A headline of the Christmas Eve issue of The Times in 1994 was news of a discovery by Carsten Thiede, Director of the Institut fur Wissenschaftstheoretische Grundlagenforschung (the Institute for Basic Epistemological Research) at Paderborn, Germany. He demonstrated that the three fragments of papyrus preserved in the library of Magdalen College, Oxford (Magdalen Greek 17, P64) scraps identifiable as parts of Matthew 26, should be dated as having been written before the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, probably AD 66.
This announcement, backed by exact scholarship, meant that we should think of this Gospel, at least, as written by men who had personal contact with Jesus. It produced a storm of controversy, which rose to gale force with the publication of a book-length version in 1996 by Professor Thiede, with Matthew d’Ancona (then of The Times, now at The Sunday Telegraph) under the title The Jesus Papyrus, quickly a best-seller internationally, and now in its fifteenth edition. His position had already been well set out in his Rekindling the Word (1995).
What surprised many Christians was not so much how exhilarating Professor Thiede’s thinking was, and especially to what new understandings it might lead, but how intemperate his critics were. Calling down fire from heaven was mild in comparison. Professor Graham Stanton of King’s College, London, to take one example, rushed out his denunciation, Gospel Truth?, in order to be ahead of the publication of The Jesus Papyrus.
With good grounds, Carsten Thiede’s ‘new paradigm’ was challenging the standard twentieth-century scholarly view, that the Gospels were late, written at dates well into the second century, expressing ‘unreliable’ oral traditions, little more than folklore, and in any case heavily edited.
I had heard Carsten Thiede spoken of with admiration in 1993, while making a Radio 3 programme on Tyndale at the BBC. When I met him, like a host of other people across the world, I was instantly made a friend. I invited him to give a paper at the Tyndale Society’s first Oxford Conference in 1994. In it, he revealed his long-standing admiration for William Tyndale as translator and Bible scholar. That lecture, By Prayer and Fasting: William Tyndale’s translation of Mark 9:29 and its consequences’ (printed in TSJ No 13, August 1999, 17-23) demonstrated his skill with evaluating Greek textual evidence. He convincingly showed that, as Tyndale understood, ‘and fasting’ should not be omitted, as it usually is today.
Carsten was an early and enthusiastic member of the Tyndale Society. He and I shared a dream of holding a conference of Luther and Tyndale scholars at Worms, as yet unrealised. He gave the Third Lambeth Tyndale Lecture in October 1996, a splendid scholarly account of the importance of Bible translations in the European Reformation (printed in Reformation 2, 1997, 283-300). His conclusion described Tyndale as
‘an uncompromising, clearsighted and circumspect philologist, analyst, translator, and interpreter of the groundwork of our Christian faith—Holy Scripture’.
Born in West Berlin in 1952, Carsten first studied Comparative Literature at Berlin University. A German scholarship took him in 1976 to research at Queen’s College, Oxford, and then in 1978 he was appointed Lecturer in Comparative Literature at Geneva, followed by a Chair of Papyrology at the Independent Academy of Theology at Basle and, at the same time, at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheba, southern Israel.
In 1982 he married Franziska Campbell: they lived part of each year in England, a marriage and a location which both gave him great happiness. His love and understanding of England meant that he was regularly commissioned by the German government to write about Europe and English themes — one of his early gifts to me was his Religion in England (1994): the title and the book are both in German. His energies and intellectual grasp of many fields were extraordinary. He worked at the Institute for Germanic Studies in London. In his last seven years he co-coordinated the analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
His Jesus Papyrus became a television documentary, presented by him. Channel 4 commissioned his more recent The Quest for the True Cross, based on his book of that title, in which he argues that the ‘Titulus’, the headboard at Jesus’ crucifixion, held at the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, in Rome, is in no way a quaint medieval forgery: the more it is analysed, the closer does it appear to the real thing.
Carsten Thiede’s concern for re-evaluating Christian origins led him to think freshly about New Testament papyri. Undeterred by the closed minds of some historians of early Christianity, he happily imported to the field forensic techniques from other disciplines. A skilled archaeologist, he was also at home with an electronic microscope, and, with the Professor of Biology at Paderborn, he invented a new kind of laser microscope, which enabled him to analyse manuscript and papyrus writing in three dimensions: an unforgettable demonstration of this technique and its results for dating was given by him at the second Geneva Tyndale Conference, 2001.
Knowing his love for the Church of England, expressed in his writings and conversation, his friends were not too surprised when he was ordained priestby the Bishop to the Armed Forces in 2000. He became Chaplain to the British forces at the army base in Paderborn, regularising the pastoral work he had been doing for a long time with the soldiers, especially those from the front line in the Balkans: he saw service in Iraq.
Many people will, like me, miss his excellent essays each month in the Church of England Newspaper, written always from the position of the fullest understanding of Gospels in Greek. He continued to produce challenging books. His The Resurrection of Jesus—Fiction or Fact—Two Views, in German with Gerd Ludermann, came out in 2002. (There is no room here to list his many publications in German.) Shortly before he died, The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus was published by SPCK.
Mercifully completed just before he died, at home, of a heart attack on 14 December 2004, at the age of 52, is probably his finest book, The Emmaus Mystery (ISBN 0 8264 6797 0), on his cherished discovery of the location of the village of Emmaus, so important in Luke’s resurrection accounts in chapter 24. Exactly where Luke meant has always been a puzzle. Not only did Carsten locate it at the present village of Motza-Kolona, three and a half miles west of Jerusalem: he supported his textual, historical and topographical findings with archaeological digs over several seasons—and, characteristically and crucially, gave practical support as, with a group of his Basle students, he retraced the steps of the disciples, there and back in one evening.
His smiling presence was always powerful, and always instructive. Not only did one learn about the original Christian communities and their records: as a friend put it, to walk about an ancient city with him was a rare and unforgettable experience; he would know where to find a church in Jerusalem, where Assyrian is still spoken, and how to get a table at the best Jewish restaurant in Rome. The epigraph of his Jesus: Life or Legend (1990) is the classical scholar George Kennedy’s ‘Ancient writers sometimes meant what they said, and occasionally even knew what they were talking about.’ Carsten was fond of quoting it.
For his widow Franziska, and his children Miriam, Emily and Frederick, we continue to offer prayers of support, and of thanksgiving for such a life of blessing.
David Daniell, June 2005.
We have reprinted elsewhere in this Journal one of Carsten Thiede’s many articles to the <<span class="b i">Church of England Newspaper no 5725 July 2004 entitled The Greek Bible: A plea for the rediscovery of 1st century roots. The paper he gave at the Geneva Tyndale Conference 2001 Books for Burning was entitled The Progress of Vernacular Bibles from Tyndale and Luther to the Present Day: St John’s Gospel as a Case Study in the Textual Tradition. A summary of this paper was published in the TSJ No 20 December 2001 and a photocopy of the full typescript can be obtained on request from the UK office at Hertford College, Oxford.