Interview: Carmen Palmer

Photo credit: Martin Luther University College

Dr. Carmen Palmer has taught biblical Hebrew for several years at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto. Presently she instructs in the area of biblical studies at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, ON (Canada), and teaches online in the topic of early Christian writings for the College of Emmanuel & St. Chad in Saskatoon, SK (Canada). She earned her BA in French Literature and East Asian Area Studies from the University of British Columbia, a Master of Divinity from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto, and a PhD in Biblical Studies from the University of St. Michael’s College. She is a scholar of Hebrew Bible specializing in Dead Sea Scrolls, with an interest in identity and conversions. Carmen tweets at @callmescrolls.

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

I always knew that I would like to complete a doctoral degree, although I never anticipated that it would be in biblical studies or that I would go on to be a biblical and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar. Initially, after I completed highschool, I thought I would become a French teacher. And, in fact I did major in French literature and go on exchange at the francophone Université de Montréal in my undergraduate degree. I also took Japanese language in highschool and university, and thought that I might carry on in Asian Studies, as well.

Meanwhile, I was working as a lay pastoral minister and wanted to get a Masters degree to help with my work in that field. But, after beginning my program and enjoying Biblical Hebrew and Greek, I decided to forge on with doctoral studies in the field of biblical studies, and see where that went. After I began my program, I took a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls. When the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit came to the Royal Ontario Museum in concert with a series of guest lectures at the University of Toronto from several Dead Sea Scrolls specialists, I became heavily involved in the event and was hooked in that field from there.  

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 first book, Converts in the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Gēr and Mutable Ethnicity (STDJ 126, Leiden: Boston, Brill, 2018) studies Gentile conversions in ancient Judaism, specifically whether the figure of the gēr in the Dead Sea Scrolls represents a Gentile convert to Judaism. The sectarian movement affiliated with the Dead Sea Scrolls is considered quite impermeable to outsiders, leading scholars for the most part to conclude that the figure is a “resident alien” as the term is in the Hebrew Bible. But, by comparing the gēr in scriptural rewriting in the scrolls against scriptural predecessors, I concluded that the gēr is actually a convert. The next question was to establish “what” converted means exactly, in other words, what components of identity are central within the sectarian movement that would transform in a conversion. In the end, I found that components of kinship, culture, and connection to land transformed in the figure of the gēr. Overall the conclusion means that the sectarian movement is more permeable that scholars initially thought.

My second major project is in many ways a continuation of the first, although with different material. As it happens, the gēr in the Dead Sea Scrolls is a male figure, and so I wanted to address the issue of female conversions in my next project, titled More than Men: Exploring the Possibility of Female Gentile Converts to Judaism within the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this project, passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls are the central starting point of investigation, as with my first project, although the scope of inquiry is even broader. I am casting comparisons to texts from within Greek, Roman, rabbinic, early Christian, and biblical traditions. My preliminary conclusions suggest that female converts do seem to be present within the Dead Sea Scrolls, although their level of agency is less than their male counterparts. I hope this project contributes to the growing field of studies pertaining specifically to the lives of women in ancient Judaism.

I also have a strong interest in pedagogical methods and have dedicated a certain amount of training toward methods of teaching in higher education, including issues of using open access materials in the classroom, teaching in a culturally diverse environment, and teaching adult learners. During my studies at the University of Toronto I was fortunate to take a course on teaching in higher education at Woodsworth College, with Professor Tony Key.

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

I have been fortunate to have a wide circle of individuals, at home and abroad, women and men, from whom I continue to learn and to be shaped as a scholar. I have named a number of them already in the acknowledgments of my book. But here I should mention my two thesis supervisors at the University of Toronto and Emmanuel College, Professors Sarianna Metso and Judith H. Newman. Together, they taught me the combined art of detailed textual study alongside of creative thought process. Also, Professor Hindy Najman (now at the University of Oxford) was one of my first course instructors in my doctoral program and was highly influential in shaping the manner in which I think about ancient Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Professor Eileen Schuller, at McMaster University, inspires me as a pioneering woman in the field of Dead Sea Scrolls and continues to be a role model and mentor to me on topics relating to ancient Judaism, Dead Sea Scrolls, and scholarship in general. Yet another scholar who has been influential to me is Professor Ehud Ben Zvi from the University of Alberta. His enthusiasm for all things relating to Hebrew Bible and teaching, as well as his passion for making biblical scholarship accessible, has been contagious. It is through him that I initially got involved with the Society of Biblical Literature’s International Cooperation Initiative Committee. Actually, it is also through Ehud Ben Zvi that I became acquainted with another mentor, Professor Adele Berlin, from the University of Maryland. I was amazed and inspired by her tireless energy, attention to detail, and flair for biblical interpretation and translation, during our work together on the translation of a volume on Esther she edited.

Finally, I would name Professor Michael Kolarcik, from Regis College and now at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, who originally taught me in the areas of Deuteronomy, biblical Hebrew, and the wisdom genre of ancient Judaism, as another scholar who has shaped my thinking.

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

Making biblical scholarship accessible globally, a core tenet of the Society of Biblical Literature International Cooperation Initiative Committee, is a pressing issue. From the time I was in my masters degree and watched on as a friend and exchange student visiting from the global south crammed books into his suitcase, books he had purchased at the numerous second hand scholarly book sales that happen around Toronto, I realized that access to scholarly publications is a real issue that needs to continue to be addressed.

Encouraging and sustaining women in biblical scholarship is another pressing issue. I was shocked when I embarked upon my own doctoral studies to see that most of my student colleagues (who are all wonderful people and good friends and collaborators, I will say clearly), were men. Even as I began to teach, I found that especially in biblical languages, my classes were heavily populated by men. For this reason I am especially lucky to have so many strong, women scholars who serve as mentors to me, and I make it a part of my personal vocation to encourage others, both women and men, in scholarship, too.

A third concern is good pedagogy, in terms of teaching and making scholarship accessible in the classroom, in terms of assisting students to do and be their best and encourage their interests as well as to take the time to help them with their individual growing edges. How can we make our classes inclusive and accessible, and open to engaged dialogue by all members?

Finally, a key concern is remembering the bigger picture of why we do scholarship, and in particular, biblical scholarship. How can we make the world a better place one day at a time?

What is Scripture? What is it for? Why study the biblical text?

I have been trained to understand scripture as texts that are authoritative and sacred for a tradition. I appreciate the view that scripture is authoritative and inspired, yet has been written by human hands and scribes. Scripture inspires each next generation. Its study teaches us about the societies that wrote it and interpreted it, their core values, beliefs, and controversies.

What do you do for fun?

My mother taught my sisters and I how to sew from a young age, and I have kept up with this skill throughout adulthood. As a practice to keep away from incessant hours at the computer during preparations leading up to each next conference, I usually try to sew one or two new garments to take along. I also jog and walk with my spouse. Fall and spring are my two favourite seasons, fall, when the leaves change colours into vibrant reds and orange, and the spring, when the snow on Lake Ontario melts and you can hear the sound of water lapping under the ice as it melts.

Anything else you would like to tell us?

My new role on the Society of Biblical Literature’s International Cooperation Committee is to reach out to individuals who may not be from ICI designated countries, but who for other reasons feel a disconnect from scholarly community. If you have ideas you’d like to share or would like to be a part of a new initiative involving peer feedback writing groups, please feel free to email me at ici.initiatives@gmail.com.

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