GAVIN: All right, welcome back, I'm very happy to be joined by Dr. Malka Simkovich. Is that how I pronounce your name?
MALKA SIMKOVICH: You got it.
GAVIN: Okay, great. Malka, tell us a little bit about what you specialize in and how you got interested in the kind of things you study.
MALKA: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, I'd be glad to do that. So my masters is in Hebrew Bible, but studying the Bible at the age of 22 as an Orthodox Jew hit me really hard. I had been brought up in a very traditional upbringing where I'd been taught to read the Bible in a pretty literal way. So what that means, and I think this correlates with a traditional Christian upbringing as well, is that I was taught that the historical information in the Hebrew Bible is accurate and would correlate perfectly with archeological, material and literary evidence that's outside of the Bible.
So going to a graduate program where all of this was not at all presumed, just sort of hit me in the face. And it took many, many years to think about how to reconcile my Orthodox Jewish identity with how I read the Hebrew Bible. What ended up happening, though, is I felt like the field of Hebrew Bible and the world of scholarship that surrounds it that is quite particularly Protestant Christian, it was so saturated.
I felt like there was nothing I could say that was new and true, and I ended up moving into the world of the New Testament, essentially. So this is how I found myself as an Orthodox Jewish woman studying the world of Early Christianity. But there's so much beyond what's in the biblical canon at that time in the Hellenistic world for Jews and Christian. So there's an enormous amount of material that has yet to be studied and it's a very exciting discipline.
GAVIN: Great. All right Felicia, I know you're excited to ask some questions, so I'm going to go ahead and let you take off.
FELICIA: Yay. Malka, thank you so much for being here. I'm going to preface this to say that I went to a couple years of super Christian school when I was very young and I played the violin in a lot of different kinds of churches as a non-Christian person. I don't consider myself necessarily Christian, I honor all faiths.
I really hope that I don't ask something that offends you and undermines your faith at all. But I'm prefacing that to say I'm respectful of all, but I am interested in this as a historical and cultural subject more than sort of a faith-based subject. So please feel free to correct me, and if I ask you something that you really are like let's not have that on air please, let Gavin know.
So the two things I'm super interested in ... because I love mythology. I love Greek myths, and I have a four-year-old and introducing her to the different pantheons of ancient religions and current religions like Hinduism and things like that, has rekindled my interest in Christianity as someone who was raised in the Southeast and really has that as sort of fabric of her being, even if I don't adopt it as my own. And we as Americans tend to have that as a law, it's kind of like a fabric who consider ourselves Protestant or Christian or whatever.
And so diving into the Bible, A, there's not a lot of resources to just tell my daughter really cool stories from the Bible that are not steeped in faith. But also, when we were reading ancient Sumerian mythology, Greek, Egyptian, I noticed a lot of commonality in stories, and so I have my Old Testament questions about that. And then a New Testament questions about Jesus and Christianity and how it was able to spread and take over all these other things.
So let's start with the Old Testament. I'd love to hear your perspective on, again, the historical facts around the Bible. Is it really just a history of a people that they were trying to orally kind of write down after a while, and were there stories that were taken from Sumeria or Babylon or Egypt in their travels that they sort of adopted as part of the Bible?
MALKA: First of all, I cannot imagine anything that you would say that I would find offensive or take personally. So we're going to keep it open and don't even think twice about any of your questions.
FELICIA: Thank you.
MALKA: So I think the answer is yes. The whole concept of canon doesn't really exist in the ancient world, there isn't this closed book that everybody's walking around with them. Like, these are my scriptures and nothing else is my scriptures because no one is using books in the ancient world. They're using papaya leaves in Egypt or they're using scrolls if they're wealthy and they can commission a scribe to write on a scroll.
But even if you have some money in ancient world, most people cannot afford to commission all of their scriptures onto a single scroll. And so what ends up happening is that you might have a scroll of some texts that you really like, and then put it next to another text that you really like, and you might take a scroll off the shelf, out of the scroll. There's incredible fluidity. So the whole concept of the biblos, the book, that comes much later — at the earliest, I would say the second century CE. And there's no question that there are themes and motifs and myths in the Hebrew Bible that correlate with ancient near Eastern texts. Most famously the flood narrative.
Now, what I would say is that all of these texts and traditions, they're orally transmitted for many, many centuries, tracing these stories back to any sort of linear textual development is kind of a lost cause. And most good scholars aren't going to try to do that, but there is what we call this kind of supersessionist thinking, by which I mean a replacement theology. So I might be a Judean or an Israelite in the ninth century CE, and I'm aware of where my neighbors live and what gods they serve and what myths they transmit. And some of these stories might be really appealing to me, but I want to reframe them, and make them personal to me and the God that I worship, my local God.
The flood narrative is a great example of this because yes, there are absolutely parallels. There's a very famous text you might have read, Enuma Elish, which talks about this massive destructive flood that represents the infighting of the gods and the chaos that that conflict creates. This myth is co-opted and it's reframed. So to me as a Jew, that doesn't make the text worthless.
I guess what's valuable to me is not necessarily that the story for me is like the exact words of God flopping down onto the page, but rather I find meaning in how these stories are reframed, retold and develop over time. Now going back to the faith conversation, I don't know that my perspective is representative of a typical perspective of someone of faith, but there really is no question that these stories travel.
FELICIA: That's fascinating. You know, the more I dig into it and the more I read of ancient history, and this has kind of spurred my interest, in that we are taught the Bible is just truth, right? And all these people existed and you kind of accept it in a way that you're almost afraid to start digging. And so the idea of placing Jewish people in a place where the Assyrians were existing and the Egyptians, and they were just at people living and following their own faith and these histories where they cross-pollinate are so interesting.
I guess we probably don't know, but it's so interesting to me within the context of the world, and this is actually going through to the New Testament. Like, we have a people who believe in monotheism, a patriarchal kind of God, amongst all these multi-god civilizations, and yet through all of these different powerful civilizations, this is the one that really has dominated long-term, right? So how did that happen? Do you have any context or insight into how was it to be a different person like that? Were they considered a country, were they considered outsiders, a cult? Like what was the perception of the Jewish people within the world at the time?
MALKA: This is the question. What are the Jews? Are they a religion? Well, there are plenty of atheist Jews, I mean I know all of them. Are Jews a people, are they an ethnicity, are they a race? I would say most Jews would say that they're not a race.
In the context of the Hellenistic world, it's already a question. The Greeks and the Romans are like, what are these people? Most, and this is a really important fact that I think a lot of people don't know, particularly in my own Jewish community ... Very early on from the beginning of the second temple periods or from around five 15 BC, the majority of Jews, or you would say Judeans, don't live in Judea.
So there is almost a continuous presence of Judeans in Judea. But early on this religion or this community that gathers around common scriptures and common narratives and common stories, they're global. And they're living among their neighbors and their neighbors are like, we don't understand you. I think something that's very helpful is to remember that there's no distinction in the ancient world between public life and religious life. So if you don't go to the festival of Dionysus, you're a bad Greek. If you don't go to the festival of Jupiter, you're a bad Roman. When the Jews stay home, the Greeks and the Romans say, "Where are these people, where are their loyalties? They must be loyal to Judea and not loyal to" whatever… Rome or Greek civilization, Greek dominance, Greek culture.
So what ends up happening is that there is a rise, a spike I would say in the third and second century BCE of anti-Jewish literature, where this question is not totally clear. These Jews are speaking our language, integrating, culturally contributing, or at least rising the ranks of certain government jobs and professional jobs, and yet they're different. Their dietary laws are different, they insist on resting every seven days, they keep a different calendar. That was not a calendar, there was no seven day work week at this time. And so what are the Jews?
Many Greeks and Romans mock the Jews because they're like what is this monotheism, it's very disrespectful, we have this Pantheon. But a deeper look does suggest that the Greeks and Romans are moving towards a monotheistic model before the rise of Christianity.
FELICIA: Oh, fascinating.
GAVIN: Why is that, what's the purpose behind that?
MALKA: So this is really interesting, I think. Zeus becomes a supreme father god, and so I don't think that a Greek in the second or first century BC would be like, "There's one God, and that's the creator God and no other gods." No. At the same time, there is a sort of domination of the father God, that ends up setting the stage I think for in the first century, I don't like the word pagans, but Romans, Greeks and definitely Egyptians are very attracted to this rising Jesus community.
They're not Christians in the first century, but this community of Jesus followers, they're attracted to that, and I think the foundation by them is laid for this concept of the supreme God. Now interestingly, in the first, second, and third centuries, as these Jesus communities take shape, some of them take shape as gnostic communities, which ends up being condemned as heresy. But the Gnostic communities do take the sort of dualistic approach. There's a father god, I mean it's very interesting, it's not necessarily monotheistic in the way that we view it to be today.
GAVIN: Can I ask a quick question about that? Because one of the things that goes back to the stories thing is that I know a little bit about the Gnostic gospels, they're called, right? What was it about those stories that made them not end up in what we know as like say the King James Bible or the kind of final Bible? And was there something about the stories they were telling about Jesus that people didn't want in that conversation?
MALKA: Exactly, yes. So one of the most famous Gnostic texts is known as the Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Mary was translated and published recently by a wonderful scholar, Karen King, who's highly controversial because if you know Karen King, she's the one who misidentified this false fragment that suggested that Jesus was married. Do you remember the story on that?
GAVIN: Yeah, I remember hearing about that.
FELICIA: Vaguely, yeah.
MALKA: And so Ariel Sabar, I think he wrote this for the Atlantic, but I'm not sure. Anyway, he wrote an amazing book also about this, and it was quite damaging to Karen King's reputation. Which is a shame because she wrote this incredible book about the Gospel of Mary, suggesting that it empowers Mary as a disciple of Jesus in a way that the early church fathers, especially in the third and fourth century, when they're creating this normative Christianity, found to be very threatening.
And so the boundaries are much more fluid before the church fathers at the council of Nicaea say okay, here's what we believe, here are our scriptures, and here's the heresy that stands outside of our boundaries. But earlier on, there are all kinds of experimental texts being produced, and some of them really empower the female disciples of Jesus.
FELICIA: Wow. And I remember my mom having like lost books of the Bible around, it was like a collection of texts. So essentially, before the Bible is sort of solidified into the modern texts that we have, were there a lot of contemporaneous writings that were just thrown out? Like how much like is there?
Because essentially people weren't carrying a Bible around, they would have texts or fragments of them that they were carrying around. They were saying I like this one, I'm putting this together, I memorize these because these are my favorite passages. It’s kind of like if we go to Assyria and read some clay tablets and put the ones we like the most together, right? So like, how much is out there as a proportion to the Bible that exists that was contemporaneous and either about Jesus or Judaism, in like Old Testament stuff? How much is there out there, and is it proportional to what we know now?
MALKA: It's a great question because I can imagine, given the fact that there are thousands of pages worth of writing from this period that was not canonized, how much has not been transmitted over the past 2000 years, that was produced, that was read by someone out there as authoritative, that ended up not surviving until 2021? I think that there was a massive amount of material. There's a generalization that I tend to see during this period that when things are really bad, people write more and more and more, and when things are pretty good, there's sort of a lull in literary production.
FELICIA: My diary!
MALKA: Totally. So in the early second temple period when Judeans are living under Persian rule and the Persians practice religious tolerance, we don't have a ton of literature. But, beginning of the second century BCE, with the Hasmonean Rebellion against Greece and in 63 BCE, when Rome invades Jerusalem and then Judea becomes occupied, it's an explosive time, in terms of literary production. And that's because things kind of suck. Like, there's incredible poverty by the first century.
Part of that is because of Herod because Herod had these massive building projects in Judea, and in order to achieve these projects, he brought in foreign workers, tens and tens of thousands of foreign workers. Now, when the projects were done, when his villas were complete and his fortresses were done, all these things were done, you have like a hundred thousand people who are out of a job, and the economic devastation is profound. And so you have all kinds of things that are being written at this time.
And a lot of them are apocalyptic, because the Jews are like OK, we have to find meaning in the suffering. So maybe there's a plan, like things are going to get worse and worse and worse, and then God's going to show up and be like “Here I am!” Because how else do you attribute meaning to that level of suffering? So the answer is, there's a lot of texts that are not canonized.
Today, these are gathered into a collection called the pseudepigrapha, which is not a word that appears in ancient times, it's an 18th-century term. There was an 18th century Protestant German, I think, named Johan Fabricius, who goes, this was the time when it was like PC enough to do this — I mean, it wasn't PC at all, but he goes to another word I shouldn't, the "orient." It goes to all these exotic places for ancient texts that sort of confirms his Christian faith, and he gathered them together and he's like “You see?” He calls his collection, the pseudepigrapha.
But it's just like random texts that have no intrinsic relationship to one another, except they were probably produced between the first and fourth century CE by Jews or early Christians that have some religious content, but today, this collection is a goldmine for scholars.
FELICIA: So I just listened to a four-hour podcast on the Assyrians who were fascinating and they were also terrible, like violent. And so what I found interesting is that there are things in the Bible that referenced things that actually happened that are written on Assyrian walls. So it's so interesting to put it in context where the Assyrians were like oh no, the people in Judea are not following what we want. We're going to put a puppet king in Israel, and then Judea is going to just be like this outsider, but what they did, was just basically wipe out cultures.
And so it's fascinating in listen to this, they're listing all these cultures that were there, like the Babylonians. And so we don't know a lot about their gods, and yet the Jews, even though they were scattered, they were able to keep their canon and their histories together. Why are they different from Babylonians? Why is this different? Are they just like better at writing things down, what is it about this culture that survived, so that other cultures didn’t?
MALKA: It's an amazing question, and it's also like an infuriating reality to the ancient Greeks and Romans, like, who are these people, where they come from? And they come up with all these like really offensive origin stories. So there's a third-century BCE Egyptian priest named Manetho, who is aware that Jews are like, "We were slaves in Egypt and then God miraculously chose us, and we're the chosen." And Manetho is like "Let me tell you what happened, the Jews were expelled because everyone hated them, they were like lepers. They stole from people, that were indigent, they wandered the deserts, like harassing people, so we kicked them out."
So there are all these origin stories about the Jews that are circulating at the end of the second temple period, because the question is like, who are these people and why have they survived? I think that there is a correlation between the survival of this global community — I mean the Jews are global as of the Babylonian exile, they don't all go back to Judea. And the argument that's quite an early argument and a revolutionary argument that we worship a universal God because in the ancient world, gods are local.
So if you move, if you relocate, which is much less usual than it is today and quite dangerous and risky. If you leave your tribe or you go with your tribe to somewhere else, you're expected to take on the gods of that local community. And the Israelites are like no, we're good, wherever we go, we just have our God, and other communities are like, "That's really obnoxious, like really disrespectful. You’re coming in here, you're showing up to Canaan" and it's not even like a typical war where, you know, it's not personal, but we just want your land, so we're going to fight you for it, but the gods are fighting one another.
The Israelites are the only ones to say well it's not monolatry. Monolatry is I have my God, you have your god, I worship my God here, you worship your god there. Rather, it's a developing nascent monotheism, which is your god is actually just stone, our God is universal.
Now this claim is considered very offensive early on, but what it does is it creates a global community where people can gather around not just common stories and myths, and you know, this common memory. We all went through this traumatic thing, slavery and redemption, but also there's this enduring idea that our universal God cares for us and is interested in our destiny, wherever we are, and that becomes a very powerful idea. I don't even know the answer to your question because I think like there's almost no obvious answer. Like why is it that the Jews survived? But I think that part of it is they managed to stay cohesive.
FELICIA: Yeah, I guess being more, not strident, but like more exclusionary in a way is better, because if you're really accepting of everybody, you tend to dilute your culture, right? Like over generations, you might not be as adherent to it because everything's OK. Versus like if you have delineation, that is like no, this is not OK, then you're able to keep your culture a little bit more together in a sense. That's fascinating.
I'd love to fast forward to Jesus because the whole thing about Jesus is fascinating to me. Again, I would love to hear a Jewish perspective on this guy who is Jewish, but then he has these ideas that are not mainstream, and then he starts taking over the world. Like, how did Jewish people as Christianity started taking over ... How did they think about this person? Is there any recollection of like oh this guy, what is he doing? He's popularizing us because to me, at the time, I would be like this guy is co-opting our stuff because you have all these people in the south, and it's kind of personal in that you have all these people living in the Southeast and the Bible is canon to them. And yet, like I mentioned to Gavin, Jewish people are other, and they're almost bad guys in a sense, in the culture of this Bible belt of America.
You just kind of accept what people present you and when you start peeling it back, you're like you guys, your all whole faithful origin on the Jewish people, how is this dichotomy happening? And I can't imagine it didn't just happen immediately. Is there anything in the record about how Jews thought about this rising Christianity at the time?
MALKA: Yeah, I think so. So I teach at a graduate school called Catholic Theological Union, and when I got there, I had no idea as a very naive, pretty sheltered Jewish person, the extent to which Christians think about Judaism. I had no idea like what, they are 14 million Jews in the world, we're good. We don't need this attention, we're good.
But in order to be a faithful Christian, you're reading your scriptures, you think of that, you contend with it. It's not just the Judaism of the first century. Of course it seeps into your worldview and you apply it to the world around you, and I think that Jews today, and to a certain extent then, did not contend with this community. Whether it was a tiny group that surround itself around Jesus, just to not contend with this, like they didn't place it at the heart of their theology.
What's interesting is that if you look at the rabbinic texts that are being produced, starting in the early third century, there's almost nothing about Christianity. Almost nothing, very little. Actually, there's a great scholar, he's not Jewish, his name is Peter Schaffer. He is a German scholar at Princeton and he wrote a book on Jesus and the Talmud. There's a lot of good scholarship on the few allusions to Jesus in rabbinic texts, but you're talking like you could count them on like two hands. Most of them actually do not explicitly name Jesus, and then the question is like, are they even talking about him or are they talking about a different heretic? Unclear.
But what I would say is that the starting point, and I think that you alluded to this is that Jesus was a Jew, who lived and died as a Jew, who was viewed by the Romans as Jew. Now, kind of a treasonous Jew, because when you claim to be, or when your disciples claim you to be a king in the Roman Empire, or even a Messiah, you're committing treason against the Roman Empire, but a Jew nonetheless. And I'm not speaking right now as a Jew, but as an academic: There's no doubt in my mind that Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. There's actually no evidence that points to that.
The move, the breakaway from Judaism ... And I know that Christians in the south or anywhere read this differently, but the break takes four centuries, and it's not initiated by Jesus. You might argue it was initiated by Paul, who says if you're a Gentile and you want to enter into this community, you don't have to do that through Jewish law. You don't have to take on any Jewish law, Paul says, and that sort of begins this process of the Jesus community thinking of itself as lying outside of Judaism, but it literally takes four centuries. So yeah, Jesus was a Jew, and I think most Jews know that, but they're not like ruminating over it, like thinking about it.
FELICIA: No I don't think there's connective mental tissue of this is a Jewish person who was either rebelling or changing his philosophy, and trying to be a leader in a sense. Just like the kings, you know, the people who came before him in the Old Testament. And yet somehow, this turned into something much, much different, and it's fascinating, one person, right? Because he really was a person. It’s fascinating.
GAVIN: What can you tell us about that? I'm always curious because you read magazine articles. I remember there was always like that Time Magazine article that says like Jesus, the actual person, like what things do we really know about the person that was Jesus, like the historical Jesus?
MALKA: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think that there isn't necessarily consensus among scholars. Some view him as this apocalyptic preacher, who was preaching the end of days. But others view him more as a prophet figure or perhaps place him in the political turbulent contexts that he lived in, so I really can't say.
All I can say is that there are scholars who have sat with all four gospels and have tried to find historical kernels, or at least the synoptic gospels that the first three gospels share and then say okay, these are the historical statements of the actual Jesus. And if you look at those statements, you're clearly seeing someone who finds fault in his local Pharisee community, but not necessarily rejecting it.
FELICIA: He just was a very articulate critic, or… Well, this is my question, like vibe-wise, was he just a really good politician, who was a leader, like an Obama or something, or was he a cult leader? Was he trying to create a cult around himself? I guess that's my question, as a person, what was his intention in his leadership? Was he anointing himself as this magical, I'm the son of God... Was that what he led with? Is that something that came after or was he just a really great leader who was rebelling in a smart way that resonated with the population at the time?
MALKA: I think the second one. It seems to me like he had enormous charisma and especially at such a dark time, it was incredibly inspirational to see someone who could attribute meaning to the situation and also encourage the population to think more, I guess, universalistically.
Although I hesitate to say Judaism is particularistic and then the Early Christians are Universalists. At least at this time, I don't know that people thought in those categories, but I think that he had incredible charisma. And again, I don't think that there's any evidence that he was rejecting Judaism. He's also very much in his specific Judean milieu. Like, he's not a Hellenistic Jew, he's not Greek speaking to an Alexandria, he's probably a Pharisee or he's working in a sect. And the thing about this community is that they actually don't represent the majority of Judeans at this time.
The vast majority of Judeans are not any sect. And so he's part of actually a small sectarian community that has a particular oral tradition of how to practice, that's actually quite stringent. And if you look at the legal debates, sometimes Jesus comes out as stricter than the Pharisees, for example with divorce. So it's not totally clear cut, and he certainly is not rejecting all of Jewish law and just walking away from it.
FELICIA: Yeah, but that's kind of the impression you get. I think it's just a mental thing that Christians have to do to separate themselves, in a sense, right? Another idea that I had when I was reading through all this as sort of myth in a sense is like, well why ...?
Because like I said to Gavin, if I'm going on a work trip, I would love to be offering to a goddess who's covering travel. You know the idea of a modern Pantheon. I'm sure people kind of believe that they were there in a way that we kind of don't question.
So like the Greek and Roman gods are super appealing to me just from a theoretical point of view. But when I'm reading the myths and then I start reading biblical texts, I wonder from your perspective, is a reason why some of this started spreading to other people who were not Jewish, is that the Greek myths are all about the gods? And the Bible seems to be about people, and they're about the representation of the regular person and tracking their lineage and their experience versus like what Apollo's doing. You know what I'm saying? Like is that a factor in some of this taking over and abandoning the ancient “pagan followings”?
MALKA: Absolutely. And scholars have made this point before, that if you look at the ancient near Eastern myths, you see gods who are uninterested in humankind, but whatever their conflicts are with one another, has some sort of chaotic effect that enters into the physical realm. And what is interesting ... Again, I don't like to say like "the Hebrew Bible is better and look at how it's sophisticated."
But like you do see a move towards the continental relationships or positions this what becomes this universal God as one that's very interested in humankind and at the same time, unaffected by humankind. And so if you look at the ancient near East and you look at temple ritual, you have to care for the god or else the god will get really pissed off at you. Like you need to feed the god and you need to sort of like pet the god and make sure that the god is comfortable in the temple. And the offerings were actually feeding the god because if you don't do those things, the god will get really mad.
Now, you see parallels of that in let's say the book of Leviticus, where you bring in the offerings, but Leviticus insists that God does not need humankind, and at the same time, that God is interested in humankind. I can't say for sure that this is like what gives way to that enduring quality, but it is definitely a shift away from how these faith communities view, I would guess I would say the spiritual realm as it interacts with the physical realm. And so I think you're exactly right.
GAVIN: I have a follow up on that, which to me is like ... is Jesus who is represented as the physical human embodiment of God, literally as one of the three parts of God, does that then, in following up on that idea, kind of help explain the rise in Christianity? Because suddenly God can be one of us versus this idea of God being completely outside of us. I'm just curious because it feels like to me, that could be the case.
MALKA: Yeah, I think that that absolutely is the case. And there are all kinds of arguments up until the fourth century, but even beyond, about what exactly it means to say that Jesus embodies the divinity, right? Because there's high Christology, which is like he is God, and then the lower Christology was just like well, he was a mortal, but sent by God or whatever. Like those debates are really not settled for many centuries. I mean, I don’t know if they're settled now.
FELICIA: So for an Early Christian, was the Jewish stuff along for the ride? Do you know what I'm saying? Were they like oh my God, this Jesus guy is amazing, where was his origins? I'm still, the disconnect between the adoption of the Old Testament and the New Testament... It feels like this strange schism and like it's philosophically kind of amorphous in that ... Why would Christians not just follow Jesus, and why would they bring along all the Jewish faith along with them, and yet still not kind of acknowledged them? Maybe I'm thinking from a modern point, especially in the beginning, like why?
MALKA: Yeah, and there's this debate between the church of Jerusalem and the church of Antioch, because the church of Antioch rallies around this idea of like, we're primarily a group of Gentiles. We're non-Jews, but we want to join this community of Jesus followers. We have no interest in doing that through Judaism, and we're not going to keep dietary law, we're not going to keep the Sabbath. That's not our jam, but we do want to follow Jesus. The church of Jerusalem is like "Ah, you follow Jesus, you're a Jew, you got to keep dietary law." And you see these debates embedded actually in the New Testament.
So if you look at the gospel of Matthew for instance, that's a very Jewish text. Matthew is very concerned with saying Jesus was a Messiah figure who came to fulfill the words of the prophets, whose teachings are preserved in the Hebrew Bible, such as Isaiah.
But there are other gospels, especially John, who's like well no, the Jewish connection is not really there. And so in fact, in John chapter eight, Jesus calls the Jewish people the children of the devil. It's hard when boundaries are fluid, like that's hard, boundaries actually make things easy.
So over time, and especially beginning in the second century, you have this massive genre of literature called Adversus Judaeos which basically against the Jews literature, where church fathers are being like no, we are opposites of Jews. We stand for X, they stand for Y, we have nothing in common. But what's interesting is that all that polemical literature that's produced by these elite figures has really no bearing on the reality on the ground because even as late as the fourth century, they're Christians going to church on Saturday and synagogue on Sunday. So when you read this literature, you have to understand it's fighting against a reality, it's not representing a reality.
FELICIA: That's fascinating.
GAVIN: When does like the King James Bible, or kind of what we think of as the modern canon Bible for Christianity come into fruition? Is there a point where that exists and maybe it's not called the King James Bible, I don't think it is, but whatever is the point that like what we kind of know as now as Jesus, as the stories of Jesus, as the four gospels, when does that start really solidifying? What point is that?
MALKA: That's a great question. Our earliest Bibles are fourth century. There's a famous text called the Codex Sianaiticus was found in the Sinai desert. I can't remember, I'm pretty sure that it's just the New Testament books, but I'd have to look it because I might be wrong about that, but there are a few codices from the fourth century that you would call a Bible in the sense that these are pages being sewn together. But even today there are different Bible lists, right?
So if you look at the Ethiopic church or the Greek Orthodox Church or the Russian Orthodox Church, and then you compare it with, obviously, the biggest difference is that the Catholic church in general has this Apocrypha, right? Has these additional 15 texts. But all these canon lists, first of all, they're not settled in antiquity at all because you have these different communities who are like, well, I really liked the book of Jubilees and that's in my Bible list. And other Christians are like no, that's not, no.
And so even today you have these different traditions with different lists. So again, it's not as simple as many of us might assume, and it's not the only difference between Catholics and Protestants, but those lists, they begin to be written down in the forth century.
FELICIA: I don't want to end this interview because you're so fascinating, I feel like we could talk for hours. I don't want to end without talking about the role of women in all of this because I'm always fascinated by the lives of women in every century.
Whenever anybody's like when would you like to live? I'm like, now, because women did not have it good until now. Like we are living in our best time as women. But to me, again, what appeals to me about a Pantheon is that we have a lot of women goddesses who have influence. Now of course, if you look in the reality of Roman and Greek daily life, women had it terrible. They weren't allowed to go out, they really were not educated, they had it really bad, but you do have at least representatives for women in the Pantheon so that you could sacrifice to them. They were important in the daily life of everyone's faith. And so now you have this monotheistic, much more patriarchal, world coming in.
Do we know anything about the role women played in this transition into Early Christianity? Was it appealing for them in practice, were they drivers of it? I just am fascinated with how they kind of adopted this change and what motivated that.
MALKA: Yeah, I can take this from two directions. So first of all, I will say that the role of women like you're pointing out is actually on the decline from the end of the Persian period through the second or third century. So the Greek and Roman empires were extremely patriarchal.
If you look at certain passages in the Hebrew Bible, there seems to be almost no assumption about intrinsic qualities that are based on gender. So there's no indication in the oldest books of the Hebrew Bible that women, as a gender, will tend to behave in this way. And there are some really interesting feminist Bible scholars today who are teasing out texts that have been ignored, which portray God in the feminine. A great example is Numbers 11 where Moses is like ready to give up, and he's really annoyed at the people and they're driving him crazy and he's like God, I'm not the nursemaid for these people. Like you need to pick up your babies and walk them because they're not even toddlers, they won’t walk by themselves.
It's a really cool metaphor. But basically God is like, I guess I am the nursemaid Moses, but you still have to do your job. And they keep throwing this image of like a nursing mother back at each other. And there's a scholar named Phyllis Trible, who has found all these texts where God is not just a woman, but God is a mother. So I think that's really important because yes, it relies on stereotypes of what a woman is or should be, but at the same time, I think it also complicates this assumption that we think of God as this like pretty angry man in the Hebrew Bible. But putting the New Testament in its historical context, by that time, you're absolutely in a patriarchal society.
The one thing that I try to be careful of because, I think it's easy to fall into, is this assumption that the Rabbis were particularly misogynist or particularly insensitive to women, because if you look at that text, yes, it's absolutely patriarchal and I'm not going to deny that or just be defensive about it, but it is within this Greco-Roman reality where women did not have the same rights as men.
Today, yeah, I would say like that doesn't really change, like you said, it doesn't really change until very recently. So the structures of leadership in our communities are really misogynist and one thing I'm glad to be seeing is changing in the Orthodox Jewish world is that we are starting to see women's ordination, but like yay, 2000 years later. It’s so slow.
FELICIA: Yeah, it's very slow. Well, you know, religion is a way to keep the status quo in power, right? Like everyone unified in a belief in a system, and so once we establish that, it's very effective. But I mean gosh, are we done Gavin? I have so many…
GAVIN: I think we have time for one more, then we have to wrap up. If you have one more quick question, if not, we can just wrap it up too. It might just be hard to get a move on.
FELICIA: I'd love to ask what is one thing you wish people knew about this subject, that you'd like people to know? I guess as an expert, are there a couple of things that you'd love people to take away from this that could change the way they think about either the Bible, or Judaism or this period of time?
MALKA: Thank you for that question. I think you've already said it very eloquently, but I’ll just say it again because it's important, which is that binaries are almost always artificial and self-serving. And whether you're talking about the historical background of the Hebrew Bible or the world of Jesus, or even today, any system that sort of places one community in opposition to another is really problematic and needs to be interrogated. And I think that that's sort of what we've been circling around for the past hour or so, so I just think it's really important to recognize that as you do.
FELICIA: It's wonderful. I cannot wait to dive into more of this with this context you've given me. I mean, anytime I could think about something in a different way, I am just so excited and you have uncovered so many different ways to think about all of these subjects, cultures and people that make me so excited to dive in. I want to read the book of Mary immediately.
GAVIN: That's awesome. Well thank you so much Malka. Oh, before we go, I do ask this of our experts when they come in and I may not have given you a heads up on that, I'm sorry. Is there something that you have that you're super obsessed with or that you're way too interested right now, outside of your day-to-day studies?
MALKA: I’m obsessed with musicals.
MALKA: And if I was living in an alternate universe, I would be like in the cast of Rent, but not good enough to actually be like on Broadway. I'll be like in like some like backwoods, someplace where like we have like 15 people in the audience, but that’d great.
FELICIA: Listen, I share that with you, Malka. I intend on moving to Des Moines and starring in The Music Man one day. I want to be the biggest fish in the smallest musical pond; you can come and be in it with me, okay?
MALKA: I would love that. I was the mayor's wife, many years ago, in the Music Man.
FELICIA: Oh my gosh, amazing! Well, we're going to rekindle our love of that in our small pond. I love it.
GAVIN: That's awesome. Thank you so much both of you for being here. This was a fascinating conversation. Malka, I should really quickly, in case people are interested in learning more, is there a book that you can recommend that's kind of an entry point to this?
MALKA: I'm going to do the most obnoxious thing that academics do, which is recommend their own book. It's really not a nice thing to do.
FELICIA: Yes, no, do it.
GAVIN: Everybody should do this, go ahead.
MALKA: My book is called Discovering Second Temple literature. I really feel bad that I'm doing this Gavin, it's not nice.
GAVIN: Please don't feel bad, this is a great thing.
MALKA: So it's called Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism. There's a lot of great literature out there and it's all pretty new. I would say in the past 20, 30 years, this field has really taken off. There's a lot out there if you want to learn.
FELICIA: I like that, I'm going to pick it up, Malka. Thank you so much.
GAVIN: All right everybody, that is today's episode of Way Too Interested. Thank you to my guests, Malka Simkovich and Felicia Day, thank you to the Gregory Brothers for producing the theme song to my show and this music you're hearing right now.
Thank you to Eric Johnson for doing some of the backend work on our show and thank you to you for listening. I really appreciate it. This as I've said before, in a couple of these, this is my first attempt at making a podcast and it's been super fun.
I'd really appreciate if you would shout it out to people, if it's interesting to you, if this is a world that you're kind of interested in, in general. I would also love if you rated the podcast, both on iTunes and on any of your normal podcast apps.
It's been fun to make, and I really think I'll probably make more of them no matter what happens. This has been really enjoyable for me and I hope it is for you. All right, I'll see you next week, thanks.