Sunday, February 19, 2006

PROFESSOR EMERITUS ROBERT WILSON (a.k.a. "R McL Wilson" a.k.a. "Robin") was in fine form for yesterday's celebration of his 90th birthday. There were speakers in the afternoon, a drinks reception, and a buffet dinner followed by more reminiscences and a toast. You can click on all the photos below to see larger versions of the images. [This was originally posted on Sunday at 7:47 am, but I'm keeping it at the top of the page for a while.]

The afternoon opened with a brief introduction by Professor Richard Bauckham (see third photo down). He noted, among other things, that Professor Wilson's first article was published in 1952, his first book in 1958, and his most recent book at the end of 2005.

His comments were followed by Professor Einar Thomassen (above) of the University of Bergen, Norway, one of Professor Wilson's doctoral students in the 1980s. He spoke on Professor Wilson's half-century of contributions to the study of Gnosticism. (I understand that some of these presentations may be published someday, so, although I did take extensive notes, I'll keep my summaries brief.) Robin Wilson's contribution included building bridges between the German and British approaches, both by translating (and updating) many important German works and by integrating the German study of Gnosis as a widespread pre-Christian worldview and the British study of Gnosticism as a second-century Christian heresy, and by pointing out that the two are not the same thing. He did early work on the independence of elements of the Gospel of Thomas from the canonical Gospels and he raised concerns about the use of the term "Gnosticism" in 1955, decades before these problems became widely recognized.

Dr. Bill Telford (Universities of Newcastle and Durham) spoke about the early history of the Society for New Testament Study (Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas) and the important contributions to it by the University of St. Andrews and St. Mary's College and by Robin Wilson in particular. The Society was conceived in the 1930s but its founding was delayed by World War II and the first meeting was not until 1947. (More details here.) Its first president was Professor George Duncan of St. Mary's College [CORRECTION: Principal Duncan was the second president; the first was J. De Zwaan]. Professor Matthew Black and Professor Wilson were also heavily involved for many years. Both served as president of the society and as editors of the journal New Testament Studies and the NTS Supplement monograph series. Professor Paddy Best published the second volume in the series -- his monograph The Temptation and the Passion.

Richard Bauckham then spoke again briefly about Professor Wilson's scholarly contribution, including his editorship of the translation from German of two editions of the two large volumes of New Testament Apocrypha (which were carefully compared to the original-language texts as well and thus were an original contribution as well as a translation) and his most recent commentary on Colossians and Philemon.

Professor Wilson spoke next, first graciously thanking the speakers and those attending, some of whom came from a considerable distance, then reminiscing about his career, which has spanned the space between fountain pens (ballpoints hadn't been invented) and online publications. He appears nevertheless to have fully mastered e-mail and to have used it vigorously to keep the editors of his recent book in line.

He also spoke about his two supervisors when he was a student; William Manson of Edinburgh and W. L. Knox of Cambridge. Manson suggested Diaspora Judaism, syncretism, and the origins of Gnosticism as one possible topic of doctoral research and both Knox and Wilson liked the idea, so he went with it, timing his graduation in 1945 to coincide most fortuitously with the discovery of the Coptic Gnostic library from Nag Hammadi.

He also told of a College Dinner in which the president of the College Society (in the traditional staff roast) proposed running a model railway called the Wilson Special -- Gnostic passengers only.

He concluded that he looks back with great satisfaction at what many of his students (some of whom were present) have gone on to achieve.

The reception followed.

Here Professor Wilson speaks with Ron Piper, Professor of Christian Origins and Vice Principal of Teaching.

I had a conversation with Professor Wilson during the reception in which we both cheerfully dissed The Da Vinci Code. He also commented wryly that the best way to get scholarly recognition was to publish something that's almost right but is just wrong enough to make people want to argue with you. (A persistent theme during the speeches was Robin Wilson's meticulous scholarship and his humility, so he didn't learn this from experience.)

Professor David Parker (above left) of the University of Birmingham spoke after dinner of his time here as a student 30 years ago. My favorite bit was when he told of the shelf on Professor Wilson's bookcase reserved for works he considered ridiculous. Alas, no examples were given.

Finally, Ron Piper recounted some memories of his early days as a lecturer at St. Mary's College. He arrived in 1980 and Robin Wilson retired in 1983, so they overlapped by three years. He focused on Robin's absolute dedication to New Testament studies, his loyalty to St. Mary's, his willingness to spend time with people, and his gentleness. He concluded with a toast to Robin.

Then the cake was produced.

And cut.

Happy Birthday Robin, and many happy returns!

UPDATE (3 December 2007): I've corrected a detail above. Also, Bill Telford's paper is available here.

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