Harris, James Rendel (1852–1941)

British New Testament scholar, Syriac scholar, textual critic, and paleographer, who was instrumental in creating the modern field of Syriac Studies. Although he started his academic career at Cambridge as a mathematician, he soon discovered a lifelong interest in Christian origins and New Testament studies that eventually led to an appointment in paleography at Cambridge (UK), as well as positions in Biblical Languages and Ecclesiastical History at Haverford College (USA), New Testament at Johns Hopkins (USA), and as curator of mss. at the John Rylands Library in Manchester (UK). Before and after his time in Manchester, Rendel Harris served as director of the Woodbrooke Institute, Birmingham (UK), where he was able to combine his love for ancient textual studies and Quaker spirituality.

Rendel Harris was an independent thinker and was often considered idiosyncratic in his scholarship. He did not allow prevailing trends in Early Christian Studies to necessarily guide his own research. For instance, he was a very early advocate of understanding the beginnings of Christianity to descend both from Second Temple and post-70 CE Judaism(s), all the while pursuing the ways and means that these early Christian writers then separated themselves from those same forms of Judaism. He willingly pursued the social history behind the variant textual traditions he studied.

Rendel Harris’s abiding interest in collecting, editing and decoding ancient Christian manuscripts, Greek and Latin as well as Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and Persian, led him on travels all over the Middle East including extensive stays in the libraries of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai, and the Library of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. On one trip (1888–89), while on leave from Haverford College, he collected, imported, and then donated to that college several dozen manuscripts. Over the years he traveled, collected, and donated or sold many more manuscripts to the John Rylands Library as well as to Harvard and Birmingham (Mingana collection). Harris is probably most noted, among Syriac scholars, for his publication of the Syriac Odes of Solomon, which he discovered among some mss. from Mesopotamia (and subsequently republished, with a more extensive commentary and new translation, in collaboration with A. Mingana). Among his other important work for Syriac studies was the collaborative work he conducted at St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest, which the independent scholarly sisters, Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson (see Smith, A. and M.), discovered there. Together with R. L. Bensly and F. C. Burkitt, Rendel Harris, Lewis and Gibson, transcribed, collated, annotated, and eventually published this earliest extant Syriac New Testament ms. It was also at St Catherine’s that he discovered the Syriac translation of the Apology of Aristides, lost in Greek.

    Select publications by Harris

    • The Apology of Aristides on behalf of the Christians. From a Syriac manuscript preserved on Mount Sinai (1891).
    • ‘Introductions’ in M. D. Gibson, The Commentaries of Ishoʿdad of Merv, Bishop of Ḥadatha (c. 850 A.D.) in Syriac and English (5 vols.; Horae Semiticae 5–7 and 10–11; 1911–16; repr. 2005).
    • (with F. C. Burkitt and R. L. Bensly), The Four Gospels in Syriac transcribed from the Sinaitic palimpsest (1894).
    • The Odes and Psalms of Solomon. Now first published from the Syriac version (1909).
    • (with A. Mingana), The Odes and Psalms of Solomon (2 vols.; 1916, 1920).

    Secondary Sources

    • J. F.  Coakley, ‘A Catalogue of the Syriac manuscripts in the John Rylands Library’, BJRL 75 (1993), 105–207, esp. 106–15.
    • A.  Falcetta (ed.), J. R.  Harris. New Testament autographs and other essays (New Testament Monographs 7; 2006).
    • M. H.  Goshen-Gottstein, Syriac manuscripts in the Harvard College Library. A catalogue (1979), esp. 16–9.
    • K.  Haines-Eitzen, ‘Ancient Judaism imagined through the lens of early Christianity: The work of James Rendel Harris, 1852–1941’, in Jews, Antiquity and the nineteenth-century imagination, ed. H. Lapin and D. B. Martin (Studies and texts in Jewish history and culture 12; 2003), 109–124.


How to Cite This Entry

Naomi Koltun-Fromm, “Harris, James Rendel,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Harris-James-Rendel.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Naomi Koltun-Fromm, “Harris, James Rendel,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Harris-James-Rendel.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Koltun-Fromm, Naomi. “Harris, James Rendel.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Harris-James-Rendel.

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