Dr. Timothy Brookins Discusses His Path to Scholarship

The News Magazine of HCU

Dr. Timothy Brookins is the director of Graduate Programs for the School of Christian Thought, program coordinator for Graduate Theology Programs, interim chair of the Department of Theology, and assistant professor of Classics and Biblical Languages for HBU.

Please tell us about your personal, academic and professional background.

I grew up in a traditional home in Virginia, where I attended a Baptist church with my family and public school from K through 12. While I was a fair student, like many kids, I took little interest in school. The one subject I took interest in was Latin, which I started in seventh grade and continued in until graduation. I went on to college (at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia) envisioning a vague future in youth ministry, and I continued to lack focus in my studies. I followed the path to ministry after graduation by moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. After starting Greek my first semester, the spark that Latin created in middle school was revived by Greek and fanned into a flame, so to speak. That’s when I began to see my future in clearer focus. I had worked a couple of years at a Christian summer camp for kids, and was currently interning as a youth pastor at a local church near Raleigh. I was beginning to see that youth ministry wasn’t for me in the long-term. At the same time, I was coming to life as a student and had begun developing a strong desire to use my studies to help others find their way in life. At this point, I decided to pursue a PhD and a career in higher education, although I was unsure which area I wanted to focus in. At first, I felt pulled in several different directions, then in just two – for several years vacillating between Classics and New Testament. I decided in favor of New Testament, entering into Baylor’s PhD program in 2008, but still uncertain whether I’d taken the right path. But as I began graduate studies at Baylor, it became clear to me that, for me, New Testament studies and Classics weren’t alternative career paths. My love for the New Testament and my early love of Latin weren’t disconnected parts of my journey; the two areas converged and my academic journey all came together at this point.

When did you arrive at HBU, and what have your roles been?

I started at HBU in the fall of 2011 while I was still writing my doctoral dissertation. I was hired as a full-time “Latin Instructor” in the Honors College. The next year, a Latin department formed in the College of Humanities, and I moved from the Honors College to Humanities. In 2013, Latin merged with Biblical Languages to form the Department of Classics and Biblical Languages, and at that point I shifted my teaching responsibilities from Latin to Greek. Most of my time since then has been spent in the Greek classroom, though I’ve also continued to teach one or two Bible/theology classes a year and an occasional Latin class. And so I continue to sit at the intersection between biblical studies and classics!

What is unique about HBU’s School of Christian Thought?

Among other things, one feature I’m excited about is our new MA in Classics and Early Christianity. The organizational relationship between classics and biblical studies is closer at HBU than it is at most institutions. It’s pretty standard to separate “Classics” and “Religious Studies” into different departments. While our department of “Classics and Biblical Languages” and our department of “Theology” are nominally separate, biblical languages spans the gap. We also share faculty between the departments; for example, while I teach mostly Greek classes, I also teach at least one class in biblical/theological studies each year. The relationship between the two departments is showcased in a special way in our new MA. The degree is built around the intersection between classics and biblical/theological studies. The program requires courses in Second Temple Judaism, the Gospels and Acts, and second-century Christianity, but it also has offerings in Greek and Latin, Greco-Roman philosophy and religion, and classical archaeology.

What projects are you currently working on, and what is trending now in Christian scholarship?

In a way, everything is trending right now in biblical scholarship. Post-modernity has helped legitimize a multiplicity of non-traditional approaches to interpretation—feminist interpretation, post-colonial interpretation, liberation interpretation—even as more classical, historical-critical scholarship and biblical theology continue. We are also seeing a renewed interest in pre-critical interpretation — interpretation as it was practiced in the ancient and medieval church, long before we became concerned about the text’s meaning in its “original context.” Legitimacy of interpretation, in short, is no longer restricted to a particular method, or one method to “rule them all.”

My work focuses on the apostle Paul in his Greco-Roman context. This work prioritizes original context as a lens of meaning. I look at Paul’s writings through what might be called a social-historical or socio-linguistic approach. This approach grounds interpretation in the language, customs, and value systems of the first-century Mediterranean world, exploring how Paul drew from available cultural resources in writing his letters, as well as how he adapted these resources in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. I’m currently writing a book on Paul’s interaction with Stoic philosophy, the most popular philosophy of his day and influential, not only for other contemporary philosophies, but also in certain streams of Judaism, in Roman politics, and in the general ethos of Greco-Roman culture.

In other research projects, I focus more on exegesis, or close, verse-by-verse analysis of the biblical text. I’m currently writing two commentaries. The first is on 1 Corinthians and the second on 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Both of these are academic commentaries, but they will also be of use to advanced students in theological and biblical studies, as well as to educated lay people; for example, aptitude in Koine Greek is not required for use; while I refer to the language of the original Greek, I use English transliteration for the characters.

What do you hope students gain from their academic programs at HBU?

Certainly, some course work in Greek and Latin! Other than that, let me mention three things of a more general nature. First, how to think critically. This is the gift that keeps on giving. I can tell you what to think, or I can teach you how to do it. Every age offers virtues of which previous ages were ignorant, and every age has its vices. We want to foster in students a critical ability to distinguish between the good and the bad, to know when to conform to culture and when to critique it. Second, how to dialogue openly. Thinking critically doesn’t mean being “critical” of everything that those who are not a part of our tight circle think. Sometimes, thinking critically means being willing to give up beliefs that don’t stand up to scrutiny, and to adopt those we once found erroneous. Third, how to live lovingly. We don’t want to impart only knowledge, but also “power.” It’s been said that “knowledge is power.” That’s not what I mean. The apostle Paul associates power, ironically, with Christ-crucified, that which the world views as ultimate weakness. But in the crucifixion was not weakness, but God’s power, the power of love, the power of self-sacrifice. Paul contrasts this love with “knowledge,” knowledge, that is, that inflates the self, elevating the self above others. This is the opposite of God’s power. All other kinds of power rely on dominance. Dominance does not transform, but only restrains the lesser powers. The power of Christ crucified, and life so conformed, is the only kind of power that is ultimately transformative.