The Rev Professor Peter Ackroyd
Meticulous Old Testament scholar and editor of a series of major commentaries on the Bible
Saturday 19 February 2005
Peter R. Ackroyd left an enduring legacy for English-speaking bible-readers for the enthusiasm and energy with which, shortly after taking up appointment in 1961 as Samuel Davidson Professor of Old Testament Studies at King's College, London, he promoted and edited a series of major commentaries on the Bible. Most prominent were the Old Testament volumes of the
New Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges published between 1961 and 1979 and the
Cambridge History of the Bible (volume 1, 1970), but he published widely in the cause of religious education.
Peter Runham Ackroyd, Old Testament scholar and priest: born Harrow, Middlesex 15 September 1917; ordained minister of the Congregational Church 1940; Minister, Roydon Congregational Church 1943-47; Minister, Balham Congregational Church 1947-48; Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew, Leeds University 1948-52; University Lecturer in Divinity, Cambridge University 1952-61; ordained deacon of the Church of England 1957, priest 1958; Samuel Davidson Professor of Old Testament Studies, London University 1961-82 (Emeritus), Dean, Faculty of Theology 1976-80; Honorary Secretary, Palestine Exploration Fund 1962-70, Chairman 1986-90; Dean, Faculty of Theology, King's College, London 1968-69; President, Society for Old Testament Study 1972; married 1940 Evelyn Nutt (died 1990; two sons, two daughters, and one daughter deceased), 1991 Ann Golden; died Littleport, Cambridgeshire 23 January 2005.
Peter R. Ackroyd left an enduring legacy for English-speaking bible-readers for the enthusiasm and energy with which, shortly after taking up appointment in 1961 as Samuel Davidson Professor of Old Testament Studies at King's College, London, he promoted and edited a series of major commentaries on the Bible. Most prominent were the Old Testament volumes of the New Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges published between 1961 and 1979 and the Cambridge History of the Bible (volume 1, 1970), but he published widely in the cause of religious education.
His Free Church upbringing left him with a strong conviction that the Bible provides a central pathway to spiritual insight which lies at the heart of Christianity. It opens the door to spiritual maturity and freedom, without which religion becomes moribund and dangerous. His Archbishop's Lenten study book, Doors of Perception: a guide to reading the Psalms (1978), expressed this personal concern to use the hard-won insights of modern scholarship, as a means of enriching modern understanding and worship.
Born in 1917, in Harrow, Middlesex, into a family with a strong Dissenting tradition, Ackroyd went up to Downing College, Cambridge, in 1935 to read Modern Languages - an expertise which he was later to put to good use in his biblical research. Turning to theology he took the Bachelor of Divinity (London) in 1940 and proceeded back to Cambridge to undertake research, gaining his doctorate in 1945.
After a period as a pastoral minister (1943-48) he returned to academic life as a lecturer, first at Leeds University, and then at Cambridge from 1952. Here his disenchantment with what he felt to be an over-preoccupation with linguistic and lexicographical issues in the teaching and study of the Old Testament became widely known.
Ever an enthusiast for serious scholarship Ackroyd admired the strong, if sometime over-refined, literary and theological traditions of Germany that had been too long ignored in England. To help remedy this neglect he translated into English Otto Eissfeldt's huge Einleitung in das Alte Testament, acknowledged at the time as the standard text on the subject, as The Old Testament: an introduction (1965). Not only was the translation excellently done, but the 1934 original was improved by updated bibliographies, errors corrected and the whole presented in a most clear and readable fashion. It proved to be an important turning point for a wider international engagement with scholarly biblical research with which the aged Eissfeldt was himself delighted.
In 1961 Peter Ackroyd was appointed the Samuel Davidson Professor of Old Testament Studies at King's College, retaining the post until his retirement in 1982. During this period he edited a wide-ranging series of publications, aimed at making readily accessible the learning and insights about the Bible and its origins which scholarship had gleaned over a period of more than a century. He himself contributed commentaries on several historical biblical books.
Alongside his responsibilities at King's College and London University, he served as Honorary Secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund and, for a number of years, edited their journal. He was a careful and accurate bibliographer, editing the Society for Old Testament Study Book List (1967-73), and elected President of the society in 1972. He also served as their Foreign Secretary for three years from 1986.
His own published contributions were numerous, but it was especially his 1960-62 Cambridge University Hulsean Lectures, published in 1968 as Exile and Restoration: a study of Hebrew thought of the sixth century BC, that broke fresh ground. The period had conventionally been regarded as one of decline from that of the great prophets, but Ackroyd saw it instead as uniquely creative, laying the very foundations of a biblically centred faith. The origins of the Bible lay in the need to maintain religious continuity in an era of political change and upheaval, not dissimilar to the upheavals of post-1945 Europe.
Ackroyd was generous with his time for students and eager to encourage potential authors, and he became a much-sought-after guide and counsellor. He was meticulous in the breadth and accuracy of his bibliographies, although often convoluted in his line of argument. The many contributing writers to the series and volumes that he edited will not forget the firm advice, the prompt reminders of deadlines and the brief postcards in a hard-to-decipher handwriting, which ensured that the work was done. These books established, as he had hoped they would, a bridge between the academic world and the general reader.
Ordained an Anglican priest in 1958, Ackroyd believed passionately that respect for truth, as the scholar saw it, and maturity in the spiritual life belonged together. The Church and the academic world can, and must, continually learn from each other. Among his pupils Desmond Tutu counted himself a profound admirer and learner.
The title of his inaugural lecture at King's College in 1961, "Continuity: a contribution to the study of the Old Testament religious tradition", introduced the theme which shaped the course of his most original research. All religions experience the changes common to human societies, but they counter these upheavals by recording core traditions in stories, poetry and prayers, which build up into systems of belief. These traditions then serve to maintain the continuity between the past and the present.
The Bible was precisely such an agency of continuity, not in itself a creed, but a medium of spiritual identity that enables the present to engage creatively with the past. The Abrahamic tradition of faith reaches down to us through the Hebrew Bible, embracing in its history Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Within this history scholarship opens doors of perception which maintain our continuity with this inheritance.
In various occasional essays and lectures, published as Studies in the Religious Tradition of the Old Testament (1987), Ackroyd explored this theme in several ways, not least by advocating, with admirable foresight, closer attention to the history of biblical interpretation down to modern times.
Never one to rest content, either with his own achievements or those of others, Peter Ackroyd was an inveterate questioner, urging students to rethink their assumptions, pressing preachers to rethink their sermons, and very pertinently pressing scholars to ask where their scholarship was leading. His own churchmanship remained resolute and committed, anxious to hold to central things, with a warm gentleness and tolerance.
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