Our friend and colleague, John Moles, passed away suddenly on Sunday 4th October, while working in the library. He was a Professor of Latin at Newcastle University, but he lived in Durham and participated regularly in our New Testament Research Seminar, where he could always be relied upon to be provocative, challenging, insightful, witty, warm and self-deprecating.
If John was in the audience, we could look forward to his “pagan” comments (as he called them), prodding us to reconsider familiar things in unfamiliar ways. Two themes that he never tired of were puns and Dionysus. No one who had been to a few seminars with him could forget that “Jesus” in Greek is punned with the verb of healing (Iesous/iaomai), and “Christ” with “grace” as well as “anointing” (Christos/charis/chrisma). Dionysus and his cult were often spotted by John in the motifs and language of the New Testament. He would draw attention to Richard Seaford’s article from 1984 on Dionysiac echoes in Paul’s imagery of seeing Christ “through a glass darkly”, and might add, modestly, that he too had written a piece on Dionysus in Acts. While it is not uncommon for scholars to try to cross the lines between Classics and New Testament Studies, it is a rare pearl to find one who combines the depth and breadth of Classical learning that John had, with such professional commitment to New Testament study. Perhaps there were times when some of us thought he pushed the Classical connections too far, but we could only be grateful for being made think in ways we couldn’t or didn’t without our “pagan” friend. And indeed, the prominence in the church fathers of both punning on Iesous and Christos, and of connections between Dionysiac and Christian imagery, lend strong support to some of John’s instincts in reading the New Testament texts.
Nor was he always seated in the audience. On several occasions we enjoyed his presentation of his own work at the interface between Classical and Christian texts. One of my all-time favourite pieces was his article (to date still unpublished) on “Matthew the Mathete”, in which he argued brilliantly that Matthew uses the language of discipleship (mathetes/manthanein) to inscribe his own name in the text of his gospel. The habit of “signing” one’s work by alluding to one’s own name through puns or other learned, literary tricks was common in polished Classical literature in both Greek and Latin; John added, whether facetiously or not, that he himself had often tried to do the same with allusions to “moles” in his articles.
John’s humour and self-irony were combined with a warm heart and tireless energy for supporting and encouraging younger scholars. Since I was one of them, I got to see it at close hand. Back in the early days of internet, he had been one of a small group of scholars with enough vision to found a fully open access, online academic journal – an idea that was then long ahead of its time. Histos specialises in ancient historiography and biography and soon established a reputation as a leading Classics journal worldwide. In recent times, John wanted to bring in more early Christian and Jewish material, so I had the chance to see his work more closely. I was particularly impressed on one occasion when, as an editor, he was persuaded to turn down a very weak script written by an unqualified student. Whereas other academics would have rejected it with a clean conscience and without a second thought, John seemed genuinely to rue the rejection of an opportunity to help someone who “for all we knew” might be up against great challenges. “Helping,” for him, would mean labour-intensive intervention to craft the work anew in a way that transformed it into a genuine contribution to the field.
Despite the light self-mockery with which he introduced his “pagan” comments at seminars, John was not “pagan” when it came to faith. He called himself a “liberal” Anglican, and was a devout member of St Margaret’s Church, Crossgate. When I once chanced to go there, I found him helping other people who were unsteady on their feet and needed someone to lean on. His smile and friendship will be missed every bit as much as his astute insights and scholarly collegiality.
Dr. Heath is a Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.