Interview: Abigail Ann Young

aay-jpgDr. Abigail Ann Young is a Medieval scholar with a particular interest in the history of biblical exegesis. She earned a B.A. in Latin from The University of Texas at Austin, M.A. in Classical Languages and M.A. in Late Ancient History from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Licenciate in Medieval Studies from Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, St Michael’s College, University of Toronto, and Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from University of Toronto. Prior to her retirement Young worked as palaeographer, Latinist, and general research associate and editor at the Records of Early English Drama project at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. She can be found at her website, on, and on Twitter.

How did you decide to become a biblical scholar? Share your autobiographical journey.

I suppose it was my family that sowed the seeds, so to speak. When I was 8 years old my great aunt gave me a King James Bible, which set me to trying to read the Bible myself. I didn’t have very great success until my mother brought home the New Testament in the New English Bible translation when I was in high school. Suddenly I could understand the language, which was tremendously exciting, even though I couldn’t understand most of the concepts!

So when I joined the church as a university student, it seemed natural to want to use the language and textual skills I was learning in Classical Studies to study the Bible. It took me some time to figure out that, as a mostly-closeted gay woman with a partner, the clergy was not at that time an open path. (I have come to realise that this was a good thing in the end, since my gifts are far more for teaching and preaching than they are pastoral: I would not have made a good priest.) A course in Byzantine History started me in the direction of history of theology. Eventually at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies I found a way forward: the history of exegesis with professors who encouraged me to look at contemporary exegesis as well as mediaeval exegesis. 

Tell us about your work (past and current). What are you most excited about right now? What do you hope your work will contribute?

Like many other academics of my generation, I ended up working in a non-traditional academic post and outside my primary field. But I kept my hand in as much as possible in the field of 12th-century exegesis, deepening my interest in Rupert of Deutz and his near-contemporary, Hildegard of Bingen, and in the exegesis of the Fourth Gospel. After my two theses (one, on Alexander of Hales, published in Mediaeval Studies and the other, on Rupert of Deutz, web-published), I published only a few articles and an entry on Hildegarde of Bingen for the Handbook of Women Biblical Scholars.

Now that I have retired, I am devoting my energies to writing a commentary on the Fourth Gospel aimed at a non-specialist lay audience. I have been participating in Adult Christian Education in my Anglican parish for many years, and I have learned that there is a crying need for exegetical and other theological materials aimed at a lay audience and free from jargon and ‘talking down’.

Right now I am most excited about the John commentary and also about learning more about the place of the nascent church within Second Temple Judaism. I’m not exactly sure what will come out of the latter interest, except that I know it will make the commentary better!

Who has most influenced you as a scholar? Tells us a bit about it.

Among people by whom I was actually taught, three professors in particular stand out, from the Theology section of the Pontifical Institute: Walter Principe, C.S.B. (my thesis supervisor), Edouard Jeaneau, and Leonard Boyle, O.P. From them I learned not just about the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Benedictine Biblical commentaries, and Thomas Aquinas, but how to do theology. Walter in particular emphasized that the historian of theology and exegesis must put what he or she has learned to the service of the wider church and this has influenced me very much. Among those whom I only have encountered through their books and articles, Beryl Smalley (who really founded the modern study of mediaeval exegesis), Richard Bauckham, and JAT Robinson have all influenced me greatly. While not agreeing with every conclusion of Smalley’s, it is simply not possible to enter into the study of mediaeval exegesis apart from her work. From Bauckham and Robinson also I have learned a lot about how to do theology and about reading the biblical text, especially the Fourth Gospel.

I do think it is ironic that, although my love for and interest in studying the Bible and how it has been read in Christian history was primarily nurtured by women, my academic study was primarily nurtured by men. I doubt this would be true for someone starting out today.

What are the most pressing issues or concerns you have related to the broader field of biblical studies?

I think that right now it is critical that we anchor our study of the New Testament in first-century CE Judaism and read the text in that context. We have to stop reading the NT in the light of later worlds of thought, like Augustine’s, or Luther’s, or Barth’s. Once we have read the Biblical text in its context, then I think we profit by reading it through the lens(es) provided by the church’s history of exegesis. So for instance I think there is great value in applying what we can learn from Augustine or Rupert about the Fourth Gospel as part of that second stage. Where I have a problem is when the second stage of reading the text seems to replace the first.

Why study the scriptures/biblical text?

Wow! How much space do you have? I think I do it primarily out of a love for the Scriptures that was nurtured by my mother and her mother and aunt. I am also convinced that for a Christian there is nothing more important that to read and study the Bible, and that those of us who can do so have an obligation to make the fruits of that study as broadly available as possible in the church.

What do you like to do for fun?

Read, listen to classic jazz and folk, binge watch tv series on Shomi, play with my cat, do family history with my cousins.

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