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Interview: Hugh Williamson, Hebrew scholar

19 June 2015

'I am appalled at how ignorant most churchgoers are about the Old Testament'

The OBE citation in the New Year Honours list was for contributions to scholarship and theology. I've done lots of administrative-type work for scholarship over the years, nationally as well as for the University of Oxford, as a vice-president of the British Academy.


I chaired the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society for 19 years, and twice chaired research-assessment exercises for funding, which are very significant for universities. I chaired the Middle Eastern and African Studies panel, and did various jobs like that. I was vice-chairman of the governors of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies for many years, linking it together with the university.


I was the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University, one of the oldest chairs in Oxford. I liked teaching best, supervising doctoral students, and research - and also just being with wonderful colleagues, who were also friends. I hated examining.


I retired at the end of September last year, but I'm still working at home, and still have a few doctoral students.


The Bishop gives me permission to take services of the word - matins, evensong, family services, and all that - in Southwold, in Suffolk. I preach about twice a month, and get invited to preach in other churches, including Free churches at other times. And I'm secretary of the PCC.


When I was in Cambridge, we worshipped in a Free church. I can't hack the C of E's line on baptism and confirmation; so I didn't think it was right to be ordained or become a Reader.


Of course, being an academic biblical scholar makes a big difference to my preaching, and sometimes I may say things which the congregation have not thought about before; but if there is a good pastoral relationship in the first place, they're generally prepared to give me a hearing.


I read theology as an undergraduate, just for fun. But I got hooked by the Old Testament and its languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, and was fortunate that a job teaching them became available in the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Cambridge, just as I was finishing my doctorate. So I specialise in Hebrew language, literature, and history of the 1000 years BC.


I am appalled at how ignorant most churchgoers are about the Old Testament. All the things that follow from the fact that God is creator - like birth, marriage, illness, death, agriculture and other forms of work, social relations, and so on - are all central there, but hardly touched on in the New Testament. If we as Christians believe in the principle of the incarnation - God made flesh - then we need the Old Testament to be at the top of our agenda.


In university life, the move towards the commercialisation of scholarship appals me. Universities are increasingly becoming financially driven, and I have colleagues who are pressed very hard to get big research grants though they don't necessarily need them, because they bring income into the university. The impact is that people work on very short timescales to get stuff out rather than producing something significant and substantial. There's also pressure to accept people on one-year taught Master's courses, because they make the most money.


It means that, in numerical terms, the administrators are increasing, and the academics are decreasing. There have been many hundreds of additions to the admin. staff, so that the money isn't going to libraries, and courses and posts are closed if they're not bringing in enough students. It's the substitution of a business model for an academic model.


Fundamentally, nobody's trusted any more. There are now enormously complex systems to monitor people's work after a new appointment, but they are not necessary. Very occasionally, you make a mistake in an appointment, but it would be a lot cheaper to work with the odd failure than to have all the armies of HR, financial, and other admin. people to check up on people. If we could only trust one another! Academics are not in it for the money: they are very committed to their work; so just let them get on with it. These research-assessment exercises cost millions of pounds. One despairs.


My faith has meant that I have a huge sense of vocation about my academic work. I hope it doesn't change the outcome of honest and open-ended research, but it has a major impact on my motivation.


I haven't spent much time in Jewish-Christian dialogue in a formal sense, though I have spent a lot of time in Israel studying and on archaeological digs. But many of my undergraduate students have been Jewish; so I have had daily to interact with them, and engage with their faith with respect.


My first experience of God wasn't anything dramatic. Brought up in a Christian home, I suppose my first realisation that God was real came when I was still a child, through contact with an Australian sheep-farmer who was on the team of the beach mission here in Southwold.


I was sent to a boarding school when I was seven, and, although I did not realise it at the time, it was a Christian foundation with 250 acres of farm and woodland. It had a big impact on my appreciation of Christian values.


My home was in north London, though I was a regular visitor to my grandparents who lived in Southwold. We came here permanently while we were still in Cambridge.


Oxford and Cambridge are very similar and very different. Both are very fine collegiate universities, both in the top ten for international research; so there's a lot of similarity; but the atmosphere between the two is quite different. In Oxford, things are thought of more expansively and vaguely. Cambridge is more cut and dried. My faculty of Oriental Studies in Cambridge was getting smaller and smaller, whereas at Oxford we doubled in size, added Tibetan and Korean, and the Hebrew and Jewish Studies provision has grown considerably.


It's difficult to know why, but when it comes to Oriental Studies, there's always a small number of students; so it's always threatened by the money-bags. In Cambridge, they said: "We've got to hold the line and not cut further." So the administrators say: "Well, what's behind the line?" and make cuts. For me, the move to Oxford was hugely beneficial.


I have two major research projects that I should like to complete, if I'm spared for another ten or 15 years. I remain committed to helping the family prosper spiritually as well as physically. And I should also like to see the church grow here, but with a rapidly falling population - all the houses seem to be being bought as second homes - that's a seriously challenging ambition.


It's on our allotment where I feel I'm in the image of God - something to do with the stewardship of the earth. We were created to look after the world.


I'm well-known for model yachting, which is a quirky pastime of mine. We have as a family fleet - I'd guess we have about 20, new and old. We still sail ones that my grandparents had made in the '20s and '30s, and more modern ones, which are much more competitive but don't look so nice.


I love the sound of the waves that I listen to as I fall asleep.


I'm happiest when I'm enjoying a good meal with all the family, my wife, children, and grandchildren, round the table.


Among many people who've influenced me in life, I mention just one, now deceased: Stan Ford, with whom I worked for a year after graduation. He had once been a heavyweight boxing champion, and, after being converted, he became a full-time preacher. I cannot say in a few words how much I learned from him.


I pray most that bit in the Lord's Prayer which says: "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven."


I'd choose to be locked in a church with St Jerome. From what I can gather about his character, I am sure we should have the most almighty row, but I should love to talk with him about translating and commenting on the Old Testament.


Professor Williamson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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