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Inside These Halls: Christopher B. Hays on ANE, Fuller, and Digital Learning

*Editor’s note: This is the second of two Fuller Seminary interviews conducted by Ryan Lytton (the first interview was with Amos Yong). He recently had the opportunity to interview Christopher B. Hays, who is the D. Wilson Moore Associate Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Chair of the Old Testament Department at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

In this interview, Hays discusses the importance of studying the ANE, current happenings at Fuller (the move from Pasadena to Pomona), and career advice for potential future academics.

RL: As the Chair of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Fuller, could you say a bit about the importance of understanding the ANE when it comes Biblical Interpretation?

CH: Well, the Old Testament is an ancient Near Eastern text. So ANE studies is not a separate field, it’s a basic approach to the material. It assumes that if you’re going to interpret a text, it would be good to know something about the people who wrote it—the times and cultures that they lived in. It might be nice to know what other texts were written around the same time!

It goes to basic issues like “what does it mean to say ‘you shall love the LORD your God’?”—because the word love doesn’t have quite the same set of nuances now that it did then. So it’s no different from saying that if you want to interpret French literature knowledgeably, you should know about France and the French language.

Sometimes ANE studies can be seen as kind of niche, but I don’t see why. I tend to think that religious leaders would do well to study the context of the Bible deeply—not only because they’re supposed to be the experts in their communities, but because Ancient Near Eastern literature raises questions that remain important today—How should society work? Who should have what rights and powers? What is justice? Who is God? How should we live and die?

There are a lot of ways that one can interpret the Bible, and some of them go beyond its historical context, but it seems to me that knowing as much as you can about what the Bible meant to the first people who wrote and read and heard it is a good first step.

RL: What kinds of resources are essential for ANE study?

CH: Hidden Riches, of course! LOL. Seriously, though, there are a list of a number of basic resources listed in the introduction to the book, and each chapter also includes suggestions for further reading on specific topics.

As far as basic resources, many of the previous compendia of ANE texts like The Context of Scripture and Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts are in many libraries. They’re a bit expensive to buy, but they are another way to get even more variety of texts.

When I teach my Master’s-level introduction to the Ancient Near East course, I always assign a history, such as Marc van de Mieroop’s A History of the Ancient Near East. Although it’s not necessary to have every name and date memorized, some basic facts about ancient history served as a kind of skeleton on which the flesh of comparative literature can hang.

There are other excellent books out there on culture and archaeology in the ANE. For example, I like King and Stager’s Life in Biblical Israel. I also often recommend Miller and Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah.

I’m a little leery of introductory books that claim to shed light on “Ancient Near Eastern worldviews” and the like, since I’m not sure we have such clear access to the psychology of ancient peoples, and there’s so much variety in the specific texts. Also, those often have a bit of an apologetic bent, in drawing sharp contrasts with the “biblical worldview.”

RL: Where should someone start if they’ve never done anything with the ANE before?

CH: Apart from Hidden Riches? :D I really do think that the ancient Near East is such a large topic that having a professor to guide you into it can save you a lot of confusion. At Fuller, we offer a course called Ancient Near Eastern History, Literature, and Culture, and I think it’s a great way to begin, and get your bearings. I joke that it’s a gateway drug to ANE and OT Studies…

RL: There are currently at least three fairly prominent jobs open at Fuller. Could you talk about the culture there, particularly focusing on the type of scholar you hope to see join your team?

CH: When I look at Fuller, both historically and today, it’s an unusual kind of institution. It was founded by fairly conservative evangelicals, and it maintains an evangelical flavor in various ways. But it has also come to be one of the most ambitious schools of theology in the country. When I got to Fuller, it was immediately clear to me that most of my faculty colleagues had been formed in the best universities around the country and the world. That continues to be the case, and I think that we have to continue to find people who are “both-and.” They need to be both people of faith who have a heart for the church, and also top international scholars in their fields.

I won’t kid you—this makes life challenging for us in faculty searches. The number of people who can check both those boxes is smaller than the number who can check one or the other. Furthermore, Fuller, in order to fulfill our mission, needs to have faculty who really get both the global church, and our Southern California context! We can’t simply hire a faculty that looks and thinks like Fuller’s faculty did 50 years ago. That’s clear to everyone.

At the moment, more than ever, we also need people with energy and vision, who have what it takes to lead Fuller into the future. I personally think it’s a moment when it makes sense to hire really bright early-career scholars, but in the end we’ll be looking for the best candidates, full stop.

I’m on the dean search committee right now, and we have eight or nine other faculty positions total coming up in the next year or two and so we’re in the process of reforming and redefining who Fuller is for the 21st century. That’s exciting, but it also puts the pressure on us to do well.

RL: What kind of advice do you have for someone interested in academia as a career, particularly in light of the job market?

CH: It’s a complex topic, and something that ultimately is very personal—one size does not fit all. It’s also a slightly different question in theological academia versus other fields.

In general, I have to admit to people that being a professor can be a great job. If you love doing this and can’t imagine doing anything else with your life, then it’s something to think about.

The world is now full of internet columns and blogs telling students not to go do a PhD. I think it’s worth listening to everybody, and certainly students need to go in with their eyes wide open.

But I think that that’s a little bit too bleak. I do think that it’s unwise to get yourself into a lot of debt in graduate school for theology—because even in a best-case scenario, you’re not going to make a lot of money like a doctor or lawyer might so that you can pay off large student loans. In the U.S., it’s up to graduate schools to take care of their students.

One thing worth addressing is elitism that skews people’s perceptions. For example, Peter Enns basically tells people only to do a PhD if they get into something like “Cambridge or Harvard or Yale“. Pete’s a good and sensible guy, but here he hasn’t done all of his homework.

It’s not a well-known fact, but Fuller is one of the most successful doctoral programs in the country at placing our graduates in theological schools as faculty. As of 2015, which is the most recent data that I have, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) published a study ranking doctoral programs in terms of the number of faculty that were teaching in ATS schools, and Fuller was the 6th ranked school in the country.

We were ahead of Yale, Emory, Vanderbilt, Duke, Notre Dame, Oxford, and Cambridge—schools that I’m sure most people think of as being superior for placement. At that point, there were 99 former PhD graduates who were faculty at ATS schools, and we continue to place, so there’s a strong network out there at the highest levels.

RL: Is there a research project in your field that is just waiting for someone to tackle it?

CH: Well, I might not want to give away all my future ideas! But I’ll tell you a little bit about my forthcoming book and one of my students’ dissertations that was just finished.

My new book, which is coming out with Cambridge University Press early next year, is a new argument that Isaiah 24-27 was first composed in the time of Josiah, at the end of the 7th Century BCE. It was a kind of celebration of the end of Assyrian power in the region. Those chapters have caused scholars so many problems over the years, and have been interpreted and dated in so many different ways, so I think this was a real need for the field. I hope it gets a good hearing from my peers.

Another cool project is the dissertation that was just finished by my student Jason Riley, which I expect to be published in the near future. He’s looking at the effects of warfare on children during the Old Testament period, using both biblical, archaeological, and iconographic sources to see what the witnesses say. It’s an extraordinary piece of work, and the outside reviewers are all enthused about it.

The field of childhood studies in antiquity is beginning to grow, but it’s amazing that more of this work had not been done sooner. I think it’s very exciting, because it’s not just for antiquarian interests, but hopefully is useful for the present day, for children who are still suffering from the effects of war and unrest all over the world. Jason is a former Marine who had served in the Middle East and elsewhere, so this has a personal side for him, and it’s really a passionate and excellent piece of work.

RL: Fuller has been in Pasadena since forever. What are your thoughts about the move to Pomona? How do you think this will impact the institution, both its students and its Faculty & Staff?

CH: I guess in California terms, 70 years might feel like forever! I served on the faculty committee that was advising the upper administrators on the move throughout the past year, so I’ve had the opportunity to think a lot about this, and have been informed about things every step of the way. I think the move makes a lot of sense for Fuller, for a few reasons.

First of all, Pasadena is not what it was when Fuller moved here. It’s very challenging for our faculty, staff, and students to afford. We have multimillion-dollar condos going up every day, and it’s full of luxury shopping and restaurants. That makes it a lovely place for some people to live, but a difficult place for a seminary. So I think of this as a move that will bring missional affordability. We want a community on our campus, and that requires proximity.

Second, I’m excited about moving close to the many institutions of higher education in Claremont, which is only about three miles from Pomona. It’s the densest gathering of great liberal arts colleges in the western United States. So this will bring opportunities to interact with scholarly peers around libraries, lectures, etc. Like most Fuller faculty, my work is interdisciplinary, so I’m enthusiastic about being a part of that.

I also think that Pomona itself is going to be a fruitful context. We’re right in the center of the city, near public transportation, in what will be I think an increasingly flourishing part of town. And the civic leaders in Pomona have been so welcoming and enthusiastic about having Fuller there. I think it’s a partnership made in heaven.

All this is not to say that the move is going to be all joy and fun. There’s a lot of hard work coming for us, and as a faculty I think we’re going to be asked to do a lot. But it’s also a potentially exciting phase of the school’s existence. It remains to be seen what the sale price will be for the Pasadena property, but if it generates as much money as it could, then this will not only allow us to continue doing what we’ve been doing, but hopefully even do things better, and at a higher level.

RL: Fuller has made remarkable progress in making its degrees available online. Are there other innovations happening at Fuller that address the growing tide of quality online options for higher education? Is there a plan for a distance PhD anytime soon?

CH: In some ways, the biggest changes that are coming are not specific to Fuller. There are shifts happening in higher education in general, and in theological education in general. Fuller has always been an inventive and creative institution, and has tried to reach out in numerous ways. We had already been offering distance courses for decades.

So in some ways, online education is simply a new tool, and not a new initiative or vision for us. I think we’re making progress in doing online education well, and clearly it’s going to “be a thing” for theological education in the foreseeable future.

The point that I want to make though—and I insist that if you’re going to quote me about anything about online education that you add this: online education has to be an extension of a core institution. Maybe someday, somewhere, there will be top-flight institutions that don’t exist with any “geophysical core,” but not right now. Fuller will and must maintain its commitments to in-person education, at a high level. For me that includes especially our doctoral program. And this is an area where we need to focus on funding students better, because we have the faculty to support top-flight doctoral education, and we need to take care of our students in a manner that will allow them to focus on their studies.

If Fuller ever embraces online doctoral education, it would be from a missional standpoint. Obviously, there are students in the majority world who can’t afford to come to Southern California to study for a PhD. There has been talk that it would be good to have some way to accommodate them. And I support that, but as an extension of what we’re doing here, certainly not to replace what we’re doing here. As I mentioned above, Fuller is already quite successful in doctoral education. It’s simply a question of maintaining and extending. 

Christopher Hays’ Hidden Riches is currently available on pre-pub from Logos, as part of an exciting 2-volume WJK Hebrew Bible Background Collection.

Written by
Ryan Lytton

Ryan Lytton is Assistant Professor & Director of Academic Services at Life Pacific University-Virginia. He earned a Bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies from Life Pacific University where he graduated in 2007. From there he went on to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he focused on how the Bible was interpreted in the Patristic Period (100-800 AD). He’s currently pursuing a PhD through Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, continuing his study of patristic exegesis.

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Written by Ryan Lytton