Peter Head (8/06)

Blogger of the Month for August 2006

Jim West Interviews Peter Head

Editorial Note: Peter Head is a member of the team blog at Evangelical Textual Criticism(

JW: Professor Head,

PH: Peter is fine. I’m not a Professor in our currency.

JW: Thank you, first, for being willing to place yourself under the microscope, so to speak, in order to allow our readers some insight into your work and your person.

PH: Well, that is OK. Of course, that may be an insight more than they need. And in any case they’ll need to be suspicious that I’ll only engage in some sort of self promotion.

JW: You, sir, are a Fellow at Tyndale House. Is that correct?

PH: Yes, I am a fellow. Right now, however, I am at home. Also I haven’t up-dated my webpage for a while (sad eh?), so should tell you that I am the Sir Kirby Laing Senior Lecturer in New Testament. This is a joint appointment between Tyndale House and the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge.

JW: What are your duties there?

PH: Well, I have duties in both places. As regards the Faculty I teach New Testament (currently: Acts in the first year, Mark in the second year, Romans in the third year, some textual criticism seminars/lectures, supervising undergraduates and MPhil and PhD dissertations). As regards Tyndale House my duties are to make coffee on Mondays, to help edit the Tyndale Bulletin, and to engage in research and writing.

JW: You are well known as a textual critic; but what is it about textual criticism that engages your interest?

PH: The main thing that engages my interest in textual criticism is the manuscripts of the New Testament. Early on I published a study of ‘Son of God’ in Mark 1.1 and realised the importance of really knowing the manuscript witnesses. Hort had a slogan: ‘knowledge of documents should precede final judgement upon readings’, which I think is very important. My interest in the manuscripts was encouraged in lectures from Ernst Bammel here in Cambridge; and then, after finishing my PhD, in the study of Greek Palaeography with Herwig Maehler, and basically in the study of the manuscripts themselves. I am interested in other aspects of textual criticism, especially its history and the interaction between textual criticism and exegesis, but the manuscripts are the main thing for me.

JW: Why New Testament textual criticism rather than Hebrew Bible?

PH: Good question. I don’t think there is one single answer to this. I never really planned any sort of academic career other than to learn more about the Bible and to teach people who wanted to learn more about the Bible. Doing a PhD on the synoptic problem was really a way of answering some of my own questions about the gospels; once I’d finished that I was teaching New Testament and getting more and more interested in manuscripts. So it was a way of answering even more questions (also of provoking them). Eventually you find an angle of research that you enjoy, that you think makes a contribution to knowledge and the church, and that other people recognised you are reasonably good at/gifted in. It is not the only thing I write on, and in fact I’ll be focusing more on Paul in the next few years, but it is an area I find interesting and important. I did have a stage of wanting to be an Old Testament scholar, but it didn’t last very long.

JW: If you could come into possession of one biblical manuscript, which would it be?

PH: It would be one that has hitherto escaped detection, but which I managed to identify and procure in some heroic and/or intelligent manner. Once I’d published it I’d give it to a proper library to look after, if I kept it in my office it would probably end up either rather coffee stained, or lost to posterity in some pile of papers.

JW: Why?

PH: Because there are a) lots of coffee cups scattered around my office; and b) even more piles of papers in various states of organisation.

JW: Your fascinating book, Christology and the Synoptic Problem, came out some years ago.

PH: “Fascinating” – who are you trying to kid? You obviously haven’t read it! Mind you, it has recently been re-issued in paperback.

JW: Have you changed your mind in any significant way having long sent it to the publisher or do you find yourself in essential agreement with your former self?

PH: Hmmmmm. First can I say that I don’t think of this book as the product of my ‘former self’, it really was me, just a few years ago. I am not in the business of reinventing myself every few years. [I was going to add: ‘I am not American.’ then but fortunately restrained myself from such an alienating generalisation.] [Oh, sorry, everyone will know now, where is that delete key when you need it?] Secondly, I think the book was basically good, and the reviewers have all been positive. There are plenty of details I might quibble with now but I think that the basic argument remains sound. There is a kind of artificiality involved in the way the method is constructed, which is inevitable for a PhD, but which I would probably not go in for if I was writing on this subject now. There is also a basic attempt at even-handedness which I would be tempted to abandon if I were to write on the subject again.

JW: Now if I might, I would like to ask you some questions about your group blog, Evangelical Textual Criticism.

PH: Yes, excellent. It is all great fun. I should say that I am a member of the group blog rather than its owner. My good friend and former colleague Pete Williams was the catalyst in getting it started and remains the Blogmeister. I had previously started my own blog (NTText) and posted a series of entertaining and informative blogs before running out of steam after one week. The idea of a group blog on a fairly well focussed subject with a contributing team seemed to be worth exploring and I joined in readily. It provides space to try things out, to hear arguments from different points of view, to communicate research activity in non-traditional ways. So far so good. With a group blog you only need to post every now and then, others will post things and I can make comments. I suppose I am kind of sporadic rather than systematic on this front. Also textual critics can be pretty serious types of people so I have a ministry of attempting to introduce some humour into the blog occasionally. Sorry, what was the question?

JW: Doubtless everyone knows (or shortly will) what textual criticism is; but would you mind defining, in your own terms, your understanding of “Evangelical”?

PH: I would mind actually. I don’t see that there is any point in having my own personal definition of a word. Life is not Humpty Dumpty. We are not using the term in any idiosyncratic manner (check a dictionary). OK rant over. We use the word in two ways: first as a noun about the bloggers themselves: “The membership of this blog is made up of evangelicals involved in academic study of textual criticism.” In this sense an evangelical may be defined as a member ‘of a branch of Protestant Christianity emphasizing the authority of Scripture, personal conversion, and the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atonement’ (Concise Oxford: this last phrase should probably be fleshed out a bit better so that it doesn’t sound so much like a badly punctuated Rom 3.24).

Secondly we use it as an adjective in terms of the subject matters discussed on the blog: “This is a forum for people with knowledge of the Bible in its original languages to discuss its manuscripts and textual history from the perspective of historic evangelical theology.” We further define ‘historic evangelical theology’ by reference to ‘classic evangelical statements of faith, e.g. 39 Articles, Westminster Confession’.

Perhaps I should also add that the blog team consists of people from a wide variety of settings (including Australia) and working in a wide variety of countries including England, Scotland, Belgium, Sweden, Israel, and North America. We thus represent a diverse experience of ‘evangelicalism’, we come from diverse church confessional settings and we like to get together (virtually) to talk about textual criticism.

JW: How does that word affect (or perhaps influence) textual criticism?

PH: The concept influences textual criticism in thirty-seven different ways, not all of which can be listed here. Let me mention three. First, being ‘evangelical’ helps put textual criticism in perspective in relation to the centrality of the ‘evangel’, ‘the good news of Jesus Christ’ in Scripture, life, the church and the world. No evangelical textual critic (even desperately nerdy and pedantic ones like me) can ever think that textual criticism is the most important thing in life. Having said that I would say two more things: secondly, since evangelicals emphasise the authority of Scripture they ought to be more careful readers and students of Scripture; textual critics are there to help people become ever more attentive readers of Scripture. Thirdly, textual critics can help bridge the gap (gaping chasm?) between Scripture as it really was then (i.e. actual individual physical manuscripts in diverse languages) and Scripture as it mostly is experienced by Christians today. There are thirty-four more things I could say here. Perhaps I should also say that we have debated several times on the blog whether holding to a particular doctrine of Scripture commits you beforehand to any particular ideas, methods or results concerning NT textual criticism. My feeling is that it doesn’t, but that may just be because I’ve not yet found a Van Tilian approach to NT textual criticism.

JW: How does that word affect (or perhaps inform) your own biblical interpretation?

PH: There is not really time for me to defend a nuanced view of things right now so let me just say that obviously if you are evangelical that means you can understand the Bible correctly all the time. To me that is the key to biblical interpretation. Then comes telling everyone else what to think about the Bible. Finally we have to ignore whatever anyone else finds in Scripture (especially ‘liberals’ in the West and uneducated Christians in the third-world).

JW: Changing gears again, what kind of influence do you think “blogging” has on academic biblical scholarship; and, what kind of influence do you see biblical scholarship exerting on “biblioblogging”.

PH: I should say I don’t see myself as any sort of expert in blogging. I browse around, sometimes leaving comments, mostly not. I think the internet generally is having an influence on academic biblical scholarship and “blogging” is part of that, but probably a smaller part than the presence of on-line articles, bibliographies, databases, maps, pictures and up-to-date news. Blogging can help to disseminate ideas or news of discoveries or publications more quickly than before. But it tends to superficiality and the defending of entrenched/predictable positions. I like to hear news from conferences, summaries and responses of articles or talks, book reviews etc. Pretty much all academics now make some attempt at a web presence, but not many are blogging (or commenting). Perhaps some are reading some blogs, I don’t know. Even those who are blogging regularly tend to be a little guarded on current research projects, waiting until their ideas are more fully developed before releasing them to the waiting world.

JW: Do you see “biblioblogging” as a fad, or do you think it has something of permanence about it?

PH: Definitely a fad. Anybody can see that (consider how often some people change their page layout!). The primary advantage of a blog is the speed and accessibility of publication. But that sense of immediacy is itself definitely faddish — it is an aspect of contemporary Western culture just like our 3 minute attention span. Quickly expressed thoughts do not generally lead to wisdom. And the cultivation of wisdom is what intellectual work is all about. Blogs aren’t self-evidently therefore necessarily bad, just as it is not necessarily bad to give 100 seminarians an outlet for their half-baked ideas. But I personally don’t think that we’ll want to read them again in five years time (unlike a good book). Another thing we need to recognise is that blogs are basically a marketing exercise — the blog enables marketing of the person behind it and/or their products. This can be overt (blogger advertises his own books and recommends them) or covert (blogger is seen to be clever or up-to-date), but seems to me to be basically universal. Even these interviews are really an aspect of self-promotion (which of course I am not able to completely subvert).

At the same time blogs can educate, they can provide a forum in which one can express ideas and engage in a new type of conversation. Blogging conversation partners can help identify and cultivate those ideas which may warrant some longer-term (if not ‘permanent’) form of expression. Blog conversations can create and nurture supportive and critical relationships which can be both virtual and real. (Blog conversations can also be destructive, deceptive, manipulative and even a little addictive but lets not go into these right now, this interview is already overdue).

JW: Finally, one more change of gears; what curious fact about yourself would you like to share with our readers? Or, in other words, what are your hobbies and interests outside biblical studies.

PH: Curious facts are not the same as hobbies. Also any curious facts that I select ought to be balanced by some from other people who know me. I certainly won’t tell you the really curious things about me. So, lets see. While a PhD student I was a member of ‘The eschatological sausage and apocalyptic jelly-bean society’ in the University of Cambridge. Later on I was an inaugural fellow of the Chelmsford Paul Seminar and attended every meeting. Sometimes I have used false names in email discussion lists and blog comments. None of these are illegal in the state of Iowa.

JW: Professor, thank you so much for sharing your time, and thoughts, with us.

PH: Yeah well, that is fine. Hang on, someone is at the door. ‘Hi guys, what’s with the white jackets?’ ‘Hey, you are putting that thing on backwards!’ Just let me press send.

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