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.



Reflecting on Forgery: Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Revisited

NTS61_03In April 2014, Harvard Theological Review published a barrage of articles on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife…the controversial scrap of papyri that early Christian expert Karen King brought to light back in 2012. Although the edition was chock full of scientific studies dating the papyri and ink, by the time they hit the public, the academic community had already concluded that the writing was a modern forgery.

Since then we haven’t heard much about the fragment. As a “closed case,” academic bloggers didn’t really feel a need to talk about it (despite many among the public still viewing it as an authentic document…something i try to combat in my video blog over on YouTube).

Thankfully the academic journal New Testament Studies has provided the “autopsy” we’ve been needing that reflects on the hype surrounding the fragment. The tenor of this edition differs a lot from the HTS publication since all of these articles come from the understanding that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is indeed a forgery. So rather than slogging through dense chemical analyses, we get some interesting pieces on the context of forgery and how the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife gained “viral status” online.

Even better…all of these articles are open-access, so I highly recommend you check them out here.

What do you think? Why did the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife generate so much hype?


Understanding ISIS and Iconoclasm [vlog]

When the news broke that ISIS had bulldozed the Assyrian capital of Nimrud,  my Facebook feed transformed into a running eulogy. Dozens of archaeologist friends, many of them Near Eastern specialists themselves, took to social media to express their frustration at what we saw playing out thousands of miles away.

As heinous as the beheadings, city sieges, and bombings had been, this crime struck a personal chord, and without downplaying the loss of human life in this conflict, we collectively mourned the loss both to our discipline and humanity as a whole.

Amidst the reports, a common question kept popping up: Why are they doing this?

My latest video tries to answer that, offering a different take than what you see on the news. Conversations on terrorism and Islamic extremism have been dominated by pundits who rarely understand the root cause of these actions. And although a few classes on religion or Modern Islam would probably fix their perspective, I’m not so blindly optimistic that they would actually do this.

Take the debate between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher as an example. First of all, you can guess the state of rational religious discourse in America if these two men represent the most popular example, but that’s beside the point. The discussion devolved into Maher belaboring how Islam is inherently violent while Affleck loudly repeated that the vast majority of Muslims not only live peacefully but denounce extremism entirely. Of course Affleck is correct, but his rebuttal to Maher’s uninformed (and sadly popular) opinion lacked nuance.

Islam, as with all religions, has components within its theology that people can leverage for violence or peace. As I stress in the video, Christians, Hindus, and Shintos all share episodes in their histories where their adherents justified systemic violence with their respective belief systems. The real trick to revealing the underlying cause of religious violence, then, is to identify the other factors that contribute to the violence and not simply blame the religion as a whole.

As scholars such as David Cook have argued, we are witnessing a uniquely modern phenomenon in this iconoclasm and violence. Factors as complex as the rise of mass media, the success of globalized markets, and novel re-interpretations of the Quran may have all have contributed to its existence. So to take Maher’s stance and say that Islam is inherently violent is not simply ignorant but does actual harm to society. Effective religious discourse requires trying to understand the other side’s position, even if that position is contemptible.


“The Fault in Our Stars” as a Religious Studies Textbook?

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsHow do you get a class of 200 college freshmen to realize that they will die one day?

As sadistic as this may sound…this is the stated goal of RN 106: Death and Immortality, a popular class offered at Boston University. Structured like a “world religions” course, Death and Immortality systematically studies how Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism handle the biggest questions: What will happen after I die? What makes a “good” death? What makes a “good” life?

As a teaching assistant, I helped run classes on Socrates, Gilgamesh,and Tolstoy, but few assignments generated better discussion than John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars

Now I’m not one to read young-adults novels. 90% of my daily reading involves slogging through murky academic monographs. But thanks to my Youtuber friend and professional bookworm over at Page Break, I already had a copy of Green’s book sitting on my shelf. Though I was skeptical to see it on the syllabus for a religious studies course, this book’s raw portrayal of death and suffering elicits existential crises just as well as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Without spoiling too much, Fault in Our Stars tells a heart-rending love story between two teen cancer patients. Death and sickness hang over the entire story (as one would expect from such a book), but not out of any sense of morbid or voyeuristic curiosity. John Green, with the utmost empathy, humanizes his characters not as people defined by their sickness but as full humans with hopes, feelings, and regrets. Since Religious Studies is all about humanizing the Other, I’d say Green’s novel is a perfect religion textbook.

Class discussion started with a simple question: What makes a good death? And it didn’t take long to come up with a list of criteria:

1) A “good death” has minimal pain/suffering.

2) A “good death” is meaningful.

3) A “good death” occurs after a long life.

Though I would say many American college students would agree with this list, The Fault in Our Stars controverts this short definition of “a good death.” The characters, both teenagers, are dying slowly with immense pain. Their deaths, moreover, are largely meaningless, dying without any great political or moral cause by some biological scourge.

The students wrestled with these implications. Some agreed that the main character in question died a bad death. Others argued that the character died nobly and honorably (and therefore “well”). Still others rejected the dichotomy outright: “Is not all death bad?”

We didn’t come to any firm conclusions. Afterall, the purpose of these exercises, from a pedagogical perspective, is to destabilize what we find self-evident and NOT generate easy answers. But I was encouraged by what I saw: students questioning their supposedly self-evident definition of “a good death” and “a good life.”

Although you would sooner expect Tolstoy to rattle freshmen from their perceived immortality, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars offers an incisive and unexpected glimpse into these existential questions.

A Religious Studies Take on the “Evolution of Religions Infographic”

timeline-myth-religionThis infographic has been making its rounds on Facebook today. It portrays the “evolution of religions” as a sprawling family tree stemming out of a primordial religion dubbed “Animism.”

I must admit that I think the infographic is cool. It tries so hard to encompass every religious tradition, and it even gives a nod to some more obscure traditions (shout out to Mithraism!).

However, the religious studies scholar in me can’t help but point out all its inaccuracies and methodological errors.

1) First of all, the infographic makes some odd choices. Why is Mithraism stemming out of Canaanite religion instead of Persian Iranian religions? Why is Gnosticism its own religion with no connection to Christianity or Judaism? Why is quantum mechanics (of all things) labelled as a religion?? The culmination of mistakes makes the whole tree somewhat of a mess.

2) Animism as the primordial religion? Sounds a lot like early 20th century anthropologists. These guys were obsessed with discovering “the most primitive religion,” and they viewed animism as the closest example to that holy grail. Unfortunately, the whole endeavor was hopelessly intertwined with racist and imperialist motivations as anthropologists compared the “primitive” animism of West Africans and Australian aborigines to what they viewed as the moral perfection of Christianity. Scholars have largely abandoned these theories in favor of more fruitful (and less racist) lines of inquiry.

3) I also take issue with the term “evolution” when describing the development of religious traditions. The term works just fine for biologists. DNA makes categorizing animal species a somewhat more concrete endeavor than categorizing religions. Biologists can clearly differentiate between two separate species not simply because of superficial appearances but because of fundamental differences in their composition.

“Religion,” on the other hand, is a far more subjective category. Oftentimes, the differences between religions are borders enforced by scholars rather than real differences on the ground. Many Christians in the first few centuries, for example, happily attended synagogues, practiced Jewish dietary laws, and were circumcised. What do we call these people? Jewish Christians? Christian Jews? Their actions confound our tidy religious categories. Still others in Late Antiquity worshipped the Roman Emperor and regularly attended sacrifices at the Greek temples. Do we call these Christians “pseudo-pagans” or “half-converted Christians?”

When you claim that one religion evolved out of another, you are claiming that each religion has a perfect “essence” with which to compare to other religions. An essential Hinduism. An essential Islam. An essential Christianity. But “on the ground,” we seldom find people that fit these perfect archetypes, especially in antiquity before our modern obsession with codifying and categorizing existed.


How (Not) to be Secular [book review]

[This is a 3 part reflection on James K.A Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular]

Secular_SmithHardly a month passes without HuffPost Religion publishing another piece on the decline of religion.

Few can argue with the data. Religious affiliation and attendance have indeed declined in recent decades in the West (not worldwide, as I have argued elsewhere). Even America, historically a bulwark of religious faith, is witnessing a meteoric rise of religiously unaffiliated individuals.

But how should we interpret these studies?

If the Facebook comments beneath these articles have any predictive power, the narrative is clear: Religion has entered an inevitable death spiral. In a few years, global society will resemble the “religion-less” humanity of the Star Trek universe.

Scholars occasionally [and more tactfully] have echoed this prediction, positing a “secularization theory” that predicts religion will decline in influence throughout the 21st century.

Although such theories seem “obvious” to many, James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular disputes the secularization theory and offers a timely alternate interpretation of our secular age.

Smith’s first critique of the secularization theory starts by redefining our popular understanding of religion.

If by “religion” we mean the great historic faiths or even explicit belief in supernatural beings…then, yes, perhaps “religion” is indeed declining. However, as Smith argues, if we broaden our definition of religion to include spiritual or semi-spiritual beliefs, can we truly say these have declined? Probably not if we consider the growing popularity of people claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Smith argues that we are not so much seeing a decline in religion, but a diversification of available religious options. Secularization is therefore not a subtraction process in which we subtract religious belief from society, but rather, an addition process in which we have added new religious options such as exclusive humanism.

The cultural shifts that made way for this addition process are complex, but Smith goes into much greater detail to identify them if you are interested in learning more. In essence, he argues that secularity occurred when humans started viewing the Universe as an infinite, empty, indifferent space, rather than an ordered, hierarchical Cosmos shepherded by God. Science allowed for humans to conceive of the Universe as completely immanent, lacking any window to a spiritual or transcendent realm.

For me, Smith’s book is mindblowing. It is hard to avoid buying into the secularization theory considering how frequently pundits repeat its inevitability. Although the secularization theory seems self-evident, though, Smith masterfully shows this is not the case…and scholarship is always most exciting when it controverts what we think is self-evident.

Smith also ably cuts the middle-ground between apologetics and incisive research—an impressive feat as a Christian scholar working at a Christian college (Calvin College, Michigan). Stay tuned in the coming days as I reflect more on this in future posts.



Why the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a Forgery [vlog]

We can’t go a year without conspiracy theorists raising the question of Jesus’ marital status. The latest attempt came from film producer and perennial biblical dilettante Simcha Jacobovici with the publication of The Lost Gospel, which hit the blogosphere with great aplomb despite scholars almost universally dismissing its claims.

Of course, who can fault these authors? Few topics can trump something as provocative as the Son of God’s hypothetical sex life, and as tired as the theory may be, it continues to sell books.

However, as an apprentice-scholar in this field of biblical and religious studies, I can’t help but see these publications as subverting religious literacy. Sure, historical fiction like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is innocuous enough, but Jacobovici’s book masquerades as real scholarship. Its not unlike climate-change deniers putting forth articles and books to undermine scientists’ warnings about global warming (though, granted, the longevity of our planet isn’t contingent upon this arcane argument about Jesus’ personal life).

In both cases, we see non-experts disputing the clear findings of experts. So how do we respond?

Call me old fashioned, but I think that presenting the evidence in a clear and persuasive manner is the best response to wild theories.

This is why I produced this video blog episode on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. I see this papyrus fragment as a self-contained story on how the scholarly process functions. Although the media latched on to the provocative bits of the story, scholars worked behind the scenes for two years until they reached a consensus: the gospel is a modern forgery. Judge the evidence for yourself, but I hope you find it persuasive:

What is Gnosticism? [vlog]

Depending on who you ask, the Gnostics were either evil heretics or enlightened sages plumbing the depths of divine knowledge. This latter romanticized view cropped up in the weeks following the publication of the Gospel of Judas back in 2006. For a public still basking in the afterglow of Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, a fanclub quickly formed around the Gospel of Judas, attracted to the idea that Judas and Jesus were actually in league with each other unbeknownst to the rest of the disciples.

Though the hype from 2006 has since dwindled, misconceptions about the Gnostics still abound. Even among scholars, Gnostics escape easy classification. Were they overly-Hellenized Christians? Neoplatonists obsessed with the Christ myth? Manichees or Zoroastrians who had crept into Christian communities? The answer is of course none of these, but scholars have trotted out theories like these over the past 100 years, leaving scholarship on Gnosticism a somewhat confusing mess.

I purposely choose video blog topics that engage these messy situations. Although many may feel that they have a good handle on what Gnosticism is, I’m here to say it is never as simple as it seems. So check out my latest episode and let me know what you think! Can we actually define Gnosticism? Should we jettison the term entirely?

Fixing Biblical Illiteracy: Newsweek, Leave It to the Professionals

NewsweekJournalist Kurt Eichenwald recently published an article for Newsweek titled: “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Unsurprisingly, a firestorm exploded on the Christian blogosphere in response.

“Inflammatory” is too polite a term to describe this article. Maybe “polemical?” “A blistering screed?” In the opening fusillade, Eichenwald paints a caricature of American Evangelicals, calling them “God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch.” The distinction between Southern Baptists, charismatic snake-handlers, and fundamentalists either eludes him or means little to him as he lumps all of these groups into a uniformly petty and small-minded bunch throughout his piece.

His stated goal is to expose the hypocrisy of American Evangelicals who hold to the Bible as the ultimate authority yet are also ignorant of the text and what it really says. He more subtly criticizes Evangelical politicians such as Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann, who he views as demagogues twisting the Bible for political gain.

The problem is…he does this very poorly.

I’m not writing an apologetic treatise here. Those who might remember my critique of the laughably bad Evangelical movie God’s Not Dead will know that I am not one to offer up a knee-jerk defense for American Evangelical culture. I’m writing because I see Eichenwald undermining the complex and oftentimes stressful mission that my colleagues and I strive for every time we write or teach: to promote religious literacy. Ostensibly we share this goal with Eichenwald. I agree with him that “America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.” I agree with him that many Christians are more interested in reading John Grisham novels than opening a Bible in a New Testament 101 course. But I don’t see how his piece would inspire someone to sign up for one for two reasons:

1. Poor Scholarship

Many have pointed it out, but it bears repeating: Eichenwald’s grasp of biblical scholarship appears clumsy at best, particularly to someone steeped in these issues professionally. He parrots Bart Ehrman on occasion, but overall, he unreflectively lectures about Greek philology, translation, canonization, and the Synoptic Problem without so much as a footnote. This was most obvious when he claimed “scholars” have dated the famous story of the adulterous woman (usually placed at John 7:53-8:11) to the early Middle Ages. Although it is widely recognized that this story likely did not appear in the original Gospel of John, to say that it dates to any time after Late Antiquity is simply false. Moreover, his claim that “scholars” have said as much falls flat because I have personally read the latest scholarship on this passage, which traces the story to traditions in the 2nd century CE (check out the excellent monograph by Chris Keith called The Pericope Adulterae and a forthcoming book by Boston University professor Jennifer Knust if you’re interested).

If we are to combat biblical illiteracy getting the facts right should be the BARE MINIMUM goal, let alone presenting it in an understandable, engaging, and inspiring manner. By offering such a buffet of scholarly inaccuracies and exaggerations, Eichenwald has unwittingly provided fodder for gleeful Jesus mythicists everywhere—something none of us wants.

2. Empathy, NOT Polemics!

I’ve made religious empathy a running theme on this blog because I see it as a central component to religious studies. Religious empathy involves avoiding caricatures of another’s belief, recognizing the contingency of one’s own faith, and an honest attempt to understand the Other’s perspective.

Polemics have no place in this forum because they do little else but create rifts and reinforce age-old suspicions. Eichenwald’s opening insult, for example, immediately incites the wrath of hardline conservatives and fundamentalists, alienating the very people he seeks to persuade as they raise their defensive screens against yet another angry anti-god liberal journalist. Teaching religious studies demands a finer touch than this, an even greater dose of empathy honed by performing before dozens of students with a staggering multiplicity of deeply-held convictions.

Other scholars have offered far more gracious and nuanced critiques of American Evangelicalism than Eichenwald’s. Molly Worthen excellent Apostles of Reason, for example, digs into the heart of Evangelicalism’s anti-intellectual streak. Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has long stood as a primer for these matters as well. Though any press is good press I suppose, I would rather have one of these scholars stand on such a high profile platform as Newsweek than Kurt Eichenwald when it comes to religion.

In the end, I appreciate what you’re trying to do Eichenwald, fixing biblical illiteracy, but please, leave it to the professionals. I’m afraid you’re making things worse.

Where Did Ancient Christians Meet? [Vlog]


Seconds before an attendant told me I can’t film on site.


Balch, David and Carolyn Osiek. Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Eerdmans Publishing: 2003.

Billings, Bradley S. 2011. “From House Church to Tenement Church: Domestic Space and the Development of Early Urban Christianity—The Example of Ephesus. Journal of Theological Studies. 62:541-569.

Meeks, Wayne. The First Urban Christians.

Stern, Karen. “Tagging Sacred Space in the Dura-Europos Synagogue.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 25: 2012

Urman, D., and Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher. 1998. Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery. BRILL.