Interview: Cynthia Shafer-Elliott

Cynthia-Shafer-Elliott-00076Dr. Cynthia Shafer-Elliott is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at William Jessup University.  She earned a B.A. from Simpson University, M.A. from Ashland Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. from The University of Sheffield. She can be found at her WJU faculty web page and on Twitter @cshaferelliott.

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

I grew up in a Christian home with parents that encouraged studying the Bible. I always loved history, and in particular the history of ancient Israel, but I wasn’t a good student so the academic life was never something I even considered until I went to college. During my freshman year at Simpson University in California, I took an introduction to the Old Testament class with Professor Glenn Schaefer (no relation). I remember that first day very clearly: it was as if my brain had been a sponge all those years studying the Bible as a child and that it was being rung out. For the first time in my life, I wanted to study and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The following year I took Professor Schaefer’s historical geography course in Israel and little did I know how that trip would help shape my career. While in Israel we participated in a “dig for a day” at the caves of Maresha. The excavation coupled with just being in the land made a huge impact on me and how I study the Bible – that archaeology exposes the physical reality of ancient lives. It was at this point that I knew I wanted to pursue biblical studies and archaeology as a career. 

Soon after I graduated, my husband and I married and later moved to Ohio where I studied for my M.A. in Biblical Studies concentrating in the Hebrew Bible at Ashland Theological Seminary. At Ashland I had the privilege of studying with Professors Dan Hawk, David Baker, and David DeSilva. Ashland also had archaeology classes and a museum, so I carried on taking all the archaeology courses that I could and worked as a graduate assistant in the museum for Professor Kenneth Walther. I knew, however, that all the courses in the world could not make up for first-hand field experience; thus, I started my field experience as a volunteer on the Tell Rehov archaeological excavation. It was there, under the direction of Professors Ami Mazar and Nava Panitz-Cohen, that I started to learn how to excavate and the importance of doing it properly. I continued to learn these skills as I returned to Tell Rehov over the next several summers.

After I graduated with my M.A., I immediately started teaching as an adjunct; first in Ohio at the University of Ashland and The University of Akron: Wayne College. I knew that I wanted to teach, but no one really knows if they will be any good at it until they do it. In that very first class I learned two things: one, I knew that I definitely wanted to teach and I was somewhat decent at it; and two, that as a teacher, you cannot assume anything. In general education Bible courses, there are a range of students, some of whom have never opened a Bible before; you must start at the beginning and keep things simple. My husband and I moved to upstate New York where I continued teaching at the College of Saint Rose in Albany and worked as an assistant director for the Albany extension campus of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, a benefit of which was the opportunity to take more courses in Theology. I also continued to excavate in Israel during this time at Tell Rehov and Achziv.

A few years later the pull to work on my Ph.D. became strong. I wanted to get a degree in biblical studies, but still work in archaeology, and my husband and I liked the idea of living overseas. We picked up and moved to Sheffield, England where I began my Ph.D. work in the Biblical Studies department at The University of Sheffield. For the next several years I worked with Professor Diana Edelman in the History, Historiography, and Archaeology of the Hebrew Bible concentration within the department. My dissertation, “Home Cooking; Domestic Food Preparation in Iron II Judah” combined my interests in the Hebrew Bible, archaeology, and the daily life of ancient Israel/Judah. I was able to continue teaching and excavating during my studies, and was even able to combine the two by teaching Sheffield’s bible and field archaeology course at Tell es-Safi, which is under the direction of Professor Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University, Israel. The course was designed to take students to Israel, show them around a bit, and teach them how to excavate on a proper dig. I had always envisioned teaching a class like this and was thrilled to have the opportunity to do so a few times for Sheffield.

It is always difficult to land a full-time position in academia, but when I graduated in 2011 many colleges and universities were still suffering from the recession and were not hiring, especially within the arts and humanities. Not having a job to move to, my husband and I moved back home to California. Needless to say, our families were thrilled! I was able to get an adjunct position at William Jessup University, a small, private, liberal arts university in Rocklin, not far from where we would be living. It seemed to be a good fit, and I hoped that they would have a full-time position open some time in the near future. After that first semester at Jessup, the department chair notified me that there would be a full-time, tenured-track Hebrew Bible position available to start the following fall and he encouraged me to apply. I did indeed apply, went through the rings of the interview process, and was offered the position. It was too good to be true: not only did I have a job, but we were going to be near our families again. It is truly a privilege to spend my days teaching what I am passionate about as a member of a faith community that values me as a teacher, scholar, and colleague. The current chapter in our story includes adopting two kids and learning how to be parents!

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 dissertation was published as the monograph, Food in Ancient Judah: Domestic Cooking in the Time of the Hebrew Bible, in 2013 by Equinox/ Acumen (but now with Routledge). I’ve recently done several encyclopedia articles on: cooking (The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology, 2013), household economics (The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, 2014), and food (online Bible encyclopedia, 2013; and The Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia, forthcoming 2015). Our food sessions at the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature in 2014 published our first volume with Eisenbrauns, Feasting in the Archaeology and Texts of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East, of which I contributed a chapter on “The Role of the Household in the Religious Feasting of Ancient Israel and Judah”. There are several projects in the preliminary planning stages, but I am currently working on a chapter, “All in the Family: Ancient Israelite Families in Context”, for the 27th Annual Klutznick-Harris Symposium edited volume on Mishpachah: The Jewish Family in Tradition and in Transition (forthcoming, 2015/2016); and I am also editing The 5-Minute Archaeologist:Bite-sized Essays on Archaeology in the Southern Levant, a volume to be published with Equinox in 2015/2016.

I am excited to continue working on understanding the cultural context of the Hebrew Bible better, including the various roles and activities of the ancient Israelite/Judahite family and household. I am currently working on the Tell Halif archaeological excavation with Professor Oded Borowski of Emory University, where we are uncovering Iron Age houses. It is my hope that what we uncover will help with my work on the domestic realm of ancient Israel/Judah.

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

I think most scholars could write a fair amount on who influenced them and their work. Of course, I have to start with my parents, Chris and Dave Shafer, who modeled the dedicated study of scripture for as long as I can remember. In college, Professor Glenn Schaefer was a mentor who nurtured my budding interest in the Hebrew Bible and archaeology. Truly, without his classes both in and outside of Israel, I am not sure I would be where I am today. My professors at Ashland Theological Seminary, Profs. Hawk, Baker, DeSilva, and Walther taught me the finer points of Biblical Studies as a discipline, but also how to keep your faith while doing it! Professors Ami Mazar and Nava Panitz-Cohen for teaching me how to excavate. Nava continues to encourage me as a woman in a male-dominated field. My doctoral advisor, Professor Diana Edelman, was and still is a huge influence.

All of the above are people I’ve interacted with along my journey, but there are also scholars whose work has influenced me as well. Professor Carol Meyers is probably the scholar who has had the biggest influence on me and my work. I read her book, Discovering Eve, when I was working on my M.A. and it was as if I was reading someone who spoke my language for the first time. She combined her interests in the Hebrew Bible, archaeology, and gender – all things I was passionate about but didn’t know how they would intersect. It was Carol’s work on households that proved to me that if we truly want to know more about the average ancient Israelite man, woman, and child then we need to shift our attention to the house and the household. Carol and her work continue to inspire me to this day. Other scholars who have influenced my work include Oded Borowski and his attention to the agricultural aspects of Israel’s daily life in his books Every Living Thing and Agriculture in Iron Age Israel; and Nahum Sarna’s work on cultural context in his books Understanding Genesis and Exploring Exodus.  

My husband, Rob Elliott, continues to inspire me everyday with his support and engaging discussions on scripture and faith.

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

In my opinion there are many issues within biblical studies that need to be addressed, but I will only mention a couple of them here: one, is encouraging young women into the field. The majority of students attending college or university today are female, but the majors traditionally associated with the Bible, like biblical studies, theological studies, and various vocational ministries, are still male-dominated. I am passionate about allowing men and women to follow their “calling”, whatever that may be; however, I would like to see more women embrace the discipline of biblical studies (this should include theology, and ministry as well) and for their faith communities to support them in their endeavor.

The second issue is to teach people how to read the Bible, including critically. What I mean by a critical reading is not one of judgement, but a close and careful reading of the text. This includes investigating its various contexts, such as its geographical, historical, literary, and cultural contexts. This may mean that we teach outside of academia, since it seems most faith communities are not learning how to do this. What they often hear on a Sunday morning is the speaker’s interpretation of what the text means to them here and now, but not what it could have possibly meant for the text’s intended audiences. This one-sided approach doesn’t honor the text nor does it allow us to glean an appropriate application for our lives today.

Why study the scriptures/biblical text?

Students often wonder why they have to take an introduction to the Hebrew Bible class, so this is a question I am used to answering. On one hand, if you come from a faith perspective, the answer seems obvious – because it is part of your sacred text; however, many Christians ignore the Hebrew Bible entirely for various reasons. To which I would reply, simply put, if you are interested in Jesus and his teachings then you must have an understanding of the Hebrew Bible – after all, it would have been his scripture (more or less). On the other hand, if you don’t come from a faith perspective, a well-educated citizen would also have a basic understanding of the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament. Whether you like it or not, much of Western civilization has been influenced by the Bible, even to this day. A great example of this can be found in the US during election season. Many politicians use biblical language and imagery, if not outright quoting scripture, as part of their campaign rhetoric. An educated citizen would be able to recognize the use of the Bible and decide for themselves if it is being used, dare I say, appropriately

What do you like to do for fun?

Not only are we new parents, but we are also first-time home-owners so we spend a lot of time working on the home and home-life. I like to hang out with friends and family, travel, cook, and read.

Anything else you would like to share?

People often tell me they have always wanted to participate on an archaeological dig. I would like readers to know that anyone can participate on an excavation as a volunteer. Most excavations in Israel are also field schools where they teach people how to dig. The dig issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (better known as BAR) usually has a list of the summer’s excavations and the volunteer details. If going on your own doesn’t appeal to you, come with me!

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