RSC: We are grateful to have you here on the BYU faculty. Why did you choose come to BYU?
Dr. Blumell: As an active Latter-day Saint I enjoyed the idea of working in an LDS environment. I did all of my degrees and teaching until now outside of BYU. At some time I got to the point when I realized that I could teach about the ancient world, read inscriptions, look at papyri, and publish material but only a handful of people are really reading it or really even care. I thought it would be nice to be in a community where more people are benefiting from my research and writing. Also applying what I know and do towards helping students with issues of faith is another reason. Bearing my testimony will have more of an impact on students than simply teaching from a "disinterested" scholarly perspective. In other university communities you have to take an agnostic or even an atheistic approach to teaching the New Testament. So, students would ask questions that I could answer fairly comfortably here but in another university I would have to say something like, "Well that's a good question but we don't know," and then move on. Or give an answer that kind of dances around the issue without really answering it. They're asking a really legitimate question but I have to respond with "Well, that's a theological question—I'm not going to talk about that in this setting." So, over time I realized that BYU would be a nice fit. Additionally, in the academy these days with cut-backs most universities are really cutting back on the Humanities and Social Sciences. Where I was previously this was definitely the case. Fortunately here at BYU there is a much stronger commitment to Religious Education and BYU has far more to offer in research opportunities.
RSC: What are you currently researching?
Dr. Blumell: Most of my research in the near future will concern Ancient Christianity/Papyrology and will not have any direct bearing on LDS issues. However, I have agreed to write an article on the canonization of scripture for a forthcoming volume edited by Religious Education that will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. I have also been wanting to write something concerning infant baptism in Ancient Christianity that will also be geared for an LDS audience. I recently reread Moroni 8 and realized that there is not much in-depth LDS scholarship on infant baptism. I think there are a number of very interesting things that people have missed concerning it and there are some assumptions that aren't really accurate about ancient Christianity and ancient baptism. So hopefully I can get around to this topic before too long.
RSC: How does papyrology inform the New Testament in a religious setting?
Dr. Blumell: Actually most of the time there aren't really any big papyrological issues that would be very devotional and inspiring. However, there is one specific example that comes to mind where I employed papyrology in a faith promoting sense and that has direct bearing on the NT. In an article in The New Testament: How It Came to Be—The 35th Annual Sperry Symposium I wrote a piece called "Scribes and Ancient Letters: Implications for the Pauline Epistles" that challenged in some respects the modern distinction between "Pauline" and "non-Pauline" letters. The scholarly consensus today is that Paul did not actually author some of the letters in the NT ascribed to him since certain letters differ in vocabulary, syntax, etc. In this article I attempted to show how, based on my study of papyrology, Paul employed scribes to write many of his letters. Depending on how a particular scribe functioned in a particular letter this could very easily account for difference in vocabulary, syntax, style, etc. However, notwithstanding the fact that the letter was written by ancient standards Paul was still regared as the author of the text. For example, Romans 16:22 clearly indicates that a person by the name of Tertius penned this letter. Likewise, there are hints in other letters that scribes wrote them. So, if you factor in the "scribal factor" many of the arguments against Pauline authorship are diffused.
RSC: Is there any way to tell if Tertius was the scribe for all or most of Paul's letters or if he used many scribes?
Dr. Blumell: I think he used multiple scribes. It's not really possible to pick out various scribes. As I point out in my article we see that some of these letters have joint authorship where two people are writing one letter. So there is another person who could be writing. In my article I try to show that it is much more complex than the idea of Paul himself sitting down for two hours, writing a letter, and then sending it. With Tertius we have clear evidence that a scribe wrote this letter. So we know without a doubt that Paul used scribes. We also have evidence of Paul using scribes in Galatians 6:11: "Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand." Perhaps a better translation is "See what large letters I write to you with my own hand." This is Paul, at the end of the letter, saying, look, I'm writing big letters which is different from the body of the letter that it written by the scribe.
RSC: So Paul is using a scribe in this verse. Why are the letters big? Does he have bad handwriting?
Dr. Blumell: When you see these signatures at the end of letters by the real author after the scribe has written the letter typically the author's hand it not as careful. Usually they will write with a larger hand. Scribal handwriting is remarkable. For some letters you almost need a magnifying glass and yet the handwriting is beautiful. So, yes, Paul's larger letters here may show that he is not as familiar with writing because he is not a professional scribe. And, yes, that is a good conclusion that Paul signs his letter and his handwriting is not as neat as his scribe's handwriting.
RSC: You continue to emphasize the need to have depth and breadth in your studies. How did you accomplish this depth and breadth—did you simply study on your own or is it due to courses of study?
Dr. Blumell: It's tough. Of course you have to be broad but you also have to be very focused. So there's a tension there. But with New Testament scholarship, generally speaking, I think more scholars would do well to have a broader knowledge of the ancient world. I did an undergraduate degree in Classics. I knew I wanted to do New Testament but I also wanted to do languages and culture. Then I did two Masters degrees and a Ph.D. I think that really helped me to give me a broader grasp of the ancient world. Of course I still have much more to learn but I feel that my classics background gave me a good foundation. It seems that nowadays too many students of religion focus on modern theories of method and really do not give enough attention to the ancient sources. Personally, I feel that better scholarship can be had from knowing more about ancient sources than knowing about Post-modernism for example or other modern theories to interpret the NT. Of course, I am not trying to say that such work is of no use, I just believe that there is still an awful lot that can be gleaned from the NT not via via modern theories but via a good understanding of how the ancient world functioned via a good familiarity of all the available source materials.
RSC: With the findings of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, would you say that papyrology has overtaken the New Testament field?
Dr. Blumell: It is definitely becoming more prominent. One thing that led me to papyrology is that it is difficult to be original in New Testament scholarship. For example, if you want to write something about Paul then you have to go back through 500 years of scholarship to see what other people have said about Paul. And then it's difficult to come up with something fresh and new because there has already been so much said about any given topic. So papyrology is being used more because there are a lot of new findings. There are a number of similarities in terms of linguistics, phraseology; even definitions of words can convey nuances and these things all need to be published. But right now there are more papyri than there are papyrologists. There is no shortage of papyri. In terms of published Greek texts from Egypt between Alexander to the Muslim conquest (332 B.C. – A.D. 640) there are around 70,000 pieces that have been published varying from very big texts to small fragments. But there are still about 1.2 million fragments that have already been catalogued but not yet published. So not even a tenth has been published yet. There is even a payrological commentary on the New Testament coming out by Peter Artz-Grabner. He wrote a commentary on Philemon that was almost 400 pages long that was very insightful using the papyri.
RSC: Based only on papyrology?
Dr. Blumell: Based on papyrology and linguistics looking at ancient slavery and other issues. Written basically by asking "how do the papyri enlighten this text?" Honestly, we do not really know a lot about the daily workings of the ancient world from literary sources. We get a little bit from Tacitus and other ancient sources but you still have to really mine it to find out about social history from day to day and what's going on. With the papyri, rather than having long narratives, we get snapshots of daily life. We have petitions, census reports, letters, receipts, warrant for arrest—all these things that tell us about daily life and what's going on. Indicative of the rise of papyrology, at this conference I just returned from in Geneva, there was a whole section on Ancient Christian papyrology. We, of course, also find Christian documents in the papyri. With papyrology, rather than only having Eusebius or other authors from copies of copies, now we have what a letter really would have looked like. We have the Bodmer papyrus—a fragment of the Gospel of John from around A.D. 200—and we know what the Gospel of John looked like in A.D. 200. Papyrology is kind of a technical field and hard to get your head around but it is becoming more accessible.
RSC: So how does one become a papyrologist? There are not papyrology majors, are there?
Dr. Blumell: I got into it by doing my second Masters degree at Oxford and I had a friend there who was getting a Ph.D. in papyrology at Oxford. We became friends and he showed me around the papyrology room there where all the Oxyrhynchus materials are and I realized how amazing papyrology is. So I began sitting in on lectures there and realized that I liked it. They told me how much work needed to be done and how it was something that is totally untapped. So now, rather than being the millionth person to talk about Paul and the Law, now I'm the first person to talk about this certain papyrus. So there is appeal there for me. There is a lot of stuff to be done. So when I applied for my Doctoral program at Toronto my advisor had done some papyrology so he helped me along with it.
RSC: You wrote one of your Masters theses on early Roman persecution. Can you tell us what you found there?
Dr. Blumell: In late antiquity there are a lot of grand stories about Christian persecution usually beginning with Nero and climaxing with Diocletian in the beginning of the 4th century A.D. A theology of persecution arises and evolves. So I was interested in the earliest persecutions mainly from Nero to Hadrian. While later sources tell us about the persecution that went on, when you look at the primary sources that speak about persecution you find that there is not that much going on. The point is to reexamine the primary sources like Tacitus, Letters from Pliny and Trajan, Eusebius, proconsuls in Asia Minor. What I realized is that early persecution is in a localized setting. Definitely nothing empire-wide at first. Under Nero it was only in Rome. Really the first empire-wide persecution that can be found is under Decius around A.D. 250. So we can't use the later sources to retroject what happened in earlier Christianity. Of course persecution happened and it was difficult but it wasn't as organized and as systematic and as widespread as is generally thought based on a reading of later sources.
RSC: But Pliny was pretty early and that seemed to be empire wide, right?
Dr. Blumell: Yes, Pliny is early, he writes around A.D. 112–113.
RSC: And Trajan replies that if you find Christians then to kill them.
Dr. Blumell: Well, Trajan says that if you find them then try them. But he also said that if they deny it, even if they were once Christian, then there is no crime. In that correspondence we see that even the Roman authorities were not really sure why they were going after these people. Pliny has no problem getting rid of Christians who are obstinate in their faith and won't recant. So he gets rid of them. But people who deny they were ever Christian and who make a libation are fine. But what troubled Pliny in this letter is this third group of people who were once Christians but said that they weren't anymore. So Pliny is asking what to do with those people. Do we punish them simply because they were once Christians? Do we punish them for the supposed Christian abominations—there were all these stories floating around about Christians being cannibals and incestuous. So Pliny doesn't know what these people are doing wrong and why he is punishing them. Trajan never actually says what they are doing wrong. They're Christians. But if they said that they were no longer Christians than they weren't punished. So I think we can see that rumors about a group leads to persecution. Perhaps one day I will compare early Anti-Christian polemic with early nineteenth century anti-Mormon polemic since I think some interesting parallels could be found.