Some memories of Steven Ring, Syriacist Extraordinaire

Yesterday I learned by accident of the death of Steven Ring, one of the first enthusiasts online to promote Syriac studies.  He died on March 28th 2021 of cancer.  He had been ill for the previous four years, during which time he undertook and completed a PhD at SOAS.

I’m not sure when I first met Steven online, for it was very long ago.  My email box tells me that we were already well-known to each other in 2006, when I was working on the works of Severus Sebokht and trying to get microfilms from the Bibliothèque Nationale Francais. We swapped war-stories of archives; of who would allow this, or would obstruct that.  We wrote hopefully of how user photography might become something other than a pipe-dream.

But we had come across each other earlier, possibly as early as 2000.  In those days his website “Scholar’s corner: Syriac and Aramaic New Testament studies” – now vanished – was at http://www.srr.axbridge.org.uk/syriac_home.html and this is archived in the Wayback Machine at Archive.org.  A 2006 snapshot is here.

In those days he was an electrical engineer, working for the IEEE, and using his work email address to swap information about Syriac manuscripts.  They were fun, and always to the point.  He was very interested in original language Syriac and Aramaic original material.  One of his emails tells me that he had no interest in the English translations, although this was a bit of an overstatement.

Naturally he made a wide circle of friends and contacts, both among the scholars of our time, and also in the native Syriac community, from Syria out as far as India.  I remember when we first met, in December 2006.  Erica C. D. Hunter ran a short but intensive course on Syriac language at SOAS in London on 4 Saturdays, once a month.  A fair number of people with jobs turned up.  (I must have had lots more energy in those days, to do it after a week in a hotel!)  We stayed in regular touch thereafter.  I helped him to get a reader’s card for the Bodleian in Oxford, which was nearer to his base in Bristol.

He could be somewhat eccentric.  He was an autodidact, and some of his views were distinctly out of the mainstream.  He believed, for instance, that the gospels were originally written in Aramaic.  It was likewise perhaps inevitable that he would adopt Covid-scepticism.  But these quirks did not mar him, or distract from his genuine interest in every area of Syriac studies.  He was a Christian.

Steven Ring, visiting Oxford in 2010.

The last time that I met him in person was on Saturday 10th August, 2013.  We met in the reader admissions at the British Library in London – both of our cards were out of date – and we went up to the Oriental manuscripts room to look at BL Additional 12150.  This is one of the manuscripts from the Nitrian desert, and was written in 411 AD (!)  It had a modern binding, and the librarian handed this 16-century-old item over with barely a glance.  I’d asked him along to help with reading the Syriac.  I was mainly interested in chapter titles and running headers and the like.

It was impossible to mistake his genuine enthusiasm and determination to do scholarship.  He was very much a layman, as I am, but the kind of supporter that every discipline needs.  I was pained to hear from him, while we sat in the cafe having lunch, that some nameless academic at a conference had told him “Remember that you’re only here on sufferance”.  I can  imagine that his enthusiasm could draw such a response from someone for whom academia had become just a job.  This set-down seemed to discourage him, and it gave him a distaste for what he was doing.  I noticed that his pace of work palled for two or three years.  He had also left the IEEE in this time, and attempted to start his own business, although I’m not sure that it was very successful.  Fortunately his 2013 encounter with the British Library manuscripts seems to have reinvigorated him, and he decided that he would do a doctorate.   His long-term enthusiasm for the Diatessaron was poured into his thesis.

Steven Ring – Facebook portrait photo

A few years later I learned that he was unwell, but it did not seem likely to be fatal.  He proceeded with his PhD.  He was still posting about Covid on Facebook in February.

On April 3 2021 this notice appeared on Steven’s facebook page:

To all Steven Ring’s friends, colleagues and associates

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of his recent passing on the 29th of March.

He had battled cancer for over four years, but had deteriorated rapidly in recent months. He’s now at rest and with the Lord.

Amazingly, in his last few weeks he was able to not only finish his PhD studies, pass his Viva, and be awarded his degree. He also managed to publish much of the last 23 years of his research online (via ResearchGate), so that others might carry on from where he left-off.

We will provide details of his funeral arrangements in due course for those wishing to attend his memorial service remotely.

Lesley Ring

Sadly I only saw this a few days ago.  I was shocked, for I had no idea that his life was in danger.  I suspect that he was in his late 50s, but I don’t know his exact age.

On the hugoye-list here on March 31 Erica Hunter posted this obituary:

Dear Hugoye members,

it is with great sadness that I announce the recent death (on March 28th) of Steven Ring who often contributed to this group under the pseudonym: Estephanos Anglishiya.

Steven was a doctoral student in the Dept. of History, Religions and Philosophies, but had originally completed an M.A. in Electronics and Communications Engineering at the University of Birmingham in 1981.

Syriac Christianity was a life-long passion and after initial studies in Syriac, in 2016 he embarked on a doctoral programme at SOAS under the supervision of Dr. Erica C. D. Hunter.

His thesis, “The post fifth-century use and dissemination of the Syriac Diatessaron with new perspectives on its origins”, created important new understanding re its transmission which he showed continued up to the ninth century, particularly in the East Syriac tradition.

Examined by Emeritus Prof. Nicholas Sims-Williams FBA and Emeritus Prof. John Healey FBA, the thesis was awarded the degree of PhD, just a couple of days before he died.

Steven was a prodigious scholar who had already authored several articles and was planning to write volumes more. He will be sorely missed.

Dr. Erica C D Hunter
Senior Lecturer in Eastern Christianity, Emerita
SOAS

Rest in peace, old friend, and rise in glory.

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9 thoughts on “Some memories of Steven Ring, Syriacist Extraordinaire

  1. What sad news, thank you for sharing this. If his dissertation can be made available online, that would be wonderful. Though he is dead, he will still speak!

  2. I did not know Steven but from your account he was indeed the sort of amateur you want to have around: passionate, informed, and not constrained by academic fads so can often see the wood while everyone else is examining a microbe on some tree trunk. I am so glad he got his PhD before he died, examined by two luminaries as well. Put the naysayers in their place for eternity. May he rest in peace. Would love to read his thesis as well.

    And how luck are you to have been able to see Add MS 12150. I have been waiting for months for a reply from BL on this one. Shocked that this oldest dated manuscript in any language is still not digitized and/or available online.

  3. Yes, Steven was one of us.

    Sorry to hear about your experiences with the British Library. These days we can just go in and take pics with a mobile phone. I had bad experiences with them, back in the day. One day, when the plague is over, I must go down and photograph their Tertullian manuscripts.

  4. It might be a little early to see Steven’s thesis on-line in the SOAS library due to ‘Covid’ aka staff shortages etc, but all doctoral theses are on-line. It could be that a member of staff/student only has access, but if that is the case I think that I could manage to arrange this.

  5. I wanted to say Roger thank you for a very moving tribute to Steven and the very nice photo of him, in Berlin. I think that it was taken when he attended one of my Workshops on the Turfan material that I held. Yes, he did meet you at my Saturday Syriac classes which were intensive, but real fun. Little did I know that he would pursue the full academic trajectory and have a doctorate awarded. I am currently arranging for his digital files of unpublished research to be donated to an appropriate institution so that his remarkable work can be accessed and used by up-and-coming Syriac scholars. I know that this was one of Steven’s greatest wishes.

  6. Hi Erica,

    As you say, it may come online in due course. If not, I’ll let you know.

    Thank you so much for your obituary in hugoye-list. He was a very decent sort. I remember your course very well, and I still have the notes on my shelf here. Thank you so much for running it. I still run across people from it from time to time, and I was grateful for it when we looked at Add. 12150. The pictures came from his facebook account – interesting to hear that the main one was from Berlin!

    Thank you also for looking after his unpublished work. It’s exactly what he would have wanted.

    Roger

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