& A with Wayne A. Meeks
Wayne A. Meeks
Neilson Professor, Meeks will deliver , all at 4:30 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room.
The first is Monday, Sept. 27. .
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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 a rather long life, which, I hope, has taught me a few
useful things. And an insatiable curiosity.