Presenting at the Society for Classical Studies 2019 Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA

I have some good news to announce, along with an update on my plans for the next nine months. The good news is that I have just had a paper accepted to the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies, which will take place on January 3rd-6th in San Diego. The national SCS is generally considered the most prestigious conference for the field of Classics in North America. This is especially great news, since as I previously announced, I have also been accepted to present at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature meeting, which is the most prestigious national conference in Biblical Studies. Both conferences will be an opportunity to share my ideas and network with top scholars in their field!

My paper’s title is “A Polytheist or Christian Journey in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias?,” and is part of the session “Literature of Empire.” The topic relates to my recently published peer-reviewed article with PLLS, which actually started out as a blog essay that I wrote on Κέλσος. Below is the abstract:

This paper analyzes variant readings of Alexander’s Letter to Olympias—an epistolary narrative affixed to the end of book II of the Alexander Romance (2.23-41)—across the Romance’s different recensions, in order to trace a redactional trajectory in which polytheistic details are removed from the Letter while new Christian elements are included. The Letter relates a journey Alexander took to find the end of the world, during which he describes otherworldly creatures, exotic geographical locations, and even a near approach to the afterlife. Since the Alexander Romance functioned as an ‘open text’ (Konstan), which went through multiple stages of composition, the provenance of the Letter in its earliest form is called into question when it appears differently across recensions, particularly when the differences that arise appear to be religious in character.

The Armenian recension includes the detail of Alexander sacrificing to local deities at the end of his journey (2.40), which is notably missing from recension β. In turn, β includes an episode that features a dead fish returning to life when one of Alexander’s cooks washes it in a spring (2.39, 41). The episode with the resurrecting fish is notably absent from the Armenian (Cook), and has been interpreted by Tesei to serve as an allegory for Christian baptism. Whereas the Armenian (c. 5th century CE) appears to offer a polytheistic reading of the Letter (Millet 108), and β (c. 300-550 CE) a Christian reading, scholars dispute which version preceded the other (Stoneman).

The Letter to Olympias is missing from recension α, which is regarded as the earliest version of the Alexander Romance proper. Although the Armenian recension is a translation of α, Jouanno (14; 36 n.17) is inclined to see the chapters with the Letter as dependent upon β, on the grounds that a number of passages in the Armenian (e.g., 2.20 and 3.3) appear to borrow from β. Even granting the Armenian’s familiarity with β, however, it does not necessarily follow that β represents the earliest version of the Letter. Merkelbach (64) argues that the absence of the Letter from recension α should not fix a terminus a quo for its material, since the opening chapter (2.23) seems to belong to source material used elsewhere in the recension; instead, Merkelbach proposes that the Letter was purposefully omitted from α due to the fabulous nature of its content. Granting this assumption, it is possible that the Armenian is following an earlier version of the Letter, which precedes the surviving recensions.

Notably, recension α includes mention of Alexander sacrificing to local deities at the end of book II (2.22), which is a detail missing from the same section of β. If the Armenian truly depends upon β for the Letter, therefore, it has likely added this detail from the main narrative of α to the borrowed chapters of the Letter from β. Alternatively, if the Letter precedes α, then the mention of the sacrifices in chapter 2.22 could represent a vestigial trace of the original ending of the Letter, which survives in its earliest form in the Armenian.

Depending on which version of the Letter to Olympias is granted priority, a different redactional trajectory is implied for its religious character. If the Armenian reflects the earlier version of the Letter, then β has likely redacted a common source, in order to remove polytheistic elements such as the sacrifices and to include Christian elements such as the resurrecting fish. Alternatively, if the Armenian depends upon β, a theory must be presented for why a late antique editor would wish to subtract the Christian symbolism, while adding the sacrifices to the end of the Letter. This paper argues that the former theory is more probable, particularly since Christianizing the Letter would better suit late antique audiences than redacting the narrative in the direction of polytheism. Alexander himself would likewise be Christianized, better suiting the imitatio Alexandri of a post-Constantinian Roman Empire (Spencer, Amitay).

With that said, I have an update to give on my status for the months of July 2018 through March 2019. As I mentioned earlier, I had to get a medical leave of absence during Spring quarter of the last academic year, due to some chronic health issues that I have been facing. To best get ahold of them, and to recover from the stress of thirteen years of college at this point (I started as an undergrad in 2005), I have decided to take an extended leave of absence during Fall and Winter quarter next year.

Having some time off from school will help me sort out a number of priorities that I have been dealing with, including some much needed free time for socializing and taking part in activities outside of work. I really got burned out by the last few years from a lot of academic stress. Although I will be around, it’s important for me not to spend all of this time on the blog. I still plan to continue writing new posts and answering comments, but I need to really make use of my extra time to also develop in other ways personally, particularly so that I can work to lay a good foundation for life in my 30’s.

I thought earlier about asking readers to subscribe to my Patreon profile, when they post comments asking me to respond on lengthy issues. I’ve decided against it in hindsight, however. I was stressed out at the time, and feeling rather overwhelmed by some comment threads. Responding to certain comments for free can be time consuming, but I also don’t want to limit discussion on the blog. As such, as long as there is an understanding that I may not be able to get back right away, I will simply wait on some comments until I have time to address them. For some people who post questions frequently, I may ask them to subscribe, but not when there is only a moderate amount of discussion.

One thing that I don’t like to happen is where I get so bogged down in answering people that I can’t focus on original writing for new issues, and spend most of time responding to others. I need to find a stable balance between not only posting new content on the blog, but also doing academic writing and working on my dissertation. It’s especially not healthy for me when I feel side-tracked and distracted, whenever a comment demanding lengthy attention pops up, and I can’t easily budget it in with my schedule. So, responding to queries will need to be something that I keep in moderation.

Other than that, my health is gradually getting better. I’m still not sleeping well (I was up until 4am last night), but I’m starting to get enough rest to be more functional. I really want to pursue some other activities these nine months, such as creative writing, exercising, and developing new hobbies. Those aspects of life are important for not getting over-burdened by work and being a more rounded individual. This will be my last chance for a break like this, before I graduate and go on the job market. I need to use the time well.

I hope that everyone has a nice 4th of July holiday and that your summer has been treating you well. Onward to new things ahead!

-Matthew Ferguson

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7 Responses to Presenting at the Society for Classical Studies 2019 Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA

  1. We support you Matt. Keep on going! I really like your blog. I’ve been following it since 2015

  2. Neil Godfrey says:

    Congrats, Matthew, and wishing you all the best and successful completion of your studies. https://vridar.org/2018/07/02/congrats-matthew-ferguson-of-the-celsus-blog/

  3. Gary says:

    Congratulations! You are a valuable asset to the non-supernaturalist community.

  4. John Humberstone says:

    Congrats.

    A good balance in life is ALWAYS necessary to fully achieve what you want.

    Well done, my friend.

  5. Don says:

    I only recently started reading your blog. It was sometime last year. I really enjoy this blog and reading the comments have been fruitful for my own edification. Good luck in your journeys.

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