What Professor Annette Yoshiko Reed will teach us about ancient religion and our modern understanding of storytelling
Annette Reed, MTS ’99, is currently a Professor in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Department of Religious Studies at New York University, where she has been a member of the faculty since 2017. Her research spans Second Temple Judaism, early Christianity, and Jewish-Christian relations in late antiquity, with a focus on retheorizing religion, identity, and difference. She will join the HDS faculty as Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity when her appointment begins on July 1, 2022.
Trees of Knowledge
Annette Yoshiko Reed went to college with big questions about art’s
role in shaping humanity and delved into ancient history for answers. Interests in culture and religion sculpted the contours of her scholarship, which led Reed to become a “collector of languages” throughout her graduate studies. She works in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and ancient Ethiopic, in addition to speaking English and Japanese. In talking about language, Reed connects her family’s background and her affinity for biblical stories.
“My great-grandmother was a Shinto priestess in Japan. She spoke to foxes—which, my mother explains, is why animals are drawn to me. So, we have this real tradition in my Japanese-American family, and I was raised with very little knowledge of Western religions.”
Reed became fascinated with art history at Bard College but quickly recognized that she had limited understanding of biblical iconography. Remembering one such instance, she quips: “I loved medieval European manuscripts, but I would be like, ‘oh, there’s this great image of these two people with the fruit. Maybe it symbolizes fertility?’”
For Reed, it was a Bible as Literature class recommended by her art history professor that changed everything.
“All this poetry, all this literature, all this art that I was familiar with suddenly had added layers of meaning. It was a powerful experience, because I was really able to recognize the cultural power of biblical literature from having a gap in my own knowledge that was then filled with rich context.” Since then, she says, “I have been drawn to biblical history: its reception in early Judaism and Christianity, the biblical past as a place for conversation, contestation of different identities, renewal of different identities, and a site for thinking about change.”
Reed saw the power of the Bible not just as a spiritual guide but as a historical text that serves as the “continuous touchstone for Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and global culture.” And as Reed deepened her expertise with an MTS degree from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD from Princeton, her focus on contextual cultural history grew to include an exploration of intertwined histories and intersectional identities.
As a student at HDS, Reed immersed herself in the study of Greek and Hebrew languages, as well as classes that ranged from biblical interpretation to ancient history. “Jon Levenson was my advisor and, I must say, he was very generous in letting me take as many Classics classes as I wanted!”
After her graduate studies, Reed converted to Judaism. In sharing her identities, she explains: “I’m a Japanese-American Jewish scholar of Christianity. And maybe partly because of that, I’m drawn to questions of identity, recovering intertwined histories and looking back to ancient texts that have been marginalized. I like to study noncanonical stories—Enoch texts, for example—that were highly influential in premodern times. Literature that centers the distant, distant past. The time before the flood.”
(For those not familiar with the intricacies of biblical antiquity, “the time before the flood” refers to anything that happened before 2348 BCE—a mere 1,656 years after God created every-thing in year 0, if we follow the timeline of Genesis.)
Much of Reed’s work focuses on recovery: looking at documents that have been lost and found, and then trying to see early Jewish and Christian history through the lens of those recovered or neglected documents. From the Book of the Watchers (one of the oldest Jewish books, outside of the Hebrew Bible) to New Testament apocrypha (like the Pseudo-Clementines), Reed seeks out the stories time has forgotten—stories well known in antiquity but lost in modern times.
Lost stories from these early works create holes in the long tapestry of human history, she explains. To compensate, we tend to stitch together different details or cultural reference points to smooth over gaps and seams in imperfect narratives.
“We had a myopia in some ways, because our current preference for a print Bible with select stories shrunk our understanding of the past...but I want to think about forgetting as an engine of cultural creativity. How was the loss, itself, a product of meaning making and culture making and identity making? That’s what my new book’s about—recovering what has been left out of our shared history and exploring how forgetting shaped our past.”
However, Reed offers some cautionary advice on jumping to overly simplistic conclusions about what gets lost and how.
“There are two temptations with regard to what didn’t get preserved: 1) the assumption that everything that got preserved is better, akin to survival of the fittest; and 2) the idea of seeing loss as a deliberate suppression that must be villainized. But those two positions—passive loss or active exclusion—do not adequately capture the way traditions were passed on, or selectively not passed on, in antiquity. It’s much more nuanced.”
That nuance sheds light on a new and more thoughtful approach to teaching history.
Practicing What She Teaches
Reed sees her academic interest in identity stemming from her personal positionality. In what she deems “the Audre Lorde question,” Reed emphasizes the importance of thinking about models of difference that are nonhierarchical. Pointing to the work of Donna Haraway, a prominent scholar who studies the philosophy of science, Reed emphasizes the necessity for understanding “situated knowledges,” knowledge that is embodied—and thus affected by—the concrete historical, cultural, linguistic, and value context of the knowing person.
“Part of our challenge as scholars is that the myth of objectivity presumes that the only question to ask is what happened versus who gets to say what happened. Some of the most important questions we can ask include: Who gets to tell the story? Who gets to decide when a story begins, and who is omitted with that choice? How can we take multiple narratives seriously?”
Looking back on her time at HDS in the 90s and forward to her upcoming faculty appointment in 2022, Reed offered this reflection: “One of the things I noticed when I was interviewing is that HDS is much more inclusive than it was in the past...in terms of demographics, but also general approach and priorities. There is much more to do, of course, but it’s exciting to see how multireligious the School has become. As a scholar, I’m committed to a more global antiquity, and I look forward to bringing that commitment with me back to Cambridge.”
—by Amie Montemurro