S.8, E.7: “Learning More to Say More”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus religion professor and Bruce Gray Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Rodney A. Caruthers II.
Posted on March 9th, 2021 by

Dr. Rodney A. Caruthers II, the 2020-21 Bruce Gray Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Religion at Gustavus, discusses his northern/southern family background, his A.M.E pastor mother and the impact of his parents on him, his path from studying architectural design and psychology to seminary to scholar of the composition of ancient Jewish and Christian texts, and his perspective as a Black man on his work and the death of Mr. George Floyd and its aftermath.

Season 8, Episode 7: “Learning More to Say More”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life at Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways a Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the department of history. Introducing himself to the Gustavus community, Dr. Rodney A. Caruthers II, this academic year’s Bruce Gray Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of religion, called our attention to a poem he had recently come across titled The Calf Path and written by Sam Foss that reads in part, “For men are prone to go it blind along the calf paths of the mind and work away from sun to sun to do what other men have done.”

If we can judge a person by the poetry they commend, then Dr. Caruthers is surely someone dedicated to fresh inquiry and learning rather than simply settling for what we already know. Professor Caruthers earned his PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 2019 with a focus on Second Temple Judaism and New Testament studies. Specifically, as he describes it, his scholarship “focuses on education and writing techniques during the Greco-Roman era, intertextual relationships between Jewish and Christian literature, comparative religion, and the use of magic in antiquity,” all of which sounds fascinating to me, especially that magic part. More on that later.

Already a published scholar at work on receiving his PhD and revising his PhD dissertation for publication, Rodney is also no stranger to the classroom, having taught previously at several institutions and recently concluded a course on the New Testament at Gustavus. As you will hear, his story and work are both quite interesting and it’s my pleasure to speak with him on the podcast. Welcome, Rodney, it’s great to have you both on the podcast and at Gustavus.

Rodney Caruthers II:

It’s absolutely my pleasure, Greg, and I’m glad to have a chance to interact with you.

Greg Kaster:

Likewise. We have actually not met in person as is sometimes the case with people I’m podcasting with, so look forward to doing that but the pleasure is mine as well. As we were discussing shortly before we started recording, I’ll let listeners know, I’m recording from the condominium my wife and I inhabit in downtown Minneapolis and our neighbors are remodeling starting today. We’re happy for them but listeners may hear some pounding and drilling and God knows what else, and there’s no way for me to avoid it. I tried going into a closet and you still hear it, so bear with us. Anyway, you’re now at your home in Mankato, you said. Are you teaching J-term, January term, right now?

Rodney Caruthers II:

That’s correct. I am teaching J-term. It’s been a great experience so far. We’re in our second week and it’s been good, Monday through Friday. The students have been great, teaching Religion 210, New Testament.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Is that the same course you taught in the fall, too, or not?

Rodney Caruthers II:

That is the same course.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Today was the first day that I actually taught at home because of the blizzard warning.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

All the other time, I was at the campus teaching from one of the classrooms just over video, still, but today we did the video and, again, they’re doing a good job.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, that’s good to know. Yeah, I forgot about this blizzard. I’m looking out our window here in downtown Minneapolis, and basically nothing, I mean nothing that wasn’t already here. We got very little snow. Did you get shovelable snow there?

Rodney Caruthers II:

It was and they are actually clearing it pretty well, and most of it looks like it’s melted.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, good, that’s great. Well, yeah, I’m glad things are going well and that you’re safe. It’s interesting how COVID, interesting and challenging, how COVID has impacted our teaching. Were you already teaching online or in hybrid form in the spring elsewhere?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Well, back spring of 2020, yes, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s when it, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

When I was teaching at Ashland Theological Seminary, I was teaching both New Testament and Biblical Interpretation and, Greg, before COVID hit so it was something of a preparation, before everything changed, I was teaching in the Metro Detroit area. Ashland Theological Seminary is located in Ashland, Ohio, but it also has a satellite campus in Michigan, so I was teaching at the Michigan campus but I was also teaching the Cleveland campus remote over video.

This was before COVID hit, so it actually got me somewhat prepared to teach over video, because I was teaching the group that was in front of me physically but I also had the Cleveland group on video. I was doing both simultaneously and then there were times when I went down to Cleveland as well, so it actually got me ready to teach over video which I’ve been doing here at Gustavus starting in the fall when, I don’t know if you knew this or if our listeners knew this, this was the first time that Religion 210, New Testament has been taught at Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow, no, I didn’t know that.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, the chair of the department, Casey Elledge, gave me the honor and the opportunity to teach this for the first time at Gustavus. I know they already had a course on the Bible that normally taught the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, and included the New Testament, so this was the first time that we had a chance to teach New Testament as a standalone course.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Rodney Caruthers II:

I did that in the fall and I taught it over video. The students did an excellent job, it was a great experience and now, yes, I’m doing that for the J-term.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, a couple of things. One, that experience, yeah, that last spring has come in handy, obviously.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

I had never taught online. I’ve been only online since last, I guess, mid-March. It’s going pretty well. Perhaps you do this, too. Mostly I do some lecturing, but mostly I try to get the students engaged in discussion, what I call workouts with the material. Maybe that’s more a humanities model. In any case, it hasn’t been as terrifying or quite as disruptive to learning as I was fearing, and then I’m surprised. I did not know that about the New Testament having not been taught before at Gustavus, except as it was folded into that course that you mentioned. Is this a course that you were able to develop, or had someone already developed it for you or for whoever was going to be the Bruce Gray Fellow?

Rodney Caruthers II:

I did have the opportunity to design the course the way that I wanted to.

Greg Kaster:

Great.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Basically, I’ve been teaching New Testament and I’m sure we’ll talk about this to some degree as well, but I’ve been teaching New Testament since somewhere around 2004, so I’ve had a chance to work through the kind of presentation that I like to do both for graduate and undergraduates. I had just finished teaching it at Ashland, so coming here I basically tweaked the course to a certain degree more so for undergraduate students. Again, the good part was, because I was teaching over video and we actually were using Zoom video there as well, it gave me some new ideas to add into the course because of the video element, instead of what you were alluding to where you always have the students in front of you.

Greg Kaster:

Right, oh, that’s excellent. That’s exciting. Yeah, I do want to hear more about the course. You’re reminding me, too, that I took as, well, I can’t remember as an undergraduate or graduate student now. I think it was as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb where I did my BA and MA, but I took a course offered by an English professor on the Bible which I absolutely loved, the only course I’ve ever taken on the Bible, and which actually came in handy subsequently when I was doing some work on the language and ideology of 19th century white working men in this country whose language was just saturated with religious allusions. Without that course, I would’ve been unaware of a lot of it.

In any case, that sounds good. I’m glad you’re okay and glad things are going well. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. You’re a fellow Midwesterner it sounds like, like me, so tell us a little bit about where you grew up.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Absolutely, yeah, I was born and raised in, well, born in Detroit, Michigan and more so raised in a suburb of Detroit, Southfield and Oak Park. Interestingly enough, I spent my school days in Michigan, so going through, I would say, from elementary to probably middle school I would live in Michigan, and then my mother’s side of the family was from Hueytown, Alabama, a small city near Birmingham, Alabama, and I would spend my summers there. I got an interesting mix of Northern life and Southern life, so it was very intriguing for me to live in Alabama for the summer months, learn some of the culture, of course, stay with my family there. Then when I came back to Michigan, I had something of a Southern drawl because of being around my family and just being integrated into the life and culture there.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so interesting.

Rodney Caruthers II:

It was always somewhat comical when I look back on it, maybe not so much so when I was in school, and my friends got a kick out of how I spoke.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. That’s so interesting. Both my wife and I have been to, well, she’s been more often than I have, but I’ve been to Birmingham and then, again, as I was mentioning before we started recording, I happen to love Detroit. I remember my very first trip to Detroit as a little kid with my parents, and then just a couple years ago my wife and I went back because good friends of her sister, my wife’s sister and her husband, grew up in that area. Actually, one of them is an architect whose company is based there and has been really involved in a lot of the revitalization downtown. God, it was just fascinating, just loved the history of it, the whole city. As a labor historian, too, of course, what’s not to like about Detroit? There it is. Your mom, tell us a little bit about your mom. She has an interesting background as well and career.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Very fascinating background. Both my parents, to be honest, would be but for my mother, she, again, coming from Alabama, made her way to the North. I grew up in the church, so I grew up going to church. She was a member of a prominent Baptist church in Metro Detroit and interestingly enough, Greg, when I started seminary, again, she was already active in the church. She had been a Bible school teacher active in the choir, so she had a very active church life growing up and I’ll go back for just a moment. In Alabama where she grew up, her father and mother were founding members of a Baptist church, so her father was a deacon and her whole family was all a part of that church. We used to just walk to it. We could walk from my grandparents’ house to the church, so she had a very strong church background. My father did as well.

Greg Kaster:

Oh. Was your father a pastor, also?

Rodney Caruthers II:

He was not a pastor. He grew up in Ecorse, Michigan, another city around Metro Detroit. He and his mother, his father, and his brothers, they were a part of a Baptist church as well, too, so both of them had a church background. For my mother, the way that she ended up where she is now, I started seminary right after college and I would have discussions with my parents about the Bible and some of the things that I was learning, and she came and sat in on one of the seminary classes. The course was Biblical Hermeneutics, and she enjoyed it and she just started going, eventually enrolled into seminary, took off. Greg, she did better than I did.

She really honed in on her studies. She did a master of divinity but had no intentions of being a pastor. She just had a strong interest in her belief in God and wanting to study the faith, so she focused on Christian theology and the history of theology. She did biblical languages as well, particularly Greek, and she really took a strong interest in spiritual discipline, so she has a really broad training base for what she brings to her study. After seminary, she went on to get a doctor of ministry. She did her master of divinity same school I did, Ashland Theological Seminary, then she did her doctor of ministry at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, another seminary based in Metro Detroit, actually based in Detroit.

She did the doctor of ministry and focused on counseling and asked questions about the life of the church, life of church congregations. Just before she finished, no, actually I think right after she finished, she joined an AME church and over a course of time, maybe a few years, they had two or three pastors and then the denomination asked her to become or actually appointed her as the pastor of the church.

Greg Kaster:

That’s amazing.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, she had a very, very interesting path, had never talked about being a pastor, but there’s a quote that I remember when I started seminary. It was something about God doesn’t always call the prepared but He will prepare the called, and I think it fits her perfectly.

Greg Kaster:

That’s excellent. Yeah, I always love stories like that where the path isn’t necessarily just straight and already well worn, to come back to the poem you commended. That is really neat and then of course the AME, the African American Episcopal Church, has such a long storied history, incredible. What line of work is your dad in, or was he in if he’s retired?

Rodney Caruthers II:

He is retired now. He had a long and distinguished career. My father, in addition to his interest in the faith, he started off, of course, in Ecorse, Michigan. He went to the military, so he became a Marine and actually served in Vietnam. He went from high school into the military, was distinguished as a Marine, then he went on to have a 38-year career with the Internal Revenue Service. He climbed the ranks coming out of being a Marine and had a great career, retired.

Actually, in the midst of his career, again, as we were talking before our segment here, he went on to get his master’s degree at, I believe it’s the University of Phoenix. He did his undergrad at Wayne State, then a master’s degree at the University of Phoenix, and then he went on to get his doctorate of business administration at Baker College of Michigan. He now teaches business at Baker College.

Greg Kaster:

Boy, oh, boy.

Rodney Caruthers II:

It’s fascinating to, as you were asking me this, it’s fascinating to look at the path that my parents have taken and the impact that it’s had on me. Again, none of this was just immediately planned, it’s just an interesting background.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, absolutely, I was literally just going to comment and if you want to say more about that, the impact on you. First of all, I think I’d be a little intimidated if I were you, having my mom right there, especially if she’s out-studying me. Wow, what incredible examples and role models, it sounds like, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Absolutely. They were …

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead.

Rodney Caruthers II:

I’ll just say this. In addition to what they have applied themselves to, both of them, and accomplished, as good as they are in terms of their respective careers and their academics, what impacted me most was the kind of people that they are. Greg, you’re talking about and I’m not saying this because they’re my parents, but they are two of the most genuine and hardworking people that I know. Again, another quote I’m sure people have heard, people don’t always care about how much you know but they care about … No, I’m saying it wrong. People don’t always care about what you know but they want to know how much you care. I think it’s something like that.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

They fall in that kind of category.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no, I can relate to that. Again, I’m not just saying this because my parents were my parents, but I feel the same way about my parents, both of whom have passed on. I know my brother feels the same way, too, and I learned that. My dad didn’t go to college, was a World War II vet, and then became a hairdresser. My mom went to a two-year teacher college and taught for a while. She had grown up on a farm, my dad grew up in Chicago, born here but in a Greek immigrant family. Yeah, that is profoundly important. You sometimes don’t realize it until you get older, but that example of my parents like your parents, the caring, the genuine caring. You’re lucky, right? I feel lucky. I feel so fortunate.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

Not that everything, I’m sure, not that we didn’t have our disagreements and I wasn’t a brat at times, but looking back at it and also the hard work, the work ethic, right?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yes, yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, profoundly important. Yeah, I’d like to meet both of your parents one day. I had mentioned before we started recording I’d come across a bit about your mom online and both parents sound fascinating. Let’s back up a bit. You went to Oakland University and majored in psychology. Let’s start there. What led you into psych? If anything, it’s amazing.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, like most, Greg, I would imagine like most when you’re at a young age coming out of high school, you have some people that may be exceptional in terms of knowing what they want to do. I came out of high school, and hopefully this is encouraging for someone. I came out of high school. I did well. I did okay in high school, but for my time was looking at sports. I was interested in sports and then I ended up going … Before I got to Oakland University, what’s not on my CV is I went to the University of Alabama first, so I went to the University of Alabama. Again, I’d spent time in Alabama growing up, went to the University of Alabama first, did okay, spent a year, and I switched in high school. I was actually studying architectural design.

Greg Kaster:

I love architecture, wow.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, I was studying architectural design. That’s what I did in high school, built the measurements and blueprints and electrical. My mother’s father, my grandfather, used to build houses, so I had a slight interest coming from that little bit of experience that I had with him. At the University of Alabama, I was enrolled in the major for architectural design, but then I started having something of a spiritual awakening. Out of nowhere, much to my counselor’s chagrin I went and said, “I’d like to study psychology.” Because for me, that was the closest thing to helping people.

I can remember. I don’t remember a lot, Greg, from back then, but I can remember that moment. The counselor’s name was Ms. Black, and I was sitting in her office at the University of Alabama. When I said that to her, she looked at me and said, “Why?” She said, “Do you realize how much money you could make as a person doing architecture, as an architect?” I said, “I want to help people. It’s not about how much money I make. I want to help people.” That’s what 18 gets you, okay?

Greg Kaster:

Yes, that’s a great story. I love that. I think it is encouraging for, it should be, I hope it is. I think it is. I know it is for some, to students, prospective students, high school students, and parents. You don’t have to have it all figured out, right?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

You don’t have to, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

I switched to psychology there, came to Oakland University. I eventually continued down the route of psychology but then my final class, and I had a high interest in it because it was helping me out emotionally, a lot of self-introspection through learning about psychology. My last class at Oakland University was with a professor named Charles Mabee, and it was a course called Introduction to Sacred Texts. That last class captured my imagination along with me beginning to read more about the faith and reading my Bible a little bit more. That class was the catalyst that led me to, hey, I’d like to learn more about this, and that’s how I ended up going to seminary.

Greg Kaster:

That is so incredible.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Not because I wanted to be a preacher or anything, I just wanted to learn more.

Greg Kaster:

You wanted to learn more. I wondered about that, if you had. Yeah, that answers my question. You weren’t going to seminary intending to be a preacher or a minister. Again, the way one professor, one teacher, whether it’s high school or college, one course can have that impact on us, right?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

It’s incredible. It’s a testament to the power of teaching and learning, I think, and also the role of contingency in history and life. What if you hadn’t taken that course, right? What kind of conversation we’d be having. That is really neat. Were you in conversation with your mom all this time as you’re having this, I don’t know what you want to call it, this turn toward faith?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Not so much. At that point in time, I was beginning to frequent church more often. I was starting to read and study as much as I could understand at my own local church, but I wasn’t engaged in a lot of conversation. I was just soaking up learning. By the time I finished up college, the story is very ironic, to be honest with you, because I didn’t necessary pick Ashland because I knew about it. I actually had heard about a school called William Tyndale College, somebody associated with one of the early English translations of the Bible. This was a popular Bible school in Michigan at the time, small school. It’s defunct now. I’d heard about that. I enrolled there, but didn’t really know what I was getting into.

On my father’s desk, I walked down there one day and saw a flier for Ashland Theological Seminary. Now, I hadn’t talked to my parents about going to seminary at all, but I saw a flier on his desk. I picked it up and I said, oh, why don’t I go here? That’s how I ended up at Ashland. I just saw it in a flier.

Greg Kaster:

Again, it’s just great because, again, what if the flier hadn’t been there, right? Whether it’s divine destiny or not it’s, I’d say, contingency, the role of chance or accident. I just love it, yeah. Often, I’m amazed when I ask alums. Sometimes alums they say they knew of Gustavus, but others say, “I got a brochure or something and I decided to visit.” It’s funny how, again, how we often don’t have and don’t have to have everything planned out and figured out at age 16, 17, or 18. Yeah, some students maybe it’s understandable, I know. I understand why, but the anxiety and stress around, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do? I need to have a major.” No, just learn, right? I’m convinced things will take care of themselves.

How about the decision to go on to the PhD at Michigan? How did that decision … Did you just happen to see another flier or something?

Rodney Caruthers II:

That one was a bit more calculated, but still had a little bit of chance to it as well. As I finished up seminary, while I was in it, I started to get the itch to want to be a pastor. By this point, I was serving in ministry. I’m having the opportunity. I’m very active at my church serving and preaching, doing Bible studies, so I’m enjoying taking what I’m learning at seminary and applying it in my local church context.

As I finish seminary, however, I take a stronger and stronger interest in the teaching aspect. The dean at the seminary at the time, Dr. Ronald Emptage, gave me an opportunity. Actually, I’ll take a step back. Another professor, he was an adjunct professor at the time at the seminary, Dr. Ken Harris, he’s now the president of Ecumenical Theological Seminary. He was a professor while I was at Ashland. He gave me an opportunity, and this was a turning point for me, Greg. He gave me an opportunity to guest teach in one of his classes.

Now, at the time, I either was finishing my M-div or I had just finished it. That experience was so great where I had a chance to teach and write on the board and do all these things, and I loved it. I loved it. Just for the people listening, to give it context, the reason why that meant so much to me is because I used to have a problem speaking in front of audiences. I struggled talking in front of groups. I would get incredibly nervous. I was relatively bad at speaking in front of people. When I was at Oakland, I would go into empty classrooms, and I would do my study and I would sit in the empty classroom. Again, I’m starting to read the Bible and learn the Bible, and I would go to the front of this empty classroom and pick up the chalk and write all over the chalkboard Bible passages that I had memorized.

Greg Kaster:

That’s incredible.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Greg, I would pretend that I was teaching a class about the Bible.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic.

Rodney Caruthers II:

It was that opportunity. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to become, again, a pastor or anything, but at that point in my life I was asking God, boy, I would love to be able to talk about the Bible and just be comfortable in front of people speaking. That moment that Professor Ken Harris at the time gave me, it was enormous, gave me tremendous confidence. Then the dean of the school, Dr. Ronald Emptage, at Ashland at the time, he then gave me an opportunity to teach as an adjunct at a school called Spring Arbor University in Michigan.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah, I saw that on your CV, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, at that school, that was my first chance to teach my own classes at an actual university. Again, it really resonated with me and I knew from then, that’s what I wanted to do. From that point after I finished the M-div, my goal was how can I attain a doctorate where I can do this as a career?

Greg Kaster:

That’s just a fantastic story. I can’t say I practiced in empty classrooms, but I did practice as a graduate student in my apartment. I can relate. I was a wreck. I’m still shy. People are surprised to hear that, students especially. I tell them the one reason I’m shouting in the classroom is because I’m terrified. I get that maybe from my mom who always, she was shy. In any case, you’re taking the words out of my mouth, that confidence. I had somewhat similar experiences where a professor said, it was my graduate student PhD mentor said, “Come teach this class.” I prepared and prepared, and then I heard subsequently from a friend taking the class that the professor had cited me the next day. “As Kaster said,” and I was so excited. Oh, wow, I must’ve done something well.

It took a while to get that confidence. What you’re also reminding us of is that most of us who teach in higher ed, we didn’t take education courses, right? Maybe you took. I didn’t take any education courses. We just sort of learned for better or worse how to do it. I know there are arguments for and against that, but it sounds like that was your history as well, right? You didn’t take teaching courses or ed courses.

Rodney Caruthers II:

I did not.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, yeah, yet we love doing it and we become good at it. That’s a great story, I love it, that origin story of how you became a professor. You’re also, of course, a scholar. That is clear from just even a cursory reading of what you’ve been up to. Maybe we can turn to that now, your work. The dissertation was titled Jewish Authors Writing in Greek: How and What They Learned During the Hellenistic and Roman Periods. Whether you want to dig into that or tell us a little bit about how you’re revising it now, but just say a little bit more about your scholarship and we’ll work our way toward your interest in magic and antiquity which grabbed my attention. Go ahead. How would you describe what you work on, what you study?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, let me take, again, one step back.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Much of what I was saying that led me to an interest in teaching, to go to the side of the academy, I can’t say enough how much the opportunities I was also given in my local church from my pastor that allowed me to preach however poor it was. I don’t know if it was, but those opportunities and to teach Bible study all stoked the fires of yearning to learn more. That helped me to say, okay, I need to learn more in order to say more.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s great. You may have just given me the title of this episode. That’s fantastic, yeah, “I need to learn more to say more.” That’s true of all of us, or it should be true. Yeah, go ahead.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, with that to the dissertation, it had for a number of years probably while I was starting, while I was in seminary. As I was studying the Bible and reading these texts on a more frequent basis and learning all of the issues that come with learning the ancient languages and translating and all of these issues with interpretation, I was finding myself, Greg, in a space where I had to hold the tension between my belief system, what I was reading, and then what I was seeing happen in real life in real time.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Part of that tension was, as I’m now reading these texts and learning about the transmission of the Bible, the transmission of these texts, the diversity of beliefs during the Second Temple period which is the period, if you will, just before the New Testament. Actually going into the New Testament as well, so roughly between 537 or 536 or 515 BCE to about 70 or so CE, so roughly in that time period. I was wondering, what went into the composition of these texts? How did they come about? What was their actual origin? That was one question, and then the question right beside it was, the people who wrote these texts, what did they know and what did they think? Essentially, what went into the composition of these writings? There was a book that I came across while I was doing my doctoral study called Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow.

Rodney Caruthers II:

That book, for me, was incredibly interesting and the author’s last name I know was Veyne. I’m forgetting the first name.

Greg Kaster:

I’m writing down the title right now for me.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, the way that the author approached that book, he was looking at how the writers or at least the ancient writers who were talking about these classical myths with Zeus and the Olympian deities, the titan gods, etc, how they were talking about those myths and whether or not the comments they made, did it show that they really believed them or they questioned them, etc? Part of my question was, as I was reading these texts and particularly in Greek was, what did the writers learn in order to compose them, but then a corollary was, did they actually believe the details and the miracles that were written in these texts?

Greg Kaster:

I think that’s a fascinating question and, I would think, a hard one to answer. Yeah, please continue.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, it’s a very challenging question because from a scholarly standpoint the issue is always, “Well, we can’t go and interview the authors.” In a lot of cases, the authors are anonymous or pseudonymous or something like that, so it’s difficult to get back to the authors. The way that I looked at it was, okay, I agree we can’t get to the actual author and ask any specific questions, but we can look at the texts that are written or at least examples of texts and get a sense of what they learned in order to write them.

There are features in these texts and, for example, we can say the Gospel of Luke or the Letter of Aristeas, or one particular writing that I use is Philo’s Life of Moses, De Vita Mosis. The structure of the writings, the content of the writings, show up in something called Writing Exercises, so we do have writing exercises from the Greek and Roman period that give instructions for, one, what you should learn and what you should put into ancient writings or at least in this case into Greek narratives, so essentially rules for writing.

Greg Kaster:

That’s amazing.

Rodney Caruthers II:

I compare the rules for writing to some ancient Jewish and Christian texts to reconstruct what they learned and then more importantly, Greg, what they thought about what they were writing. In these handbooks it, for example, may say, “When you’re writing a narrative or when you’re writing a history,” and I’m paraphrasing, of course, to make it a lot easier for your listeners.

Greg Kaster:

Right, right.

Rodney Caruthers II:

If you’re writing a history, if you come to a point where you need to say that this character said X, Y, and Z, if you were not an eyewitness, if you were not there, then it’s okay to approximate what they may have said. In other words, you could put words in their mouth based on what you think would fit that character. Even thought they may not have actually said it, it’s okay to add that in there. Another example is, if you are writing about, you have your star character, your protagonist, you don’t want to just tell what they did plainly or blandly. It’s better to embellish it. Add in some miracles or something to that effect so that it’s more convincing and entertaining for the reader, but more so that it’s more persuasive.

If you have these things added in, this is called good writing, so I do comparative work between Christian and Jewish texts like that just to get a sense of … Again, I compare it and go back to the writing handbooks and comments that ancient authors made to get a sense of what did they learn and what did they think about. Did they think this was good, bad? Did they really believe it or was this just part of what you were supposed to do for good reading?

Greg Kaster:

Right, absolutely fantastic. I have a big fat grin on my face as I’m listening to this and I mean that. For one thing, those are issues that are still with, I mean, they’re with journalist or nonfiction writers, let’s say. You maybe are putting words into someone’s mouth or you’re writing a memoir, even, right? You can’t remember everything. You weren’t recording it at the time, so some of it you’re making up and hoping it rings true. The other thing, though, so what’s the answer? Is the assumption that because there are these handbooks the writers didn’t believe this stuff? What have you concluded about that question?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, the conclusion as you can imagine as a historian, it is not absolute. Of course, to some degree you may have persons who are writing who may have actually believed what they wrote, so that is a possibility. Then we also have situations where it seems pretty clear that they are writing and following the instructions based on structure and format and what’s included, that they are following just more so the rules and possibly didn’t actually believe it. Again, did they actually believe it? It’s very challenging to answer because there’s so many other factors with it, but it was good to show the types of things that they learned and what they thought about things like using myth, using magic or miracles, if they thought that was good or bad. Again, my goal was to show what went into composing the text.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I completely agree. I thought that’s what you would say, that it’s not clear-cut. It’s not absolute. The other question I have just listening to you talk about this work, how does this relate? Let’s say I read the Bible and I take it all literally. What are the implications for your work with respect to the authors of the Bible, and they’re “authors” plural, right?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Correct, yes.

Greg Kaster:

Is this essentially the question we should ask about the whole Bible? How much of it did the authors believe? How much of it was meant to be instructive and also entertaining? Take that question in whatever direction you’d like to take it.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Sure, yeah, it’s a hot-button question. Number one, it’s a fantastic question to ask and scholars do discuss this and write on this, and they come at it from all kinds of perspectives. You can imagine that theology becomes a big part of this as well. Even in raising these kinds of questions, you have theological positions whether it’s inspiration of scripture or in errancy of scripture. You can look at what’s reported and say, okay, you have some that may hold a point of faith that this is inspired in some way. Now questions of the agency of the actual human author now becomes a whole ‘nother problem. Was the author really writing under their own compulsion, or are they in some way possessed by some type of spirit or something in writing? There are a lot of different layers to this.

To your main question, yes, this becomes vital for trying to understand the production of text in the Bible. I’ll stick to the New Testament for a moment and just say something like the Gospel of Luke. At the start of the Gospel of Luke, for example, in Luke Chapter One, the writer will say, he’s actually talking to a character that we know little about, Theophilus, so we actually have a text where the recipient is named. It starts off just saying, “Since many have undertaken to sit down or write an orderly account of events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on,” and it goes on from there. Verse three is the big one. “I, too, decided after investigating everything to write an orderly account for you.”

In this case, the question becomes, well, whoever this author is if it’s Luke or someone else, they’re choosing to write an orderly account for this figure named Theophilus. What did this person, let’s just call this person Luke. What did Luke have to learn? What was Luke’s education to learn how to write this particular gospel? That’s the layer that I try to get under. Again, I can’t say anything absolutely, but I can look at the Gospel of Luke and see, hey, does this gospel contain or align with some of the things that are mentioned in the writing handbooks?

Greg Kaster:

It’s just great. First of all, the idea that there are these writing handbooks in antiquity …

Rodney Caruthers II:

One example, again, just for our listeners …

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no, go ahead.

Rodney Caruthers II:

One example of the writing handbooks, one, we have something called Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Greg Kaster:

Sure, that I’ve heard of.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Which is for speaking, but the rules for speaking also became the rules for writing to a certain degree. What you needed to have in your speech, some of those ideas needed to also be in your writing, whether it was a history or whatever. Then a second one is a writing called, a fancy word, Progymnasmata, which simply means “first exercises” or “preliminary exercises” by an ancient figure around the first century or so named Theon. There, that’s really a very important one that gives a lot of the details for what a person should learn and know in order to write.

Greg Kaster:

Again, well, it’s mind-blowing in some ways to contemplate. It must be fun to do that research. I’m sure it’s hard and, my goodness, how many languages do you need to know? Greek for sure, right?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

Ancient Greek. What else? How many, yeah, go ahead.

Rodney Caruthers II:

In this case, it’s good to be strong, my primary language would be Greek. I’m pretty good in Latin. That’s not my strongest suit, but if you can do Latin as well that will help you because a number of these handbooks like by Quintilian, he’s another one. Again, a lot of this overlaps between writing and speaking.

Greg Kaster:

Speaking, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Quintilian writes in Latin, so you would need to know Greek and Latin to maneuver these texts.

Greg Kaster:

I can sort of speak Spanish. My two languages for my dissertation were Spanish and then thank God they let me do statistics. That’s the second foreign language or at least language. In all seriousness, the other issue would be I would think, even if we knew precisely the authors’ intentions whether they believed it or not, there’s also that question. This is true of any cultural production of how it’s consumed. Do you get into that at all or not?

Rodney Caruthers II:

I do. I get into how these writings were supposed to function. Essentially, this is looking at the authors’ education and the authors’ perspective on these writings from what we can tell from the handbooks. Then tied to that is, how were these writings supposed to function, then, for the readers? Again, in part of the handbooks they’ll say, again, for instance, “Add in good deeds and good works of the protagonist, of the central character.” By adding in these good works, it essentially is teaching certain virtues. I suggest that based on the writing handbooks, a number of these writings, again, just using let’s say something like the Gospel of Luke or we can even say Philo’s Life of Moses, that these were intended as didactic teaching works for the readers.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, that makes sense.

Rodney Caruthers II:

It doesn’t necessarily mean that it all has to be 100% true in the sense of, not “true,” I should say “historical.” That’s a better way of putting it.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, okay, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

All the details don’t have to have happened in history, but what’s being communicated through some writings, it could be true in the sense that it’s teaching a good or true virtue to the reader.

Greg Kaster:

Right, boy, my brain, it’s sort of spinning here. For some reason I’m thinking about, in a way this has nothing to do with what you’re talking about. I was just thinking about how this debate among historians about, is the movie reflecting history accurately or not? My position is, that’s less important than if it’s helping us understand something about the historical truth of the event or person the film is depicting. It doesn’t have to be an exact representation of what happened. After all, what you’re describing, too, they’re works of literature, right?

There’s an artistic aspect to it as in film, where I’m thinking, too, of the captivity narratives that Puritans wrote in the colonial period and other captivity narratives. You read enough of them, they were formulaic, but that doesn’t mean that their impact was any less or that there aren’t some essential and even historical truths in there, even if some of it’s maybe made up or misremembered. Oh, wow, it’s just all fascinating. Go ahead.

Rodney Caruthers II:

I guess I should add, again, for those listening I should add that it’s not so much that these writers are trying to be deceptive.

Greg Kaster:

Right, that’s right.

Rodney Caruthers II:

In a lot of ways, in some cases this is considered good writing and these things are written a certain way to help the reader. Again, we’ve got different levels to this, of course, but it’s not always some sort of deceptive, “I’m writing something to trick the people.”

Greg Kaster:

Yes, exactly, it’s a technique.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

Right, yeah.

Rodney Caruthers II:

It’s like a good speaking technique.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. I was just going to say teaching, speaking, writing, exactly right. Yeah, no, thank you for that. That’s very important. This is not some early version of fake news or whatever. The plan is you’re working on revising your dissertation, then publish it as a book, I assume?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Correct.

Greg Kaster:

That’s good.

Rodney Caruthers II:

I’m working on the revisions now. That’s part of what I’m doing here at Gustavus. You mentioned magic as well. That’s another one of my interests as well as ancient education and particularly ancient education but with an emphasis on writing techniques. Connected to both of those, Greg, my main research interest is trying to align or perhaps even bridge the gap between what is written from a narrative standpoint so, for me, things that I read about in Jewish writings or Christian writings from antiquity and trying to understand how those writings align with what real people did, so actual people.

Outside of the narratives, not to say that the people in the narratives aren’t real people, but those are narrative presentations. The people who lived who were non-elites lived in different communities. How did they think about what they were reading? How did they carry out the practices that were mentioned in some of these narrative works? That’s where magic comes in.

Greg Kaster:

Really, I was thinking about this reading about your work. You’re doing social history in a way where we’re focusing on non-elites and their beliefs and customs. Reading about magic, I wonder because one of my PhD mentors, David Hall, who actually has a brand new book out, terrific book on Puritanism, he’s just a superb scholar and teacher with focus on Puritanism transatlantically. Anyway, what was the book? He wrote a book some years ago, World of Wonders I think, but it was just fantastic the way in which there’s Christian religion. There’s also remnants of magic or magical belief.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Is that kind of what you’re getting at?

Rodney Caruthers II:

To some degree, yes. Part of what stoked my interest in magic, and I know this is probably a pejorative kind of term today, but in antiquity it didn’t always have a negative connotation. Just understanding that magic or miracles, they’re interesting ways to describe these things, but something supernatural.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Rodney Caruthers II:

My interest came in. Obviously, I was interested in Christianity, Jewish texts as well. While I was working at the seminary, at Ashland Seminary, I was doing a Greek class and I took a group of my Greek students up to the University of Michigan. I had somehow found out, I can’t remember right now, but I found out that U of M had the largest collection of ancient papyri in the U.S.

Greg Kaster:

Holy cow.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Of course, I didn’t know that. The people I took didn’t know that, either.

Greg Kaster:

I certainly didn’t know.

Rodney Caruthers II:

The largest collection of ancient papyri is housed in a vault at the University of Michigan. I made a contact up there and the gentleman, Traianos Gagos, who bless his soul has passed on, he did the tour for us and he knew I was bringing Greek students or whatever, so he brought out these ancient papyri and we were looking some of the earliest letters of the Apostle Paul that are housed there.

Greg Kaster:

That’s exciting.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Myself and my students, we were all thrilled to be looking at these earliest collections, some of Paul’s writings referred to as P-46, Papyrus 46. We’re looking at the epistle to the Hebrews and Galatians and whatnot. We’re looking at Christian texts, but then on the table he also has out for us other writings that are not in the Bible, but then specific fragments of papyri that had special characters on them. He called me over. Everybody’s looking around and he said, “What do you think this says here?”

I’m looking at this papyrus fragment, and the papyrus is just the material that the text is written on, precursor to paper, and I say, “Well, it doesn’t look like Greek.” He said, “What do you think it is?” I said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “It’s magic.” The reason I was blown away is it had Christian allusions on it, but then it had these magical symbols. From there, I was taken, Greg. I said, oh, I got to know about this, so there were multiple texts and amulets.

Greg Kaster:

That’s just, again, great because there’s another example of chance. You didn’t go in thinking this is what I’m going to work on. Yeah, I love that, too, and it’s important for students to understand and listeners, people who aren’t experts, but things are messy. They’re complicated. There aren’t these clear-cut divisions, right? That just sounds terrific and that moment must have been incredible. I remember just a few summers ago, I think it was the Library of Congress. I was part of a group of historians and we were being shown Washington’s diaries, one of his diaries before he became president. That was exciting, but to see what you were seeing and realize with the help of that gentleman what you were looking at, that’s incredible, and then to be able to work on it.

Rodney Caruthers II:

I’ll add to that. The gentleman who trained me in reading ancient papyri, Arthur Verhoogt, who’s also a professor of classics at the University of Michigan, that training allowed me to see what I was learning about writing looking at these actual ancient papyrus manuscripts, how regular people were writing and talking about their beliefs and, of course, the incorporation of magic. Now when I’m reading about magical things both in the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament and when they’re calling people magicians, now I have real world examples for something that’s mentioned even if in a cursory manner from New Testament writings.

Greg Kaster:

Fantastic, yeah. That’s a eureka moment.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Absolutely, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

It just feels so good to a scholar. Boy, I can’t wait to read more and talk more about all of this. As we’re winding down here a bit, I do want to ask you about what it’s been like to grow up as an African American man and to find yourself doing this kind of work. To what extent do you identify yourself as a black man and, if so, how if at all has that intersected with your work directly or indirectly? I also want to ask you. I don’t know whether you were already at Gustavus when the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police occurred, but your reactions to that and subsequent events. That’s a lot to ask, I realize, but again take that in whatever direction you’d like.

Rodney Caruthers II:

Yeah, for the first part, I was not really aware of how few African Americans were in the field of biblical studies. That’s probably the broader category for the work that I do. Even though mine is specifically Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins, it still fits within the realm of biblical studies. One, I did not realize that until I was working on my, well, maybe more so on my second master’s. When I was Emory University at Candler School of Theology, it started becoming clearer to me, okay, you’re in a position that can really help your community. I was already active at my local church and other churches as well, but I started to see it, Greg, in all honesty, I started to see it as a major responsibility to take what I was learning and understand that, not making me better than anybody, but I’m in a privileged position.

I need to be able to take this back and offer it as much as I can to people in my community, so that’s how I looked at it as an African American. Let me share as much as I can and stoke the interest of people in my community, not that everybody needs to do it, of course, but to share things that I wish I had known. Because I knew I had a lot of questions, so I know that there are people in my community as well, my church and other churches, that had similar questions and I wanted to be able to bring to them as much as I could the things that I have been availed to. I definitely see it. I saw it and continue to see it as both a privilege and a major responsibility.

With regard to George Floyd and the tragic loss of his life and for his family and for the community there, if I were to say there was something positive that could come out of tragedy, I would say from my vantage point I saw a galvanizing of the African American community that was incredibly inspiring. To see so many persons start to come together and voice their concerns and to see the positives that have taken place since that time, I have been incredibly moved.

One example, one of my colleagues, she wrote a very powerful piece about a school, and the response of the school was to make sure that African Americans had an opportunity to attend the school tuition free, free room and board, and to offer space so that African Americans could use that space whether it was for meetings or whatever was needed. What I’m saying is, from the tragedy I continue to see a lot of positives that are promoting growth and listening to the issues that African Americans are expressing. That last part, being heard, is enormous.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I think all well said and powerful said, too. I think that’s where I’m at. It’s profoundly tragic. I still have trouble comprehending. Of course, it’s one of many such incidents, but the hope is the positives. The emphasis is just on growth. In my lifetime, even I think back to, not that I participated. I participated in one, maybe, anti-war march when I was an undergraduate, I guess, in the early ’70s but I can’t recall anything on this scale. Hopefully, as you say, some growth comes from it and some policy changes as part of that growth.

Rodney Caruthers II:

That’s really the big one because my own personal, when I heard about everything, when I saw it, these are issues that obviously we’re aware of and that we see pretty much on a regular basis. This one, again, I don’t want to celebrate the loss of life but I’m saying, if there’s anything positive that can come out of that kind of tragedy, to see the response and I want to point this part out, too, Greg. To see the response of young people, young people who are lending their voice, lending their energy whether it was in public shows or peaceful protests, these types of things. When I’m watching what young people are communicating and how active they are and not just sitting back saying, “Oh, that was terrible,” but actually lending their energy and voice, that has been inspiring, just incredibly inspiring to see. Again, not just African American young people but young people across the spectrum.

Greg Kaster:

Right, yes. That takes us, probably we’re going to end. That takes us back to teaching and education and learning. I couldn’t agree more. Kate and I, out of abundance of caution regarding COVID and our age, we did not take part in any of the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Yeah, we look out our window and see some of them, although we did visit the memorial site eventually. In any case, looking at those both from our balcony and those protests, the marches, and on television seeing, yeah, the young people and the people of so many different backgrounds, it’s inspiring, absolutely.

There’s that cliché about teaching keeps you young, and I think there’s something to that. I still find a great deal of hope in young people. They’re a source of hope, not all but enough. The things that have been happening at Gustavus around racial justice issues and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and other institutions, too, give one hope, so I couldn’t agree more with what you just said about young people.

Rodney Caruthers II:

The conversations that are being held are absolutely tremendous.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I agree. Boy, I want to keep going but I can’t. I shouldn’t. This has been so much fun, so interesting, and just a real pleasure to speak with you, Rodney, and look forward to more. At some point, well, I’ll let you know. Maybe at some point I’ll have you come to one of my classes and talk about your work, especially if I’m teaching the historical methods class at some point, but you’re here for this spring. Are you teaching this spring, too, or not?

Rodney Caruthers II:

I am, yes.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, the New Testament course again?

Rodney Caruthers II:

Correct, yes.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, great, good. Well, good luck with that. It sounds like it’s been going well. Good luck with the revisions, too, and we’ll look forward to seeing you in person and sitting down for coffee, lunch, or something together.

Rodney Caruthers II:

That would be great, and I would welcome. I appreciate the invitation to your class and I would certainly enjoy sharing with you and your students.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks so much. All right, take good care, stay well.

Rodney Caruthers II:

You, too. Thank you, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you. Thanks, Rodney.

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark, class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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