Person NameHarris; James Rendel (1852-1941); biblical scholar, orientalist and folklorist
ForenamesJames Rendel
Epithetbiblical scholar, orientalist and folklorist
ActivityJames Rendel Harris was born and grew up in Plymouth and was educated at Plymouth Grammar School and Cambridge University. In 1874, he was Third Wrangler in Mathematics.


Rendel Harris was elected to a Clare College Fellowship and Lectureship in Mathematics in 1875 and was Moderator and Examiner of the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge from 1880-1881. In 1881, the year of the publication of the Revised Version of the New Testament and of Westcott and Hort's Greek text, he gave up mathematics and devoted himself to the study of early Christian literature and the text of the New Testament. He was a Professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA from 1882-1885, resigning from this post because of his opposition to vivisection. He then became Professor of Biblical languages and Ecclesiastical History at Haverford College, Haverford, USA from 1885-1892. From 1893-1903, he was a lecturer in palaeography at Cambridge.

In 1903, he was offered a job at the University of Leyden, Holland, which he refused in favour of the post of First Principal and Director of Studies at the newly-founded Friends Settlement for Social and Religious Study, Woodbrooke College, Birmingham (the first Selly Oak College). Woodbrooke, which was founded by JW Rowntree and George Cadbury, aimed to offer Quaker students 'spiritual and intellectual stimulus, combined with experience in Christian and social work.' Rendel Harris left Woodbrooke in 1918 for Manchester, where he was Curator of Eastern Manuscripts at the John Rylands Library until his retirement in 1925, when he returned to Birmingham.


Rendel Harris travelled widely, particularly in the Middle East. He visited Paris, the Black Forest, and Munich in 1884. In 1888-1889, he took a year's leave of absence from Haverford College and travelled with Helen Harris to Egypt, Brumana, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Mount Sinai. On this journey, he visited St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, where he discovered the Apology of Aristides. In 1893, he went to St Catherine's again, this time with Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, Professor Robert Lubbock Bensley, FC Burkitt, and their wives, to photograph a Syriac manuscript of the Four Gospels discovered by Agnes Smith Lewis the year before.

He frequently travelled abroad to lecture. He went to America in 1895 and 1900, visited Haverford College in 1910, and was the Haskell Lecturer for Oberlin College, Ohio, USA. In 1909, he travelled to Germany on a peace mission.

Rendel Harris was fascinated by the Christian tradition in Armenia, and was a committed campaigner on behalf of its people. In 1896, after the massacres of Armenians, he and Helen Harris travelled to Armenia as a relief worker. He visited Armenia again in 1903 and 1913. He sent circular letters describing his travels to friends and family; letters from the 1896 visit were published as 'Letters from Armenia.'

In 1916, he decided to travel to India, where he wanted to meet his friends James Hope Moulton and Terrot Reaveley Glover. He sailed from Liverpool on 17 November 1916. Ten days later, his ship, 'The City of Birmingham', was torpedoed by a German submarine, and all on board were forced to take to the lifeboats. They were picked up by another ship, and dropped off at Alexandria. After a short stay in Egypt, during which he went 'papyrus hunting', he arranged to meet Moulton in Port Said, and travel home together from there, despite the danger of torpedoes. Their ship, the 'City of Paris', left Port Said on 31st March 1917; on 4th April she was hit by a torpedo. Once again, everyone abandoned ship, drifting for several days in the lifeboats. Fourteen people, including JH Moulton, died. Their lifeboat eventually drifted close to the village of Calvi, in Corsica. Rendel Harris was nursed at Calvi and nearby Ajacco, until he was well enough to travel back to Birmingham, where he arrived on May 4th. His story of this experience was privately published as 'Ulysses to his Friends'.

He visited St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai for a final time in 1922-1923, with Agnes Smith Lewis and others.


Rendel Harris saw the year 1881 as the beginning of his career as a Biblical scholar. 'The year 1881 is the date of my own personal estrangement from mathematics and conversion to criticism,' he wrote. He specialised in New Testament studies, publishing many academic and popular books of criticism. He was interested in the historical study of the Bible using contemporary manuscripts, and in the influence of folklore traditions on early Christianity, particularly beliefs relating to twins.

Rendel Harris was a keen collector of ancient manuscripts. His two greatest discoveries were The Apology of Aristides in 1889 and The Odes of Solomon in 1909.

The Apology of Aristides was discovered during a visit to the convent of St Catherine, on Mount Sinai, in 1889. Until Rendel Harris found the Apology, it was partially known about in an Armenian translation and in the works of Eusebius and Jerome. He published an edition of the manuscript in 1891.

The manuscript of the Odes of Solomon was discovered among a heap of manuscripts in Harris's office, which he had collected during a visit to 'the neighbourhood of the Tigris'. It took some years before he found time to sort and identify them; when he finally did so, he found that what he thought was a Syriac Psalter was in fact the lost book of the Psalms and Odes of Solomon. Scholars had known of the existence of the Odes because they are quoted in other manuscripts, and had always hoped that a complete manuscript would be discovered. The discovery was greeted with great excitement; over the next few years virtually every leading Biblical scholar published something about the Odes. Harris published an edition of the manuscript in 1909, and, with Alphonse Mingana as co-editor, a facsimile of the manuscript with a translation in 1916, followed by a commentary in 1920. He donated the manuscript to the John Rylands Library in 1914.

In later life, he became interested in English local history, and wrote a series of articles discussing evidence that the Egyptians might have visited or lived in Britain.


Hon LittD Dublin; Hon LLD Haverford; Hon. Doct. Theol. Leyden; Hon. LLD Birmingham; Hon DD Glasgow; Hon. Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge; FBA 1927.

Rendel Harris was a lifelong Quaker and President of the Free Church Council from 1907-1908. He was a committed Liberal, campaigning against the 1902 Education Act.
RelationshipsMarried Helen Balkwill of Plymouth in 1880. Mother Elisabeth Corker Harris died 23 Feb 1892. Father Henry Marmaduke Harris


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