Nock, Arthur Darby

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NOCK, ARTHUR DARBY (19021963), Anglo-American historian of religions. Nock, who was born in Portsmouth, England, and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed early promise of becoming what Martin P. Nilsson was to call him: "the world's leading authority on the religion of later antiquity." His Sallus-tius: Concerning the Gods and the Universe (Cambridge, England, 1926), a model edition of an allegorical treatise from late antiquity, is notable for its essay on the treatise in its fourth-century setting.

A fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, Nock shared some of the interests, if not all the beliefs, of a group of learned Anglo-Catholics who were producing a set of essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation. He maintained his independence and objectivity while preparing an enduringly valuable essay entitled "Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background," in which he anticipated much of his later work on both subjects. Quite soon Nock was invited to Harvard University, where he became Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion in 1930. His Lowell Lectures were published as Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford, 1933).

Nock's scholarly range was immense, his depth and intensity remarkable. His shorter papers reflect great energy governed by a strong mind. Legend has it that he had spent his earlier years reading all the Teubner texts before going on to all the secondary literature. For many years he worked with A.-J. Festugière, o.p., on an edition of the theosophical Corpus Hermeticum (Paris, 1945), freeing the text from needless emendations and setting the whole in its Middle Platonic environment. To clarify historical context was always his goal. As he wrote in the preface to Conversion, "We shall seek to see as a pagan might the Christian Church and the Christian creed. The evidence at our disposal does not admit of complete success in this quest; we can but hope to have a reasonable approximation to the truth and, in the Swedish proverb, 'to put the church in the middle of the village.'"

Publication of Nock's Gifford Lectures, delivered in 1939 and 1946, was delayed by World War II and was finally nullified by his perfectionism. He was too busy to look back. He had already produced a masterly chapter on late Roman religion, "The Development of Paganism in the Roman Empire," making full use of the coins, for the Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 12 (Cambridge, 1939), and he was responsible for editing the Harvard Theological Review which he continued to do for thirty-three yearsas a journal for ancient religion, chiefly Greek and Roman.

Nock was opposed to the proliferation of hypotheses and to the building of theory upon theory. Reluctant to generalize, he spoke of the sacredness of fact, although he valued facts not for their own sake but as the foundation stones of knowledge. Revered by his students and colleagues for his knowledge and judgment, he helped many to resist speculation, thus pointing the way to a truly collaborative study of religion.


Particularly notable, along with the works mentioned above, is Nock's Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background (New York, 1964), which includes the essay by that title as well as two other papers. Among Nock's many articles, it is difficult to select the most important, although certainly his "Sarcophagi and Symbolism," "Hellenistic Mysteries and Christian Sacraments," and "The Roman Army and the Religious Year" deserve attention. Nock's 415 publications are listedand 59 of them are reprintedin his Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, 2 vols., edited by Zeph Stewart (Oxford, 1972).

New Sources

As far as secondary literature is concerned, besides the obituaries written by André-Jean Festugière, Revue Archéologique 1 (1963): 203205; Martin P. Nilsson, Gnomon 15 (1963): 318319; Henry Chadwick and Eric Robertson Dodds, Journal of Roman Studies 53 (1963): 168169, and other ones, see, more recently, William M. Calder III, "Harvard classics 19501956." Eikasmos 4 (1993): 3949. The same author has devoted some pages to Nock in his Men in Their Books: Studies in the Modern History of Classical Scholarship, edited by John P. Harris and R. Scott Smith (Hildesheim, 1998). Nock's scientific legacy is well outlined in Mario Mazza's valuable introductory essay premitted to the Italian translation of Conversion (Bari, 1974), pp. ixlvi.

Robert M. Grant (1987)

Revised Bibliography