Freyne, Seán (1935–2013), theologian, was born on 23 April 1935 in Kilkelly, Co. Mayo, to John Vincent Frain, a warehouse manager and one-time IRA captain, and Lucy Ellen (née Flaherty), a primary school teacher. He had one older sister, Mary. Following his father's death in 1940 when Seán was just four, the family moved to Tooreen, Co. Mayo, where his mother worked at the national school. He attended St Jarlath's College in Tuam for his secondary education before entering the seminary at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, in September 1953.
Freyne was a great sportsman with a particular passion for Gaelic football. He captained the Mayo minor team that won the all-Ireland football championship in 1953, although he was not allowed by the seminary to play in the final itself, reportedly as it fell on a Sunday. He also played club football with the East Mayo team Aghamore, and was heavily involved with the GAA throughout his life.
Following his ordination in 1960, Freyne went to Rome to study for his licentiate in sacred scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and then his doctorate in sacred theology at the University of St Thomas. He was in Rome during the exciting years of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), and would champion its modernising principles throughout his career, particularly during the papacies of John Paul II (1978–2005) and Benedict XVI (2005–13). Freyne returned to Ireland in 1965 and lectured in biblical studies at St Columban's College in Navan until 1969. During that time he produced his first book The twelve: disciples and apostles, a study in the theology of the first three gospels (1968), which fellow priest Sean Purcell described as 'a scientific work of original research' (Ir. Independent, 24 August 1968). The twelve laid the foundation of Freyne's approach to the study of the bible, with a strong focus on the historical figure of Jesus in the context of the Galilean society in which he grew up, and particularly his Jewish identity.
He took up the role of professor of New Testament at the Pontifical University (St Patrick's College), Maynooth, from 1969 to 1975. The following year, 1976, was one of dramatic change for Freyne: he left the priesthood, and shortly thereafter married Gail Grossman, an Australian lawyer (they would have two daughters together). He then left Ireland to take up posts at Loyola University, New Orleans (1976–79) and later the University of Queensland, Brisbane (1979–80).
Freyne returned to Dublin in 1980 to become head of the new School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies (renamed the Department of Religions and Theology in 2004 with an expanded curriculum) at TCD (1980–97). The role and department represented a seismic shift for theology in Ireland in general and at TCD in particular in that they were non-denominational, moving the university away from its exclusively Church of Ireland theological past. Also that year, Freyne released his second major work, Galilee, from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 BCE to 135 CE (1980), a book that helped establish him as one of the world's leading experts on second temple Judaism.
Freyne's most admired book was his Jesus, a Jewish Galilean: a new reading of the Jesus-story (2004). This work went further in its exploration of Galilee and how its society in the time of Jesus was shaped, including Hellenic and Roman influences, its ecology and an analysis of the most recent archaeological findings in the region. Freyne then analysed Old Testament texts as Jesus might have read them within the context of this society and considered how they might have influenced his understanding of himself, his place and his mission.
In 1997 Freyne was involved in the opening of the Herzog Centre at TCD, for the study of Jewish and Near Eastern religions and culture in Ireland, and five years later in 2002 he helped establish and became the director of TCD's Centre for Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies. He held a number of visiting lectureships including at the Harvard Divinity School, Massachusetts; the University of Notre Dame, Indiana; Tulane University, New Orleans; St George's College, Jerusalem; Lund University, Sweden; University of Edinburgh; the Canadian Mennonite University, Manitoba; Auckland University, New Zealand and Melbourne School of Divinity.
Freyne was a regular commentator on television, on radio and in the press, often giving a theological perspective on topical issues in Ireland. He was also outspoken in his criticism of the Vatican and papacy in rolling back the modernising project promised by the Second Vatican Council. For example in the 1980s he expressed his concerns about Pope John Paul II's apparent desire to return to more 'traditional' values, citing the conservative influence of then cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger. He wrote of the pope: 'He sees the need to put a brake to many interpretations of Vatican II which he regards as thinly disguised heresy', citing in particular the pope's condemnatory position on the church's involvement in political and social justice issues in Latin America, his rejection of 'artificial birth control in famine-torn Africa', and his 'dismissal of women's claims for a full share of ministry of the church' (Ir. Independent, 4 November 1985). Freyne spoke of the Episcopal Conference in Ireland, and indeed elsewhere, as 'a collection of Vatican civil servants [rather] than pastors with a genuinely independent concern for the real needs of their flock' (Ir. Independent, 7 October 1993). When Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, Freyne compared the Vatican regime under his management to pre-Christian Roman imperialism. On Benedict's evocation of papal infallibility on the issue of women's ordination, Freyne wrote that it 'has given the successor of Peter an aura of divinity that is not dissimilar to the aims of the imperial cult honouring the divine Caesar: the intention, the language and the symbolism are all cut from the same cloth; Roma locuta est, causa finita est (Rome has spoken, the case is closed)' (Ir. Times, 24 April 2012).
Freyne became a fellow and professor emeritus of Trinity upon his retirement. He was a president of the Society for the Study of the New Testament, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Irish Biblical Association, the Irish Theological Association, Catholic Biblical Association of America, American Society of Oriental Research and the European Association for the Study of Judaism. He also served as a trustee of the Chester Beatty Library.
Seán Freyne died from cancer at home in Rathmines, Dublin, on 5 August 2013. Mayo GAA provided a guard of honour for his burial at Culmore cemetery, Kilkelly. Former president, Mary McAleese, paid him this tribute: 'Seán Freyne made an enormous contribution to the world of biblical scholarship and ironically to the kind of scholarship which, had he remained in a catholic theology faculty, he would never have been allowed do because of the impact of enforced orthodoxy. Yet it's precisely that scholarship which is really needed' (Ir. Times, 10 August 2013).
The annual Seán Freyne Memorial Lecture was instigated by the Department of Religions and Theology at TCD in March 2017.