Interview: Laura S. Nasrallah

lsn-3-medDr. Laura S. Nasrallah is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. She earned an A.B. from Princeton University, and M.Div. and Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School. She can also be found at her faculty website and at lettersofpaul.org.

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

Midway through my undergraduate studies, I had the realization while reading Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels that the Bible wasn’t just one book produced outside of human time and labors. This epiphany—something many readers likely knew all along; let’s say I was a late bloomer—made me hunger to study the history of early Christianity and the Christian Testament. It was then only late in college that I realized that the study of religion could be an academic field.

I had also long understood that religion was important. My youngest years were spent in Beirut, Lebanon, during the tensions and then the violence of the civil war in that country. Afterwards, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to a culture infused with a deep love and use of the Bible. I knew from a young age that religion was very important—it could cause wars, for instance—and that the Bible was a text on which people founded their lives and their actions. I also knew from my own family that religion was central to life and identity; I knew of my American mother’s shift from Catholicism to Protestantism as she married my father; my Lebanese father’s strong family traditions in Protestant Christianity in Lebanon, a minority denomination in that country.

Once I had that epiphany that the Christian Testament could be studied in light of other historical events and literary texts, and that the study of religion could be both a deeply personal and academic pursuit, I felt it was inevitable to study these materials! 

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

There are three things that I’m excited about now in my research and teaching. One is a book project called Archaeology and the Letters of Paul, in which I focus on archaeological and literary evidence local to the various cities and religions to which the apostle Paul wrote or co-wrote. I’m interested in using this archaeological evidence (architecture whether domestic or monumental; or bioarchaeology that helps us to understand mortality, disease, and diet) to think about those who first received these earliest documents of the Christian Testament. What social, political, economic, and theological contexts and choices did those earliest ekklēsiai have, existing as they did even before the term Christian was coined, participating in diaspora Judaism and informed by other religions of the Greco-Roman world?

A second strong interest right now is in the idea of Fate or Fortune in late antiquity. I’m thinking about the variety of practices in which people engaged to ask the question: how or do god or the gods organize and run the cosmos? Some people engaged in this through writing and teaching philosophy and theology. Others (perhaps sometimes the same folk!) did so by consulting lot oracles. The questions that they asked—Should I travel? Will I inherit? Should I go into business? Will I regain my health? Will the baby survive?—are deeply moving and resonate with human vulnerability in all times and places. By looking at the variety of responses to these questions in antiquity perhaps we can sharpen our own theological and philosophical thinking today and gain more compassion for those in antiquity and today who are seek answers to such questions.

A third project right now has to do with the making and use of theophanic images in early Christian churches, apocalyptic texts, the philosophical/theological cultivation of practices of seeing God or gods in antiquity, and optics. How did people think that they could actually see (the) god(s)? Were there dangers of such a vision? How were artisans involved in crafting such images? What did it mean to participate in liturgy or ritual (whether Christian or not) as one gazed upon these images?

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

I’d like to shift this question and mention two scholars whom I read in grad school: bell hooks and Mary Daly. And right now, I’ve been returning to Adolf Deissmann’s work. I’d recommend any of these three for reading!

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

I think that there are two pressing issues related to biblical studies. The first has to do with broadening the scope of biblical studies past historical criticism. The second has to do with broadening the scope of biblical studies to include the scholarship and experiences of those who are minoritized in the academy (and more broadly). Obviously, the two are related.

I love historical work, and a good deal of my training was in historical criticism. I love thinking about the past, imaginatively reconstructing the world in which the texts of the Christian Testament and other early Christian materials were first produced and circulated. But the field of biblical studies in some places needs to move past the idea that a “real” biblical scholar is necessarily a historical critical one or only does work in ancient history. Minoritized biblical scholarship has helped to disclose the ways in which historical criticism in particular insists upon having disclosed the true or truer meaning of a pericope or passage, to have reconstructed the right biography or intentions of an apostle. Such historical critical work doesn’t recognize the contingency of its own interpretation: it doesn’t recognize the ways in which the position of the scholar informs his or her interpretation. And historical criticism often doesn’t accept with humility the fact that we will never know everything about antiquity, that our interpretations can be better or worse, but are always partial and imaginative.

Second, and related, we need to expand our definitions of what biblical scholars do. We do see this in many program units of the SBL, for example, or in what a liberal arts college looks for when it seeks a scholar of the Bible. But the demographics of the SBL, which is predominantly white and male, often doesn’t work against the Society’s aim to allow for the full thriving of the work of womanists and feminists, of African American or Asian biblical interpretation, of postcolonial criticism or queer theory, to name only a few. Also, I would hope that in our academic institutions and in the field more broadly we’d see more collaborations, say, with ethnographers to talk about practices regarding the Bible in contemporary societies; with those interested in material culture, to think about the Bible as artifact; with American historians to talk about how the Bible has been deployed. The list could go on and on.

What do you like to do for fun?

I have three young children and so plenty of fun, which has recently included catching tadpoles, watching E.T., and riding in a paddleboat.

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