The last 10 years has seen one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars finish his biggest project to date.
The “For Everyone” series has proved popular with both clergy and lay people - something Tom wasn’t expecting.
“They were originally designed as guides to the New Testament for people who would never normally buy or look at a Biblical commentary. That’s why there isn’t a bibliography, any footnotes or technical introductions. It’s designed to be as user friendly as possible. It can be used for confirmation candidates or the old lady in the back pew who has never read a book about the Bible before. But it became quite clear early on that quite a lot of clergy were using them to help with sermon preparation.”
The commentaries break each book of the New Testament into sections of between five and ten verses. Each section begins with Tom’s translation, before moving on to the commentary- which normally includes a story to illustrate the meaning of the text. Many have praised the books for their usefulness as a devotional as well as study tool.
Did Tom find some of the books easier to write than others? “It’s an interesting question”, he says. “The gospels are hard because there’s so much going on at every point and one is aware, writing on Mark, of Matthew’s version of that story. There’s a multidimensionality about saying anything about the gospels, which does make it tricky. The easiest ones were the little Pauline letters, because I’ve studied and taught those many times. It was as though I just had to fall out of bed, look at the next passage and think ‘oh yes, fine’, and off we go.”
The decision to include Tom’s own translation of the original Greek came about after discussions with his publisher SPCK.
“We decided early on that we did not want to start putting in comments like ‘unfortunately the NRSV doesn’t quite get it right, what we should have is such and such’ or ‘pity that once again the NIV lets us down, what Paul really meant was this and that’. Those sort of comments would put off the old lady in the back pew who faced with that would think ‘I’m never going to understand that because they can’t decide between themselves.’
“We thought about which translation to use and I forget if I said it or the publishers suggested it, but one of us said: ‘What if you do your own translation then you won’t have to comment on where the others have got it wrong’. I thought: ‘Oh my goodness, that’s a challenge’. But I thoroughly enjoyed doing it, it was a very stimulating thing to have to do.”
The former Bishop of Durham has authored over 50 books and studied a wide range of subjects, receiving his Doctorate in Philosophy from Merton College, Oxford in 1981. Having studied the Bible for most of his life wasTom collating years of study into each book, or learning as he went along?
“A bit of both. I’ve spent much of my adult life studying and teaching the four gospels, Paul and a bit of Hebrews. That’s two thirds of the New Testament. They were trying to make accessible in popular format, things that I’d already worked through in some detail. Inevitably, when you do that it’s always been my experience that you do learn new things as well which is a little confusing. You think ‘I know what I want to say about this’, but as you’re writing a new paragraph, it draws a new thought out of you which is quite exciting. “
“I’d never taught a sustained course right the way through Acts. I obviously know it quite well but doing that was wonderful, I thoroughly enjoyed getting into it. I sat there with some of the key contemporary commentaries and just ploughed through. I came out thinking I’ve learnt a huge amount and I hope I’ve been able to communicate that.
Many would think that after such an arduous task, now would be the time for sitting back and celebrating. But Tom says he’s not the kind of person to sit back, though he is pleased to reflect on his journey. “It’s a very odd feeling. When I started out on this 10 years ago, I used the image that it’s like trying to row single handedly across the Atlantic and even after I’d done the first one or two [books], I thought ‘I haven’t passed Ireland and there’s still a long way to go!’ There were many times when I thought ‘I’m just rowing and rowing and rowing here, there’s still a long way to go’. But it’s a great sense to have done it.”
February 6th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes