James Rendel Harris was an English biblical scholar and curator of manuscripts, who was instrumental in bringing back to light many Syriac Scriptures and other early documents. His contacts at the Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt enabled twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson to discover there the Sinaitic Palimpsest, the oldest Syriac New Testament document in existence. He subsequently accompanied them on a second trip, with Robert Bensly and Francis Crawford Burkitt, to decipher the palimpsest. He himself discovered there other manuscripts Harris's Biblical Fragments from Mount Sinai appeared in 1890. He was a Quaker.
Harris was born to a Congregationalist family and grew up as one of eleven children. His father, Henry Marmaduke Harris, was a house decorator. His mother, Elizabeth Corker Harris, ran a shop selling baby clothes. His paternal aunt, Augusta Harris, was the mother of the poet Henry Austin Dobson.
After studying at Plymouth Grammar school, he enrolled at Clare College, Cambridge, and was third at the mathematical Tripos of 1874. He was a fellow of Clare College from 1875 to 1878, in 1892, and from 1902 to 1904. In 1880, he married a Quaker from Plymouth, Helen Balkwill, and under her influence and that of the Evangelical Revival of the 1870s, in 1885 he became a member of the Society of Friends. He moved to the United States in 1882 following his wife who was at the time engaged in missionary work, and was appointed professor of New Testament Greek at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, US (1882–85). Harris resigned his post in response to criticism that his attack on the vivisection practiced in the Johns Hopkins laboratories had elicited from his colleagues. The couple returned to Britain for a short while, as Harris was soon appointed professor in Biblical Studies at Haverford College, near Philadelphia (1886–91).
In 1888–1889, while on leave from Haverford, he travelled to Palestine and Egypt, purchasing 47 rolls and codices written in Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian and Ethiopic. He said that these texts, which discussed biblical and linguistic topics and some of which were as old as the 13th century, were "all acquired by the lawful, though sometimes tedious, processes of Oriental commerce." During this journey, he also discovered the Syriac version of the Apology of Aristides in the Monastery of Saint Catherine. Upon his return, he donated the manuscripts he had collected to Haverford. They are held by the college library's Quaker Collection.
In 1903 he was appointed the first director of studies at the Society of Friends' new college at Woodbrooke near Birmingham. In accepting the post, he turned down an appointment as a professor of theology at Leiden University. However, students from Leiden attended his courses at Woodbrooke. The university later awarded him a doctorate.
Harris represented two prestigious libraries during his lifetime: Johns Hopkins and John Rylands Library, Manchester, where he became the curator of manuscripts. Most of his publications dealt with biblical and patristic history; he was an extremely prolific writer. He examined the Latin text of the Codex Sangallensis 48.
Included among the topics on which he wrote are: the Apology of Aristides (1891), the Didache, Philo, the Diatessaron, the Christian Apologists, Acts of Perpetua, The Odes and Psalms of Solomon (1909), the Gospel of Peter, and other Western and Syriac texts, and numerous works on biblical manuscripts.
In 1933, a Festschrift was published in his honor, called Amicitiae Corolla: a volume of essays presented to James Rendel Harris on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
Books by Rendel Harris
The Odes of Solomon is a collection of 42 odes attributed to Solomon. Various scholars have dated the composition of these religious poems to anywhere in the range of the first three centuries AD. The original language of the Odes is thought to have...