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Excerpted from the Kahn Chronicle, Fall ’10   Date: 9/22/10 Bookmark and Share

Q & A with Wayne A. Meeks

Wayne A. Meeks

As Neilson Professor, Meeks will deliver three lectures this fall, all at 4:30 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room. The first is Monday, Sept. 27. View the schedule.

Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Emeritus in the Department of Religious Studies, Yale University, recently joined the Smith faculty as the 2010-11 William Allan Neilson Chair of Research, a position commonly called “the Neilson Professor.” In spring 2010, the Neilson Committee joined the Kahn Institute to expand upon and enhance the Neilson Professorship tradition by mounting a joint Neilson-Kahn faculty seminar.

This fall, Professor Meeks joins the second Neilson-Kahn Seminar to explore current scholarship surrounding the study of texts from the New Testament. He recently discussed his work with the Kahn Chronicle and reflected on his role as this year's Neilson Professor.

What Does it Mean to Study the New Testament?

Kahn Institute: Scholars in the field of Religion undoubtedly know of your work already, but those in other departments may be less familiar with your research and writings. How would you introduce yourself and your work to students and faculty from other disciplines at Smith?

Wayne Meeks: I was trained as a New Testament scholar. But what it means to study the New Testament has changed significantly over the half century or so that I’ve been at it. I would like to think that my students and I and my immediate colleagues have had a small role in those changes. When I started graduate school, we took for granted that the New Testament was a theological document. Our job, once we were made into experts, was to employ all the tools of scientific history—yes, scientific history—to discover exactly what the theological ideas were that were hidden in these few pages of Greek text. Or, alternatively, what theological ideas were implied by what really happened “behind” those texts. Or, if we followed the latest German import, what existential way of being in the world ought to follow from the challenge of those texts.

It was quite a grand project. Unfortunately, by the time I had finished my dissertation, with a year of teaching some very bright undergraduates behind me, I had come to two conclusions. One, it was a very limited kind of history that we were doing. Two, while theological ideas and one’s individual existential choices were doubtless important, neither described the way most people actually live.

Fortunately I had a number of close colleagues who were beginning to have similar doubts. There developed a network of people working in related fields who turned to the social sciences to develop a different order of questions. We began to try to practice a kind of ethnography of early Judaism and early Christianity as groups adapting to the culture of the eastern Roman provinces.

My first halting effort was on the topic of my dissertation, which had to do with the Gospel of John. Every commentator said that this Gospel is a puzzle, and then tried to crack the code. I decided the prior question was, What kind of group speaks in puzzles? When is a puzzle a preferred form of communication? That led to an essay on “The Man from Heaven [the way Jesus is described in the Fourth Gospel] in Johannine Sectarianism,” which got a lot of attention and provoked not a little dismay. Then I decided, again while teaching undergraduates, that the letters of Paul constitute a mine of raw data for the social historian. After a dozen years of labor, I published The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul, which I suppose is the book I’m best known for. Later I returned to an issue that had interested me from the beginning of my studies, that is, how a religious community shapes the moral intuitions of its members. That led to several essays and lectures and the book called The Origins of Christian Morality.

Kahn: What factors or events most influenced your choice of a field of study?

Meeks: I grew up in the Bible Belt, in Alabama, in a day when both Fundamentalism and Racism were both endemic and unremarkable. But I was a Presbyterian, and Calvinists, we somehow learned, are rational. We are supposed to think. The Presbyterian youth organization and the Presbyterian student movement in turn, and through them, my contact with the ecumenical student Christian movement, utterly transformed my thinking about the world. That led me into the ministry; I went to seminary in Austin, Texas. A trip to Rio de Janeiro to lead a work camp in a favela. A Fulbright year studying in Germany. Involvement in the civil rights movement, both in college and later as a campus minister. The excitement of my first pastoral work, among students in Memphis, Tennessee. A series of extraordinary teachers. The odd intellectual dissonance set up by the fact that I had chosen physics for my college major. All these, by some kind of serendipity, led me in the strange way I have come.

Kahn: What do you find most intriguing about participating in the Neilson-Kahn Seminar?

Meeks: Any time a bunch of smart people get together—especially if they come with different concerns and different areas of expertise, in a context where they are encouraged to speak honestly and openly to each other—exciting things tend to happen. I expect to learn a lot.

Kahn: What do you hope to bring to the Neilson-Kahn Seminar and to the Smith College community overall during your tenure as the William Allan Neilson Chair of Research?

Meeks: Memories of a rather long life, which, I hope, has taught me a few useful things. And an insatiable curiosity.

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