Interview: Chance Bonar


Harvard University

Areas of Interest/Research:

Early Christianity; Shepherd of Hermas; Christian Apocrypha; Papyrology; Coptic Studies; Authorship & Attribution

What is it about your field that you love researching?

I love being able to research and explore the rhetoric, narratives, and histories that ancient writers used to categorize and make sense of their world. I’m concerned with how writers describe themselves and attempt to construct the persona of others based on perceived similarities and differences, and I think that being able to hone such analytical skills on early Christian and other ancient literature helps me better interrogate historical and political claims made today. I appreciate getting to work so closely with texts and constantly ask questions like “Why do they say this and not that? Who benefits? What is going unsaid? What assumptions do they bring to the table?” 

Beyond that, being able to work directly with Greek and Coptic manuscripts – especially of texts that are untranslated or underexplored – is one of the things that keeps me up at night.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

The “big ideas” that I wrestle with most are these two things: Word choice matters, and how one frames a narrative matters. When we’re reading an early Christian text – especially a New Testament text – it’s easy to gloss over what interpretive work our translators are doing for us, as well as what interpretive work our ancient writers are doing by framing their narrative. Before I approach the content of an ancient biography, letter, or record of a visionary experience, I have to stop and ask how the writer has organized the material they’ve written down, whether they’ve chosen to attribute the text to an author (or not) and what purposes that attribution might serve, and how scholars have edited, translated, and talked about these texts within the confines of their own historical situation. 

What is your current research about?

I’m currently writing a dissertation on the Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century Christian text, and how it deals with the entanglement between enslavement to God and living a virtuous life. The Shepherd is an extended account of Hermas’s visionary experiences and encounters with figures called the Church and the Shepherd, and was well-known by early Christians (to the point that we have more early attestations of it than any New Testament text besides Matthew and John). Scholars in our field often read the Shepherd once in grad school and then put aside for being too long, too repetitive, or too boring – so I’m trying to enliven the discussion about a text that Christians seemingly turned to for ethical formation and guidance.

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

One scholar who constantly shakes up everything I know about the field is Maia Kotrosits. I first read her Rethinking Early Christian Identity as I was finishing up my undergraduate thesis on social identity theory and the Gospel of John, and I had to totally rethink my project because of her incisive questions: What if so-called early Christian texts don’t all care about, or are constitutive of, Christian identity? What if they are talking about other things, such as trauma and diaspora? Especially as I work with the Shepherd – a text that doesn’t mention Jesus or any of the apostles, doesn’t cite or clearly allude to familiar scriptural texts, and doesn’t think of its readers as Christianoi – her work encourages me to keep asking what is at stake for these ancient writers beyond “ready-made Christians” and ready-made Christianity. (I’ll admit that I haven’t been able to read Kotrosits’s newly-published The Lives of Objects yet, but I expect that it will make me radically rethink the way I’m approaching current projects.)

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

Howard Zinn’s “What is Radical History?” has had a substantial impact on the way that I approach the historical work that I do on ancient texts. Written in 1970, Zinn urged us to participate in what he called “value-laden historiography” – meaning, in part, that no historiographical work can be neutral. His work has compelled me to consider what’s at stake in exposing deeply-held assumptions and ideologies that pervade both ancient and modern cultures, as well as to highlight the damage that is done to marginalized people when our historical work perpetuates white supremacist, colonialist, sexist tropes or discourses. 

Likewise, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Rhetoric and Ethic was formative for my own interest in reading ancient literature with rhetorical and ethical stakes in mind. She calls for biblical scholars to abandon claims to objective historical scholarship and to recognize what institutions and discourses are delineating our interpretive approaches to ancient texts. Her work has made me much more aware of how the data I choose to analyse and the comparanda I choose – how I frame my own historical work – will determine what I find and how I discuss early Christian texts in relation to the broader Mediterranean world. Schüssler Fiorenza’s work urges me to recognize that I am always writing in response to particular communities, people, and events that have shaped my approach to ancient literature, and that I ought to both be transparent about and question what values I advocate for through my scholarship.  

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

I recently published our first English translation of a late ancient revelation dialogue, 3 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, as part of Tony Burke’s New Testament Apocrypha series (co-authored with Burke and Slavomír Čéplö). We have a Greek edition of 3 Apocr. Apoc. John coming out in Le Muséon in Winter 2020. Beyond that, I published a first-century papyrus contract from Oxyrhynchus.

Where can we follow you online?

I can be found on Twitter (@ChanceBonar) and on my Humanities Commons pages (here and here). 

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?

I’d likely bring up my two cats, Sophia and Lilith, or lament the fact that I’m not currently living in the Midwest. And while there hasn’t been as much of a possibility to sing in the midst of COVID, I’d probably talk about recent music that I’ve been preparing to perform with a local choir.

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

I’m currently working on John Chrysostom’s Homilies against the Jews in an attempt to understand how Chrysostom produces a “playbook” of sorts for his congregation in order to reclaim Christians who are seeking healing from Jewish ritual practitioners in Antioch. Chrysostom has some interesting things to say about the intersection of healthcare, martyrdom, masculinity, and piety. Beyond that, I have a translation in the works of the Dialogue Between Jesus and the Devil, a late ancient expansion of the Temptation in the Wilderness scene from Matthew and Luke in which Satan is equated with the Antichrist.

>> Thank you so much, Chance, 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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