NEH Grant Aids ACU-led International Biblical Study Team


An international team of scholars led by Abilene Christian University religion professor Dr. Curt Niccum has scored a major win for ACU.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded the team a $300,000 grant to produce print and digital editions of Old Testament books in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia.

Dr. Curt Niccum

Megan Roth, executive director of research at ACU, said in an email that the grant isn’t the first for the university from the NEH but it is significant because of its size. Only 238 NEH grants were awarded during the current grant cycle, Roth said, and the ACU grant is one of only nine awarded in Texas. Only the University of Texas at Austin received a larger grant in the state. 

“It is a huge accomplishment,” Roth said.

In addition to teaching at ACU, Niccum is associate director of the university’s Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts. According to a news release from ACU, the NEH project, “The Emerging Text: The Textual History of the Ethiopic Old Testament,” will take place over the next three years. The release stated that the team of scholars will publish textual histories of eight books of the Ge’ez Old Testament. 

Besides Niccum, ACU will be represented on the team by students and by James Prather, associate professor of computer science; and Brent Reeves, associate professor of management science and computer science, who are providing technical support. They will be joined by Garry Jost of Portland. The project also will involve scholars from the United States, Europe, and Africa. Primary participants in addition to those from ACU are Steve Delamarter (Portland Seminary, retired), Daniel Assefa (Tabeb Research Center, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), and Ralph Lee (Cambridge, England).

Niccum said in an email that although Ge’ez is an ancient language, priests in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church still read and write in the language.

“The number of textual scholars with facility in the language, though, is rather small,” Niccum said.

Because of a number of efforts since the late 1960s to preserve Ethiopia’s material heritage, Niccum said in his email, many Ethiopian manuscripts have been digitized. Thousands are available through the Hill Museum and Manuscript Center in Collegeville, Minnesota, Niccum said, but there are many others now publicly available through the work of universities, libraries, and other projects.

Niccum earned a master of divinity degree from ACU in 1992 and a doctorate in biblical and related studies from the University of Notre Dame in 2000. Among his published works is a book published in 2014 by Wipf and Stock, “The Bible in Ethiopia: The Book of Acts.” 

According to the news release from ACU, for each of the eight books that will be analyzed, at least 30 manuscripts will be examined to identify eras during which Ethiopian Christians modified their biblical text. 

The project is significant, the release noted, for its attention to a little known non-Western translation of the Bible, the production of a text based on a larger number of manuscripts than has been used in previous editions, a survey of the entirety of Ethiopia’s textual history, and the creation of a digital repository with tools and processes for future research open to scholars and students alike. 

Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene

Loretta Fulton

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