Professor J. Neville Birdsall

Formidably erudite New Testament scholar
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The Independent Online

James Neville Birdsall, theologian: born Leicester 11 March 1928; Lecturer in New Testament Studies, Leeds University 1956-61; Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, in New Testament Studies, Birmingham University 1961-83, Professor in New Testament Studies and Textual Criticism 1983-86 (Emeritus); married 1951 Irene Adams (died 1998; two sons, two daughters); died Darlington 1 July 2005.

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 1739. 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 römischen Welt ("Rise and Fall of the Roman World", xxvi, 1992).

Fortunately, there are many of his articles in learned journals. A collection reprinting some of his most enduring pieces is currently going through the press for the monograph series "Texts and Studies". It is from these that future scholars in the fields of textual criticism, philology and early Christian writings will find much to learn, to inspire them and to build upon. Birdsall set the highest standards for himself and that may explain the relatively slow pace of his publications. He also expected others to do the same. This made him an exacting examiner. For the same reason his regular book reviews were mercilessly critical of those who fell short of such standards.

He was proud of his working-class origins, yet, needlessly, bore a chip on his shoulder about class bias in Britain's academic life which made him wary of colleagues in our older universities. That and his occasional tactlessness and irascibility lost him friends. But, for those prepared to overlook his faults, he was a staunch and warm ally.

His booming, fruity tones made him an instantly recognisable figure at many a scholarly conference. He was happiest and at his most relaxed on occasions such as the annual meetings of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (the international New Testament scholarly society), which he regularly attended. To the one of three he stoppeth he was an engaging raconteur with a rich fund of scurrilous anecdotes.

As a devoted husband and father, whose ideals of the Christian family were deeply held, the loss of his wife, Irene, in 1998 left him bereft. However, despite increasingly poor health he continued his writing and research and lecturing to learned gatherings up to the end.

J. K. Elliott

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