not always sacrificed upon the altar of quantity, Moule produced comparatively little by present-day standards. Always writing in longhand and never using a typewriter, he will be particularly remembered for two works.

The Birth of the New Testament, published in 1962 and now in its fourth edition, sought to investigate the circumstances which led to the making of the New Testament amidst the worshipping, working and suffering community of the day; while the main thesis of The Origin of Christology – published in 1977 in the same week as (and sadly eclipsed by) the headline-catching The Myth of God Incarnate edited by John Hick – was to show that the understanding of Jesus which emerges in the course of Christian history can be understood more as development than evolution, growing from immaturity to maturity.

Conversant with all the Biblical languages, Moule made a significant contribution to the production of the New English Bible, serving on both the Apocrypha and New Testament translation panels, under the chairmanship of Donald Coggan. This attempt at putting the Bible into a contempory idiom was pilloried on the grounds that its style of language was more suited to the Senior Common Room. For Moule his preferred translation of the Bible remained the Revised Version.

Aside from his scholarship, Moule will be remembered for the influence he had upon his students and the formation of many seeking ordination. As well as being a popular lecturer and supervisor, he was esteemed as a man of the most profound faith, humility and prayer. He was much sought after as a spiritual counsellor: Joachim Jeremias, an eminent German Neutestamentler colleague, said of Moule, "In him could be seen no trace of original sin."

That was not a view universally held, and certainly not by Charlie himself. But, interested in the whole of God's creation, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world (he knew every birdsong) and enjoying nothing more in his days in Cambridge than his walks around the Fellows' Garden of Clare College at dawn, Charlie Moule was sought out as a companion by many from all backgrounds, disciplines and ages. Many a Cambridge college chaplain will be grateful for his fatherly advice.

Born in Hangchow, China in 1908 to missionary parents – his paternal grandfather was bishop of mid-China – Charles Francis Digby Moule came from an indomitable Dorset clerical dynasty who counted Thomas Hardy, who used the Moules as source material for some of his characters, among their intimates.

Educated at Weymouth College, where a daily dip in the sea was part of the school regime, he went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He took Firsts in both parts of the Classical Tripos and was rewarded with more than one university prize. He was prepared for the Anglican ministry at Ridley Hall, where his great-uncle Handley Moule had been the hall's first Principal before becoming Bishop of Durham.

Ridley Hall always retained a special place in the affections of Charlie Moule, who went to live there after he retired from the Lady Margaret's Chair. It was very much because of his influence and intervention that the hall was saved from closure in the early 1970s and he was instrumental in helping to save its flagging fortunes in the appointment of Keith Sutton and later Hugo de Waal as Principal.

A former President of the International Society of New Testament Studies and a Fellow of the British Academy, Moule was delighted when Cambridge awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Divinity in 1988 to mark his 80th birthday, with his friend Professor Henry Chadwick providing a draft for the Oration. He was appointed CBE in 1985 for his services to New Testament studies.

Retiring to Pevensey in Sussex in 1981 in order to be near his friend Bishop Stanley Betts, and from there to a nursing home in Dorset in 2003, he continued to be at the centre of a vast network of friendships and concerns. Although increasingly deaf he never missed a trick; and despite being retired for so long he was bang up to date with his reading. Daily he would say Morning and Evening Prayer with the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament to hand.

A not always uncritical observer of the Church of England, and preaching well into his nineties, he rejoiced to see the Church he loved and so selflessly served safe for the next generation in the hands of his former students Rowan Williams (at whose marriage to Jane Paul he officiated) on his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury and John Sentamu as Archbishop of York.

Peter Townley

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