John Sawyer obituary | Religion
My brother John Sawyer, who died at the age of 86, was a linguist and Old Testament scholar with an incisive and imaginative mind. He was one of the first to apply what is now called “reception history” to a study of the Bible – examining how it has been interpreted by different readers over the centuries.
John was born in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire, to Beatrice (née Fergusson), a writer, and the Reverend Alek Sawyer, a minister in the Church of Scotland. Our family moved to Dunbar in 1938 and then, with our father in the services, spent much of the Second World War years with my grandmother in Edinburgh, where John attended George Watson’s Boys’ College, and discovered that languages were his forte. He went to the University of Edinburgh to study classics and graduated with first class honors in 1957.
His national service with the Royal Scots took him to work as an interpreter in Cyprus, where he also learned to speak Turkish fluently and began to study Hebrew. He then decides to enter the ministry. John obtained a BD from Edinburgh in 1962, having been exempted from the Hebrew course in favor of an Arabic course.
After an 18-month fellowship in Jerusalem, he returned to a lecturer position at the University of Glasgow, where he was ordained in 1964 as a chaplain. He moved to Newcastle University in 1965, where over the next 29 years, eventually promoted to professor and head of the religious studies department, he wrote a Hebrew grammar, a two-volume commentary on Isaiah, two editions of Prophecy and the Biblical Prophets (1987) and 50 research papers on language and religion.
A move to Lancaster University in 1994 coincided with the publication of perhaps his best-known book, The Fifth Gospel – Isaiah in the History of Christianity (1996). In 2002 he moved to the University of Perugia in Italy and became editor of the Blackwell Bible Commentary, also singing in the university choir. His research during these years in Perugia also produced A Concise Dictionary of the Bible and its Reception (2009). He returned to Northumberland in 2012 and wrote The Bible in Music (2015), also participating in choral singing at Alnwick. His published legacy includes nine books, eight edited books or series, and over 100 articles, reviews, and notes.
John’s involvement in interfaith groups in Glasgow, Perugia and especially Newcastle led him, uniquely, to become an honorary member of the Newcastle Reformed Synagogue.
John has been married three times: his first two marriages, to Rosemary Larmuth in 1965 and Deborah Lilburn in 1990, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Jean (née Aaron-Walker), whom he married in 2012, four children – Alexander, Hannah and Sarah from his first marriage and Joseph from his second – and five grandchildren.