Why I Chose to Study Classics

This academic quarter I am commuting up to UC Santa Barbara to take two Religious Studies seminars with professor Christine Thomas, who does work in Biblical Studies, Classics, Turkish Archaeology, and a lot more! I am very grateful to have this opportunity, since Dr. Thomas is offering a first-ever seminar on ancient Mediterranean religions and their relation to Christian origins, as well as a course on the New Testament. Dr. Thomas is an outstanding expert in her various fields, and is on the executive committee of the Society of Biblical Literature, among many other things. A great part of being a graduate student in the University of California system is that you can take courses at any UC campus (as well as get inter-library loans from every UC campus, which has helped give me access to a very wide range of books).

For those who are familiar with the geography of Southern California, my “commute” may sound rather crazy! My home campus is UC Irvine, which is a good two and a half hours South of UCSB, without traffic, and traffic can easily double that time. Fortunately, I actually don’t live in Irvine, but further North in Long Beach, which shaves some time off the commute, but not much. To make things work, I am driving up on Tuesday to take one course, spending the night in Santa Barbara (I’m at a Motel 6 right now), taking the other course Wednesday morning, and then driving back down to Long Beach around noon (a good traffic window). Dr. Thomas was very generous in helping to make this arrangement feasible for my schedule, and I am even able to still TA a course at UCI this same quarter. But there is a catch: I had to get up at 4:30 AM this morning, and get out the door by 5:3o AM, in order to beat the LA traffic. It worked pretty well, since I was able to get up here by 8 AM and was even able to grab breakfast before class.

As readers might imagine, I am very, very interested in taking these seminars! But the truth is that I have had to do a lot of other crazy commutes in my graduate studies. If you can take advantage of the UC system inter-campus exchange, you can have access to a wide range of scholars to study under. I have taken courses on subjects such as Roman history and ancient education with Michelle Salzman at UC Riverside, Late Antiquity and numismatics with Edward Watts at UC San Diego, and have had the opportunity at my home campus, UCI, to take a seminar on inductive reasoning with Brian Skyrms (a leading expert in epistemology and philosophy of science, whose course was admittedly a bit over my head in some parts, but which also helped me learn a lot more about Bayes’ theorem; likewise, epistemologist and counter-apologist Robert Cavin also studied under Skyrms and also got his PhD at UCI in Philosophy). I am heavily invested in inter-disciplinary work, since I have used my time in the UC system to study not only Classics, but also Philosophy, History, Comparative Literature, and Religious Studies.

On the subject of inter-disciplinary work, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss why I chose Classics (or Classical Studies) specifically to pursue my PhD. Likewise, since I’ve been writing this blog for over two years now, I also think that now is a fitting time to talk about why I do what I do.

Classics Studies

Very often when polemics occur in the Bible blog sphere, you will see bashing of credentials over who is qualified to talk about the New Testament or the historical Jesus, etc. The truth is that there are a wide range of possible fields that apply to these issues, but what matters most is the kind of work and research that you do. Of course, there is New Testament Studies, as well as Biblical Studies more broadly, but also Ancient History, Religious Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Judaic Studies, Mediterranean and Near Eastern Archaeology, and more. Likewise, each of these fields is relevant in different ways to these issues. So where does Classics fit into this picture?

Classics, construed broadly, is the study of ancient Mediterrenean languages, literatures, art, cultures, history, and material remains from about 3,000 BCE (the early Bronze Age) to 500 CE (the fall of the Roman Empire). That is a very broad scope. Depending on the time period and issues that you study, your work in Classics may be relevant to early Christianity, the New Testament, and the historical Jesus, or you may not touch on these issues much at all. For example, if you do work on Bronze Age archaeology and Mycenaean Greece, your research interests will probably be at more of a distance from these issues. However, if you study the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, in particular, then your research interests can be very relevant.

For me, my primary research interests are in the history of the Early Roman Empire (in particular, the span between 31 BCE to 192 CE), Greek and Latin historiography (as well as ancient literature more broadly during this period), ancient biography, and the historical criticism of ancient texts. This period overlaps with the historical Jesus (c. 6 BCE – 36 CE), as well as the composition of the New Testament (c. 50-120 CE). Likewise, my philological research in ancient historiography and biography has helped me understand issues of genre, methodology, and historical criticism of the New Testament.

I could hypothetically do a lot of the research that I do in another discipline (there is a good deal of overlap), but I primarily chose Classics because it has the most rigorous training in the Greek and Latin languages (and I am also working on Hebrew in my graduate studies), and likewise is more heavily philological than fields like Ancient History. I tend to be more interested in philological issues pertaining to ancient history (for example, historical criticism of ancient texts), than archaeology, but I’ve also taken classes on a lot of other issues, since standard Classical curricula surveys the entire Mediterranean world.

Classics has helped me understand the New Testament and early Christianity in a number of ways. To begin with, 1st century Christianity is acutely textual in the nature of the evidence available. We have very few unique archaeological remains for Christians in the 1st century CE, but also a surprising number of Christian texts from this period (Christianity, like Judaism, was a heavily textual religion). This makes studying early Christianity something of a conundrum. On the one hand, we have a fair amount of Christian writings, but it is hard to study the first and second generations of Christians in other ways besides texts during this period. Likewise, the texts that have come down to us have a very wide range of historical methodological problems, and they are written primarily by Christian authors since Pagans took little notice of Christians during this period (which creates further issues).

I chose Classics because I think that philological training is especially important for dealing with the historical criticism and textual criticism of the New Testament. But I also chose Classics, instead of New Testament Studies, because I wanted to study a much wider range of texts and historical issues during this period. Classics studies a very wide ocean of issues that the New Testament and early Christianity is only an island within. But I have noticed that it has been especially helpful for dealing with these subjects, when you also work in other historical and philological issues. For example, studying Greek and Latin historiography has helped me to do comparative analysis between this genre and the genre of the Gospels, studying issues of Classical authorship has helped me to assess the authorial attributions of the Gospels, studying the historicity of other historical figures such as Tiberius Caesar and Alexander the Great has helped me to compare the evidence and do comparative historiography with the historical Jesus, studying ancient biography (my M.A. thesis was on the biographer Suetonius) has helped me to evaluate the genre criticism done by Richard Burridge, and studying Homer has helped me to evaluate the mimesis criticism of Dennis MacDonald.

Likewise, a lot of New Testament scholars are interested these days in collaborating with Classicists. I blogged last year about the SBL 2014 panel on Plutarch and the New Testament, which explicitly discussed the need for Classicists to evaluate parallels between Classical literature and Christian texts. I also ran into NT scholar Beth Sheppard (Duke Divinity School) who was walking with apologist Mike Licona, and she was also glad to learn that I was a Classicist interested in doing work in the New Testament. We agreed that there has been something of an artificial rift between Classics and New Testament Studies, because of how disciplinary lines are drawn in academia, but that it is time for the inter-disciplinary work to heal that rift. I know that Mike Licona (despite the fact that we disagree on just about everything) also highly values Classics and is interested in the genre of ancient biography. I likewise blogged earlier this year about the recent Pacific Coast SBL meeting here in SoCal, where Dennis MacDonald talked about the relevance of Classical authors like Homer to the New Testament. This is an exciting time to be doing inter-disciplinary work between Classics and New Testament Studies!

Readers might be surprised to learn that (at least at this point in my graduate studies) working in a Classics department is not my optimal choice of career after I graduate (si fata sinant that I finish my program and manage to find a job). The reason why is that I think that I am going to have a research and publishing interest that extends to areas that are normally outside the range of Classics, such as philosophy of religion. I am actually thinking that a Religious Studies department is my optimal choice (I can do work on ancient history and philosophy of religion in that area), but am also considering Comparative Literature, History, or even Philosophy departments, depending on what they are looking for. However, I highly wanted Classical training, which is why I chose to pursue it as my PhD. Likewise, fields like Religious Studies and Comparative Literature often have scholars with PhDs in other disciplines working in them, since they are heavily inter-disciplinary fields.

So, that is why I chose to study Classics. Hopefully this also adds some context to why I am so exciting to be studying under Dr. Christine Thomas this quarter, and why I am willing to endure such a hell of a commute! This is really a great opportunity. I plan to blog more about what I learn as I take the seminars, so stay tuned!

-Matthew Ferguson

This entry was posted in Ancient Biography, Classics, Musings, Religious Studies. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why I Chose to Study Classics

  1. Tom K says:

    Best wishes for an enjoyable and successful seminar!

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