On Thursday night last, Janet Soskice was all that you want in a philosophical theologian delivering a public lecture which is the story of two Ayrshire Victorian women and their extraordinary contribution to NT textual criticism. In their fifties they visited Mt Sinai Monastery and discovered a palimpsest on which were the faded words of the four Gospels, dating back much earlier than previously known texts, and representing a crucial comparative landmark for textual critics.
My childhood was spent in Ayrshire. One of my side-interests is the history of NT Interpretation. Biography is a favourite genre and an important theological resource in its own right. My own subject fields are theology and history of Christianity, but this was a masterclass in controlled erudition laced with gentle but telling humour. Add to these Soskice's gift for telling a story and building a rounded biographical portrait of these two remarkable women, and the obvious sub-stratum of assiduous research behind this lecture - and it was indeed a very satisfying evening.
Sheila and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I sent an email to say thank you to Dr Soskice for telling this story, and recovering the contribution of two women to NT scholarship. The work of excavating lives like these from a largely male dominated history remains an important form of protest and balance restoration in historiography, and perhaps particularly in the historiography of Church history. Even in the telling of the story of these two women, the academic jealousies of Victorian Cambridge, the in-fighting of male scholars claiming intellectual property rights over their original work, the appearance of Professor William Robertson Smith (one of the greatly wronged scholars in the collision of ideas that accompanied the demise of Victorian Scottish Calvinism thirled to the Westminster Confession) as their sponsor in establishing the importance of their find, all of it a tale of intrigue, amateur versus professional scholarship, and huge stakes. If this story is dramatised for TV it would be rivetting viewing - the book on which the lecture was based is now on sale. It's a dead cert holiday read for Sheila and I. The story of a key episode in NT scholarship that doesn't even get a footnote in the standard histories - unlike Tischendorff, they were women, and they didn't remove the codex - they photographed it onto glass slides and then returned to transcribe it. Oh, and by the way, these Irvine lassies (amateur scholars, indeed!), taught themselves Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Egyptian, Syriac - and the Syriac was mastered in 9 months!