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Welcome to my website. (Neither this photo nor the next is of me. This one is of the emperor Antoninus, called Pius, on a good day. The second is modern Jerusalem's Damascus Gate.)

My current job title is 'Kirby Laing Chair in New Testament Exegesis' at the University of Aberdeen. 'Exegesis' is a quaint word that means essentially
interpretation. There are many different ways of interpreting the texts that ended up in the famous collection of twenty-seven that has been recognized since the fourth century as the novum testamentum: the 'New Covenant' or New Testament. Some interpreters are interested primarily in the relationship between these texts and the Church traditions or theological structures that grew from them. Others investigate the NT as literature, or as a collection of religious expressions. My approach begins with the observation that these are ancient texts, written in Greek by people who wished to communicate with others in a world that has long since disappeared. They did not write for us in the twenty-first century -- or surely they would have been considerate enough to write in English and refer to places and customs that we knew.

Communication requires an awareness of the expected audience's prior knowledge, values, and assumptions. We never write or speak publicly without thinking about such things. Much of this figuring may be unconscious, however: we talk about the recession, parliament, television, and football without thinking much, because everyone should know what those words mean. In other cases, we must calibrate our language. Lecturers are often surprised when they use their favourite illustration of some point, from a film or TV series in the early 1990s, only to realize that their 18-year-old students were not yet born when the show was running, and so of course they don't get the intended analogy.
If we are to understand what the early Christian authors meant and thought when they wrote to their contemporaries, we need first to understand the language in which they wrote. Much more, we should learn as much as we can about how they and their contemporaries thought, how they viewed the world. Although they were fully human beings like us, and what is common to all human life has not changed since their times, how we live in society has changed beyond recognition. The most basic ways in which we understand our world -- whether in terms of the map mentality and scientific assumptions we learn in school or the social, political, and economic axioms ingrained since the Enlightenment and the two world wars -- could have not have been recognized by our ancient forebears. By the same token, their views of the world are not self-evident to us. We can only find them through relentless digging. Reading the early Christian texts historically requires us to spend as much time looking away from them, to the world from which they emerged, as studying them intently.
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Ancient history is an exhilarating ride. But it is thrilling because it is not about learning supposed facts. Where could such facts be found? The ancient past is long gone. Historians try to reconstruct that past in our minds, in light of the evidence (literary and material) that has survived. Second, history never gets old. Because it is a process of disciplined investigation (into the human past), and not the past itself, history is new every day. We may pose any problems that interest us and pursue them as far as we can. Most issues will never be settled with confidence, unless a great deal of evidence is found, but in this field the journey is the destination. Third, this in turn means that we cannot do history if we come to it with prior commitments about the thing that we plan to investigate. This is a particular hazard in areas of history relating to matters of personal belief or social tradition -- in politics or religion, say.


If you are interested in attending a UK university to study the earliest Christian texts in a historical way, if you would like to balance your looking at those texts by looking away from them to other contemporary writers (Jewish, Greek, and Roman) and by exploring problems in the general history of the eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule, please contact me. At the undergraduate level, my colleagues and I offer a balanced range of essential courses. At the postgraduate level we offer a taught Master's degree and, for those with the required preparation, a doctorate based on independent research.
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