Face to face: Harold W. Attridge
Volume 24, Issue 7
Words and Picture Fiona Basile
Each year, Catholic Theological College, together with MCD University of Divinity, hosts the Knox Public Lecture. This year, the lecturer hails from Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, USA.
Professor Harold W. Attridge is a former dean of Yale University Divinity School (2002–12), and is now Sterling Professor of Divinity. He is on sabbatical in Melbourne as Visiting Research Scholar to the MCD University of Divinity.
He is an author and editor of several publications and translations, and has served on the editorial boards of journals including the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Journal of Biblical Literature, the Harvard Theological Review, and Novum Testamentum. He will be discussing the Dogmatic Constitution of Vatican II, Dei Verbum, and its relationship to contemporary Catholic biblical scholarship in his Knox lecture.
Professor Attridge is married to Janis. They have two children and three grandchildren.
What is your educational background?
I was educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame du Namur, the Xaverian Brothers, and the Jesuits, graduating from Boston College in 1967. I then spent two years at Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar before attending Harvard University, where I took my PhD in the study of the origins of Christianity.
After post-doctoral study as a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, I held academic appointments at Southern Methodist University (1977-85), where I was the first Catholic on the Faculty of Perkins School of Theology, at the University of Notre Dame (1985-97), and, since 1997, at Yale University Divinity School. I have also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame, and as Dean of Yale Divinity School, where I was the first Catholic to hold that position for more than an interim period. I currently hold the title of Sterling Professor of Divinity.
Tell us about your research.
My research has dealt with a range of issues connected with the environment of early Christianity, the New Testament, and the history of the early Church. My doctoral dissertation studied Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the last quarter of the first century, after the disastrous revolt of the Jews against Rome. The dissertation explored how Josephus adapted the conventions of Greek historiography to tell the story of his people to the wider world.
I was involved in the publication of some of the major manuscript discoveries of the past half-century, particularly Coptic texts from the Nag Hammadi Library. My work on that collection included an edition of the Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, the Coptic version of which was found at Nag Hammadi. I also produced editions, translations, and commentary on the Gospel of Truth and the Tripartite Tractate. Both of those works, dating from the second or third century AD, were written in Greek by theologians of the school of Valentinus, who, according to Patristic sources, was a candidate for bishop of Rome in the middle of the second century. His students played a major role in the ‘Gnostic’ controversies of the second and third centuries; they were eventually deemed to be heretical.
What are some of your other interests?
These include Jewish literature written in Greek during the Second Temple period, the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius, and Christian apocryphal literature. My work in that area has included a translation of the third-century Acts of Thomas, studies of that text and of the Acts of John. Both of those acts date from the second or third century and record legends of the Apostles’ missionary activities.
Tell us about your writing.
Within the New Testament, I have published a major commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, exploring the literary and theological contribution of what may be the most sophisticated literary product of first-century Christianity. That epistle, really a homily about the significance of Christ’s death, contributed to the Church the image of Jesus as the Great High Priest, whose death was a unique sacrifice establishing a new and eternal covenant with people of faith.
I have also written extensively on the Gospel of John. My current research probes the ways in which an apparently simple narrative conveys a complex theology, through its subtle use of symbolism and sophisticated narrative devices.
What have you been working on while in Melbourne?
As a Visiting Scholar at the MCD University of Divinity, I have been at work on a new commentary on the Gospel of John, in which I hope that my work in the larger arena of early Christian literature will help shed new light on the Gospel’s richness.
2013 Knox Public Lecture - "Dei Verbum Today: Reading the Bible in the Twenty-first Century."