My work explores how Christians in the first five centuries CE articulated identity around so many ancient productions of the “biblical,” including texts, reading practices, rituals, and visual art. Since my research connects multiple centuries and terrains, my publications contribute to various subfields of Religious Studies—especially, New Testament studies, late ancient Christianity, and liturgical studies.
Increasingly, my work has foregrounded instances of invention and fraud. In their attempts to lay claim to the biblical and establish a discursive authority over it, early Christians often resorted to such strategies as inventing traditions, forging literature, and manufacturing relics. I am interested in why these strategies were utilized in the contexts I study and what their presence reveals about notions of authority in early Christianity.
Gospel and Epistles of John
Historical Criticism, Literary Criticism, Interpretation, Cultural History
One segment of my research reimagines the origins of the Gospel of John and the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John. In a forthcoming book and several articles, I argue that these four works represent a lineage of literary fakes involving multiple pens over several decades. The author of the Gospel invented a disciple of Jesus to serve as the narrator of his text; the authors of the letters, in turn, co-opted this character, fleshing out so many afterlives for him. My research traces this arc, showing how an initial act of impersonation or deceit inspired a new literary tradition and dramatically shaped twenty centuries of Christian culture.
The conclusion that the Gospel and Letters of John are a chain of ancient literary fakes necessarily impacts how historians regard these texts. Working from the assumption that these four texts are authentic, most scholars today treat them as critical historical sources and impose few limits on their ability to infer social realities from them. A majority, in fact, reconstruct an entire early Christian movement or sect—a Johannine Community—from these sources. My work challenges the existence of such a community, reconfiguring the imagined landscapes of ancient Christianity.
The Biblical in Late Antiquity
Cultural History, Biblical Reception, Liturgical Studies
A second segment of my work enhances what we know about late ancient Christian communities by looking more closely at their reception of biblical texts, figures, and images.
My first book, The Cult of Stephen in Jerusalem: Inventing a Patron Martyr (Oxford University Press, 2022), sits squarely within this area of my research. As the Mediterranean was Christianized in the fourth and fifth centuries, cities seeking to bolster their prestige drew on the fame of local martyrs to claim importance for themselves as spaces. Rome famously articulated its identity around Peter and Paul, while Constantinople claimed the legacy and relics of Andrew. In my book, I demonstrate that church officials in Jerusalem worked for several decades to position Stephen in a similar role—that is, as a symbol of the city’s prestige and identity. Canvassing the diverse expressions of Stephen’s local cult, my book illuminates Jerusalem as a cultural site, revealing how the church understood its biblical past, how it articulated this self-understanding through and around the biblical martyr it selected as its own special patron, and how it reproduced this knowledge in a range of texts, monuments, and ritual practices.