Jason Whitlark is Associate Professor and Faculty Assistant Director in BIC, where he primarily teaches World Cultures I and Biblical Heritage. Dr. Whitlark holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from the Religion Department at Baylor, and he has a new book that was published in 2014–Resisting Emprire: Rethinking the Purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews. We hope you enjoy learning more about Dr. Whitlark and his research. This is Part 1 of a two part interview. Part 2 will be published later this week.
I started teaching in the BIC in the Fall 2007. To be honest, I am not sure what I was getting into, but I found the experience in the BIC to be transformative not only for the students but myself as well. Probably the most rewarding aspect about working with BIC students is sharing in their journeys while they are here at Baylor. I get to see BICers enter their college life full of hopes, dreams, and some anxieties, and then I get to see them think deeply about their lives and their vocational pursuits. Their questions, reflections, and learning always cause me to think deeply about my own life and vocation here at Baylor. I did not begin the BIC program (though I wish I could have that glory), but I believe in it because of how it has changed me and not just the students.
Tell us about your new book that recently came out.
My recent book is entitled, Resisting Empire: Rethinking the Purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews published in the Library of New Testament Studies with T&T Clark. In scholarship on Hebrews, there are some, like me, who see the Letter to the Hebrews written to a Christian congregation of predominantly Gentiles living in Rome in the latter half of the first-century (likely after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Rome in 70 A.D.). It is clear from the letter that many in the community suffered and were suffering for their confession of Jesus Christ. They were imprisoned, shamed, had their property confiscated, and possibly exiled or martyred. That suffering was tempting some to re-identify with imperial Rome in order to avoid further suffering. The book then explores the ways in which Hebrews, through the use of covert allusion, pushes against the pressures those in the community were facing from their imperial context. For example, the author concludes his correspondence with the statement: “here we do not have city that remains but look for one that comes.” While the author speaks in generic terms about two cities, it seems to me that the audience of Hebrews would have heard the author take a jab at Rome’s boast to be the “eternal city”—an epithet still used today for Rome but now more for tourism. Instead the audience is to continue to identify with Jesus, including the shame he suffered on earth, and to hope for his coming eternal city—the heavenly Jerusalem.
What made you interested in studying this particular topic?
Interestingly enough, it was a project that grew out of my participation in World Cultures 1 beginning in 2007. I remember listening to my Classicist colleagues and reading the Aeneid thinking that this context was important for understanding early Christianity and the Letter to the Hebrews in particular (since the audience, as I believe, was living in Rome). Prior to that point, I had paid little attention to the political context of this Christian document when interpreting it. I then begin to patiently explore in what ways this text might push back against imperial Rome. I knew Revelation functioned in this way in the New Testament. There had also been 20 years of growing studies on the way the Gospels and Paul engaged with their imperial context, but very few people had considered this issue in Hebrews. By studying the propaganda of imperial Rome and the rhetorical expectations in the first century, I begin to see how Hebrews addressed the concerns of its audience living in Rome. You might say that this project was a hybrid of World Cultures 1 and Rhetoric.