Interview: Arco den Heijer


Theological University Kampen (the Netherlands)

Areas of Interest/Research:

Book of Acts, Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts of early Christianity

What is it about your field that you love researching?

I love the exegetical puzzles, weighing the pros and cons of various interpretations of Greek syntax and vocabulary. Texts raise questions that invite further questions, carrying me away on lengthy detours. Often, the results are relatively meagre, in that you end up with one of the interpretations that earlier scholars have also proposed. But at least you can feel that you have mastered the problem and have a solid foundation for your solution. 

Secondly, I like to read texts in their socio-historical context, trying to bring to life the situation that prompted the author to write his text, getting a sense of who the author was and who his readers were. Of course, the thought that you get to know the mind of author when you study his text, is largely an illusion; we reconstruct ancient authors based on the bits of information that we have, but it remains our reconstruction. Still, it is the sense of getting to know people from a distant past, that I find very rewarding. 

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

I have found the notion of a “cultural script” helpful in analysing performances of Paul in the book of Acts. This concept comes from a sociological theory of performance developed by Jeffrey Alexander. His central idea is that successful public performance depends on giving your audience the feeling that you share the same core values as they. Jeffrey Alexander calls these values ‘symbols’ and argues that these symbols can be operationalized in scripts, conventional patterns of behaviour that can be recognized by the audience. In the case of Paul, I argue in my thesis that the author of Acts depicts him as performing a ‘prophetic Script’ as well as a ‘Socratic script’ and that both scripts appeal to the same background symbol of obedience to a divine call, a cultural value shared by Jews and non-Jews in the ancient world.  

What is your current research about?

I study the performance of Paul in five episodes from the book of Acts: Paul’s encounter with Bar-Jesus before the proconsul Sergius Paulus (13:4–12); Paul’s performance in two Sabbath gatherings in Antioch (13:14–52); his performance in Lystra (14:6–20); his performance in Athens (17:16–34), and his defence before king Agrippa (25:23–26:24). In each episode, I examine the significance of the setting, in terms of the location where Paul speaks and of the persons with whom he interacts; the actual performance itself as a combination of gestures and speech; the audience response; and the cultural script(s) involved. Then, I argue how the depiction of Paul’s performance in this episode contributes to the narrative as a whole, placing it within the larger narrative sequences of Acts. In the conclusion, I suggest that the depiction of Paul as a Jewish prophet who performs with Roman dignity and authority, serves to counter the perception of Christians as adherents of a pernicious superstition, as elite Romans like Tacitus and Plinius describe them, and to counter the idea that Christian teaching was opposed to the Jewish nation, law and temple: the book of Acts has to be interpreted historically within the triangular relations between Romans, Jews and Christians in the late first/early second century CE. 

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

One important person is Eric Peels, professor of Old Testament of the Theological University of Apeldoorn, where I studied Theology; I learned much from his close attention to the text and fair discussion of diverse scholarly positions. For my work on the book of Acts, I am particularly fond of the careful scholarship of Loveday Alexander, as well as of the work of Peter Tomson, a Dutch scholar who has written much about the Jewish context of Jesus and the New Testament. 

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

An important book in my undergraduate years was Peter Enns’ Incarnation and InspirationI come from a quite conservative Reformed background, and found the results of historical critical scholarship to be quite challenging to my personal faith when I began to study theology. Peter Enns’ book helped to cope with that, by acknowledging the inspiration of the Bible as a statement of faith that does not diminish the fact that the biblical books were written by humans and can be studied as any other texts from the ancient world. He uses the analogy of Christology to suggest that the Bible is best considered as fully divine and fully human at the same time. That helped me at the time to find a way to combine thorough and critical scholarship with Christian faith. 

Over the last four years, as I wrote my dissertation, I remember very few books as being especially formative. There is a danger that you process books rather pragmatically, making sure to incorporate enough existing scholarship in your thesis, without taking the time to let books actually do something with you. One book that I really liked recently was Chris Keith’s The Gospel as ManuscriptI found the way he describes the authors of the Gospels as engaged in a ‘competitive textualization’ of the Jesus tradition to be a very helpful conceptualization of what the Gospel writers were doing when they wrote their books about Jesus.  

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

My publications can be viewed on

Where can we follow you online?

I am active on Twitter, and have a webpage at Academia,

If we ran into you at SBL/AAR and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

Classical music; Graham Greene; suggestions for hiking holidays; my two kids.

Other than your thesis, what research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

I am making a Dutch translation of Luke and Acts according to the text of Codex Bezae. I enjoy the work a lot, trying to find the words for a fresh Dutch version of Luke’s story and encountering all the odd additions of this manuscript. I hope to be able to publish it sometime, and for now it is a great project to work on in spare hours. The passages that I have translated so far can be found at, with some blog posts on details from the text of Codex Bezae. 

>> Thank you so much Arco for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.

Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.

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