In Gratitude to Eldon Jay Epp
Eldon Jay Epp is (to use a UK complimentary term) a “big beast” in the field of NT textual criticism, internationally known and highly respected for his contributions to the discipline over several decades, from his ground-breaking monograph, The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts (SNTSMS 3; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966) on through numerous essays (a number of them nearly monograph length!). He was also supervisor of my PhD studies (Case Western Reserve University), and has been a treasured friend and colleague ever since. On the principle that flowers are better given to the living, I’d like to use this posting to express my admiration and my gratitude to Eldon.
In an article that originated in a symposium honouring Eldon when he turned 80 (held as part of the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2010) I offered an appreciative review of some of his work, “Going for the Bigger Picture: Eldon Epp as Textual Critic” (published subsequently in TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, available here.
The occasion for this posting is that, over the previous several weeks, I was completing an updating and modest editing/revision of an analysis of the Greek fragments from Qumran Cave 7 that Eldon originally completed in 1992. The piece was intended to form part of a volume in the series, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Texts with English Translations (ed. James H. Charlesworth; co-published by Mohr Siebeck and Westminster John Knox Press). The volume in question has been delayed, and I mean really delayed, but we are promised it is now on course to appear, hopefully within the next 12 months or so. I agreed to do the work on Eldon’s piece as a mark of my gratitude for all he’s done for me. As I expected (knowing the quality of Eldon’s work), there was actually not a lot needed, other than some updating of the discussion and bibliography, and a few small edits.
To turn to personal reminiscences, I recall our first meeting, when (back in 1968) I interviewed for admission to PhD study with him at CWRU. Given my previous educational choices, I wasn’t then sure that I could gain admission for PhD work anywhere. But Eldon calmly indicated that he’d take account of my transcripts, GRE scores, references, and a small publication of mine, and, if impressed would argue my case for admission. He did, and I was even awarded a fees and living-costs fellowship, without which I would never have been able to do PhD work.
In that interview I remember also his saying that he didn’t require his PhD students to agree with him in theology or other matters, but one thing he would not tolerate was any distortion or misrepresentation of those with whom we disagreed. I’ve tried to live by that since.
I saw the effect of his fairness in the first essay I wrote for him, on an assigned topic: “The Eschatology of Rudolf Bultmann” (Eldon, then at least, described himself as a Bultmannian). In the essay, I explored the foundations of Bultmann’s eschatology and described its structure, and then offered a critical appraisal (I didn’t share Eldon’s endorsement of Bultmann). When I got the essay back, there were marginal comments on most pages, and this at the end: “Your understanding of Bultmann is essentially correct. Your criticisms are not always persuasive.” And then the mark: “A”. And I thought, OK, we can do business!
Not long after completing my PhD, while serving as a pastor of a small congregation in the Chicago area (1971-75), I remember receiving in the mail one day from Eldon an off-print of his oft-cited Hatch Memorial Lecture, “The Twentieth-Century Interlude in NT Textual Criticism,” Journal of Biblical Literature 93 (1974), 386-414. In the pressure of pastoral duties, I put it aside for reading later. After a few days, I turned to it, interested to see how much I’d recognize of the things he might review in the lecture. Several pages into the article, he turned to some positive developments in the field, and much to my surprise and pleasure spent a few pages describing my PhD thesis favourably. (Subsequently published: Larry W. Hurtado, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981]). (Actually, I think that this article gave me the first clear indication that he’d found my thesis persuasive. He wasn’t given to “gushing” comments to students!)
I’m sure, also, that Eldon’s reference letters were influential in the first few academic job offers I received, and so were instrumental in my having an academic career subsequently.
Quiet and unobtrusive, still looking a good 20 years younger, he’s simply a prince of a guy. His published work stands the test of time. And he’s still at it in “retirement,” now with a number of pieces on Oxyrhynchus as well as continuing to contribute to NT textual criticism, especially in methodological matters. Also, he teaches now a doctoral course in Harvard (having moved to Cambridge, MA after retirement from CWRU). I continue to learn things from him whenever I read his publications.
So, this electronic “toast” to Eldon, whose student I am proud to have been, now a valued friend and colleague. Long may he continue to contribute to NT textual criticism!