Baker Academic

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Interview with Jordan Ryan

Last weekend I got a chance to interview Jordan J. Ryan about his new book, The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus. The book is available to order via the Fortress webpage or wherever books about ancient synagogues and the aims of Jesus are sold. It is my great pleasure to showcase this book and introduce Jesus Blog readers to a rising star in Jesus studies.   
-Anthony Le Donne

ALD: So who the hell do you think you are?

JJR: Sorry, did I say or do something wrong?

ALD: No. That is just my ugly American way of asking you to introduce yourself. But thank you for the stereotypical "sorry".

JJR: Haha, that is the most American-Canadian interaction ever.

ALD: My thoughts exactly. So, then, who the hell do you think you are?

JJR: I'm a scholar of the New Testament and early Judaism, hailing from Toronto, Ontario, a Filipino-Canadian, who recently received a PhD from McMaster University in 2016. Currently, I am Assistant Professor of New Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. Prior to that, I was Visiting Assistant Professor of New Testament and Archaeology at Wheaton College.

ALD: In that case, sir, a Shibboleth is warranted. Do you enunciate the second T in Toronto?

JJR: Absolutely not. It's pronounced "Chur-on-oh."

ALD: Okay, then. Let's proceed. Much of your work focuses on Jesus and synagogue culture(s). Would you talk a bit about this?

JJR: I've been interested in understanding Jesus in light of his Jewish context from the beginning of my studies as an undergraduate. Not only did it open up my eyes to the myriad of issues pertaining to Jewish-Christian relations, but it also opened up new avenues for interpretation and understanding of who Jesus was, and of what he taught and did. When I read through the canonical Gospels, I couldn't help but notice how prominent synagogues were in their narrative of Jesus' life and ministry. I was particularly struck by the fact that both the synoptic Gospels and John identify the synagogue as the primary locus Jesus' activities during his ministry. When I started looking into research on synagogues, I was shocked to find that synagogue studies had played next to no role in the historical study of Jesus, despite the emphasis of recent scholarship on Jesus' Jewish context and heritage. It seemed like a major lacuna that needed to be filled, especially in light of the exciting new archaeological discoveries and publications that were available at the time. So, I applied to do a PhD at McMaster University under the supervision of Anders Runesson, who specializes in the study of early synagogues. Within my first week at McMaster, Anders called me into his office to tell me that a synagogue from the early first century CE had been discovered in Galilee, and that he had connections with the excavation, and that he thought it would be an excellent opportunity for me to participate in the excavation and learn everything that I possibly could about synagogues. That's how my first major research project was born.

ALD: So would you see your work as an extension of Runesson's? If so, how? And if not, where is your departure point?

JJR: That's a great question. There was a bit of an explosion of synagogue studies being published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The reality is that, prior to that, there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what a synagogue actually was. I see the work that scholars like Runesson, Brooten, Levine, Binder, McKay, and others did in that period as laying down the foundations, determining what a "synagogue" really was in the early Roman period. They really weren't dealing with historical questions about Jesus. The work that they did helped to establish the evidence and control that data that I put to use in my work. So, I wouldn't exactly call my work an extension of Runesson's work, though he has been a major influence. I see it as another logical step in both synagogue studies and historical Jesus research. Where others like Runesson, were dealing with questions about how to define synagogues, I take their definitions as a starting point for historical investigation into how that understanding of "synagogue" impacts the historical study of Jesus - something that Runesson and others have not taken up. Runesson was (and is) primarily asking questions like “what was the origin of the ‘synagogue?’” and “how should we define ‘synagogue?’” I take the answers that he and others gave to those sorts of questions as a starting point, and ask questions like, “given what we know about synagogues, how does the institutional setting of the synagogue impact our reading of Gospel narratives set in synagogues?” or “given what we now know about synagogues, why did Jesus use them as the primary platform and locus for his ministry?”

ALD: How should we think differently about Jesus and Galilean synagogues in light of the discovery of the Magdala synagogue?

JJR: There are a few ways in which our knowledge of ancient synagogues has grown following the discovery of the Magdala synagogue. The most obvious point is that the synagogue at Magdala was in use during the first half of the first century CE. Magdala is in Galilee, in the lake region, which is where the Gospels claim that Jesus was active in his teaching, healing, and proclamation ministry. It used to be a matter of debate, especially in the 1990s, as to whether or not any synagogue buildings existed in Galilee or the Land in general prior to 70 CE, but the discovery of the Magdala synagogue probably puts that to rest. That said, I think that there's much, much more to what we can learn from Magdala about synagogues and early Judaism beyond the existence of synagogue buildings. We're still analyzing its architecture, and learning more about the communal, religio-political function of synagogues from it. Moreover, the discovery of the "Magdala stone," which features temple imagery, very clearly shows us that Galilean Jews maintained a strong connection to Jerusalem, and that the synagogue may have played a role in that connection. A further insight comes from the discovery of a carved limestone block located in the middle of a smaller benched room. It had two grooves on either side of its top face, and the current hypothesis is that it was used for reading scrolls.

The Magdala synagogue also features a mosaic pavement - the earliest synagogue mosaic pavement ever discovered. It was previously thought that mosaic decoration was a later development, but this discovery indicates a much closer connection between early Roman period synagogues and late antique synagogues which feature similar decor. One other issue that I am currently working on with Marcela Zapata-Meza, one of the excavation directors, has to do with the fact that we've identified an area of Magdala, right across the street from the synagogue that contains baths and vessels that we think were used for purity purposes. We're trying to understand the relationship between synagogues and purity, and this discovery may give us some more evidence to better grasp that relationship. It's also worth saying that the dig at Magdala is groundbreaking (pun intended) for another reason - Marcela Zapata-Meza, my dear friend and colleague, is the first Mexican woman to direct a dig outside of Mexico, which is worth highlighting. The two of us will be presenting jointly at the ASOR annual meeting this year in Boston on some of this material.

ALD: Your title "The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus" echoes the work of Ben F. Meyer. How important has his work been for you?

JJR: The title of my upcoming book is an intentional allusion to Ben Meyer’s work. Like me, Ben Meyer also saw value in Collingwood’s philosophy of history, especially the concept of what Collingwood called “the inside of the event,” which is anything that be described in terms of thought. For Collingwood, events in the past involving human beings have an “inside” and an “outside,” wherein the inside was thought, and the outside was physical action. This led Meyer to the idea that, in order to understand the historical Jesus, we need to understand his intentions – the “inside of the event” of Jesus’ ministry. For Meyer, the aims of Jesus were tied to the restoration of Israel. Meyer’s work, though it has its flaws, was foundational and inspirational for me, as I sought to understand why Jesus used synagogues as the primary platform for his public ministry. In order to understand why Jesus did something, we need to understand his aims – the “inside of the event.” So, what I ended up doing in The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus is exploring how synagogues played into Jesus’ aims, and why he made them the primary locus of his activities.

ALD: In your book, you write: "Luke 4:16–30 is undoubtedly Lukan, and its testimony has been shaped by Luke and by the processes of collective remembering. That is the nature of history, and there does not exist any account of something that happened in the past that is not similarly shaped by the process of remembering. None of this means that it does not recall or evince an event that actually happened. Again, we must remember that history is inferential, and that the evidence is not the past itself, but bears witness to it. A shift in language may help to illustrate this. Rather than saying that this passage 'goes back to Jesus,' it is better to say that it tells us about him."

Would you talk a bit more about the principle of inference?

JJR: The principle of inference has been a key one for me. I started working on my dissertation in 2011, following the release of a certain book titled "Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity," edited by a couple of guys who write posts about Jesus on the internet. That book encouraged me to start thinking about how to write history, and how to go about historical investigation. That led me to start reading deeply in the philosophy of history. Inference is a principle outlined by R.G. Collingwood and others who followed him. The basic premise is that history is an inferential science. What this means is that the historian is not interested in the data itself, but in knowledge of the past that can be inferred from it.

According to Collingwood, the business of history is “to study events not accessible to our observation, and to study these events inferentially, arguing to them from something else which is accessible to our observation, and which the historian calls ‘evidence’ for the events in which he is interested.” The ramifications of this are substantial. First of all, it shows us that it is not enough to establish the “reliability” or “authenticity” or any given testimony. There are more questions to ask, and much more to discover, because we are not enslaved as historians to what the sources say. So, when we are presented with testimony about Jesus, we need to ask not whether it is true or false, but what we might infer from it about the past. That means switching over from thinking about the Gospels as “testimony” to be verified towards “evidence” about the past to be interpreted. I actually think that this coheres in some respects with the results of recent studies applying the insights of collective memory.

Many thanks to Jordan for his time. I look forward to seeing more from his mighty keyboard.



  1. Jordan, this is fantastic and I look forward to reading it. It's an honor that Demise of Authenticity played any role at all in your thinking. You're definitely right about how Collingwood coheres with some developments in sociological approaches to memory (social memory theory and cultural memory theory). I especially appreciate your comments on "authenticity." I am of the opinion that in the 1950s and 1960s, scholars were fairly clear about what they meant by this term. But later, and certainly the time of the evangelical uptake within the so-called Third Quest (or, if we prefer to avoid Quest language, the late 80s through the 90s at least), scholars are often using this term, but with a different meaning. Did you have this sense in doing your research for this book?

    1. Chris,

      "Demise of Authenticity" was pretty important for me as a graduate student. I started out at McMaster in 2011, and went to a conference called "Erasure History" at the University of Toronto, where I remember talking to Mark Goodacre, who told me about this upcoming book that was going to change things in historical Jesus research. Of course, that book was "Demise of Authenticity." So, I picked it up as soon as I possibly could. I also remember a time, probably in 2012, when Stephen Westerholm asked me what I wanted to write my dissertation on, because a committee meeting was coming up. I told him that it was going to have something to do with the historical Jesus, and I remember him having this wry smile and saying, "how on earth are you going to do that?" It was those two events that led me to delve into the philosophy of history.

      I would agree with you, in that there certainly is a difference in how scholarship of the 50s and 60s thought about history and "authenticity" as compared to the 80s-90s, and even into the 2000s. I've recently been fascinated with how C.H. Dodd, for example, approached the issue of "historical tradition" in the Gospel of John. There was a certain nuance there that I think is lacking in some later studies of John and the historical Jesus.

      Certainly some of that has to do with evangelical scholarship, especially the more apologetic variety. I also think that some of it also had to do with the Jesus Seminar, with their bold claims and rhetoric about what really did or did not happen. I had the opportunity to study under a few of the Seminar fellows at the University of Toronto, and I was always struck by the confidence with which they would say that such and such a story "never happened" or was "invented" without further elaboration or argumentation.

      I think it's also worth pointing out some of the deficiencies of the (so-called) New Quest's attempts to root their

  2. (cont. from last post) ... root their method in Collingwood's philosophy of history. On the one hand, the effort to bring the study of Jesus into dialogue with broader historiographical thought and trends is laudable. On the other, it's important to be aware that that Bultmann and the New Questers after him badly misunderstood what Collingwood was trying to say, and really misappropriated some of his ideas. There's a great article by Jasper Hopkins called "Bultmann on Collingwood's Philosophy of History" that is really worth reading.