Photograph of the Chapel at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Credit: Mihnea Maftei. (CC 2.0)

Theologian

To my undergraduate peers, I was a “Theologian”. This (and I guess still is) was the standard shorthand for those pursuing a degree in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge. It felt like an odd label, and only two of my fifteen module choices contained “Theology” in the title.

Learning a scriptural language was a requirement, and in my first year I studied New Testament Greek. We had a one-week crash course ahead of the main Freshers’ week, which remains memorable also as the first time I drank coffee. (Invited to our Director of Studies’ office in the old Divinity Faculty building, it became clear that coffee was the only option; I had to determine how I took it on the fly.)

An initial assessment had me assigned to an intermediate group. But at college, I was persuaded to try football and weekly practice clashed with Greek class, so I campaigned to be moved up to the advanced group (with an hour less class time). Hard work paid off, and at the end of the year my grades were sufficient to merit a college prize (thanks to an endowment linked to Margaret Dunlop Gibson, co-cataloguer of the Sinai monastery collections).

During my first year, the opportunity arose to join an extracurricular “Hebrew Bible reading group.” Its instigators were Diana Lipton, Catherine Pickstock, and Ben Quash, and with hindsight I see it as a forerunner of Scriptural Reasoning. We spent a term examining Genesis 22, the Binding (or as Christians have it, Sacrifice) of Isaac. Another fresher and I were given the task of reworking the narrative Homeric style (a response to the opening of Auerbach’s Mimesis, of course). The task was fun, and it was that term’s textual encounters that prompted me to pursue a second language during my second year.

Biblical Hebrew was a whole different world. This time, I had missed the crash course and it took me through until early Spring before I realised that Rahel ha-Sheloshah as our teacher referred to one of my peers was in fact Rachel-from-Trinity[-College]”. Dr Macintosh was an entertaining pedagogue. With his encouragement, Rachel and I signed up for a study tour of Israel/Palestine organised by the UK Council of Christians and Jews. My memories of that trip are inexact: our schedule was very very full of activities (and a delay to our flights meant some had to be cancelled). Yet the thoroughness of the reading, the complexity of the competing narratives, the challenge of the encounters stirred up fresh interests.

By my final year, I was combining papers in the study of the Historical Jesus, Early Church History and continued study of biblical texts in the original languages with a new and taxing subject: Jewish and Christian responses to the Holocaust. It occurs to me only at some distance that this was the first option where my appointed supervisor was a woman. (This is no complaint, my Director of Studies took pains to get us expert supervisors, and I have fond memories of studying the so-called Jesus paper under the late Graham Stanton who was then Lady Margaret Professor.) Nonetheless, Dr Margie Tolstoy was the first person to encourage me to pursue further study, and it is to that encouragement that I owe my later decision to study for an MA in Jewish-Christian Relations.

My time at Cambridge (Fitzwilliam, to be exact) was a great privilege. At 18, I found the courage to reject a place at another (fine) university and the promise of free tuition and reenter the applications process. It took 8 interviews and an essay under exam conditions to get my place, but I luxuriated in one-to-one tuition, graduating with a first class degree and a wealth of learning. I still feel lucky.

The beautiful photo at the head of this post shows the inside of Fitzwilliam College Chapel, Cambridge, a detail from an original photograph by Mihnea Maftei (used under Creative Copyright license 2.0). 

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