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Who was Sir William Ramsay?

Sir William Ramsay

Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851—1939) was a Scottish New Testament scholar and archeologist who became recognized as “the foremost authority of his day on the topography, antiquities, and history of Asia Minor in ancient times” (Anderson, J. G. C., “Sir William Mitchell Ramsay,” Dictionary of National Biography, 1931—1940, p. 727). In the ancient ruins of the Greco-Roman world, Ramsay set out on a mission to prove that Luke’s account of history in his Gospel and the book of Acts was unreliable and fabricated. But to his dismay and eventual delight, Sir Willliam Ramsay became convinced that these New Testament Scriptures were historically accurate to the minutest detail.

Sir William Ramsay was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His father, a lawyer, came from a long line of attorneys. He died when William was six, and the family moved from Glasgow to their country home near Alloa. William’s maternal uncle, Andrew Mitchell, and his older brother helped guide the brilliant and naturally inquisitive young boy toward the best education. That education would incorporate Aberdeen Gymnasium in preparation for the University of Aberdeen, where Ramsay excelled.

Finishing at the top of his class, William Ramsay went on to five more years of study and academic honors at Oxford University and St. John’s College at Oxford in England. Every moment of college work, applying himself in the classroom and studying, was pure joy for William. Looking back on this time, he wrote, “The idea was simmering unconsciously in my mind that scholarship was the life for me: not the life of teaching, which was repellent, but the life of discovery” (Ramsay, W. M., The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Hodder and Stoughton, 1915, p. 7).

During these years, Ramsey also spent time at the University in Göttingen, Germany, studying Sanskrit under the renowned scholar Theador Benfey, who quickened in William an eagerness to learn, discover, and apply knowledge to investigation to perceive truth better.

After completing college and getting married to Agnes Dick, William was invited to study for a three-year traveling studentship offered by Exeter College, Oxford. He won the scholarship, beating his fellow candidate, Oscar Wilde, who would later become a famous scholar, poet, critic, and playwright.

In 1880, William and his wife set sail for Asia Minor, where he would begin exploring and studying the geography and archaeology of ancient biblical lands—a pursuit that would become his life’s devotion. In 1885, Ramsay became Oxford’s first Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology. The following year, he was appointed Regius Professor of Humanity (as the Latin professorship is titled) at the University of Aberdeen, a position he maintained until his retirement in 1911.

Ramsay spent most of his teaching breaks on extended visits to Asia Minor, where he continued his research as an archaeologist. Having been educated in the Tübingen school of theology, which disregarded the historical value of many New Testament books, Ramsay believed that Luke’s writings in Acts and the Gospel of Luke were nothing but myth. He aimed to prove it through archaeology. However, dig after dig, he uncovered precision and truth in every geographical and historical detail of Luke’s writings. Luke correctly named the asiarchs in Ephesus, the politarchs in Thessalonica, and the proconsuls in senatorial provinces. Ramsay’s careful research bore out the fact that Luke was a trustworthy historian. The scholar’s skepticism gave way to faith, and Ramsay became a born-again believer.

Ramsey wrote several books on archaeology and historical context in his lifetime, many of which are still referenced as classics today. Among them are Historical Geography of Asia Minor (1890) and The Church in the Roman Empire before A.D. 170 (1893). Besides proving Luke’s reliability as a historian, Ramsay confirmed Paul’s authorship of the Pauline Epistles. He also uncovered much of Paul’s history and personal background in St. Paul, the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (1895) and The Cities of St. Paul (1907).

Sir William Ramsay’s titles and honors were extensive: He was Wilson fellow at University of Aberdeen (1901—1905); honorary fellow of Exeter College (1896) and Lincoln College (1897); lecturer in Mansfield College, Oxford (1891 and 1895); Levering lecturer at Johns Hopkins University (1894); Morgan lecturer at Auburn Theological Seminary (1894); and Rede lecturer at the University of Cambridge (1906). He was also honored with doctorates from nine universities, including Oxford, St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Cambridge, Edinburgh, New York, Bordeaux, and Marburg.

In 1906, on the four hundredth anniversary of the University of Aberdeen’s founding, William Ramsay was knighted for his accomplishments and service to the scholarly world. He was also awarded the Gold Medal of Pope Leo XIII (1893) and the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society (1906).

Sir William Ramsay died on April 20, 1939, but his contributions live on through his enduring works. Foremost among those works were his comprehensive explorations in ancient geography, archaeology, and the historicity of New Testament Scriptures.

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This page last updated: April 25, 2024