In this guest post, Ryan Davis discusses his interest in studying religion of the ancient world. Davis is a recipient of a Nibley Fellowship award from the Maxwell Institute. See other recent “Nibley Fellow Reflections” here.—Kristian Heal
My graduate studies in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the ancient Near East continue to be an enriching experience. The excitement of reading texts that were written millennia ago and discovering ideas, perspectives, and beliefs that have long been forgotten keeps me going back for more. Our inability to spend time in ancient Israel or ancient Mesopotamia requires that our immersion in the languages and cultures of these forgotten places must take place through their writings and material remains. Even though we are left to piece together silent and deteriorating evidence, we can still paint tantalizing portraits of their world. In acquiring the data for painting these portraits, the evidence of their past acts like passports, passports that continue to call me to leave the here-and-now and visit the there-and-then. In these journeys, I often experience them as a giddy tourist, allowed to witness things few others have.
Long before I had acquired such a passport into the world of the scriptures, I had acquired a testimony of the restored gospel, communicated to me through the whisperings of the Spirit. As a missionary in South Korea, I often wished that I had the passport I have now so that I could somehow prove the gospel to others and be a better missionary. After my mission, I was drawn to study the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Near Eastern setting, mostly out of my love of languages and history. This passport has, indeed, turned out to be personally enriching, opening up the contexts of the scriptures in a way I never thought possible. I enjoy the scriptures more and have respect for their depth and complexity. However, I now realize that a testimony—acquired by communing with God—is a more powerful and persuasive influence than academic knowledge alone. I have also learned that the results of academic inquiry are, in the end, merely tools in our hands, left to us to decide what we do with them. They can be used constructively or destructively, but their use is determined by the hand and heart that wields them.
I have deep respect for the Maxwell Institute. It is composed of faithful scholars who try to consecrate their tools to build God’s kingdom in their own ways. I have also realized that a scholar of faith is not someone who merely maintains faith when confronted with the results of academic inquiry, but one who is deeply respectful and reverent about what is academically unknowable. The academy can only tell us so much; its limitations are built into its design. The tantalizing portraits created by the academy are always shifting and subject to reevaluation. Regardless of how our understanding of the canvas of history changes, it is our testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, borne of the Spirit, and our service within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that will open to us hidden treasures and help us answer the important questions.
Ryan C. Davis is working on his PhD in Hebrew Bible / Ancient Near East at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently writing a dissertation that focuses on analyzing human-divine relationships in the rituals of Israel and Mesopotamia. He lives in Springville, Utah with his wife and two children.