Scotsman Obituaries: John F A Sawyer, linguist, theologian and teacher

Reverend Professor John Frederick Adam Sawyer, linguist, Old Testament theologian, teacher. Born: November 26 1935 in Inchinnan, Renfewshire. Died: January 9 2022 in Alnwick, Northumberland, aged 86

John Sawyer was an inspirational teacher who could find a connection with anyone

Family and friends worldwide are mourning the peaceful death at home of John Sawyer. He was an inspirational teacher, a brilliant scholar with an incisive mind and the ability to interconnect seemingly unrelated ideas.

He was one of the first people to consider biblical interpretation from the point of view of the reader rather than that of the author. This approach is now recognised formally as reception history. His scholarship, which he described under the headings: languages, religions and biblical reception, was not confined to Jewish and Christian thought but extended to other faiths, as well as involving collaborations with other disciplines such as music, medicine or geophysics.

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John Frederick Adam Sawyer was born in Inchinnan Manse to Rev Alek W and Beatrice M Sawyer before the family moved, in 1938, to Dunbar when his father became the minister of Dunbar Old. With the outbreak of war and his father away as an army chaplain, he recalled seeing puffs of gravel when a stray Junkers bomber strafed the town. The family moved to Yarrow in 1942 where his grandfather, Rev Adam Fergusson, had become locum during the absence of the incumbent, also as a padre.

Two years at the local school left a lasting impression but on the death of his grandfather in 1943, the family moved to Edinburgh, where John started at George Watson’s Boys’ College. His fascination with languages began during his schooling and he moved on to study classics at Edinburgh in 1953, graduating with first class honours in 1957.

Having deferred National Service until after his degree, he was called up into the Royal Scots. Basic training completed, the War Office wanted him to be an interpreter and, given the choice of learning Russian in Fife or Greek in Cyprus, he chose the latter. Knowing both vocabulary and syntax, it did not take him long to become fluent and to start interpreting for the police, to whom he was attached. One undercover operation found him sitting in the corner of a police station listening to the conversation of some recently arrested EOKA terrorists. He was able to report the most significant part of their conversation: “That chap over there understands Greek.” He also learnt sufficient Turkish to be able to interpret that too, but most significantly while in Cyprus, he took up Hebrew and decided to study for the ministry, making him the fourth generation of his family to do so.

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John graduated with a BD in 1962 having been excused the first year Hebrew class in favour of one in Arabic. He was particularly drawn to the Old Testament thanks to interactions with Norman Porteous, J.C.L. Gibson and James Barr. After an 18-month fellowship spent at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, studying inter alia Ugaritic, he took up an appointment at Trinity College, Glasgow University.

He was ordained in the University chapel in 1964 to become chaplain to 5th/6th battalion of the Highland Light Infantry. At their summer camp all were amazed by his prowess not only with an anti-tank gun but with a pack of cards, recalling tricks practised on his brother.

John moved to Newcastle in 1965 where he was to spend the next 29 years becoming head of department and professor, writing a modern Hebrew grammar, a two-volume commentary on Isaiah and two editions of Prophecy and the Biblical Prophets. As well as several research papers on language and religion, he collaborated with colleagues from other disciplines. For example, with the geophysicist F.R. Stephenson, the total eclipse described on a stone tablet that sparked a revolt in Ugarit was dated to May 3 1375 BCE. His excitement was infectious although not always helpful. After explaining in detail some recent research, his exasperated father exclaimed, “Give me something I can use in a sermon”.

His move to Lancaster coincided with the publication of perhaps John’s best-known book, The Fifth Gospel – Isaiah in the History of Christianity and his continuing exploration of language and religion led to the publication with J.M.Y. Simpson of the Concise Encyclopaedia of Language and Religion. A move to Perugia in 2002 saw publication of the major Blackwell Bible Commentary series of which he was editor-in-chief and contributor of the volume on Isaiah Through the Ages. His research during these years explored reception history and included A Concise Dictionary of the Bible and its Reception. His passion for music saw him singing tenor with a choir in Perugia and on his return to this country in 2012, with choirs in Alnwick. This passion also led to the co-authored The Bible in Music (2014, 2018), until a brain tumour curtailed further work.

John was involved with inter-faith groups in Glasgow, Perugia and particularly in Newcastle, where he was invited, uniquely, to become an honorary member of the Newcastle Reformed Synagogue. His friendly and outgoing nature, his ability to converse with many people – often in their own language – and his thorough knowledge of Scripture made him a popular figure wherever he went. His published legacy includes nine books, eight edited books or series and more than 100 papers, reviews and notes.

In 1965 John wed Rosemary Larmuth, with whom he had twins Hannah and Alexander, then Sarah, but the union ended in divorce. He married Deborah Lilburn in 1990 with whom he had a son, Joseph. That marriage also ended in divorce. He married Jean Aaron-Walker in 2012 by whom he is survived, together with his four children and five grandchildren.

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