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  • In Memoriam: Jerry H. Bentley(December 9, 1949–July 15, 2012)
  • Karen Jolly

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Dr. Jerry H. Bentley (1949–2012)

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Jerry H. Bentley, emeritus professor of history at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, was a generous humanist, leading world historian, and inspiring mentor to scholars around the globe. A trail blazer in the field of world history, Dr. Bentley led the way by precept and example in transforming how we see human history through the lens of cross-cultural interactions. He wrote extensively on comparative and transnational methods in history and coauthored one of the most popular textbooks for teaching world history. As one of the founders of the World History Association and first editor of the Journal of World History, he was recognized in 2011 as a “Pioneer in World History” for his international contributions to the study and teaching of world history.

Raised and educated in the southern United States, Bentley was steeped in the religious culture that later formed the backdrop for his early scholarship on Biblical texts in Renaissance humanism. Born the oldest of three sons in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama, the family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1955, where Bentley graduated from Brainerd High School in 1967. His father was an engineer and his mother a homemaker, both of whom raised him with a healthy respect for discipline and a solid understanding of the Bible through participation in the local church. His education was entirely in public schools, from first grade through the PhD.

Although none of his family members were academics, Bentley was drawn initially into advanced study through an intellectual crisis worthy of Augustine or Erasmus, his later subject of research. At first, while [End Page vii] finishing high school, he delved deeper into fundamentalist Christianity, only to find the more he read, the less it made sense. In college he discovered a path toward understanding in the life of a scholar, earning a degree in history at the University of Tennessee Knoxville in 1971. There, the Renaissance scholar Richard Marius inspired him with his big ideas and vivid style of writing, drawing Bentley into humanist thought. A comparative literature class exposed him to Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly, which Bentley read at the peak of the U.S. antiwar movement in 1968–1969. Subsequently, he wrote his honors research paper on the politics of Erasmus and his opposition to war (except for the Turkish threat). Years later Bentley would find the statue of Erasmus in a Rotterdam square, amidst market stalls run primarily by Turks and other immigrants, and ponder the humanist principles of toleration in a broader world context.

Bentley pursued graduate research in Renaissance humanism at the University of Minnesota, where he earned both a master’s (1974) and a doctorate (1976) in history. His mentors Jim Tracy and Bernard Bachrach set high standards in teaching Bentley the craft of the historian, founded on rigorous analysis of sources and argumentation in writing, in addition to the study of relevant European languages (French, Spanish, Dutch, Latin, and Greek, among others). In many ways, graduate school marked the transition out of his earlier religious identity to that of a humanist and scholar, a conversion that gave him greater understanding of Renaissance thinkers and their new ways of studying the Bible. His dissertation analyzed how these fifteenth-century scholars approached the writings of Paul in the New Testament, which Bentley later expanded to include the Gospels and the whole New Testament.1

Thus in his early career, Bentley focused on Renaissance Europe, publishing eight articles and two books on humanism between 1976 and 1987, while continuing his study of Italian language and thought. Humanists and Holy Writ: New Testament Scholarship in the Renaissance (Princeton University Press, 1983) demonstrated how new philological interest in the Greek New Testament shaped humanist scholarship and in turn ushered in modern study of Biblical texts. His second monograph, Politics and Culture in Renaissance Naples (Princeton University Press, 1987), explored humanists as public intellectuals influencing [End Page viii] culture through their writings; its translation into Italian marks the importance of this volume for the...


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