Theodore Cressy Skeat

15 February 1907 - 25 June 2003

Former Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum

1. Theodore Skeat's death at the age of 96 has ended a lifetime devoted to ancient, classical and biblical literature. After studies in Cambridge and a spell at the British School of Archaeology in Athens, Skeat worked at the British Museum from 1931, rising to Keeper of Manuscripts. After retirement in 1972 from that position, he continued writing and publishing on palaeography.

2. Early in his career as librarian two momentous acquisitions put his name in the public arena. He helped H. Idris Bell edit a newly purchased apocryphal gospel now known as the Egerton 2 Papyrus, but then published under the title Fragments of an Unknown Gospel. This collection of hitherto unknown sayings of Jesus caused great public interest. As these fragments are probably the oldest Christian writing extant, the publication has maintained its popularity and influence.

3. It was during his early years at the library that the famous fourth-century biblical Greek Manuscript Codex Sinaiticus, now on permanent display at the British Library, was purchased from the Soviet government, and it arrived in London at Christmastide 1933. Skeat and his colleague H. J. M. Milne were responsible for rebinding and reconditioning the manuscript. Their reading of its contents and their skilled detective work identified the work undertaken on the manuscript subsequent to its original writing. Their findings were set out in Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus, published in 1938. That work is still regularly cited in books on biblical manuscripts. Skeat himself maintained his interest in the manuscript and continued to write about it during his thirty years of retirement. One of his last articles (published in 2000) was on the nineteenth-century discovery of Sinaiticus at St Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai. In 1999 the centennial volume of the Journal of Theological Studies carried a magisterial article by him discussing the provenance of Sinaiticus and of a comparable biblical manuscript, Codex Vaticanus. As a consequence of that article, a colloquium was organised in Geneva to consider his conclusions. Skeat had also been an advisor to the Vatican library during their preparations to publish a facsimile of Codex Vaticanus for the Millennium.

4. Some of Skeat's output of nearly one hundred published articles and books relate to holdings in the British Library, classical texts as well as papers relating to English literature and history; several deal with ancient calendars, especially Ptolemaic chronology; and all bear witness to his meticulous and painstaking scholarship. He came from a background of learning: his grandfather was Professor W. W. Skeat, the famous Anglo-Saxon specialist.

5. Skeat's Papyri from Panopolis in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, and his Catalogue of Greek Papyri in the British Museum, volume VII: The Zenon Archive showed him to be a skilled and productive papyrologist, and it was as such that he was regularly consulted by scholars throughout the world.

6. He was also involved in publishing new biblical finds in the Oxyrhynchus and Chester Beatty collections. But it is his more wide-ranging studies of the techniques of ancient book production and his essays on such matters as dictation, the origins of the codex, or the cost of papyrus that continue to be influential in any subsequent discussions, especially of early Christian literature and of book production. His co-authorship (with Colin Roberts) of The Birth of the Codex, now reprinted several times, stands as a significant monograph. His chapter on early Christian book production in the influential Cambridge History of the Bible is a monumental article.

7. Skeat's interest in New Testament textual criticism resulted in his being a member of the Critical Greek New Testament project, a committee of the British Academy, and he helped further its task of assembling a thesaurus of textual variants in Luke's Gospel. Skeat in his own right also contributed perceptive articles on text-critical cruces such as the ending of Mark, the beginning of Philippians and the meaning of Mark 7:3 in the Greek New Testament. Even two weeks before his death he was planning further articles on other variant readings.

8. The long-lasting significance of Skeat's work is exemplified in his article on the enigmatic text and original form of Jesus' saying about the lilies of the field at Matthew 6:28. He first wrote on that verse in 1948. In 2000 a major edition of the Gospels' sayings source 'Q' by James Robinson gave great prominence to Skeat's pioneering reconstruction of the saying from fifty years earlier.

9. Although Skeat was an intensely private and modest man, his name reached the national news in 1980 when he spectacularly renounced his Fellowship of the British Academy as a protest at the Academy's inaction over the Anthony Blunt affair.

Theodore Skeat

© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2003.

J. Keith Elliott
University of Leeds
This obituary was written for The Independent newspaper (London) and published there on July 8.