Gospel of Thomas Episode [further reading]

gospel-of-thomasOne of my earliest videos—”What did Gnostic Christians Believe?”—continues to garner the most views out of all of my videos. My other top performers? The videos on the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas. Something about Gnosticism really interests people on YouTube! Check out my Gospel of Thomas video below:

This video coincided well with a new commentary on the Gospel of Thomas by Simon Gathercole published in 2015. It is probably the most exhaustive commentary on the Gospel of Thomas that I’ve seen, and he takes several moderate positions (ie. his dating of Thomas, his thoughts on whether Thomas contains any original sayings of Jesus). I highly recommend this text as the jumping off point for any further research on the Gospel of Thomas. Gathercole’s bibliography is extensive. I also relied on April DeConick’s research on the Gospel of Thomas. She argues that the Gospel of Thomas started as a kernel of Aramaic Jesus Sayings that went through several processes of compilation and re-writing into what we have today.

The question, “Why is it not in the Bible” is a rather silly question for those who know how complicated the process of canonization was…but it is the question I hear ALL THE TIME from people interested in the topic. Some have even crafted complicated conspiracy theories about how the Church stifled certain books, barring them from the Bible. In these situations, I always try to downplay the power of any centralized ecclesiastical authorities during this time. There is not much evidence for a concerted effort by Church authorities to ban the Gospel of Thomas. Sure, some church authorities didn’t like it, but it was obviously being copied and read by some people. However, its popularity apparently wasn’t enough. By the time the canon started to take shape, the 4 Gospel that we are most familiar with already had a huge fan base, and it was hard to break into that exclusive club.


April DeConick. Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and Its Growth. 2005.

Simon Gathercole. The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary. 2015


Mandatory World Religions Course? [further reading]

If you didn’t get a chance, check out my video on Modesto, CA’s mandatory religious studies course. In this video I give an overview of what a mandatory high school class in religious studies might look like and offer a few reasons why we need curriculum like this.

Advocates for religious literacy frequently laud Modesto’s school district as a model for other schools to adopt, though most people have probably never heard of it. As I say in the video, this world religion course has met with reasonable success. Students over the past decade since it was implemented have exhibited a stronger appreciation for religious diversity and the First Amendment in general. As the US grows increasingly diverse and as religious tensions continue to bubble up every day, I believe this sort of class is more important than ever to help raise a generation of  citizens who can live peacefully in a pluralistic democracy. However, I probably was a little bit TOO congratulatory in the video. One of my good friends and colleagues emailed me afterward to point out a few of the program’s shortcomings.

She told me that Modesto’s world religion course is rather “prescribed.” As in, it purposefully minimizes time for discussion in order to avoid controversy. Moreover, the textbook that they use, The Usborne Book of World Religions is apparently too shallow (she describes it as “surface level and basic), though, to be fair, I have not yet read it myself. This doesn’t mean the class is harmful. I’m sure it is still doing a net “good” for the Modesto community; however, it does show that there is huge potential for improving the class. I’d prefer a less scripted religious literacy course that could plumb the complexity of religion. Diane Moore, the director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard, lays out a few examples of what this might look like in her book Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education. She advocates a way to studying religion that starts with a few fundamental assumptions: 1) Religions change over time. 2) Religions are internally diverse. 3) Religion is embedded in every aspect of culture. Religious studies curricula that only focus on memorization of facts miss these fundamental assumptions.

In my opinion, there is no debate over whether classes like these are important. The real debate comes down to: Should they be mandatory or electives? Leave your thoughts below!



First Amendment Center’s analysis: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/madison/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/FirstForum_ModestoWorldReligions.pdf

Diane Moore,  Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education, 2007.

Joseph Laycock, “Back to School at the First Public School in the Country to Require a World Religions Course,” Religion Dispatches, 2015. http://religiondispatches.org/reading-writing-religion-back-to-school-at-the-first-public-school-in-the-country-to-require-a-world-religions-course/

What is Ritual? [vlog bibliography]

buddha ritualJonathan Z. Smith and Catherine Bell (who tragically died in 2008) have both heavily influenced scholarship on ritual studies over the past three decades. Ritual used to be viewed as “an outward expression of inward faith”—actions that reflected deeper mythologies, sincerity, belief, or symbolism. Smith and Bell (along with a few other key scholars) helped to turn the focus away from inward states of mind to the outward performativity of ritual. Hence, in the video, I asked: “What does ritual DO?” Ritual is foremost an action, so the best way to go about defining ritual is focusing on the action and what that action seeks to accomplish.

The definition “Ritual is an assertion of difference” is a short way to try to capture the purpose of ritual and turn the focus to its performativity. When we assume rituals exist only to convey deeper meanings, we forget about the bodily actions implicated in a ritual. When you take the Eucharist, the whole body is at work. You might be kneeling, you open your mouth, you taste the food, you might bow your head…the ritual engages the whole body and structures your experience of the event. This is why some anthropologists describe rituals as a “bodily performance.” They recognize that the body generates rituals, and not simply the mind.

This is where Adam Seligman comes in. His co-authored book Ritual and Its Consequences critiques our common assumption that a person’s inward, sincere belief underlies ritual actions. We often assume that if a person participates in a ritual like, for example, the Eucharist, then they MUST believe in what they are doing (ie. believe in the resurrection of Jesus). However, since a ritual is fundamentally an action, what matters most is the person’s willingness to participate in that action, and not their cognitive assent to any mythology that might be associated with that action.



Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. 1992.

Seligman, Adam, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon. Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. 2008.

Smith, Jonathan Z. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, 1987.

Gospel of Judas Bibliography

caf_image_630_420f_wnThis was a very difficult video to produce simply because of how much research is out there. The academic discipline of ancient history moves VERY SLOWLY. So when new data appears on the scene, scholars immediately jump on it.


I’ll make it easy for all of you and provide the monographs and articles I relied on to research this video. For those that are curious, I got the sense that more scholars agree with April DeConick that “daimon” should be translated as “demon” in the Gospel of Judas. Notably one of the premier scholars of Gnosticism, David Brakke, translates it as “demon,” while Marvin Meyer, the original translator for National Geographic, stood by his translation “spirit.”


Brakke, David. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity, (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2010).

DeConick, April. The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says, (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Ehrman, Bart. The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Jenott, Lance. The Gospel of Judas: Coptic Text, Translation, and Historical Interpretation of the ‘Betrayer’s Gospel,’ (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

Pagels, Elaine and Karen King. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, (New York: Penguin Group, 2007).

Meyer, Marvin. “The Thirteenth Daimon: Judas and Sophia in the Gospel of Judas,” article on Meyer’s website: http://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/religious-studies/_files/marv-meyer/13th_daimon_final-11408.pdf

Did Emperor Decius Specifically Target Christians? [bibliography]

Emperor_Traianus_Decius_(Mary_Harrsch)Because Christian persecution is such a volatile topic, I approached this video with a measure of trepidation. Tempers can flare when you try to vet the historicity of martyrdom accounts. Dr. Candida Moss, for example, received huge amounts of hate mail for her book The Myth of Persecution back in 2013 for applying the historical critical method to these stories, and I’m not eager to experience that for myself.

The whole point of this video, though, was to try to get into the mind of Decius and the Romans in general. Why would Decius decree such an odd edict? And why would the Romans react in violence to the Christians who refused to sacrifice? As I said in the video, the mainstream scholarly consensus is that Decius was out to bolster the strength of the empire through a massive show of piety. He probably didn’t have Christians in mind. Scholars from earlier in the 20th century viewed it as a piece of anti-Christian legislation, but the discovery and analysis of the Decian certificates from Egypt cast some doubt on these conclusions.

Having said that, I do find the timing in the middle of the 3rd century as Christianity was starting to grow in numbers as a bit suspicious. So I allow myself a certain measure of skepticism to account for the possibility of an anti-Christian bias. The complete lack of references to Christianity in the papyrological evidence, though, has me pretty well convinced. I highly recommend that you read through the documents themselves to see for yourself.

As far as secondary literature, my research for this video came mainly from the scholars I mention: Allen Brent, Candida Moss, and J.B. Rives. Both Brent and Rives engage the earlier scholarship on this topic, so if you want actual names and titles for these older scholars, please check out their work.


Brent, Allen. Cyprian and Roman Carthage. 2010

Knipfing, John. “The Libelli of the Decian Persecution,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol 16, No 4 (Oct 1923), 345-390.

Moss, Candida. Myth of Persecution. 2013.

Rives, J.B. “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies, Vol 89 (1999), 135-154.

What Did Marcion Believe? [video bibliography]

Researching for my Marcion video was actually pretty tough. Not because of the scarcity of sources, but because of the huge glut of scholarship on the topic. Marcion is pretty popular among scholars, and I needed to distill all of their research into a 10 minute video.

Coincidentally, I had just read a recent monograph on the topic: Dieter Roth’s The Text of Marcion’s Gospel. Roth’s book is so interesting because he tries to reconstruct Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke. If you remember from the video, Marcion is famous for “corrupting” the Gospel of Luke (or some other text that his detractors called a corruption of Luke). By mining the writings of authors like Epiphanius and Tertullian, Roth offers a plausible reconstruction of that Gospel. The book is quite technical and really requires an understanding of Latin and Greek, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the so-called “Marcionite Canon.”


Lieu, Judith. Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the 2nd Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Roth, Dieter. The Text of Marcion’s Gospel, Leiden: Brill, 2015.


Invisibility Spell Episode Bibliography


Harry Potter don’t need no Egyptian deities

The first episode of the “Magic/Science/Religion” series on YouTube features my favorite invisibility spell! I’ve loved this spell since I discovered it in my first semester of graduate school. It is just so bizarre. Why would an ancient person need to turn invisible? How did they think this actually worked? Did anyone actually try it?

Well believe it or not, at least a few scholars have actually made invisibility spells their main focus. The book where I got most of my research on this topic is: Richard Phillip’s In Pursuit of Invisibility: Ritual Texts from Late Roman Egypt (2009). Now this is very much a scholar’s book. Unless you know anything about Coptic or papyrology, you might get lost in the jargon. But it might be useful for anyone writing a research paper on invisibility!

I also referenced Sarah Iles Johnston’s book The Restless Dead. Again, this is an academic book, but it is somewhat more accessible by non-scholar audiences. It covers how Greek society thought about the dead and speaks a little bit to magical practices involving the dead.


Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Vol 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Johnston, Sarah Iles. The Restless Dead. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1999.

Phillips, Richard. In Pursuit of Invisibility: Ritual Texts from Late Roman Egypt. American Studies in Papyrology. 2009.

What do Ben Carson and Gregory of Tours Have in Common?

Gregory_of_Tours_cour_Napoleon_LouvreI don’t like wading into political discussions, but ancient history so rarely enters the public spotlight that I just can’t pass this up.

Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and GOP presidential candidate, once again made a baffling statement (adding to the growing Reddit list of bizarre Carsonisms): The Pyramids of Giza were grain silos built by Joseph the patriarch of Israel.

With as many archaeologist friends that I have, my Facebook newsfeed immediately blew up. From the perspective of people that study ancient civilizations professionally, such a statement belies either willful ignorance at best or complete detachment from reality at worst.

However, thanks to BBC, I learned that Carson is not alone holding to this grain silo theory. In his History of the Franks,” Gregory of Tours, the popular 6th century bishop from Gaul, also remarks that the pyramids must have served as granaries in the past:

“And on [the Nile’s] bank is situated, not the Babylonia of which we spoke above, but the city of Babylonia in which Joseph built wonderful granaries of squared stone and rubble. They are wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that the wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening, and these granaries are to be seen at the present day. From this city the king set out in pursuit of the Hebrews with armies of chariots and a great infantry force.” (Historia Francorum I.10)

As silly as this may sound, I won’t be too harsh on Gregory. He lived during a time when so few traveled outside of their immediate homeland…let alone travel all the way to Egypt to see the Pyramids in person! Moreover, 6th century Gaul lacked an abundance of professionally trained Egyptologists who could have set the record straight for him.

Ben Carson, however, does not lack this luxury. He has plenty of Egyptologists to ask to corroborate his beliefs, but he’d rather ignore their mountain of evidence.

Or pyramid of evidence?

Or pyramid of evidence?

“So what?” You may ask. “Denying obvious historical evidence of the deep past doesn’t ultimately affect society all that much.” And I would agree on some level. People that deny medical science on vaccines or deny climate change science have the potential to do much more harm to society than Holocaust deniers, Jesus mythicists, and pyramid granary-ists.

But on a fundamental level, blithely dismissing historical research sets a bad precedent of devaluing historical studies and the humanities in general. The humanities is all about understanding other humans, and in order to get along with all these humans, members of our global society need at least a cursory understanding of humanity’s history, religion, politics, art, and philosophy. Thankfully Ben Carson didn’t get a free pass on this bit of historical impropriety, but as the humanities slowly disappear from college campuses and as policy makers increasingly disparage a liberal arts training, I fear such ignorance will become the norm.







Religion Blogs and Angry People with Opinions

No other humanities discipline evokes as much visceral emotion as Religious Studies. Not everyone has an opinion on Art History, Classics, or Philosophy, but EVERYONE has an opinion on religion.

Part of the fun of switching my specialty from Roman history to Religious Studies was the realization that everyone suddenly cares about my field of study. Rather than discussing the historical accuracy of The Gladiator, my party conversations suddenly turned to: What is the best translation of the Bible? Is religion disappearing? Do you think the Sunnis and Shias will ever stop fighting?

As much as I enjoy this newfound attention, there is a dark-side: angry anti-religionists (angry religious people too, but let’s save that topic for another time). Check out the following exchange I had on my YouTube video on ISIS and archaeology:Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 11.29.07 AM

Now I can handle the ad hominem attacks. I don’t mind being called an “idiot” or a “fool.” Such is the parlance of the common internet troll. But this is no troll. This fellow has strongly held opinions on religion and Islam, opinions that he apparently has given some thought.

Nothing short of a few classes in religion and Islam can combat such ignorance, so how do I respond? Using the woefully inadequate medium of YouTube comments, how can I convince someone that Islamophobia does indeed exist? Should I take an apologist’s stance defending the merits of religion in the face of his claim that religion “will destroy us all?”

To be fair, this was one of my more controversial video blogs. Whenever you wade into the discussion of Islam and terrorism, be sure you are about to face some heated emotions. But I’m baffled, as an educator, how to approach someone that denies the existence of Islamophobia. The forum of a blog or YouTube channel is ill-equipped to handle such needs.

If anything, this convinces me more than ever that we, as a society, NEED better religious literacy. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that we don’t need to understand other religions in a world that is increasingly pluralistic and interconnected. Religion is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and we cannot flourish as a species if a large swathe of us hold the opinions reflected in this exchange.

How would you have responded? What role does a religious studies blog play in educating the public on religion? I’m curious to hear your ideas.

Eavesdropping on a Historical Areopagus Sermon

View from the Areopagus.

View from the Areopagus.

Early some Sunday morning in June, I dragged myself out of my bed in Athens and hiked up to the Areopagus to shoot my latest video blog episode on Paul’s famous Areopagus speech.

Though I had hoped to avoid the inevitable glut of tourists, several Christian groups had already congregated around the hill for Sunday morning worship. An American pastor (who you see featured at 00:42 in the video) was preaching a sermon on Paul’s speech to one of these groups. Standing at an awkward distance to eavesdrop, I overheard the pastor echoing my own thesis: Paul emulates Greek apologists–especially Socrates–in his speech.

The pastor’s conclusion?: Acts 17 proves that the historical figure of Paul was well-versed in Greek apologetics and that he deployed these skills to tailor his message for his Athenian audience.

As benign as this may sound, this pastor highlights the toughest obstacle I encountered when writing this vlog, namely, acknowledging the disconnect between the traditional and scholarly interpretations of this Biblical passage in a way that was both fair and accurate. 

For most Christians, this pastor included, Acts 17 is an accurate representation of a historical speech that Paul gave on the Areopagus sometime in the mid-1st century CE.

For most scholars, Acts 17 reflects how the author of Acts wanted to portray Paul as well-versed in Greek apologetics.

Notice the difference.

The former assumes the historicity of the event, the latter recognizes that the event is filtered through the lens of an author. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the historicity of the event, but it DOES return agency to the author who has a vested interest in crafting a positive image of their main protagonist Paul.

Of course, some scholars unequivocally assert that the event is spurious. From their perspective the author of Acts is obviously a Pauline fan-boy who composed this speech from whole-cloth in an attempt to prove Paul’s intellectual prowess. But other scholars strike a more moderate tone, conceding that Paul may have given a speech in Athens which the author of Acts then embellishes.

Since it’s difficult to prove a negative (i.e Paul didn’t give this speech) by historical means, I side with the moderate position that Paul may have given a speech in Athens that more or less follows the trajectory described in Acts. However, as an educator in ancient religion, I would be remiss to gloss over the complexity of this passage. Paul possibly did not give this speech, and if he did, it might not have sounded exactly like how the author of Acts records it.

Historical criticism such as this is disconcerting for many people of faith and may invite opprobrium both in the classroom and in blog comments, but I’m a firm believer that engaging and appreciating this complexity can not only benefit one’s own beliefs, but it is also a vital component of religious literacy. 

Yes, historical and archaeological interpretation, especially within biblical studies, is a messy business, and scholarly conclusions don’t always tell us what we want to hear. But the whole point of religious literacy is to become a more informed and empathetic individual in the 21st century. It is to discover how to thrive in a diverse secular society, not hiding from viewpoints that challenge our opinions but rather engaging them honestly with an open mind.