ROBBIE LOW: the interview

Carsten Thiede

THE ANNUAL CONFERENCE of the Prayer Book Society was about to begin. This year's gathering was at the London Bible College and therefore well within my reach. As usual there was a first class menu of speakers to encourage and nourish dedicated Prayer Book devotees like me, in addition to stimulating company, sound victuals and good grog - all expertly organised under the irrepressible and dedicated hand of Tony Kilmister, the society's much loved chairman.

Having committed our brood to a sympathetic member of the congregation's care, Sara and I set off for dinner and the first lecture on the Friday night. Over the pre-prandials we were introduced to the former Provost of Blackburn, Lawrence Jackson, who has a justifiable reputation as one of the best after dinner speakers on the circuit. Fr. Jackson did not disappoint. Dressed in mufti he was sporting a tie bearing the legend "Bull Power!"

Was this, I wondered the ultimate accolade of the College of Preachers? Apparently not. He had been awarded it for his rhetorical services to the Annual Convention of the Artificial Insemination Industry!

Over dinner we met Professor Carsten Thiede. (Why is it that the English, so hopeless at foreign languages themselves, always assume that they will only be understood if they increase the volume, slow the pace, painfully enunciate each word and assume that they will be understood by the poor benighted foreigner only if they treat them like a melange of profoundly deaf, geriatric and simpleton? As usual, of course, our continental cousin turned out to speak considerably better English than the natives and was comfortably conversing in concepts that made all of us get our intellectual roller-skates on simply to keep up.)

Together we went on to hear the first lecture by the scourge of American liberal theology, the Revd. Dr. Peter Toon. As Toon outlined, very matter of factly and unhysterically, the current state of ECUSA (The Episcopal Church of the United States) there were gasps near me at the undreamed of decadence and corruption. A lady on my right said simply, "This is a different religion." Tragically she is quite right but, as Toon warned, just as ruthlessly as it has high jacked the American church, it has, more discreetly but none the less surely, highjacked large areas of our own.

And then on to Thiede.

Of course, comparative literature, classical history and papyrology are not the stuff of which headlines are made. Well, not normally anyway. Well, not normally anyway. But Thiede's research has made headlines round the world. His controversial book on three tiny scraps of papyrus has the potential to revolutionise the whole field of New Testament scholarship. With that in mind, I managed to sit down late into the night, chez Kilmister, and get an interview. Curiously enough our time together began by listening to the radio for, by an extraordinary coincidence, he was the voice on night prayer that very evening.

Devotions safely completed we settled into comfortable chairs (me, a martyr to migraine, clutching a steaming cup of tea like some refugee from the Band of Hope and eyeing Thiede, who had been granted a free run on mine host's excellent malt, with that mixture of disapproval and envy that is the hallmark of the unwilling puritan). Thiede is a big, bright, affable Berliner in his mid 40's with a shock of silver hair and moustache, a gentle clear voice, an alert physical presence and a very sharp mind.

His work came to world prominence at Christmas 1994 when, from relative obscurity, The Times made his research their front page news - to the fury and distress of liberal scholars. More of this later. As might have been predictable, with his specialities, it was some time before we got on to personal matters. I made the glorious mistake of commenting on the embarrassing English failure in languages.

What do you make of this inadequacy?

"Only a quarter of the political and civil servants in the E.U. speak more than one language. In antiquity this just wouldn't have happened. Greek and Latin were a minimum. Languages were not a privilege of the upper classes. The disciples could speak Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek - pickled fish from Galilee were sold in Rome - you had to be conversant with the language of trade and empire as well as your own. This linguistic ability was very important for the progress of the gospel."

Before I know it we are deep in the Epistle of Diognetus and the works of Clement of Alexandria as well as Paul's use of the Greek philosophers at the Areopagus. I volunteered the lame secular example of last year's holiday in a Turkish seaport. The man in the leather jacket shop spoke fluently to seven successive different nationalities entering his shop! It wouldn't happen in Britain. Thiede is affirming of my little contribution:

"Exactly. He is in a marketplace. He must speak to his customers. Christianity faced a bewildering variety of cults and superstitions, languages and cultures. Christians had to offer their "produce" in the marketplace of ideas.

Its use of the culture and language combined the heritage of Greek philosophy and Judeo Christian faith into the foundation of European civilisation. I was fascinated to see that, as much of Europe chooses to forget this origin, the German government issued an official book explaining these roots."

Are you from a christian family?

"Yes. My brother and I were brought up in West Berlin in a traditional Christian family - occasional rather than regular church-goers; but we were encouraged to follow our interest. My father was a civil servant, vice-director of a federal agency dealing with the debts of the old Reich to other nations. Russia and East Germany did not recognise federal agencies so he was a non-person. He could only leave Berlin by air - we could go on holiday by train and meet him there!

My mother was chief secretary with an industrial firm but gave it up when she had children."

What were you good at in school?

"Literature, history and languages - Latin first, then Greek. I loved sport especially hockey and volleyball"

Thiede played volleyball in the national league and later for Geneva and Oxford and only gave it up when the demands of hours of practice a day could not be contained with full time research and family life in the same 24 hour units. It is an extraordinary contrast in temperament, one would have thought, between the minute and microscopic research of the papyrologist and the huge roaring energy of the spike and slam of the volleyball court.

How did you come to faith?

"Gradually. In my last year of university friends saw I was half committed and challenged me. It continued to develop from there with what I would call moments of knowing. Of course I started in the Lutheran tradition - the United church. This was really brought into being by the Prussian King Frederick III who, tired of Calvinist and Lutheran arguments, banged their heads together to make one church. As always in Germany revolution comes from above. But for me there was something missing in the worship and it was only when I came to England and encountered traditional Anglican worship that I knew what it was."

The experiences at the Queens' College chapel and St Aldate's in Oxford, Holy Trinity in Geneva and wherever he could find Anglican worship have resulted in Thiede being an enthusiastic member of the Prayer Book Society, an Anglican reader and a minister to the British Army base at Paderborn, where he now lives!

How did you come to England?

"My father was Chairman of the Grammar School in Berlin and he renewed contacts with former Jewish pupils that he had helped escape from Nazism. One who had become a G.P. in London had me over for a month's stay with his family."

And your studies?

"I studied Comparative Literature in Berlin, some classical history, and improved my French and English. All these combined to help me in the study of the chain of tradition from antiquity to modern literature. I became interested in medieval Latin philology because it covered the period when the hand-written papyrus ends and paper started coming into its own and, eventually, printing.

All these areas that started as curiosity have played their part in the subsequent study of early papyri"

In 1976 Thiede came to Oxford to do post graduate research.

Why Oxford?

Queens had a remarkable Jewish scholar S.S. Prawer - Professor of German Literature and a comparative literature expert. Also there at that time were Professor George Kilpatrick, a great New Testament scholar, and Edgar Lobel, one of the greatest papyrologists and I got interested in New Testament papyri and their world."

After Oxford?

Geneva in 1978 as Senior Lecturer in comparative literature. I was very fortunate. Not only was George Steiner there but also two great scholars in French and German comparative".

Thiede was chosen for this job from 200 keen applicants and relished the task and opportunity. However he never lost touch with Oxford, going back there once a term to keep up with old friends. On one of these return visits he got an invite to a family home of a friend and returned to stay for successive trips. Just as well really for, on his fourth visit, the daughter he was to marry, Frances, came home from her work at the Ministry of Agriculture in London.

Did you know this was it?

"I think I saw it coming at the first meeting and, apparently, her brother said to her, "You won't fall for him will you?"

Trips to London and Geneva culminated in an Easter Day engagement and, a year later, the wedding in the Buckinghamshire parish of Monks Risborough in 1982.

Was your wife a Christian?

"Very committed and that drew me closer to the Church of England. I moved to London then because she was following her career and I could work there. I was writing books, producing the odd T.V. programme and doing some work for the Institute of German Studies."

How did you become a reader?

"We were worshipping at St Margaret's, Roehampton and the Vicar asked me if I would do it. So I trained and was licensed in 1984. The best training was with the Vicar, Donald Reece, and his readers and they remain good friends."

What books were you writing?

"The Oldest Gospel Manuscript" came later but at that time, "Simon Peter from Galilee to Rome," and "Jesus, Life and Legend" plus a lot of small publications and papers."

Thiede has written some eight or nine books but international fame came before he could even write the most sensational ("The Jesus Papyrus'" 1996 Weidenfeld and Nicholson £16.99).

How did you get to Paderborn?

"Well I did some academic work at Geissen and then helped establish a Christian Media Academy at Wetzlar - preparing people for writing and producing for T.V. and then onto Wuppertal as senior academic editor to a publisher. Then in the early 90s Paderborn appointed me Director of Basic Epistemological research"

In the midst of all this their three children were born - Miriam, Emily and Frederick.

Paderborn is a garrison town with about 14,000 Brits and in 1992 I was relicensed as reader to the Forces and now do a fair bit of pastoral work. It's serious and interesting and I feel very at home."

And then in 1994 international fame?

"Yes. It was something of a surprise as I was not even publishing the results of my research yet."

The fame came on Christmas Eve. "The Times" newspaper had got wind of Thiede's research and held the front page. Instead of the regular festival diet of headlines like "Bishop denies Virgin Birth" - orthodox Christians were greeted by the main story of considerable encouragement. Put briefly, Thiede's work on three tiny pieces of ancient gospel papyrus discovered in Upper Egypt in 1901 and preserved in Magdalen College, Oxford was about to cause an explosion in New Testament scholarship. Using all the skills at his command Thiede was claiming these fragments to be the oldest living gospel text, written in the 60s AD.

The implications of this were extraordinary for, contrary to liberal scholars assertions of late dates, wisdom after the event and other authors writing the gospels, this would put the gospels right back into the hands of the community that knew Jesus' earthly ministry.

How has your research been received?

"By classicists, papyrologists, historians and philologists it has, on the whole, been received very well. Many of them have tremendous skills which have for too long been excluded from the study of the ancient scriptural texts.

The main objections, with honourable exceptions, have come from theologians. This research and its implications undermine much of what has been taught and thought in theological faculties in this century."

It is, perhaps, difficult for a layman to understand why this should be. Those who have theological training will know that the theological faculties have long been dominated by scholars whose presuppositions have been wholly at odds with the witness of the early church. And woe betide any one who argues with these scholars. My old tutor, the late John Robinson, was the darling of the radicals for his "Honest to God". However, in later life, when he published a deeply conservative work on John's Gospel, he immediately became a non-person in the academic world of liberal theology.

The assumption that Matthew's Gospel was written late, after the events Jesus was supposed to have prophesied therein and was a construct of a second generation faith community would be wholly blown out of the water by Thiede's research.

Three scraps of papyrus may turn out to be the writing on the wall for a whole industry of liberal, agnostic and atheist theologians and one should never expect vested interests to go quietly.

You have also pioneered advanced scientific techniques?

"Yes. George Masuch, Professor of Biology at Paderborn was showing me how his latest microscope can "dissect" a dust mite. Well if it can do that to organic material why not papyrus or leather? So we borrowed some "useless" (i.e you can't see anything on them) papyri from Jena and tried them. Ordinary or ultra violet light scopes showed nothing. The epifluorescent showed traces of ink. So we went off to Leica and asked their help in developing a laser model.

The results were amazing. Not only did the scope reveal (and allow to be photographed) between 20 and 90 layers of papyrus but gave the depth of ink and, where no ink remained, the impress of the letters in 3D revealing the text and the style of scribal hands. It also revealed the extent of fungal erosion in terrifying detail. The technique will allow individual letter reconstruction and damage detection. The Israelis have already shown interest for the Dead Sea Scrolls."

There is little doubt that, whatever the final verdict on the Magdalen papyrus, Thiede's research and employment of many related disciplines allied to scientific technique makes papyrology the new frontier of New Testament enquiry. It will also require a root and branch review of the theological faculties of Western Europe over the next twenty years. The great irony is that the long reign of German dominated liberal academic theology may be coming to an end at the hands of a painstaking and pastoral orthodox German scientist, linguist and humble Anglican reader.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's.

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