Passion for religion, language and culture
Last year, Lloyd Abercrombie started his PhD at the Faculty of Theology. He is one of several international doctoral research fellows at the Faculty of Theology.
Abercrombie is a part of the ERC-funded project “New Contexts for Old Texts: Unorthodox Texts and Monastic Manuscript Culture in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Egypt” (NEWCONT)
“I am currently looking at some Coptic manuscripts associated with Edfu in southern Egypt. I am interested not in how these manuscripts can be used to reconstruct earlier versions of the texts they contain, but rather in what they can tell us about the people who produced, used, and donated them,” Abercrombie says.
He tells us that these manuscripts date from the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century.
“I am particularly interested in how they would have been read, understood, and used in the Islamic milieu which predominated in Egypt at this time. In other words this project employs new or material philology as its guiding methodology and has Coptic manuscripts from Islamic Egypt as its subject matter”, Abercrombie explains.
Interested in religion from an early age
Lloyd Abercrombie grew up in an environment that spurred his later interest in religious studies.
“I grew up in the American Bible Belt in the home of a protestant minister, which is to say that I grew up in a religious environment both inside and outside the home. Growing up in this environment, it was natural for me to try to understand theology and the Bible,” he tells us.
“But I was also fascinated by – from almost as far back as I can remember – anything foreign. Even as young child, I used to check out books and tapes from the library on various foreign languages, and I diligently read the National Geographic magazines that my grandmother subscribed to for us.”
Part of his interest in things foreign was religion, which resulted in him talking to his classmates and friends about their faiths or the faiths of their families. But it was not until he was in his twenties that he came to religion as an academic discipline.
“My late arrival to the field was perhaps due to two things: First, religion was not a topic taught in the schools I attended, and second, those in my immediate surroundings were more interested in the personal and practical, as opposed to the academic, side of religion.”
When he began reading academic works on religious topics, it was in the field of philosophy and was therefore not initially connected to his interest in language and cultures.
“After my armchair explorations in philosophy of religion, I began to wonder about the specifics of the faith I was raised in – church history and doctrinal development, etc,” Abercrombie explains.
“The evangelical, low-church communities I had grown up in placed little emphasis on Christian history, so as I began to study these things almost everything was new to me. My academic interest in Christian history then spread to history of religions more generally.
From Georgia to Japan to Bergen…
Abercrombie’s original passion was linguistics. He took a bachelor’s degree at the University of Georgia, with a major in linguistics and a minor in philosophy. But his fascination for other cultures and countries took him to foreign shores before he continued his academic studies.
“When my bachelor’s studies ended, I wanted to experience life abroad so I moved to Japan to teach English. My original plan was to live in Japan for two years and then do Peace Corps for two years. However, I met the woman who is now my wife while in Japan and ended up sticking around,” he says.
“My work duties in Japan were at times – to quote Sir Martin Rees – ‘so exiguous they could be performed posthumously,’ so I had a good bit of free time. During that time I learned about Japanese religions, became fluent in Japanese, and continued to read philosophy.”
He also started studying psychology, church history, and Latin. Towards the end of his time in Japan he realized his original passion for academia was still there, but decided to switch from linguistics or philosophy and instead study early Christian history.
When looking for master programs to attend, Abercrombie stumbled upon The Religious Roots of Europe. He started up at the University of Bergen where Professor Einar Thomassen was program head at the time. But the program meant preparing for new topics.
“Part of that program was early Judaism and early Islam and those were two things which I had not read much about. The Arab Spring was starting around this time so the Islamic part of the program seemed particularly topical and intriguing.”
He read up on Judaism and Islam in preparation for the master’s program, moved to Bergen, and completed his degree with a thesis on an early Muslim heresiologist who wrote about Manichaeism.
“During this time I also started studying Arabic – which was a big part of my thesis – and Coptic. After my master’s degree I moved back to Japan for two years where I worked teaching English again and applied for PhD programs. During this time I kept studying Islamic and Christian history and started teaching myself Turkish.”
When the opportunity came, he applied for his current position at the Faculty of Theology in Oslo, and returned to Norway. There were several reasons to why he wanted to come here.
“I chose the University of Oslo for three reasons: two personal and one academic. The personal reasons are that I really like Scandinavia and Norway in particular, and that Norwegian universities pay their PhDs a livable wage.” Abercrombie explains.
“The academic reason is that my friend and former Coptic teacher, Christian Bull, recommended that I apply since my abilities and interests line up with those of the NEWCONT project.”
“On that recommendation, I contacted project-head Hugo Lundhaug. Hugo was, and still is, a great help. He encouraged me to continue my studies in Christian-Islamic interactions in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but to employ my Coptic skills and focus on the Egyptian context.”
Abercrombie followed that advice in his initial project proposal, and after acceptance has narrowed things down to the aforementioned late 10th and early 11th century manuscripts.
“I am quite happy here in the Faculty of Theology. Oslo is not a big city so my commute to work is quite short. The faculty is also of moderate size so it was easy to get to know people. People are friendly and there are often events going on – both formally and informally planned.”
Abercrombie tells us that he shares an office with other people working in early Christianity and Judaism, which creates a nice environment for pooling resources and exchanging ideas.
“My supervisor is knowledgeable, hands-on, encouraging, and merciful. Just up the hill are folks in the humanities department working in religious studies, Coptic, and papyrology. Down the hill at the Norwegian School of Theology, are more folks working in early Christianity and Judaism. There are frequent opportunities to attend conferences and excursions and I have not had trouble getting ahold of books. I really consider myself very fortunate!”