Exploring The Biblical Landscape

The remains of Greek and Roman theatres, temples, bathhouses and roads in Israel have provided important clues
to Mark Chancey about the transformation of Jewish culture during the 600-year Greco-Roman period (300 BCE
to 300 CE).

“Architectural remains in northern Israel and Galilee show how the Jewish culture adopted Greek and Roman ways and how it resisted them,” says Chancey, chair and associate professor of religious studies in Dedman College.

“Most biblical scholars are trained to handle texts,” he adds. “My research helps bridge the gap between biblical scholars and archaeologists by integrating literary and biblical sources with what is revealed through ancient architecture and artifacts.”

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Mark Chancey with a column at the ancient synagogue of Gush Halav near modern Jish in northern Galilee.

A New Testament scholar, Chancey earned his Ph.D. in religion at Duke University, where he also participated in his first archaeological dig at the ancient Roman town of Sepphoris in Galilee. He was attracted to the physical aspect of the dig – getting on his knees to work with “pick and hoe, spade and brush – to uncover new data and artifacts several thousand years old,” he says. Chancey returned to the dig site several times to learn more about the blended cultures represented by coins, pottery and architectural remains and help make them accessible to biblical and religious studies scholars, not only archaeologists.

He returned to Israel in summer 2008 to continue work on his book, The Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: The Hellenistic and Roman Periods, which he is writing with Eric M. Meyers, the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University. Chancey’s research is supported by the Sam Taylor Fellowship of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, The United Methodist Church.

The two scholars are synthesizing the abundance of material and recent archaeological findings about Jewish culture during the occupation of Palestine by the Greeks and later the Romans, highlighting some of the key moments that transformed Western history, Chancey says. Questions they are exploring include “the nature of Jesus’ unique background in Galilee and the rise of the early Christian movement, the varieties of early Judaism in which the Christian movement fits, and how those two traditions make use of the Hellenistic milieu in which they arose.”

Chancey has written numerous articles and two books about his research, including Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (2005) and The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (2002).

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His archaeological background provides context for teaching his favorite course, Introduction to the New Testament, in which many students often are exposed to the Bible in ways they never have encountered. “Students don’t always know what to expect in the course,” he says, “but I work hard at maintaining a balance in which they are seriously challenged without feeling that whatever religious beliefs they hold are being denigrated.”

Chancey recently has developed another area of biblical expertise, but based in the 21st century. He has turned his attention to the academic, political and constitutional aspects of Bible courses in public schools. Chancey reviewed every Bible course offered in Texas public schools and found that “almost all were taught from a conservative Protestant perspective. No guidance or training was provided for the teachers in religious or biblical studies. But the issue is very complicated, and the voices of biblical scholars are needed.”

When he conducted his report on the issue with Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group on church-state matters, it was the summer before he went up for tenure in 2005. “I was aware that I was doing politically controversial research, and told my department that it would get media attention. There was a firestorm of it, and yet I received nothing but support from the SMU community. This is a good example of the academic freedom we enjoy here – we can engage in politically sensitive research. I know that if I do a good job, my work will be supported.”

– Susan White

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