Monthly Archives: October 2015

To collaborate or compete? — and a brief update.

Graduate school is starting to hike up the stress.  Part of the stress is not about academics much at all — it’s about the social life.  In E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, he spends a lot of time talking about the delicate balance between collaboration and competition that any species must engage in to survive.  So every individual organism is focused on perpetuating its genes, helping its family survive.

Thinking about this delicate balance is helping me understand graduate school a lot better.  In seminar we are supposed to appreciate the differing backgrounds of our colleagues.  I feel this strongly in my rabbinic literature class.  The class is housed at the Center for Jewish Studies, and most of the students are in the Jewish Studies program, with only two of us in biblical studies.  So I learn a lot from the other students in the class, because many of them are thinking about Jewish life today or applying this to their studies of modern Judaism.  It means I do not always get the conversations going on, but I much prefer learning about rabbinics in this way than from a Christian professor with a bunch of Christian students.

Still, even though I appreciate what I learn from colleagues, I also feel pressure to compete, to make intelligent points and impress the professor and our fellow students.  We can’t only listen and appreciate.  We must critique and, to a certain extent, self-promote.  Finding that balance is hard.  You want to come off as competent but not an asshole.

I’m finding that the solution to this is just knowing my strengths and weaknesses.  This is very different from being an undergraduate.  As an undergraduate, we are bigger fish in smaller ponds, and being “the best” in our department or major is actually an attainable goal.  As graduate students, we are not supposed to be “the best.”  If we try, we burn out, or become insufferable assholes who mansplain other peoples’ areas of expertise to them because we think we know everything.

Rather, we are supposed to be the best at what we want to be.

Let me explain that.

Nobody can do everything.  Even in a field as specialized as biblical studies, nobody understands everything.  We build niches.  Early on in our careers, we are siphoned off into Hebrew Bible or New Testament.  Then we are trained in particular methodologies: text-criticism, linguistics, archaeology, literary criticism, historical study, etc.  If one goes outside studying the biblical texts themselves, you can get into the worlds of Second Temple Jewish literature (including Dead Sea Scrolls), apocryphal early Christian literature (e.g. Gnostics), rabbinic literature, reception studies, and then the many contemporary methodologies such as feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism, etc.  Though most who become professors will have to be able to teach these things, nobody knows them well enough to publish in all of them.  (This is not to say that scholars don’t develop new areas of expertise over the course of their career. Many do.  One of my professors was trained in Hebrew Bible and became a Darwin scholar mid-career.  That’s a bit of a leap, but you get the idea.)

Right now I am focused on connections between the Bible and Qur’an.  I am not hoping to focus on either Hebrew Bible or New Testament because I hope to know both well enough to work with them.  But this does mean I don’t need to become an expert in Leviticus, or master literary criticism of biblical narratives, to name some things my fellow students specialize in.  I can turn to them when I have questions on these things.  That’s a freeing thought: I don’t have to do everything!

But knowing what direction I want to move into, and knowing my strengths and weaknesses, does mean I have to become an expert in things my fellow students don’t.  Like learning Arabic.  (Yikes.)  And learning the language and literature of Syriac Christians.  And Islamic traditions of tafsir, Qur’an exegesis.  These are all things I know only a little about.  (Double yikes.)

So in the first month of graduate school, I really am finding it’s a different game.  It’s not about being the best.  It’s about knowing what you want to do and focusing on doing that the best that you can.  And when you know what are you good at, what you are an expert in, and what you not good at or knowledgeable in, means that you can engage in that dynamic dance of collaboration and competition, of being both humble enough to learn from colleagues and competent enough that you have something to teach them too.  That is not a model I understood as an undergraduate (which likely says more about me than about my mentors).


In other news, I have gone twice now to the Muslim Community Association, the mosque near my apartment.  I really like the vibe of the community.  When I went there the first time two weekends ago, for an educational event on Islamophobia, I felt a strong sense of calling to that community.  I’m hoping to go back and learn from them.  I want my studies to be rooted in a real dialogue with real people about what texts mean today, not just a classroom exercise.


This weekend I’m headed to the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City.  Wow.  Then I come back home for two days and immediately head out on a family trip with my mom.  Thankfully we GTU students get a week off late October for reading week, so I can go on this trip and only miss two days of school.  It’ll be interesting balancing the relaxation of a family trip with the anti-relaxation of impending paper deadlines.





A Critical and Relevant Faith

James McGrath blogs on a book by C. Drew Smith, Reframing a Relevant Faith:

Critically thinking about the faith is not equivalent to criticizing the faith, as some may think, although that may be part of critical thinking.  Rather, thinking critically about the faith is to continue to ask questions, to inquire about the history of the faith, its present relevancy, and its future hopes.  It is also to admit its flaws and weaknesses with honesty and transparency.

The popular idea that God wrote the Bible for me needs to be stamped out.

That second one especially — I can’t agree more.  Yes, scripture speaks to us today, but if we ignore the very different cultural backgrounds of the humans who wrote it down and edited it, we miss a lot of its meaning.



Book Review: Jesus in the Talmud, Peter Schafer.

Schafer’s book, Jesus in the Talmud, examines what can only be a scintillating subject: how does Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, appear in the Talmud? Schafer emphasizes that in the vast ocean of Talmud, passages referring to Jesus (implicitly or explicitly) are only a few minor drops. But those drops are important to analyze to bring together the fractured histories of Judaism and Christianity. While Talmudic references to Jesus are far too late to be of use in understanding the historical Jesus, he argues that these passages are counternarratives to the Christian stories about Jesus and Christian polemics against Jews.

In each chapter Schafer takes a Talmudic passage and unpacks it. Chapter one, “Jesus’ Family,” paints Mary as a prostitute who conceived Jesus by a Roman soldier named Pandera/Panthera. Chapter two analyzed Talmudic passages depicting Jesus as a failed rabbinic disciple who “public spoils his food dish,” a euphemism for sexual licentiousness. Schafer argues that this relates to the Talmudic narrative of Jesus’ bastard birth and Gentile blood, but also to the Gnostic language of Jesus loving Mary Magdalene. In chapter three, we see Jesus as rabbinic disciple of Yehoshua b. Perahya, but an utterly failed disciple who “practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray.” This chapter actually explains the origins of Christianity: Jesus was peeved because his teacher was impatient with him!

Chapter four, “The Torah Teacher,” introduces a rabbinic follower of Jesus, R. Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer becomes a stand-in for critiques of Christianity. Eliezer is also accused of sexual impropriety, and elsewhere in the Talmud is depicted as a weak debater who must summon God to ratify his points (this is a famous rabbinic story). According to Daniel Boyarin, Eliezer is a liminal figure who represents the borderline between Judaism and Christianity.

Chapter five deals with spells of healing in the name of Jesus. While the Talmud depicts this magic as effective, it is also dangerous and prohibited because Jesus is, well, not kosher. Just because Jesus has divine power does not mean God approves. The power is an open conduit, and immoral and moral men alike can use it.

The next chapter is very interesting. Talmudic sources on Jesus’ execution actually accept Jewish blame for the charge, in keeping with a long Christian tradition of deeming Jews Christ-killers. But here the Talmudic sources accept responsibility and defend the penalty, arguing that Jesus was an idolater and a blasphemer who was sentenced fairly according to the law. Wow.

The next two chapters describe Jesus’ disciples as dead failures, and paint a vivid portrait of Jesus’ afterlife eternally trapped in a bath of boiling excrement in hell. Yuck.

Schafer’s final chapter examines some of the broader themes of Jesus in the Talmud. For example, many of the accusations against Jesus have to do with sexual immorality, implying that he was the son of a prostitute and was himself licentious. Another theme is magic, which is connected to the accusation that Jesus was an idolator and blasphemer – we see this accusation against Jesus in the gospels too (e.g. Mt. 26:63-65). Schafer also discusses differences between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds in their depiction of Jesus. Most of these slurs only appear in the Babylonian Talmud; he argues that this is because Jews under the Sassanians were not under a Christian empire, so they could speak more freely. Schafer also argues that the rabbis of the Bavli must have been familiar with the New Testament because there are explicit references to NT texts in these counternarratives, particularly to John.

I really liked Schafer’s book. The book itself is only 129 pages, and his writing is very clear and to-the-point. I would highly recommend this book.

Book Review: Envisioning the Book of Judith, Andrea Scheaffer.

This past spring, my art history professor, Kathleen Maxwell, gave a presentation to the classics department on her research into Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. She mentioned something offhand that stuck with me: when studying these manuscripts, the art historians tend to only look at the art and the biblical scholars tend only to look at the text, mainly for text-critical purposes. The sad result of our disciplinary boundaries is that we often don’t understand these manuscripts, which were created as a unification of art and text.

sheafferI’ve since seen what she meant as I have been researching the Saint John’s Bible, trying to find biblical scholars engaging with art as visual exegesis of scripture. So I was pleased to find Judith Scheaffer’s book, Envisioning the Book of Judith: How Art Illuminates Minor Characters, which combines literary readings of minor characters in the book of Judith with analysis of Renaissance art depicting Judith. Each painting’s treatment of these minor characters serves as a springboard for the close literary readings she performs of these books. So in various chapters, she analyzes Achor, Judith’s maidservant, the Israelite crowd, Bagoas, and Holofernes. She digs deep to find how each of these characters moves the plot along and contributes to the central message of the text. I am impressed with how well she integrated the two modes of analysis, particularly since this book was based on a dissertation. (Let’s be honest: dissertation-books are often clunky and not much fun to read!)

Scheaffer left me with a series of questions to think about as I read up on Saint John’s Bible material. These are taken from page 9:

  • How does the art enable us to ‘see’ something we may have ignored in the textual narrative
  • How does the art illuminate or add to an aspect of the biblical character or text as a whole
  • How does the art alert the viewer to something important that is glossed over in the text?
  • Have artists ‘read’ the text in a different way from scholars or other readers and so present a different visual interpretation?
  • Lastly, how does our encounter with the visual representation of a character influence the way we read the narrative?

Sheaffer also pointed me toward other scholarship combining art history and biblical scholarship. I may be biased since she earned her Ph.D. at my school and now works as Director of Admissions here (we emailed back and forth when I was applying!), but I found this book useful for opening new avenues of investigation. I’m adding it to my methodological toolkit.