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'The New Testament can show us how ancient people dealt with the issues we're grappling with'

A DCU academic received €1.5 million from the European Research Council.

Part of St Paul's letters to the Romans, Philippians and Colossians, in the Chester Beatty Library.
Part of St Paul's letters to the Romans, Philippians and Colossians, in the Chester Beatty Library.
Image: Chester Beatty Library

VISITING DUBLIN SEVERAL years ago, Seattle-born Dr Garrick Allen fell in love with the place – long before he started working for Dublin City University. 

But we needn’t flatter ourselves. It wasn’t the Irish charm or even the sights of the city that grabbed his attention. Instead, in a quiet crevice of the Chester Beatty Library, Allen found himself looking at a collection of manuscripts that was an undeniable haven for an expert on religious texts. 

Far from the tourists flocking to see the Book of Kells over at Trinity College, Allen lost himself in reading the oldest copies of St Paul’s letters to be found anywhere in the world. 

It was a “small Mecca” for me, Allen says in an interview with TheJournal.ie.

Now the DCU academic and his six-strong team have been awarded €1.5 million from the European Research Council to research the New Testament. 

“Dublin is a surprisingly rich place for this sort of thing,” he says.

“Where do you think the earliest copy of Paul’s letters are?” he often asks students. They never guess Dublin. 

For a single arts researcher to get over €1 million is somewhat rare. Indeed, Allen sounds surprised himself – he was the only Irish researcher to be awarded money in this funding round of the highly-prized grants. 

The work certainly sounds complex. DCU’s description of it reads: 

By adopting new philology as a methodology, Titles of the New Testament critiques dominant approaches by taking each manuscript seriously as evidence for specific reading events, using titles as primary evidence.

If you’re not an expert on ancient religious texts or are wondering what philology means (it’s the study of language, often in literary texts) the whole thing might even sound like a colossally obtuse project. Allen says otherwise. 

Rediscovering perspectives

The point of the work, he says, is to understand human culture through the prism of these manuscripts and to recover “perspectives of past people” that might have been lost to time. 

This doesn’t mean simply going over old texts to find the oldest, or translating back the well-trodden ground of the four gospels. 

Instead, using the titles, chapter names and various other details found on New Testament manuscripts from throughout the centuries, Allen will be seeking out what exactly these documents meant to the people and communities who read, wrote and believed them. 

He offers the example of the Book of Revelations. Known as the most surreal part of the New Testament, full of strange visions and stories, it’s most infamous in popular culture for its “666″ reference.

Taken by academics as a reference to Nero – the emperor typically seen as the scourge of early Christians – a more radical interpretation argues that it refers to an Antichrist figure due to arrive in the future. 

It’s these kind of re-imaginings that Allen wants to achieve throughout the project. And with no shortage of larger-than-life Nero-esque villains in the world today, Allen suggests that there is a broader relevance to these New Testament manuscripts. 

 ”Not least with all the political upheaval and right-wing politics, it gives us a view to how ancient people dealt with the issues we’re grappling with,” Allen says. 

Of course, it does have more prosaic academic components, much of which will be time-consuming. Allen estimates that the project will take five years between six staff members. But he’s certainly used to it. As a young researcher, he honed his craft sifting through page after page of ancient religious texts. 

“My job was to sit and read manuscripts and transcribe them,” he says. It was this process – laborious, even monkish – that led him towards this current fascination with how human society, at various points in time, interacted with the New Testament. 

But banish from your mind images of academics sitting over wooden desks reading dusty manuscripts. Instead, the vast majority of ancient works have today been digitised – texts from all corners of the world, written throughout the centuries, are now available online. 

While it might take away some of the fusty romance, Allen says it has made the work of academics immeasurably easier. 

“This project would be impossible without that work being done already,” says Allen. 

In five years’ time, what will the project have taught us? Allen admits he doesn’t know.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking, he says. “The New Testament is a product of human culture and it has played a role in our culture for 2,000 years. Whether we want it to or not.”

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