Francesca Stavrakopoulou is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at Exeter and her work is focused on ancient Israelite and Judahite religions, and portrayals of the religious past in the Hebrew Bible. She’s particularly interested in cultural, social and religious responses to the dead. Other research interests include kingship in ancient West Asia/Near East; history and ideology in the Hebrew Bible; methods of historical reconstruction; constructs of ‘popular’ and ‘official’ religion; and ‘secular’ approaches to teaching and learning in biblical studies.
She’s probably the best known ‘face’ of Biblical studies in Britain given that she’s regularly on TV discussing and debating the subject. I thought it might be a good idea to introduce her to folk outside of the United Kingdom and she was gracious and agreed to subject herself to an interview. So, Francesca, thanks very much for agreeing to answer a few questions.
JW– First off, how did you come to be interested in biblical studies?
FS– Ever since I was a child I’ve been interested in ancient religion – mainly because of my Greek heritage. When I was little, I spent a lot of time learning about the gods and goddesses of Olympus, and this gradually extended to an interest in other ancient deities, and from there, the Bible. I first decided to study Theology at university because I wanted to understand why Jesus was held to be so different from the semi-divine heroes of ancient Greece.
JW– The dead seem a special concern (if I can use that word). Why the dead?
FS– You can learn so much from the dead! Looking at the ways the living deal with the material remains of the dead, and examining the ways the living reconfigure their relationships with the deceased individual, can tell you so much about the social dynamics, values and worldviews of communities. And that’s what really interests me.
JW– Your interests are wide ranging even within the field of biblical studies. Where did you study and what was the topic of your dissertation?
FS– I did all my studies at Oxford University: first was an undergraduate degree in Theology, which gave me the Hebrew Bible bug, so I stayed on at Oxford and did a Masters degree in ‘Old Testament’ (as it’s called at Oxford!), and then I did my doctorate there, too. My doctoral thesis looked at the biblical distortion of the religious past – so I focused on King Manasseh as the most ‘sinful’ individual in the Hebrew Bible, and child sacrifice as the most abhorrent religious practice, and argued that neither were as deviant as the biblical writers make out!
JW– How did you come to end up at Exeter?
FS– Having finished my doctorate, I had a fixed-term post-doctoral fellowship in Oxford, and a permanent post at Exeter came up. It was a bit of a gamble to apply, because I didn’t know the university or the area at all, but I decided to go for it, and was lucky enough to be appointed. It’s a great department and we just keep going from strength to strength.
JW– You’re an atheist, but not the angry sort. By that I mean that you don’t seem to be on a crusade to ‘destroy’ faith. Do you see value in faith?
FS– For those who have faith, yes, I can see there’s a value for them. But I don’t think those without faith are missing out on anything valuable.
JW– You’re always so very cordial and patient when describing your approach. To what do you attribute that patience?
FS– My mother! She’s brought me up to be decent to people, and to treat everyone with respect. And I try to keep in mind her advice: if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all! I think that’s key when it comes to debates about religion. There’s no point in my shouting at people who disagree with me, or accusing them of being stupid, just because I don’t agree with their views about God, or the Bible, or whatever. Some atheists in the public eye don’t do us any favours by behaving like that.
JW– You’ve recently been appointed to a Professorship at Exeter. Congratulations! What are your primary responsibilities?
FS– I’m continuing to do all the things I’ve been doing since I arrived in Exeter – teaching, supervising research students, publishing, sitting in endless meetings, etc. But I’m expected to take a more prominent role in shaping the direction of the Department within the context of the university and UK higher education. It should be fun … !
JW– Turning in a different direction: you are very, very well known in Britain for your several appearances on BBC television programs about the bible. How did they find you? By that I mean, how did it happen?
FS– The BBC were looking work with various sorts of scholars, and in particular wanted to develop some programme ideas on religious and biblical topics. I was recommended to them by various people. So the BBC got in touch, and after lots of discussions and meetings, we started working up ideas for a documentary series.
JW– Have you ever been asked to do a program you refused to do because the direction it wanted to go was inaccurate or inappropriate or misleading?
FS– Yes! I’ve turned down various projects because they didn’t suit my academic preferences or interests. And I’ve also turned down TV projects because they were more interested in my being a woman than being a scholar.
JW– Do you see value in twitter or facebook or other social media for the promulgation of biblical scholarship?
FS– Definitely. I think biblical scholarship has generally been pretty bad at communicating its ideas beyond the bounds of the academy. And there’s too much gate-keeping in academia as it is. So Twitter and Facebook can be great ways of sparking a broader interest in the sorts of stuff we do – and in fostering an interest in academic study. It’s students that keep Biblical Studies alive in universities, and we can attract more students by keeping up public interest in our field. Social media is a great way to do this.
JW– Have you ever considered blogging?
FS– Briefly. I’d want to blog about the underbelly of academia, though, and I think that would get me in too much trouble!
JW– Do you read any of the biblioblogs (besides mine of course, everyone reads it) 😉
FS– Sometimes – when I have time. I usually get sent links to particular posts, so I keep up with the most interesting stuff that way. I stay away from the conservative Christian blogs – especially if I’ve recently been on the telly!
JW– Are you currently working on any writing projects? Do you have a manuscript in the pipeline that we should keep our eyes open for?
FS– Yep, I’m working on two books at the moment. One’s about corpses (of course), and the other’s about the delightful Baal and Asherah.
JW– Thanks so much, again, and I hope to see you at SOTS again next Winter at Cambridge (or perhaps at SBL in Chicago). Speaking of SOTS and SBL, what do you like about conferences and which of the two do you prefer?
FS– For a quality academic experience, SOTS is the best. You get to hear papers on topics you’d never ordinarily have the time to be interested in. Things can be a bit hit and miss at SBL! But for me, the best thing about conferences is getting to spend time with friends and colleagues I don’t often get to see. The best academic conversations I’ve ever had have always taken place in a bar or a restaurant. For that reason, it’s hard to choose between SBL and SOTS.
JW– I agree with you completely on that! SOTS has quality papers and good friends and SBL has fantastic book exhibits and loads of people to see. The paper’s generally, aren’t all that spectacular (though every now and then Bob Cargill or Christian Brady or James Crossley do one and they’re brilliant).
One final question: would you mind telling us something about yourself that may be surprising? For instance, do you work as a lumberjack on weekends or are you an opera singer in Munich or do you make cakes and take them to students or their birthdays?
FS– I’m older than I look.
JW– What? You’re 25?
Again, thank you, Professor, for your time and thoughtful answers. I look forward, as do we all, to seeing you at meetings and on the BBC.