We all have our idiosyncracies. From food preferences to the clothes we wear, from the TV programmes that do it for us, to those that we have never watched - and could conceive of no circumstances that might persuade us ever to watch them. Idiosyncracies make our world an interesting, colourful diverse and exciting place to be. It's those infinitely variable human differences that make us who we are, those personal interests and odd enthusiasms, that story that is only and can only be ours, and that only we can tell, the characteristics and quirks that give us our individiuality, uniqueness and definition as the specific, different person we are.
So if I say I am fascinated by the history of New Testament research, I am referring to one of my idiosyncracies. An enthusiasm limited in its clientele, a minority interest group even in the rarefied world of New Testament scholarship, but for me one of the most exciting areas of study I've lived in for decades. It goes back to one book; The History of the Interpretation of the New Testament, by Stepehn Neil. I spent a summer holiday in 1984 reading that book from cover to cover along with Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October and the biography of Temple Gairdner of Cairo. Who he? That will be another post.
Stephen Neil's book reads like a novel, a biography and a history all in one. It was updated in a Second Edition by N T Wright, and now covers the history of New Testament scholarship up to 1986. Recently a mammoth 3 volume History of New Testament Research from the 18th to the end of the 20th Century was completed by William Baird, and I've just started to read it. Baird is yet another example of scholars who go to heroic lengths in their quest for understanding of the text, and the history, interpretation, reception and influence of the New Testament over 2000 years of reflection, study, understanding and misunderstanding. These volumes trace the fascinating mixture of literary detective work, historical synthesis, biography, textual analysis, academic politics, and colliding theological presuppositions, philosophical assumptions and scientific theorising of around 300 years of intense study. All to make sense of 28 documents the length of a medium sized paperback, written around 2000 years ago by a variety of people and communities of no great moment then, but of vast significance for subsequent human history.
If you want to know what's so fascinating about this stuff let me recommend Sisters of Sinai, by Janet Martin Soskice as a good place to start. It tells of two sisters from Kilbarchan ( In Victorian times a wee Scottish village with weaving mills) who had ambitions to learn and travel. They visited Mount Sinai monastery, discovered ancient New Testament manuscripts and codices, learned several Oriental languages in order to translate them, and contributed significantly to the science of textual criticism and the search for the earliest witnesses to the biblical text.In doing all this they had to take on the male bastions of academia who had little patience and less respect for the accomplishments of these women.
How scholars establish the reliability of the text of the New testament is a mixture of tedium and inspiration, it requires disciplined sifting of textual minutiae and instinctive genius for language, demands a scrupulous weighing evidence and imaginative but historically plausible reconstructing of context and provenance. During this period of Lent when I'm thinking about words, how they are used, the search for a responsible stewardship of words, and why we should care for words like conservators and curators of meaning. I reflect on the countless scholars, the millions of hours of study, the adventures and the heartache, the passion of the quest and the disciplines of intellectual integrity and humility before a text that no scholar can own, possess or control. And I'm grateful for such holy industry. At least in this sense, of careful attention to words that are life changing, Lent is a time to re-read the New Testament, wth a care for what it says.