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Interview: Judith Lieu, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity, Cambridge

03 August 2018

‘People’s ideas about the Early Church can be a fantasy’

I became fascinated by the New Testament as an undergraduate: the mix of language, reading texts, thinking about historical settings, as well as the subsequent influence of developing thought. My first degree was at Durham, and C. K. Barrett, who taught me there, was always a mentor and an inspiration. He stimulated and encouraged my interest in the New Testament.

I’ve worked on the Johannine literature, and also on the emergence of early Christianity from and within a Jewish and Graeco-Roman matrix.

The New Testament as a canonical collection emerged during the first three to four centuries; so the Early Church is the context in which this is happening. Fundamental questions were asked in this period, and answers formulated, and we live in the light of these.

It is a shame if many people’s understanding of Jesus and Judaism, and how varied his religious context was, hasn’t developed in recent decades, because so much has changed since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. If some of the scholarly re-evaluation isn’t reaching out to people in the pews, it is a failure of the task of those who should be translating this for a church audience.

I suppose I function as a historian as well as a theologian because my interests lie in how history and theology intersect. How do you speak of Christian belief within the intellectual parameters of the time? I wrote about Marcion because he was struggling with the relationship between the God described in the Old Testament — not that he would have thought of the Old Testament in the same way as we do — and the God of contemporary philosophy. God as the creator of flawed matter is a problem for him, and the question in what way the human figure of Jesus represents the divine was a problem that a lot of people were struggling over.

We don’t know much about him as a person, because we know of him only through people who opposed him. But I was interested in the second century, in Christianity as it emerged as a separate religion; and, in addition, he had become such a stereotyped figure for his supposed rejection of the Old Testament — which was such a slogan label. I was interested in reconstructing how he fitted in with the social and intellectual framework at the time.

Marcion has often been seen as a seminal figure in the formation of the New Testament canon, and in the development of structures and patterns of thought. He was the first person we know of who tried to collect, edit, read, and interpret St Paul’s letters consistently. He also marks the emergence of the idea of heresy as the excluded “other” to orthodoxy, which is key to the way Christianity developed. We may take that model for granted, but was it inevitable?

People’s ideas about the Early Church can be a fantasy, ignoring the realities of slavery, which even early Christian writings take for granted, or the restricted roles available for women; and, although we appeal to ideas of family, family meant something very different in that period. On the other hand, early Christianity is a source of inspiration, and a check against later developments that came to be seen as unchangeable.

Our own intellectual difficulties with the biblical outlook arise because we do not live, as they did, in a three-storey universe (i.e. heaven, earth, and “hell”). We have different understandings of what it is to be human, and our whole way of thinking about human and divine experience is going to be totally different from the first century. We need to get our mind round that when we imagine the Early Church.

Even the Bible never “says” or “tells us” anything. People read, interpret, and use texts. Nowadays, there is less sense than a generation or two ago that any particular method of interpretation is more authentic or appropriate; so people take perspectives from wider study of narrative, of social sciences, or acknowledging a position as a woman, or disabled person, or from a colonial context, and so on, as well as trying to ask “How was it then?”

We can never dispense with study of the New Testament in Greek and against a Hebrew background. Fortunately, there are good translations around — and it is often helpful to compare translations so as to become alert to ambiguities — and guides and commentaries. When I’m teaching students, I tend to use the NRSV, although we get our students to compare the Greek if they can, so that they can understand how translation works. My own default is to refer to the Greek, and I do enjoy preaching. I’m a Methodist local preacher in a very strong tradition of preaching.

We always have to imagine the New Testament’s oral dimension, as well as remembering that the text, as we know it, emerges over the first two, three, and four centuries. Our experience of hearing the Bible on Sunday mornings, chopped into segments, is totally different from early hearers/readers, but we can’t undo that.

The balance, for me, between teaching, research, and admin, changes during the year, in and out of term. Admin seems to be fairly consistent, and, I think, has become more pervasive. I enjoy both teaching and research, and I enjoy admin, to the extent that it doesn’t make me nervous, and I seem to be reasonably competent at it.

Generally, I’m confident about the future of academic education, although there are increased pressures of market models and expectations: that is, that the cost benefits should be visible in a relatively short term, and that the less measurable benefits, especially in financial terms, are devalued.

Theology is under pressure, and we have fewer applicants, which is also true of some other areas of the humanities, such as modern languages. The decline pre-dated the fees, but charging fees obviously affects it, because parents want to know what you’ll get out of it at the end. Religious Studies is not always valued in schools, and we need to persuade students who have not done RS that Theology and Religious Studies combines so many possible interests: history, literature, thought, ethics, social and anthropological approaches, language, and so on. Another problem is that, because people tend to enjoy the philosophy and ethics section of the RS A-level, they may choose to read philosophy at university, and are often disenchanted when they discover that university philosophy courses are more in the analytical tradition.

There is certainly an unconscious bias against women in academia, just as there is in many aspects of society and professions. Comparing the number of women studying theology at undergraduate level, which is about 50 per cent of students, and those progressing through academic seniority, demonstrates a very worrying steep proportional decline, which suggests that something is wrong. On the whole, I have been fortunate in the support I have experienced.

My first experience of God was earlier than I can remember. It is developing all the time — not in a smooth line, but always in dialogue with all other aspects of my life.

It is certainly possible to profess theology or religious studies, to study it, and to research and teach, without being a paid-up Christian. There is a fear among some that advanced study will destroy young people’s faith; my experience is that it challenges it — which is a good thing — and enriches it.

When I’m not working, I love walking, especially among the hills — of which there is a lack in Cambridge — and being with my family.

What makes me angry? The usual things: injustice, prejudice, facile answers to serious questions, fake news.

I retire this summer, but I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I wait in expectation. I’ll carry on researching and writing, and I’ve got various commitments which will keep me busy for a while yet. I’ll be preaching, and, hopefully, not doing too much exam and committee work.

My hope for the future lies in the conviction that God gave us free will, but also that we are created in God’s image.

I pray in response to the things that make me angry, or to tragedy and pain, especially when I feel I can do nothing else.

If I was locked in a church, if it had an organ and someone who could compose and play, I’d rather sit quietly listening than have to talk to any particular individual for a few hours.

Judith Lieu was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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