Most of us now know that Sheffield Phoenix Press (SPP) announced last week that it was shutting down its efforts. The sad and unfortunate demise of SPP marks the fall of the last pillar of what had supported the Sheffield School of biblical studies. Sheffield as a department of biblical studies and as an avenue for publishing the best in biblical scholarship—and the two were linked closely together—was known for methodological awareness, creative innovation, expansive diversity, and lack of theological constraints.
The biblical studies department at the University of Sheffield was founded as the Department of Biblical History and Literature within the Faculty of Arts—consciously not as a department of theology. As a result, when hiring the first head of department in 1947, the university looked beyond Anglicans and other established church people to find someone who would concentrate upon the Bible. The first head of department in the newly founded department was F. F. Bruce, who went on to do some of his best work in biblical studies at Sheffield. He was followed as head of department by Aileen Guilding, David Payne (as acting head), James Atkinson (under whom the department became the Department of Biblical Studies in 1968), John W. Rogerson (who led the department to its unrivaled pinnacle and deserves huge recognition for his efforts), and David J. A. Clines until 2001, followed by a number of different heads of department—during which time in the early years of the twenty-first century the department began to show signs of decline in student numbers and then in faculty and certainly in prestige (there was a point during this time of decline when the head of department was not even a member of the department). In 2009 there was talk of closing down the department, which was staved off until 2014, when the department was closed and the faculty dispersed to various areas of the university (a number left then or soon after). In its heyday, during the early to mid 1980s to the late 1990s or so, the Department of Biblical Studies was probably the finest department doing biblical studies in the English-speaking world, and it attracted students from all over the world to study there.
In around 1976, as a joint venture led by Clines, Philip Davies, and David Gunn (two other Old Testament scholars in the department), JSOT Press came into being, first with an Old Testament journal (JSOT) and monograph series (JSOT Supplements), then two years later a similar New Testament journal (JSNT) and monograph series (JSNT Supplements). This press became one of the most important in the field of biblical studies and grew into Sheffield Academic Press, before finally being sold to Continuum in around 2001 (and subsequently bought by Bloomsbury). In 2004, Clines, Cheryl Exum, and Keith Whitelam (two other Old Testament scholars in the department) founded a reincarnated version of the press, entitled Sheffield Phoenix Press—drawing upon the classical imagery to signal an attempt to bring back to life the Sheffield vision for academic publishing. The press continued to try to fulfill its vision until February of 2016.
Some of the other faculty members who taught in the department not already mentioned above but who are worth remembering are: Loveday Alexander, Bruce Chilton, Margaret Davies, David Hill, Andrew Lincoln, Stephen Moore, and Anthony Thiselton.
There were also many graduates of the department through the years. Some of those who received the PhD degree include (in rough chronological order): Ronald Clements, David L. Baker, Arthur Wesley Carr, John Bimson, Anthony Thiselton, Craig Broyles, Barry Webb, David Orton, Glenn Davies, Stephen Fowl, Alan Winton, Lawson Younger, Mark Brett, Danny Carroll, Roy Jeal, David Neale, J. Christopher Thomas, Robert Webb, Gerald West, Blaine Charette, Paul Kissling, Ian Wallis, Peter Gosnell, David Mark Ball, Nancy Calvert-Koyzis, Barry Matlock, Jonathan Dyck, Philip Kern, Terence Paige, Brian Dodd, Rebecca Idestrom, Todd Klutz, Anthony Nichols, Jeffrey Reed, Yvonne Sherwood, Steven Tracy, Kent Yinger, Ruth Anne Reese, Panayotis Coutsoumpos, Steven Hunt, Barbara Lai, Stephen Walton, and no doubt others that I could and perhaps should have mentioned.
I had the privilege of doing my PhD at Sheffield in both biblical studies (under Thiselton and Rogerson) and linguistics (under Nigel Gotteri). Sheffield was a fantastic place to study, because there was a wide range of method and orientation among the faculty and students (and allowed for my cross-disciplinary study). Our weekly biblical studies seminar was a lively center of debate and challenge (unlike some other seminars I have attended). The press (in whichever incarnation) was a great support to such a department and the discipline as a whole, although SPP unfortunately had much less to support during its tenure than the earlier JSOT Press/SAP. Nevertheless, I was privileged to be Senior Academic Editor for SAP for a year (1991-92) and edited the JSNT Supplement Series for over ten years and then the New Testament Monographs series of SPP for another twelve or so.
Along the way, even though some did not appreciate the label because it seemed to limit the scope of what was on offer, there came to be identified a Sheffield way of doing things—or at least a Sheffield approach to biblical scholarship—that was evidenced within the department and in its publication ventures. This approach was usually creative and innovative, often literary, and usually very biblically centered. The department itself received two Festschriften, the first, The Bible in Three Dimensions, celebrating its fortieth anniversary, and the second, Auguries, celebrating its fiftieth (with an excellent article by David Clines on the history of the department; some details cited here are from this volume).
So what happened? No doubt the presses succumbed to major changes in biblical studies over the years: less demand for scholarly books, less willingness to pay for such books (although Sheffield books were always competitively priced compared to the equivalent from other academic publishers, especially with the scholar’s discount), and a general popularizing and downgrading of the discipline that we see reflected in some publishers today. This academic and financial climate no doubt made it difficult for the press to survive and find a way forward.
As for the department, I think that there were a number of mistakes made in the late 1990s and into the 2000s that shifted its orientation. What had been a department that was broad and inclusive, welcoming diverse views in biblical studies, and hence one that was a great place for evangelicals to study, became an environment that was far less welcoming to such students. In other words, the department shifted so that it increasingly cut itself off from its greatest source of students. There was also a major shift in orientation, from a department of biblical studies to a department of cultural studies. Beginning noticeably in the 2000s, publications in biblical studies were being replaced by various kinds of cultural studies, until the Bible seems to have become foreign to the department itself. In other words, in an effort to be culturally relevant, the Department of Biblical Studies at Sheffield took its eye off its primary purpose for existence and the subject in which it had established both its reputation and its unique way of doing things.
With the demise of SPP, the Sheffield era comes to a sad and apparently final end after nearly seventy years.
— Stanley E. Porter