Interview: Mark Stone


Emory University

Areas of Interest/Research:

Hebrew Bible; Ancient Near Eastern literature; diachronic criticism; hermeneutics; theodicy

What is it about your field that you love researching?

One of the most curious things about the Hebrew Bible is that it is so transparently a project of compromise. And I mean this in the best, most profound sense: We have a collection of documents with not only diverse genres but wildly different opinions on major issues. I feel a sense of awe being able to listen in on the profound arguments that were taking place among ancient people. These brilliant philosophers, poets, storytellers, and legists were wrestling with the deepest questions of human experience. The pathos is palpable. And I particularly love diachronic criticism, working to piece together how different views evolved and interacted over time.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

Historical-critical work and theological readings are not enemies! Sure, the methodologies are different. But there is no reason why they can’t get along. Take something like source criticism of the Pentateuch: In certain faith communities it is presented as anathema—either because it apparently has no relevance to spiritual nourishment, or because it is not treating the text “as scripture” (and might even be harmful to one’s faith!).

I don’t buy these criticisms. Not because this never happens, it just doesn’t seem necessary. Have historical critical scholars in the past often neglected the theological dimension of that work? Sure. Are there countless stories of folks struggling with their religious beliefs after encountering historical critical scholarship? Of course. But invite me to your church, and I will regale you with tales on the spiritual nourishment that historical critical work can provide.

What is your current research about?

I’m currently working on a redaction-critical analysis of Genesis 14. You know, that really weird episode involving a bunch of Mesopotamian kings invading Canaan, Abram as a Hebrew warrior going out to defend the king of Sodom(!), and a random priest-king by the name of Melchizedek. 

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

The first person that comes to mind is Walter Brueggemann. After years of feeling that the Hebrew Scriptures were rather dull, reading his massive Theology of the Old Testament nearly single-handedly set my heart ablaze. Ever since, I’ve deeply admired his historical critical acumen alongside a facility to write poetically about the relevance of these remarkable texts.

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

Gosh, it’s always hard to whittle this type of thing down to just a few, right? I’ll just give two:

First, Konrad Schmid’s Genesis and the Moses Story: Israel’s Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible (German original: 1999; expanded English translation: 2010). This book argues that, originally, the Ancestor narratives in Genesis and the Exodus story were in fact two separate, competing origin myths. Schmid argues that the first to put them in a chronological sequence as part of a unified metanarrative was the Priestly source. This was an exhilarating read for me, partly because of how exciting I found the (non-Documentary Hypothesis) diachronic analysis, and partly because of how incredibly obvious it all seemed in hindsight. It was an instructive experience in realizing how deeply our own assumptions can blind us to the evidence in the texts.

Second, Melissa Raphael’s The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust (2003)The issue of theodicy has long been a passion of mine, but I confess I find most of the works out there less than helpful. Raphael’s book is one of the few that I found not only helpful but healing. She critiques and rejects traditional, masculine conceptions of divine “omnipotence” in favour of the feminine presence of God, the exiled Shekhinah: “Relational care, rather than quasi-military intervention or the miraculous suspension of the laws of cause and effect, is the sign and medium of God’s power within the world.” Raphael most powerfully illustrates this by surveying memoires of the women’s camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

I do! My obsession in years past has been the book of Lamentations, and especially the puzzle of chapter 3.

  1. “Vindicating Yahweh: A Close Reading of Lamentations 3.21-42,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament43.1 (2018): 83-108.
  1. “(More) On the Precative Qatal in Lamentations 3:56-61: Updating the Argument, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (accepted; forthcoming)

Where can we follow you online?

My Twitter handle is @Mark_the_Stone. I haven’t been very active yet, but just you wait! Change is coming, I can feel it.

If we ran into you at a conference and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

The part of me that wants to seem sophisticated would say something like single malt scotch or the philosophical project of William Desmond. The more honest part of me would be giddy to discuss things like Calvin & Hobbes; Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle and how I just can’t wait any longer for the third book; or video games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (one of the greatest video games ever made *cough cough*). Or my dog, Pascale. She’s a Braque française (look them up!) and you would love her.

What research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

I’ve been deep down the rabbit hole of sacrificial theory for the past several years. The further I go the more convinced I become that propitiation played hardly any role in the Yhwh cult. Instead, I would argue that the overwhelming majority of sacrificial acts were oriented by either pollution removal or commensality. This doesn’t sit comfortably with certain quarters of Christian theology, where sacrifice is so often framed as the slaughtering of a substitute victim to appease divine wrath. But to my mind, every piece of textual evidence put forward to ostensibly support propitiation is better explained by either purification or commensality. It’s not as though those two categories are novel, but I’m not aware of anyone really putting them into confrontation with the idea of propitiation. Really simply: Sacrifice was hardly ever (if at all) about appeasing the wrath of God, but instead removing pollution or sharing a fellowship meal (and sometimes Yhwh joins the feasting!).

>> Thank you so much, Mark, 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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