Studying the Old by Doing Something New

November 20, 2018
Antioch course
From left, Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton, HDS Professor Laura Nasrallah, and Harvard student Avantika Kumar discuss an inscribed bronze bread stamp. Photo by Julie Clack, Princeton University.

HDS Professor Laura Nasrallah knows Harvard University and Princeton University well. Having earned degrees at both (AB ’91 at Princeton, MDiv ‘95, ThD ‘02 at Harvard) the Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity is familiar with the vast resources and archives each institution has to offer.

What she also knows is that the shape of higher education is changing, clearly evidenced by the more than 30,000 people from 169 countries who signed up for her free online course "Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul" in 2014. It was the School’s first massive open online course.

The reading Nasrallah did in preparation for her online class inspired her to try a new model of teaching, one that she’s implemented in her course this semester: co-teaching across universities. The course, “Antioch from the Seleucids to Late Antiquity,” is co-taught by Nasrallah and AnneMarie Luijendijk, ThD ‘05, professor of religion and chair of the Committee for the Study of Late Antiquity at Princeton.

The course runs concurrently at Princeton and Harvard, where students are learning about the religious diversity that characterized Antioch, an ancient city which was part of Greater Syria until 1939 and is now located in modern-day Turkey, through the close study of its artifacts. The graduate students meet weekly to consider the social, political, economic, and religious life of Antioch depicted by ancient texts—and what the constraints of these texts are, particularly the absence of slaves, women, and people of low status, as well as early evidence of Christians and Jews celebrating holy days together.

Even before the course has wrapped up, Nasrallah is advocating co-teaching across universities and says that institutions across the U.S. and abroad could think more strategically about what can be shared with each other.

“Our Antioch course is an experiment in this form of education, something that former Princeton President William Bowen and others have discussed, as we face changes in higher education in the U.S. At Harvard and Princeton, we have the unique privilege of special objects and archives that we should be sharing—as well as sharing the knowledge of our faculties and the scholarship of our students,” says Nasrallah.

Harvard PhD candidate Sarah Porter presents her research on the Tethys mosaic in the lobby of a Harvard Business School administrative building. Photo by Julie Clack, Princeton University.

From 1932 to 1939, a team of archaeologists funded by institutions including Harvard, Princeton, and the Worcester Art Museum worked together to explore and excavate the ancient city. The expedition uncovered a wealth of objects, ranging from marble statues and mosaics to coins and figurines. The findings were divided between the participating institutions and others, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and the Louvre in France.

Throughout the semester, the groups from Harvard and Princeton converged at several institutions—including both universities, Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks research institute in Washington, D.C., the Worcester Art Museum, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—to hear from specialists in Antioch and to study the artifacts in person.

Harvard PhD candidate Jeremy Williams discusses “Hermes and Dionysos Floor Mosaic” with James Welu, director emeritus of the Worcester Art Museum, and HDS Professor Laura Nasrallah. Photo by Julie Clack, Princeton University.

“We can’t just understand antiquity as words on a page. We need to look at the material remains, too,” says Nasrallah. “Both, together, should also wake us up to the lives not only of the rich who commissioned the lavish mosaics of Antioch, but also to those of lower status who supplied the food that would have been eaten in the dining rooms, and especially to the lives of the enslaved who served such food.”

She adds, “Bringing archaeological materials together with literary materials helps us to attend to everyday life and to the lives of the less than elite.”

Besides the subject matter, students in the class have also learned about the importance of professional relationships. The course came about because of the Nasrallah and Luijendijk’s friendship.

“I have always been interested in and curious about the Princeton Antioch holdings, as Antioch figures importantly in early Christianity and late antiquity, the period I study,” says Luijendijk. “I emailed my colleague and friend Laura Nasrallah, who is an expert on how to interpret early Christian texts within their material worlds, and asked her to brainstorm a course about Antioch with me; in her reply, she proposed to co-teach—I was immediately enthusiastic!”

From left, Students Omri Matarasso (Princeton), Sarah Porter (Harvard), and Rebekah Haigh (Princeton) inspect pilgrimage ampullae. Photo by Julie Clack, Princeton University.

Nasrallah says she and Luijendijk have been good friends since their time together in Harvard’s doctoral program. They previously collaborated on a team that co-organized a conference about ancient Cyprus.

“I benefit so much from AnneMarie’s scholarship, and it’s a treat to share that not only through asking my students to read her publications, but also through having them meet her,” says Nasrallah. “I hope that our students see that studying together can provide lifetime friendships and intellectual enrichment.”

Their friendship and collegiality have indeed served as an inspiration for students in the class.

“As a young academic—and especially as a young woman academic—seeing academic friendship gives me a model for my own relationships,” says Harvard PhD candidate Sarah Porter. “Often the world of scholarship can be competitive and anxious, but Laura and AnneMarie remind me that it can be joyful, funny, and collaborative. Watching them think, explore, and construct together exhibits how much smarter the academy can be when it is kind. Moreover, I have loved meeting and collaborating with our Princeton colleagues. Their hospitality—indeed, how they've shared the entire rich Princeton archive of the Antioch excavations—is a gift.”

—by Michael Naughton

Julie Clack from Princeton University contributed to this report.