IT was set up to be a bastion of Presbyterian tradition and for more than 400 years it has been a male-only preserve.

But now, for the first time, a woman has taken up the post of Head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, ending centuries of only male posteriors occupying the chair at the top of the table.

Professor Helen Bond said she hopes to bring a fresh outlook to the role and to inspire others to take a look at a subject some may regard as dusty and dry. 

A historian, published author, and scholar of the early life of Jesus, the professor was previously a lecturer at the school and will fill the top job for the next five years.

She said: “It’s something I’m proud of. It’s amazing that it’s taken to 2018 for a woman to become the head of school here.

“The whole school is very different to when I first came. There were far fewer women on the teaching staff, and among the students. That’s all changed and now around a half are female.”

She added: “I hope that other women will see this and think that the study of religion is not confined to a particular gender, or type of person.”

A member of the Church of Scotland but not an ordained minister like many of her predecessors, Professor Bond intended to study maths when she was younger. She switched to theology because of an interest in the ancient East and the history of its people – the Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians. 

A mother-of-two, she enjoys working in her pyjamas at home, belly dances in her spare time and enjoys writing things out by hand instead of rattling a keyboard. 

She is also one of the few people on the planet to have an intimate knowledge of Jesus’ foreskin. While researching her book Jesus: A Very Brief History – which reconstructs his life – she encountered the tale that this piece of Christ’s anatomy was once believed to be the only part of his earthly remains on earth following his resurrection. 

At one point, there were 18 supposed versions of this relic in various places, although all are now long gone. 

Professor Bond’s rise to the top has been at a time of change for the School, which has moved away from being the preserve of the Church of Scotland to one which welcomes people of all faiths and none. 

The 50-year-old, who says the hardest part of the job is getting used to her new electronic diary, hopes that under her leadership the School will attract those interested in religion, not the religious themselves. 

She said: “It certainly has been [a school for the religious] in the past. A long time ago it was a Church of Scotland training school and all students were male until the 1960s, when women began coming forward to be ordained. 

“But Church ministers in training are very much in the minority now, and only account for around five per cent of the student body.

“Now, instead of focussing on the Church of Scotland, the school teaches all religions, with none being central.”

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Professor Bond added: “There are courses in ancient Buddhism, Hebrew studies, Greek, Christian and Muslim dialogue, atheism, terrorism, American Protestantism and the rise of Trump, for example. There’s a huge variety of stuff.

“Sometimes the best people to study religion are those who are not of a set faith.”

Says she wants to make the department “more active” in reaching out to the public, and to attract people “whatever their views on religion” through open lectures, talks, social media and conferences. 

“The school of divinity should be a place that engages with the public more than we have done in the past,” she said.