Andrew Jacobs was appointed to the Mary W. Johnson ’35 and J. Stanley Johnson Professorship in Humanities in 2015. Established in 1995, the professorship acknowledges Jacobs as a tenured senior faculty member and recognizes his outstanding teaching and contributions to the interdisciplinary humanities. The Office of Marketing and Communications recently interviewed Jacobs as part of our series on faculty members who hold endowed chairs.
Scripps College: How did your interest in early Christian history, which forms the foundation for much of your scholarship and published work, develop?
Andrew Jacobs: It’s truly a testament to the power of undergraduate teaching! I arrived to my first semester at Brown University with only one of four classes set in my schedule. This was in the “old days,” when students mailed in a postcard with desired classes over the summer, only to arrive and find those classes were full long before we were even admitted. I had a few days of orientation to find some classes to take. I had a vague interest in mythology and ancient history—see my “surprising fact” below—and saw there were some spaces available in Christianity in Late Antiquity. I took that class in fall of my freshman year and was hooked. I took every course I could from that amazing professor, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, who still teaches at Brown, as well as from the other amazing faculty members who taught about religion in the ancient Mediterranean.
It took me a while to figure out what I found so appealing about the study of early Christianity and other religious movements of late antiquity. But, as I’ve argued in many of my publications, there is something about this period of history that speaks profoundly to our own concerns and issues with identity, difference, and politics of community.
SC: How does your popular course Feminist Interpretation of the Bible allow students to explore the nexus of gender and religion with the first century as its backdrop?
AJ: I was very fortunate when I arrived at Scripps in fall 2009 to “inherit” a course inaugurated by my illustrious predecessor, Kathleen Wicker. What appeals to me, as well as to my students, in this class is the study of political and religious desire: we can imagine feminist movements throughout the modern period reading the Bible and dismissing it—or, at least, vastly curtailing its authority—because of its seeming incompatibility with the evolving goals of gender justice. And while of course rejection or radical revision of the Bible has been one tool in the feminist toolkit, more fascinating are the multiple ways feminists, since the nineteenth century, have sought to recuperate the Bible for diverse feminist aims. This class allows us to explore the spectrum of these political desires, from rejection to recuperation, and so ask about the power of religious desire. While we do look at the first century and earlier, much of the work of the class also explores the twenty-first century as well.
SC: How does your role as a professor of religious studies contribute to Scripps’ commitment to interdisciplinary humanities?
AJ: Since its inception, religious studies has been an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, using methodological tools from anthropology, sociology, history, literature, and, in recent years, the hard sciences to explore the category of religion as a way of being human in the world. What’s more, the academic study of religion is always conscious of the ways that knowledge is being produced, reproduced, and naturalized: religion as a category is invented—some would say surprisingly recently—and imposes a particular, and particularly contentious, way of viewing human identity and difference. To study religion in its ancient and modern manifestations is always to ask challenging questions about being human—and the critical stakes in defining humanness—from multiple perspectives.
SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about, that you’d like to share?
AJ: I mentioned above that I came to college with no classes lined up, but with a vague and general interest in mythology and antiquity. I can trace this interest back further, to when I was about eight years old, and my parents bought me a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I probably read about a thousand times before I was 10 years old. I explain this influence here, on a website for which I’m an advisor. There is a direct line from a children’s book to my present position as a chair of humanities at a prestigious liberal arts college. Who can tell how the seeds of curiosity will be planted?
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