Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, FBA (15 March 1851 – 20 April 1939) was a Scottish archaeologist and New Testament scholar. By his death in 1939 he had become the foremost authority of his day on the history of Asia Minor and a leading scholar in the study of the New Testament.
Ramsay was educated in the Tübingen school of thought (founded by F. C. Baur) which doubted the reliability of the New Testament, but his extensive archaeological and historical studies convinced him of its historical accuracy. From the post of Professor of Classical Art and Architecture at Oxford, he was appointed Regius Professor of Humanity (the Latin Professorship) at Aberdeen.
Knighted in 1906 to mark his distinguished service to the world of scholarship, Ramsay also gained three honorary fellowships from Oxford colleges, nine honorary doctorates from British, Continental and North American universities and became an honorary member of almost every association devoted to archaeology and historical research. He was one of the original members of the British Academy, was awarded the Gold Medal of Pope Leo XIII in 1893 and the Victorian Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1906.
He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the youngest son of a third-generation lawyer, Thomas Ramsay and his wife Jane Mitchell, daughter of William Mitchell. His father died when he was six years old, and the family moved from the city to the family home in the country district near Alloa. The help of his older brother and his maternal uncle, Andrew Mitchell of Alloa, made it possible for him to have an education at the Gymnasium in Old Aberdeen.
Ramsay studied at the University of Aberdeen, where he achieved high distinction and later became Professor of Humanity. He won a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford, where he obtained a first class in classical moderations (1874) and in literae humaniores (1876). He also studied Sanskrit under scholar Theodor Benfey at Göttingen.
In 1880 Ramsay received an Oxford studentship for travel and research in Greece. At Smyrna, he met Sir C. W. Wilson, then British consul-general in Anatolia, who advised him on inland areas suitable for exploration. Ramsay and Wilson made two long journeys during 1881-1882.
He traveled widely in Asia Minor and rapidly became the recognized authority on all matters relating to the districts associated with St Paul's missionary journeys and on Christianity in the early Roman Empire. Greece and Turkey remained the focus of Ramsay's research for the remainder of his academic career. In 1883, he discovered the world's oldest complete piece of music, the Seikilos epitaph. In the late 19th century, he discovered two of the most important Phrygian monuments – the rock tombs "Aslantaş" (Lion Stone) and "Yılantaş" (Snake Stone), located close to the city center of Afyon. He was known for his expertise in the historic geography and topography of Asia Minor and of its political, social, cultural, and religious history.
After becoming a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford in 1882, from 1885 to 1886 Ramsay held the newly created Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art at Oxford and became a fellow of Lincoln College (honorary fellow 1898). In 1886 Ramsay was appointed Regius Professor of Humanity at the University of Aberdeen. He remained affiliated with Aberdeen until his retirement in 1911.
From 1880 onwards he received the honorary degrees of D.C.L. Oxford, LL.D. St Andrews and Glasgow, and D.D. Edinburgh. In 1906, Ramsay was knighted for his scholarly achievements on the 400th anniversary of the founding of the University of Aberdeen. He was elected a member of learned societies in Europe and America and was awarded medals by the Royal Geographical Society and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1919 Ramsay served as president of the Geographical Association.
His wife, Lady Ramsay, granddaughter of Dr Andrew Marshall of Kirkintilloch, accompanied him in many of his journeys and is the author of Everyday Life in Turkey (1897) and The Romance of Elisavet (1899). He was a grandson of entrepreneur William Mitchell (1781–1854). Other relatives include Mary Ramsay and Agnis Margaret Ramsay who were responsible for contributing several photographs and illustrations in his work on The Letters to the Seven Churches.
Ramsay first went to Asia Minor, many of the cities mentioned in the Book of Acts had no definite location. Later in life he concluded: '"Further study … showed that the book could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement" (The Bearing of Recent Discovery, p. 85). On page 89 of the same book, Ramsay accounted, "You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian's". On the authorship of the Pauline epistles he concluded that all thirteen New Testament letters ostensibly written by Paul were authentic.
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William Mitchell Ramsay
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