“My faith commands the study of history”

06.08.2015 | Guest

In this guest post, Mark Ellison discusses how his faith led him to pursue the academic study of ancient religion. Ellison is a recipient of a Nibley Fellowship award from the Maxwell Institute. See other recent “Nibley Fellow Reflections” here.—Kristian Heal

Mark Ellison

What was life like for ordinary Christians in late antiquity? The texts that historians study to answer this question were written by only a small fraction of the ancient population. To what extent can material evidence like art and artifacts give us a broader understanding of the past, of early Christianity, or of the lived experience of religion? How can we “read” art in dialogue with texts? And as we step into the world of the past in this way, what do we see that perhaps we didn’t see before? These are some of the questions I’m exploring in my PhD program at Vanderbilt University, where I’m majoring in early Christian history with a minor in late antique art.

I have just reached a milestone in my program with the completion of coursework. Now comes intensive reading for comprehensive exams. This is a welcome chance to pause for a moment, take a breath, and reflect on my academic journey thus far.

I came to the academic study of religion relatively late. After earning a BA in English at BYU, I began a career in religious education in the LDS Church Educational System. It was through a combination of personal study and professional development—reading C. S. Lewis, Hugh Nibley, Stephen Robinson, and patristic literature; taking a study tour to Rome, Egypt, and Israel—that I found my understanding of scripture and my personal faith increasingly enriched by the perspectives of religious scholarship. A thirst grew within me that has never left. Abandoning plans to pursue a doctorate in education, I instead did graduate work in the Bible and archaeology and studied New Testament Greek and Biblical Hebrew.

Schooling went on hold for a few years as I focused on family, work, and church service. But then, with encouragement from family and friends, I followed a spiritual and intellectual restlessness and applied to doctoral programs. My first choice was Vanderbilt, where Dr. Robin M. Jensen—one of the world experts in early Christian art, worship, and literature—was on the faculty. For years I had admired her work which illuminates the theology, values, and practices of early Christians by deftly engaging both literature and art. It still amazes me that Dr. Jensen accepted me as her student.

Some highlights of the past two years:

  • Studying with outstanding professors, who in addition to Dr. Jensen include Dr. David Michelson (early Christianity, Late Antiquity, Syriac Christianity), Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (New Testament), and Dr. Elizabeth Moodey (Early Medieval Art). They, like Dr. Jensen, are not only deeply competent in their fields but also generous with their time, guidance, and personal encouragement.
  • Learning to read German, Latin, and French.
  • Working with a fellow graduate student (Julia Nations-Quiroz) to create a digital catalog of early Christian sarcophagi housed at the Vatican and in other museums.
  • Helping to teach divinity students subjects as diverse as late antique art and the history of religion in America.
  • Presenting a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting about the fourth-century funerary monument of a married couple, Flavius Julius Catervius and Septimia Severina, Roman aristocrats who had converted to Christianity. Severina commissioned this monument when her husband died, so this is one of the priceless artifacts of Late Antiquity that gives us the perspectives of a Christian woman (which are underrepresented in the written texts of the time). It has been fascinating and challenging to study this monument trying to hear Severina’s voice. It’s also just downright fun to get a sense of what the people I’m studying actually looked like. The portraiture of married Christians like Severina and Catervius is going to be the subject of my dissertation.

Tondo portrait of Septimia Severina and her husband Flavius Julius Catervius, sarcophagus relief, late 4th century AD, Cathedral of San Catervo, Tolentino, Italy. Photo © 2008 Jim Forest, used with permission.

  • Working in a research seminar to create an exhibition of late antique artifacts used in domestic religion. I researched nine pagan, Jewish, and Christian oil lamps that were used not just to light up people’s homes at night, but also for devotional practices like evening prayers or honoring ancestors at their tombs.

Mark Ellison stands near a display of ancient oil lamps.

I am deeply grateful for the support of my family, friends, and the Maxwell Institute for making this journey possible.

I am also grateful that my faith as a Latter-day Saint not only allows but encourages, even commands me to study history: “Ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee” (Deut. 4:32). In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord urges the saints to be “instructed more perfectly” in the gospel, and defines “more perfect” instruction as that which includes the study of “things which have been,” “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth”;  “languages, tongues, and people,” “knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:78-80; 90:15; 93:53). Our hearts are to turn to our fathers and mothers (Mal. 4:5-6) because “we without them cannot be made perfect” (D&C 128:18). If we’re instructed both in the past and in the gospel, we can bring out of our treasure “things new and old” (Matt 13:52).

For me, the study of history informs and enriches my faith, challenges it in productive ways, leads me to new and meaningful discoveries, and makes me feel more connected to people both past and present. It adds wonder to my experience of loving God and neighbor.

The period I study, Late Antiquity, was a time characterized by huge social transformations. The driving questions of the age were (as historian Peter Brown puts them), “How to draw on a great past without smothering change. How to change without losing one’s roots.” ((The World of Late Antiquity (New York and London: Norton, 1971), 8.)) We too live in an age of enormous technological, social, and ideological changes, and individuals and institutions find themselves grappling with these same questions.

I honestly don’t know all the answers, but I do believe that we’ll find the best answers if we pursue them informed and sensitized by the past.