OBITUARY: PROFESSOR J. NEVILLE BIRDSALL ; Formidably Erudite New Testament Scholar

By J. K. Elliott | The Independent (London, England), August 16, 2005 | Go to article overview
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OBITUARY: PROFESSOR J. NEVILLE BIRDSALL ; Formidably Erudite New Testament Scholar


J. K. Elliott, The Independent (London, England)


J. Neville Birdsall, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies at Birmingham University, was a distinctive and learned biblical scholar. His research interests were in the Eastern church fathers and in the textual history of the New Testament. He was a formidably erudite expert in biblical manuscripts, palaeography and codicology. Within those already rarefied specialisms, he was known for his work on the early Georgian versions of the scriptures. His academic home was in the Caucasus and in Byzantium.

Birdsall's interest in the fundamental and exacting discipline of textual criticism was encouraged first when he was an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was a pupil of Robert Casey, but it came to fruition with the PhD thesis he wrote for Nottingham University in 1959 on the importance of a manuscript of Paul's letters known to New Testament scholarship as cursive. That dissertation was never published, but offshoots from it emerged in several of his subsequent writings, and the work is regularly referred to by researchers in the field.

He served the Baptist ministry for several years before he took up academic appointments first at Leeds University (in 1956) and then at Birmingham (in 1961), where he was to remain for 25 years. Three years before his early retirement in 1986, he was awarded a chair in New Testament Studies and Textual Criticism.

For three years in the mid-1970s, Birdsall was seconded from duties in Birmingham thanks to a British Academy award in order to produce a thesaurus of textual variants in Luke's Gospel. The academy's criticisms of Birdsall's failure to deliver on time caused him to resign from the project. It fell to me to complete the work, which OUP published in two volumes in 1984 and 1987, but the standards set for this enterprise and the groundwork done were Birdsall's.

Regrettably, Birdsall never produced a book-sized work, but two meticulously detailed and elegantly crafted essays stand as monuments to his scholarship. One is his lucid and wide-ranging study 'The New Testament Text' for the first volume of the Cambridge History of the Bible (1970); the other is his thorough and readable history of New Testament textual criticism from 1881 to the present in the German encyclopaedic series Aufstieg und Niedergang der rmischen Welt ('Rise and Fall of the Roman World', xxvi, 1992).

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