Skip to content »

Cutting Edges: Recovering the Forgotten

By Dr. Charles Cosgrove, Professor of Early Christian Literature and Director of the PhD Program

A very popular book on ancient Rome (composed nearly 100 years ago by a well-known scholar) has only a few words to say about ancient women, and it turns out that everything it does say about them concerns aristocrats or those made notable by wealth. The ancient Greek and Roman authors are equally uninterested in ordinary women—and ordinary men for that matter. Common folk—the vast majority of people in the ancient Mediterranean world—are left to historical oblivion. Most elites assumed that the lives of the masses were devoid of color and variety and anything ennobling.

In recent scholarship, however, there has been an effort to recover the particularities of forgotten ancient people. Patient collecting of scattered incidental remarks adds up to a glimpse. An ephemeral source such as a papyrus letter, rescued from an ancient garbage dump, offers a clue. Applying modern socio-economic models to scanty ancient evidence suggests a portrait of common people even if we do not know their names and particulars.

Using such a method, a young New Testament professor at the Methodist School of Theology in Ohio, Ryan Schellenberg, has been sharpening the picture of the poor in the early church, showing that they were not merely passive objects of alms but almsgivers themselves, adept in stretching their modest provisions so that someone else might eat or be clothed. People like that are worth knowing and remembering, for wisdom does not come only from the upper echelons of society. It comes from the mass of us, including those at the bottom of the social order. “God chose what is low and despised in the world,” Paul says, “even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:28). Ancient people  otherwise destined for oblivion are declared agents of the New Creation in this statement. Therefore, we want to make friends with them and their brothers and sisters in every generation.

Dr. Melanie Baffes (G-ETS 2010 and 2016) makes friends of such a person, Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. This Mary makes a cameo appearance in the Gospel of John in the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. Most commentators have treated Mary as an unimportant figure in the story,a mere foil for other utterances and actions, not a voice worth paying attention to. Yet Baffes pays attention to her. In her new book, Love, Loss, and Abjection: The Journey of New Birth in the Gospel of John, Baffes uses one of the newer methods of narrative analysis to study John 11, where she discovers a remarkable story,a transformative journey of faith in Mary’s encounter with Jesus. To speak in the language of the gospel’s own  hermeneutic, Baffes looks at Mary of Bethany the way God does, the way God teaches us to see people and t listen to them—especially to any who are marginalized, overlooked, or ignored, whether in the world or even in the commentaries! I learn from Baffes’s study that it pays to shake off our dominant interest in only the larger-than-life characters of the Bible and to discover the background figures, the seemingly incidental persons, the apparently too-ordinary and undramatic people. For God chooses them, too, and speaks through them to us in a still, small voice. I close with an excerpt from Baffes about what she discovered in Mary’s story:

In my early readings of John, Mary of Bethany seemed to be the only one out of all the characters in John’s gospel to undergo the kind of transformation that might be characterized as birth from above. . . . Mary is the one whose faith is called into question as she alternates between hoping in Jesus and being disappointed by him—rejecting him at one moment yet being open, humble, and receptive at other moments. . . . It is precisely this dialectic that sets up the possibility for a deeper, more genuine relationship of mutuality and love between Mary and Jesus.

I am grateful for this word from Baffes, and proud to teach at Garrett-Evangelical, where she recently earnedher PhD degree.