I decided that it might be fun to talk about how serendipity completely shaped my academic career, maybe doing a post now and then on the topic. I seem to have had more than my share of fortuitous moments that have changed my life in ways I never would have expected. When I just now sat down to do a first post on it, I suddenly seemed to remember I did that once. And lo and behold, I did! Over ten years ago. So I’ll start with this one and toss a new one in every now and then.
Here’s what I said before:
It seems that much that has happened in my professional life has been because of serendipity. Back when I was a believer, we called it Providence. (!) It’s how I got my first job at Rutgers in 1984; how I got my current position at UNC in 1988; how I got asked to write something other than a technical study involving the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament – a textbook for undergraduates (in the early 1990s), and thus, in a sense, started my publishing career; how I had happened to write my first trade book to gain any attention (Lost Christianities); how I then wrote my first book (Misquoting Jesus) to become a NY Times bestseller in 2005; and how I came to undertake my first major translation project, a new edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library (starting in 1999; published in 2003).
I may tell the other stories at some point. For now, the Loebs.
So in 1999 (I *think* that was the year) I was teaching my PhD seminar on the Apostolic Fathers. First, a bit of background. Since UNC is a major research university, the faculty here have a relatively (OK, very) light teaching load: just two courses each semester. And since our department has a strong and thriving PhD program, in which NT/Early Christianity plays a vital role, I teach just one undergraduate course and one PhD seminar each semester. Our PhD students take seminars for two or three years, and so I have five or six seminars that I offer in rotation over a three-year period. These include a graduate-level introduction to the major critical issues in the study of the New Testament (including the history of the discipline); a seminar on New Testament textual criticism (reconstructing the earliest form of the text from the surviving manuscripts and writing the history of its transmission); early Christian apocrypha (the Gospels, epistles, Acts, and apocalypses that did not make it into the New Testament); literary forgery in the early Christian tradition; and – well, other things over the years (including readings in the Greco-Roman religions; the rise of early Christian anti-Judaism; early Christian heresy and orthodoxy; Christianizing the Roman empire; and, well, other things). And the Apostolic Fathers.
The Apostolic Fathers are ten or eleven…
(depending on what/how you count) proto-orthodox church writers from just after the NT period (actually, at least one and maybe more were writing even before the last book of the NT – 2 Peter – was written). They are important historically for understanding the development of early Christianity. And so I use the seminar not only to introduce the students to each of the writings that make up this disparate collection (the Didache, the seven letters of Ignatius, 1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, etc) – some of which, by the way, were thought by later Christians to be books of Scripture (in other words, they nearly made it in) but also as an excuse to study major issues related to the history of Chrsitianity in the early to mid-second century.
And so for the seminar, each week, the students have a translation assignment, as we read each of these authors in the original Greek; they also have to read scholarly articles about these authors; and they read secondary literature on a wide range of issues that are relevant to these authors (and that these authors are relevant for), including such things as: the beginnings of church structure (where we got bishops, deacons, presbyters, etc.), the relationship of heresy and orthodoxy, the formation of the canon of Scripture, the development of church liturgy, the role of women in early Christianity, the rise of Christian anti-Judaism, the appearance of Christian apologists and apologies, etc. etc. It’s a very full and rich course, one of my favorites.
And about 1/3 of each class period is devoted to translating the relevant texts from the Greek. For that purpose, for years, I used the two-volume Apostolic Fathers in the Loeb Classical Library done. The Loebs are an indispensable tool for scholars: they provide the original text of a writing (whether the Odyssey, the Medea, the Aeneid, etc.), a translation on the facing page (Greek or Latin on left page, English on right), with introductions and notes. But this particular year, the students were complaining about it.
I should say, this was one of the best classes of students I ever had, with several soon-to-be stars in the field of early Christian studies in it. And they did not like the Lake volumes. The introductions were too out-of-date to be of much use (published in 1912), newer manuscripts of some of the texts had since been discovered and published, the translations themselves were using antiquated English, and in place, in my students’ opinion, the translations were misleading or simply wrong. I have to say, I did not share my students’ dis-ease with the Lake volumes. Kirsopp Lake has long been one of my heroes and I think he was an absolutely brilliant scholar. And I think his volumes were supreme. But I did have to admit, they were dated and needed to be replaced.
So in November of that year, about two-thirds the way through the semester, I went to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, as I do every year. This is our annual professional academic meeting, where thousands of professors of biblical studies come together to read scholarly papers and engage in scholarly discussions and, well, hang out with each other for four or five days. I forget where it was that year. When I got off the plane I got in line for a taxi, and the woman behind me wanted to share one with me. We did. We talked. Turns out, she was an assistant editor at Harvard University Press, and assisted in the publication of the Loeb Classical Library.
I told her that they really needed to do a new edition of the Apostolic Fathers. It was out of date, the language was antiquated, there was new scholarship that needed to be taken into account, and a new edition was completely overdue. She told me that she would mention that to her boss, the editor, Margaret Fulton, who was in charge of the Loebs. And, as it turns out, Ms. Fulton was going to be at the conference – so I should tell her my views. A couple of days later I was in the book display (a huge business, where all the major and most of the minor publishers of biblical studies set up booths displaying their books in biblical studies – it takes a very large ballroom to house it) and passed by the Harvard booth. I saw Ms. Fulton. And I thought, What the heck.
So I stopped and explained to her about the situation with the Loeb Apostolic Fathers. They really needed a new edition of them. She listened carefully. Then she paused. And then she asked *me* if I was interested in doing a new edition. Truth be told, it was the farthest thing from my mind. I never, ever, had any aspirations to do a translation project. But then I thought, well, maybe that *would* be interesting. I told her I would think about it. I did. And I ended up doing them. More about that in the next post. My point right now is that it was pure serendipity, a matter of whom I ended up with in a taxi ride from the airport. Life is funny that way sometimes. Lots of times for me, it seems.