Interview: Leslie Baynes

Leslie_smallerDr. Leslie Baynes is associate professor of New Testament and Second Temple Judaism at Missouri State University. She holds a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Theological Studies from the University of Dayton, and the Ph.D. in Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity from the University of Notre Dame.

How did you decide to become a biblical scholar? Share your autobiographical journey.

I didn’t own a Bible until I was 14 years old. A high school friend gave me a copy of the classic tract “The Four Spiritual Laws” and invited me to attend Campus Life/Youth for Christ, and there, of course, Bible reading was mandatory. I bought a copy of The Way because I liked the contemporary pictures on the cover. I was a nominal, essentially uncatechized Catholic, as many of us born after Vatican II were, even though both sides of my family had been Catholic back to Adam. By the time I was 16, I was leading morning Bible studies at my rural public high school.

Campus Life was riveted on something called the Rapture. The leaders said it was the most important event in human history, and we all needed to be ready for it, or we’d be left behind (cue Larry Norman’s unfortunately unforgettable song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” from the 1970s movie A Thief in the Night). I was puzzled. No one at Mass, or in my sacramental preparation, had ever mentioned such a thing. Why not? I asked everyone I knew, both Protestant and Catholic, but no one could tell me. It’s now hard to imagine a time when we couldn’t google it, but in fact it took years before I learned the answer. This question, and my quest to resolve it, are at the root of my desire to engage in biblical scholarship.

Surprisingly perhaps, I stayed in the Catholic church, desiring to learn more about it, too, and so I decided to attend a Catholic university. My parents thought majoring in Religious Studies was impractical, but English was acceptable, along with a minor in Religious Studies. I read classical Greek for my language study and loved it. The thought of pursuing a Ph.D. was always in the back of my mind in college, but it didn’t become a concrete plan until after I married, raised children to elementary school age, and completed my Master’s degree in Theological Studies, in that order. My husband took a job as a consultant so that his career path wouldn’t be tied to any one location, and we could be flexible in where we lived. He traveled constantly, which required sacrifice from all of us. I’m fortunate that he could and would do this.

Tell us about your work (past and current). What are you most excited about right now? What do you hope your work will contribute?

My main research field is Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. I was first introduced to noncanonical Second Temple texts in my Master’s thesis work on the interpretation of the character of Eve from Genesis to the Pastoral letters. My dissertation focused on apocalyptic thought, particularly in 1 Enoch and the Book of Revelation. Integrating the work of Derrida on Plato’s Phaedrus and utilizing theories of orality and literacy, I published it with Brill in 2012 as The Heavenly Book Motif in Judeo-Christian Apocalypses, 200 BCE-200 CE. I’m still publishing on those and other apocalyptic topics, particularly on 1 Enoch and the gospels, but I’m also writing a book on C. S. Lewis and the Bible. Lewis made a huge impact on my teenage faith and budding intellectual life. This book, however, is not one of the hagiographies that tend to cluster around the figure of Lewis, but rather the first full-length study of his work on the Bible by a critical biblical scholar. His views on the scriptures typically find favor neither with biblical scholars nor with his core American audience of evangelical readers, as he rejects both the reigning academic biblical scholarship of his day (think Bultmann, form criticism, and demythologization) and literalism/inerrancy. I hope to gain permission from the Lewis estate to discuss an unpublished essay on the Bible that shows how he finds more affinities with biblical scholars than with the people he calls “Fundamentalists.” In the end, as usual, it comes down to questions of hermeneutics and epistemology: what is the best way to read the Bible? How do we know? Since this book will examine perennially hot topics in biblical scholarship, and since I’ve never met anyone in the know who is noncommittal about C. S. Lewis, I hope it will inspire some good conversation when it comes out in a few years.

Who has most influenced you as a scholar? Tells us a bit about it.

Without a doubt, Fr. James Heft, S.M. When I started undergrad at the University of Dayton, Jim was a professor in the Religious Studies department. He became chair and then University Chancellor before he left to found the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California, where he is today. Jim and I happened to sit next to each other in the dean’s office waiting room during my first week of classes. I was there to drop a course—his, though I didn’t realize that at first. As we spoke, I discovered that he was the teacher of the course, and I didn’t want to drop it after all. I took every class he offered, and he was the first person who taught me how to try to think critically and fairly. “If you read the National Catholic Reporter,” he would say, “You have to read The Wanderer, too,” and we would wrinkle our noses in disgust, whether we leaned left or right. He put his words into action, requiring the textbooks of both Richard McBrien and John Hardon in his Catholicism course. I see both of them on my bookshelves now as I write. Jim thoroughly impressed me by his willingness to say “I don’t know” when he didn’t have enough information to opine. I thought professors knew everything! My students today think the same, and I try to emulate Jim, and to teach my students that uninformed opinions are worse than no opinions at all, and that becoming informed is a lot of hard work.

Other strong influences include Sr. Pamela Thimmes, who directed my Master’s thesis. She took my academic writing to a new level, and she was my biggest cheerleader and support as I applied for doctoral work. Once in the doctoral program, I relied on the research and encouragement of my dissertation director, David Aune. Jim VanderKam and George Nickelsburg’s work on Second Temple Judaism, and especially 1 Enoch, has been very important to me. Jim also taught us Ge‘ez on his own time, something for which I’m eternally grateful. Greg Sterling, now dean of the divinity school at Yale, was a great mentor, especially in navigating the practicalities of academia (e.g., how to preside at a conference session, how to survive job interviews, etc.), things about which those of us who didn’t grow up as professors’ kids need instruction.

What are the most pressing issues or concerns you have related to the broader field of biblical studies?

We need to proactively make the case for the value of our scholarship in the humanities, and at the same time, for the value of the humanities as a whole. It’s good to see more scholars trying to bridge the gap between church and academy, and between nonspecialists and specialists in general. So many people are doing such great work; I would like to see it made more accessible to a broader audience. One way to do this is to write high quality, scholarly work for that audience. Another is to provide easier access to scholarship, especially academic journals. It will be interesting to watch how the dissemination of our work changes in the next few decades.

Why study the scriptures/biblical text?

I would answer that question a bit differently depending on who was asking: faithful Jews and Christians, lovers of literature, music, and art, college students in general, university administrators. One response that might work for all of them is this: Ideas have consequences. Many people are influenced by the Bible, for better or for worse, and I think it’s part of our job description as academic biblical scholars to help move the trajectory toward “for better.” Of course, we often have differing ideas about what “better” means, and that’s when things get lively.

What do you like to do for fun?

Spending time with family is the most fun, especially since it’s now a rare treat for all of us to be together. When we are, we like to be active outside. I enjoy riding my horse, occasionally in local dressage shows. We have a large organic garden, which is a lovely and usually fruitful challenge, and I like to cook and can the produce. It’s such a cliché for an academic, but I also love to read, especially books by and about 19th-20th century American and British women novelists. At the moment I’m immersed in biographies of Rose Macaulay and Penelope Fitzgerald.

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