ECR Interview: Dr. Matt Sharp


University of Edinburgh

Areas of Interest/Research:

Paul’s letters, Greek and Roman religion, Ancient philosophy

What is it about your field that you love researching?

I love that the texts of the Bible (as well as other ancient texts) address some big and philosophical questions about life, death, God and the world, but that they do this from very different contexts and frames of reference than our own. I love trying to inhabit different worlds and ways of thinking, and looking for the ways that ideas and statements make sense within these different conversations and frames of reference. The texts of the New Testament can feel so well-known, but always have the potential to surprise you when you put them into a new context or conversation.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

It’s not a new idea, but the New Testament and earliest Christianity make best sense when understood within the context of first-century Judaism, and first-century Judaism makes best sense when understood as part of the Graeco-Roman world. In line with my answer to the first question, I also generally try to read for coherence in ancient texts, which I think is made more possible when these contexts are understood in all their diversity and messy interactions.  

What is your current research about?

My thesis looks at the the topic of “revelation” in Paul’s letters from the perspective of ancient divination. Essentially, it examines the different ways that Paul claims to hear, or receive information, from God and compares these to the ways other Jews, Greeks and Romans heard from their gods. Things like visions, prophecy, the interpretation of sacred texts and the reading of signs and omens in the world are rarely studied in the same category in Paul, but all find some coherence under the category of divination. The ways Paul theorises the “mechanics” of divination (how information actually makes its way from the divine realm to the human) also coheres with a number of contemporary Graeco-Roman philosophical discussions and (I think) highlights some key features of the way Paul thinks about the nature of God, the cosmos and humans within it. 

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

It would be rude for a PhD student not to mention their supervisor here, but Matthew Novenson has truly been a great scholarly model and mentor. When he was asked a similar question he singled out Albert Schweitzer as an academic hero for his independence of thought and Beverly Gaventa for her precision as an exegete. I think this is very fitting as these two qualities are definitely what have impressed me about Matt’s own scholarship. Independence—not letting existing scholarly schools and categories dictate his own analysis or the terms of the debate, and precision—paying close attention to specific word choices and trying one’s hardest to interpret what these ancient texts say (within their historical context) rather than what we think they must mean.

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

N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God was my first proper introduction to all the different philosophical, theological and historical questions raised by studying the New Testament.

Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit got me thinking beyond the Judaism/Hellenism divide and taught me to not always assume Paul is talking metaphorically.

Peter Struck, Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity really impressed me as a model of scholarly writing. Detailed, yet accessible, and with a real care to understand what the various authors were actually saying. You don’t often see meaty exegesis of Cicero, but this book does it brilliantly. 

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

I have a chapter that should be coming out soon in an edited volume on demonology entitled “Courting Daimons in Corinth: Daimonic Partnerships, Cosmic Hierarchies and Divine Jealousy in Paul.” This looks at Paul’s talk about daimons in 1 Cor 10 alongside a number of Graeco-Roman texts that also downgrade supposed gods in their cosmic hierarchies to the level of daimons when they are involved in activities that the author deems either impossible or inappropriate for a god to be involved in. 

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?

Local beer or coffee, baking bread, Agatha Christie, fun places you’ve travelled to. Although if we’re meeting at a conference chances are I’ll also be genuinely interested in what you’re researching at the moment.

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

I’m digging deeper into ancient cosmologies and looking at where and how gods or even “God” are seen to fit within them in different contexts. On a related note I think I’ve got a bit more to say about daimons in 1 Cor 10 too so I’ll be writing that up soon.

>> Thank you so much, Dr. Sharp, 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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