Sidney Morning Herald - Obituary 12/4/2015
BARBARA THIERING 1930–2015
Historian, feminist and iconoclast Barbara Thiering once observed that, for a woman of her temperament, she had been born at a fortunate time in Australia. She was too young for World War II, was a young adult in the prosperous 1950s, an intellectual during the 1960s and 1970s, when the world was ripe for such things, and a successful writer and academic in her later years.
She participated in a time of great growth and change when opportunities were opening up for women, which she applauded and encouraged. The combination of her high intelligence, strong will and independent free-thought created a path for her life, reflecting the changing position of women and the political and religious turbulence of the later 20th century.
She was born Barbara Houlsby, in Sydney, on November 15, 1930, the daughter of Jack Houlsby and his wife, Ruth (nee Hanney). Jack was a sensitive, intelligent man, who had been a foundling. He was an accountant, who, having become disillusioned with capitalism during the Great Depression, settled into a 2.5 hectare farm, called Woodlands, at Marsfield, an early exercise in self-sufficiency and alternate lifestyle. He created the farm from scratch – built his own home, planted an orchard and kept several farm animals. Home life was simple and rustic, strongly anti-materialistic and deeply connected to nature.
The family was solid, non-practising Protestant, middle-class Australian with bohemian underpinnings. Here Barbara was raised, together with her brother Clive and sister Jennifer, in an atmosphere of liberal intellectualism and rationalism, acceptance of the morality of Christianity while questioning the structural system of the established church.
Jack nurtured Barbara's intellect, giving her a classical education, teaching her poetry and encouraging her academic studies. Ruth, descended from a fierce Scottish Presbyterian line, had been forced to leave school at 12 and her only opportunity for self-expression came with caring for children, her skills as a seamstress, and in keeping her family healthy and well-nourished during the Depression and the war. Witnessing Ruth's frustration and resentment at her narrowed opportunities fired Barbara's passion for equal opportunity and women's education.
Nevertheless, Ruth wanted Barbara to leave school at 15 to train as a seamstress because of the family's chronic financial difficulties. The headmistress of Hornsby Girls High came to the house, an unprecedented action, to plead that Barbara stay at school, saying she was the brightest student she had ever had. The headmistress was successful and Barbara stayed on, came third in the state leaving exams (the top female candidate in the state), and went to the University of Sydney, where she attained double first class honours, in French and German.
Barbara met Barry Thiering in the late 1940s, through the local church fellowship, and they soon married. Barry went on to complete his training as an Anglican minister and was posted to St Stephens Church in Mittagong. Life as a country rector's wife was difficult for Barbara, as she found the role stifling.
She transcended her circumstances by pursuing her intellectual life – she taught herself Ancient Greek and Hebrew while she was pregnant. Ultimately, she became competent in seven modern and ancient languages. She continued her education while raising a young family. She obtained a Bachelor of Divinity from London University and a Masters of Divinity from the Melbourne College of Divinity by correspondence.
Returning to Sydney, Thiering naturally became involved in the academic and intellectual challenges of the 1960s liberation movements, interrogating prevailing orthodoxies – social, political and religious. Her politics and world view were shaped by the intellectual life of the University of Sydney as well as international influences from French existentialists and radical theologians such as Paul Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was a very interesting time in Australia and Thiering played her role in this.
She took a position at the University of Sydney as a lecturer in the Semitic Studies department and later in the Christian School of Divinity, beginning a long career in theology and semitic studies. She completed her PhD on Asceticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1972. She began writing regular articles for the Anglican newspaper and international scholarly journals, and became known as "that radical Australian theologian woman".
Thiering was an early member of the developing feminist movement in Australia and in particular highlighted the role of women in the modern Christian Church. Her publications Created Second? Aspects of Women's Liberation in Australia (1973) and Deliver Us From Eve (editor) (1977) contained a summary of her early ideas, radical at the time but now mainstream reading. She was appointed to the inaugural NSW Equal Opportunity Tribunal by Neville Wran as a lay expert on the situation of women and served from 1981 to 1993.
In addition to her academic writings, at this time, Thiering began a long stint in Adult Education, deconstructing many of the fundamentalist theologies most Cold-War Christians had been taught. She made a number of television appearances, as well as regular radio interviews as a voice for alternative, anti-fundamentalist religion.
In the late 1970s, Thiering began what would be her major life work, redating the chronology of the "Teacher of Righteousness", a figure found in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the "Wicked Priest", an opponent of the Teacher. This work consisted of a paleographic analysis showing the previously lost Temple Scroll to be contemporaneous with the rise of Christianity.
After some years she decided to summarise her work in a popular book designed for the well-informed general reader. This became Jesus the Man (1992), a revolutionary and controversial work which became an international best seller, translated into nine foreign languages. This book was a radical challenge to the established orthodoxy about historical Christianity, the virgin birth, the miracles and the Resurrection.
The book predictably met with a storm of controversy. Thiering coped with courage and strong mindedness. She had a clear vision and would not compromise. It was a mark of her belief in the importance of her insight over social acceptability.
Her work led to a significant change in her previously quiet, academic life. She received both adulation and hostility but kept going nevertheless. A round of worldwide press engagements was followed by a documentary, The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Two further books elaborating on the story of Jesus' life followed, Jesus of the Apocalypse (1997) and The Book that Jesus Wrote (1998).
In later years, Thiering returned to her scholarly work relating to the Temple Scroll and other documents. She had an internet site and a worldwide online following. The peaceful and constructive intellectual life in her 60s and 70s were years she described as her happiest. She was engrossed in her work and always joyful when on the trail of some ancient puzzle. In moments of rest she would gaze out at the gum trees and jacarandas in her garden and beyond to the sparkling waters of Middle Harbour.
Barbara Thiering is survived by her children Nerida, Paul and David, and grandchildren Patrick, Hugh, Claudia and Peter.