“Each surviving artifact is a witness”

04.17.2015 | Guest

I’ve invited some of the Institute’s Nibley Fellow Award recipients to reflect on their experiences studying religion in the academy. In this post, Luke Drake discusses his work preserving ancient Syriac manuscripts. See other “Nibley Fellow Reflections” here. —Kristian Heal

Luke Drake

It’s a tremendous honor to have been given a fellowship award that bears the name of Hugh Nibley, the intellectual giant whose influence continues to echo in the minds and lives of so many Latter-day Saints. I admittedly arrived late to the game, both in my acquaintance with Dr. Nibley’s work as well as in my awareness of the academic study of religion—which makes me all the more grateful to be even tangentially connected to so great an intellectual legacy.

The works of Hugh Nibley were not on our family bookshelves. As a freshman at BYU I stumbled across a printed copy of “Science Fiction and the Gospel” which I enjoyed, though admittedly it didn’t have a lasting impact on my teenage brain. It wasn’t until I had returned from a full-time mission, and first had contact with “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift” that I was seized by the mind of Hugh Nibley. I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in English literature, and would shortly thereafter spend several years on a business venture with one of my closest friends. I must have listened to “Brigham Young as an Educator” and “More Brigham Young on Education” a dozen times (maybe two dozen?) during those years on my daily commute. I think that I will always have the voice of Dr. Nibley, channeling Brigham, echoing in my brain: “Learn! Learn! Learn! We are made expressly to dwell with those who continue to learn. That’s going to be our eternal fate.” ((“Brigham Young as an Educator,” BYU Speech, June 9, 1967.))

It’s an amazing time to be a student of ancient religion. Never before have so many people had such unfettered access to the voices of the past. Our understanding of ancient people has been broadened by material discoveries: books, receipts, votive offerings, toys, medical instruments, latrines, game boards, and so on. Each surviving artifact is a witness to past networks of social activity—to the lives and interests and struggles of those who preceded us.

Meanwhile, the way that we think about ancient people is under constant revision as we critique the methods by which we approach material remains. This sort of self-reflection leads both to the recovery of new voices and to the reexamination of old ones, even from ancient witnesses that have been under scrutiny for centuries.

Finally, new technologies continue to democratize the joys of exploring the past, particularly as universities and other institutions invest in digital humanities projects made available to an ever more global public (the Maxwell Institute’s excellent Vatican Syriac Manuscript Project is a noteworthy example of such an endeavor).

My own interests lie in the poetics, interpretation, and reception of our earliest Christian literature. Some of my recent and upcoming research has treated the Christian appropriation of Jewish temple propaganda (Coptic Act of Peter), the effect of canonization on contemporary readings of ancient texts (2 Clement), monstrosity and ancient Gnostic Christian poetics (Secret Book of John), Christian anti-Judaism (Gospel of Nicodemus), and the surviving inscriptional evidences of non-Jewish synagogues.

I love researching and teaching ancient religion for more reasons than I can discuss in this short post. I’ll limit my thoughts to this: so many contemporary Western sensibilities can be traced (or purport to be traced!) to some strand of ancient religious discourse. We constantly marshal the dead for a variety of our (often competing) ends, making the varied theologies and philosophies of our Christian, Jewish, and pagan predecessors as productive now as they were then at driving human love and hatred.

In short, ancient history matters! And the sort of effort that is required to disentangle and reimagine the past is sometimes exhilarating, sometimes maddening, mostly laborious, and always worth it. It’s what keeps me up at night.

I am most grateful to the Maxwell Institute and to those individuals who generously support its mission to “deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints and to promote mutual respect and goodwill among people of all faiths through the scholarly study of religious texts and traditions.”

My sincerest hope is to contribute more to so worthy a cause!

Luke Drake is doctoral student in Ancient Mediterranean Religions at the University of North Carolina. He received his BA in English Literature from Brigham Young University and his MTS from Harvard Divinity School. He and his wife, Julie, live in Chapel Hill with their daughter, Pearl.