In a post this morning on Seamus Heaney’s fragmentary translation of the Aeneid, my friend Adam Roberts (inadvertently I’m sure) sent me down a trail of memory. He did it by writing this:
It’s a little odd, actually: the Iliad and the Odyssey are, patently, greater works of art; yet however much I love them and return to them, the Aeneid still occupies a uniquely special place in my heart. I first read it as an undergraduate in the (alas, long defunct) Classics department at Aberdeen University.
When I was 19 years old and just beginning to be interested in Christianity, I paid a visit to the bookstore of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in my home town of Birmingham, Alabama. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so I wandered around aimlessly for a while, but eventually emerged with two books. One of them was Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which I soon read and enjoyed, but which had no major impact on me. (People are always surprised when I tell them that.) But the other book really changed me. It was a brief and accessible commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans by F. F. Bruce.
What did I find so winning about that little commentary, which in the next couple of years I read several times? It was the ease and naturalness with which Bruce linked the thought of Paul with the Hellenistic cultural world from which Paul emerged. I believe I had, before reading the book, some idea that the proper Christian view of the Bible was that it emerged fully-formed from the mind of God — sort of like the Book of Mormon, engraved on golden plates and then buried. For Bruce, Paul was certainly an apostle of God, but that did not erase his humanity or remove him from his cultural frame. Bruce quoted freely from Hellenistic poets and philosophers, discerning echoes of their thoughts in Paul’s prose; he showed clearly that Paul came from an intellectually plural and culturally diverse world, and that this upbringing left its marks on him, even when he became, in relation to that world, an ideological dissident.
Bruce’s attitude surprised me, but more than that, it gratified me. It was the moment at which I began to realize that becoming a Christian would not require me to suspend or repudiate my interests in culture, in poetry, in story.
Much later I learned that Frederick Fyvie Bruce had been raised in a poor Open Brethren family near Moray Firth in Scotland, and had been able to attend university only because he won a scholarship. At Aberdeen University he, like Adam Roberts decades later, studied Latin and Greek, and, also like Adam Roberts, did graduate work at Cambridge. In one of those curious convergences of the kind I wrote about yesterday, at one point he attended lectures by the great classicist and poet A. E. Housman which only one other student attended: Enoch Powell. Tom Stoppard should write a sequel to The Invention of Love about those three in one room. (I guess it couldn’t be called The History Boys, but oh well.)
Bruce’s classical education became the foundation for all his future scholarship. Thus his first book — The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? — is based on an extended comparison of the textual history of the books of the New Testament with that of classical writers from Herodotus to Seutonius. And even this came about only after he had spent several years as a lecturer in Greek (at Edinburgh, then Leeds) who also taught Latin. The classics were Bruce’s first scholarly language, and the biblical literature a later acquisition.
If my first encounter with biblical scholarship had been with a writer less culturally assured and wide-ranging than Bruce, who knows what might have become of me? And if he had grown up in a Christian environment less sympathetic to humanistic learning, who knows what might have become of him?
Late in his career, Bruce wrote one of best books, The Canon of Scripture, and that book bears this dedication: