Forum on Pedagogy: Views from Beyond Jewish Studies

James B. Rives

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? The early Christian writer Tertullian’s question came to my mind when I was asked to contribute to this discussion. My first reaction was that the Jewish experience of Diaspora doesn’t figure in my teaching at all. My field is Classics, and Jews tend not to figure prominently in most of the standard courses that I teach (classical mythology, Latin prose authors, Roman law). Although this absence is so well established that it seems natural, it is actually somewhat surprising, since Jews did figure prominently in the Greco-Roman world, at least from the time of Alexander the Great. Their artificial absence from the typical Classics curriculum results in large part from the disciplinary divides between Classics on the one hand and Religious Studies or Jewish Studies on the other. Indeed, the one course I teach in which Jews do figure prominently is one in which I cross into territory normally allotted to Religious Studies, that is, Greek New Testament. I have just finished teaching the Gospel of Mark in our fourth-semester undergraduate Greek course, and although the focus was on issues of grammar and syntax and textual transmission, there was naturally much discussion of the way that the text constructs the Jewish leaders of the day as opponents of Jesus. Yet even in that context the Jewish experience of Diaspora does not play much of a part. I can see possibilities for change, however. The Greco-Roman world was one replete with groups who were displaced, voluntarily or involuntarily, from their original homelands, of which the Jews are by far the best documented. Although the experiences of these groups have left relatively little trace in the elite texts that are the focus of most courses in Greek and Latin, the way that they negotiated their identities in complex multicultural situations has become a major focus of research and is gradually filtering down into the undergraduate curriculum. Since many of our students are themselves members of Diaspora communities and are in their own lives engaged in similarly complex cultural negotiations, I can see courses built around these themes as a way to diversify the undergraduate audience for Classics, something that we in the field need urgently to do. In this respect, the Jewish experience of Diaspora may well become increasingly relevant.

James B. Rives is Kenan Eminent Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on religion in the first few centuries CE, especially the interconnections between religion and sociopolitical authority and the transformation of religion as a cultural category.