I often get asked what I’m doing in my personal research – both long term and, well, what is it I actually do during the day? It’s all related to the blog, so I thought I’d devote a single post to it, just a kind of overview of the kinds of things I’m working on. Right now, as it turns out, it’s a wide range.
Tomorrow I’m off to Marburg Germany (I’ve been in London for most of the summer, so it’s a short flight) for an international conference of New Testament scholars, called the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas – i.e., Society for New Testament Studies. It’s an annual affair, mainly of Europeans and Americans, that takes place over four days, with major lectures, less major lectures, and seminar papers. The latter involves small groups of anywhere, I suppose, from five to twenty scholars discussing papers written in advance for an hour and a half each.
I’m presenting a paper I’ve been working on for about a month now on and off, on the Katabasis traditions in the early Christian apocryphal book called the Acts of Thomas. Remember:”katabasis” literally means “going down” and it is used to referred to trips that a living person takes to the underworld before coming back to describe what she/he has seen. There are two of these in the Acts of Thomas, one taken by the brother of the king of India to heaven, and the other by an anonymous woman to hell. Very interesting. Basic point of these experiences: you definitely want to go to one of these places and definitely do not want to go to the other.
I’ve written a 30-paper on them, showing how these particular texts relate in interesting ways to other famous katabaseis (the plural of the word) in other cultural and religious contexts: one from Homer (Odyssey book 11); one from Plato (Republic book 10); and one from Virgil (Aeneid book 6), all in order to show the range of conceptions of the afterlife in different traditions and the function of such journeys in the literature that contains them. This paper has been great fun and has shown me how I probably want to begin my book on the topic, the BIG project I’ve been working on for a couple of years now.
Completely unrelated: the past couple of weeks I’ve been spending most of my days writing lectures for my next Great Courses course on the “Triumph of Christianity.” There are 24 lectures altogether, and the content will very much mirror what is in my book by the same name, all about how Christianity started out and grew – and grew and grew and grew, and how eventually it took over the entire Roman empire, to become the dominant religion of the West. How did *that* happen exactly?
Even though the course is modeled on the book, the format will be completely different: I’m not following the same organization or structure, and the lectures all have to be written afresh: I can’t just take over the language I use in my book, but have to provide completely new rewritings of everything.
I’ve been doing these Great Courses course before the company was called the Great Courses, back when it was The Teaching Company. My first two courses were done in 2000, one an introduction to the New Testament and the other on the historical Jesus. This will be my ninth course. When I first agreed to do one, twenty years ago, I thought they’d be a piece of cake: Hey, I lecture *all* the time! How hard can it be? Oh boy. They are hard. Both to produce and give. Anyway, I’ll be recording the lectures early next summer, but I have to actually get the course written now. It’s all pretty intense.
Completely unrelated again, a few weeks ago I sent a couple of substantial book proposals (about 30 pages each) to my publisher for the next trade books (for popular audiences) I’d like to write. I’ve described them at length on the blog before. The first I’m calling “Expecting Armageddon: The Book of Revelation and the Imminent End of the World.” The second is a bit complicated because I ended up sending in two different prospectuses, with two options for what the actual focus and direction would be, even though both of them were about the relationships between Jews and Christians in antiquity and how these relationships turned sour very fast. One of the prospectuses was directed more to the “rise of anti-Semitism” and the other to “how Christians stole the Bible” (that is, how did Christians wrest the Jewish Scriptures from the Jews and call it the Old Testament”?)
The final verdict on these proposals is not in yet, but it *looks* like what is going to happen is that I’ll write the Armageddon book. The publisher in the end is not as enthused about the other one, in either of its proposed iterations. Its’ not that they think it’s uninteresting or not worth doing – not at all. It’s that they don’t think, given their enormous expertise about such things, that it has the same sales-potential as other books I could do. SO, for now it looks like I’ll be doing the Apocalypse of John and its influence on the modern world, with the project after that yet to be determined.
Apart from that, most of my research focus for the fast couple of years has been and continues to be the katabasis traditions in early Christianity, and this is what I will be focusing on full time, I desperately hope, starting in August until I get the thing written. This will by a scholarly monograph, written not so much for normal people but for abnormal scholars. As many of you know, I spent all of last year working full time doing almost nothing but the research needed and planning it out. I have a solid outline of the book now, and almost all the research has been finished. I *think* I’ll need only a month or two to have it in shape to really start plowing into the writing. We’ll see.
For now it has seven chapters. I”ve been trying to figure out how to blog on it; I’m not sure it’s feasible because it would take post after post just to explain all the necessary background information. But I may give it a shot. It would certainly be challenging. But in any event, I haven’t taken on a scholarly project of this scope and depth since Forgery and Counterforgery, some nine years ago now and am massively enjoying it, despite the intense focus it requires.
Finally, the other thing I’ve been working on has been by far the most fun. For nearly my entire career, my work in Greek and Latin has focused on the early Christian materials (New Testament; Apostolic Fathers; early Christian Apocrypha; other Christian texts of the first few centuries). Among other things, that means my Greek is of the kind called “Koine” (the “Common” Greek of the time from roughly 300 BCE – 300 CE), even though I originally learned “Attic” Greek (the Greek of Athens in the classical period, that is, that used by the likes of Plato and the Greek playwrights you know if you know the Greek playwrights). But I am not well read in classical Greek literature, and especially not in Homer. Homeric Greek is very different from what I typically read, much older and, well, hard to figure out if you’re not actually trained in it.
So I’ve decided to get trained in it. And in classical Latin. I’ve been wanting to read deeply in Homer and Virgil, and lots of other authors. Can’t do it without the languages. And so I’ve been working intensely – a couple of hours every morning – on new kinds (well, the older kinds) of Greek and Latin. It is *so* enjoyable, the highlight of my day, working on grammar and reading. Both languages are improving for me significantly, and my idea is to get them better and better. I’ll never be a true classicist. But at least I can start reading the great classical texts I enjoy in their native language. Fantastic. (I’m sure this sounds a bit weird – if you can read Greek, can’t you read Greek? And yes, I can hack my way through classical texts, but it’s a slog and not easy. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried reading Middle English, untranslated, let alone Old English. But imagine asking someone who can read the newspaper well, but not much more than that, to try to read not just Shakespeare but Chaucer in the original. Or even worse, Beowulf! If you don’t know what’s that like, go online and take a look).
Anyway, these are the things I’m doing these days. What a life I have. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but absolutely mine.