Occupation, martyrdom and slavery: Hershberger explores religion and suffering

January 24, 2022

A 17th century book engraving Martyr’s Mirror, representing Anna Jansz of Rotterdam, one of the figures studied by Nathan Hershberger.

By Hailey Stiehl

In the famous biblical story of Jonah, God told the prophet to go to the city of Nineveh to preach the word of God to the people. When Jonah disobeyed and went to another city, his ship was sunk by a God-sent storm, but he was spared by a whale that swallowed him. Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale before God ordered the whale to release him to Nineveh. When Jonah arrived, the citizens of the city listened to him, repented, and fasted.

The Ninevite fast and prayers at the arrival of Jonah are still observed today by Christians in a service called Ba’utha, or the Nineveh fast. While Duke Ph.D. student Nathan Hershberger was working in northern Iraq, he witnessed and participated in this re-enactment of prayers by an ancient indigenous Iraqi Christian denomination known as the Church of the East. The experience solidified his interest in theological studies.

Nathan Hershberger
Nathan Hershberger

“Watching these worshipers perform these prayers at the time of the Islamic State attacks made me wonder more about the suffering and the practices of interpretation, not only in Iraq, but in a variety of contexts and a variety of forms of suffering,” Hershberger said.

Hershberger spent three years in the area from 2014 to 2017, working as a long-term volunteer teaching English and social studies at two schools run by the Chaldean Catholic Church. Although he had some interest in religious studies, his experiences in Iraq sparked a desire to study religion and set him on a path that would lead him to Duke to research the significance of suffering. for biblical interpretation.

Hershberger holds a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in religious studies, specializing in Christian theological studies. It focuses on how Christians “have read the Bible when it is connected to something deeply painful that they have been through.”

His research has focused on studying three religious cases to draw conclusions about the religious significance of suffering: contemporary Palestinian Christian interpretations of the accounts of the Israelite conquest in the Hebrew Bible; Anna Jansz, a Protestant martyr; and the 1816 autobiography of a former slave, John Jea.

Differences in Biblical Interpretations

Hershberger found one of the most surprising moments of his research studying Palestinian Christian interpretations of the Israelite conquest narratives.

Approaches by scholars studying this subject have traditionally assumed that the Hebrew Bible’s biblical accounts of the Israelite conquest and occupation of the West Bank would be difficult for Palestinian Christians to read because the texts appear to justify their removal. During his research, however, Hershberger realized that these texts were not as difficult to read for some of the different sects of Palestinian Christians because the Bible was interpreted differently due to approach and vision. texts from each sect.

For Syriac Orthodox Christians in Palestine compared to Protestant Christians, the way the Bible was incorporated into their liturgy made it less difficult for Syriac Orthodox Christians to read about Israel’s justified occupation, said Hershberger, drawing on the ethnographic research of Marc Calder. He noted that Syriac Orthodox Christian worship incorporates more collective chanting of passages and scriptures, while Protestant Christian worship focuses on finding individual meaning in scripture or sermons.

“What this means in practice for my exploration of Palestinian Christians and the Bible is that because the Orthodox do things like sing psalms and other passages of scripture, it is easier for them to relate to ‘Israel,'” he said. “When they all sing a psalm together, they participate in Scripture in a different way. But when Protestants, especially Evangelicals, approach it, it’s more intellectualized. They have to jump between what the text is, what it means and how it speaks to their life.

In the process of researching differences in worship practices between Palestinian Christian sects, Hershberger realized how these different practices affect the larger issue of biblical interpretation.

“The text of the Bible does not exist in a vacuum, but is always experienced through specific practices that mediate it,” Hershberger said. “Reading the Bible well when it’s hard is a struggle, and part of that struggle is sorting out which practices help heal trauma and which practices don’t.”

Changes in perspective and belief after failure

The second case in Hershberger’s research concerns Anna Jansz of Rotterdam, who is used as an example of how Christians sometimes turn to apocalyptic ways of reading the Bible in circumstances of suffering. His interest in researching Jansz as part of his work stemmed from a more personal note.

“I’m an Anabaptist, which is a small group of Protestants,” Hershberger said. “Anna Jansz was also an Anabaptist – she was part of the first generation of its founders when she was born during the Reformation in Europe. So part of what led me to focus on her was a desire to consider of a problematic aspect of my own tradition.

Jansz was connected with a group of radical Anabaptists who believed in the imminent return of Christ in the apocalypse. In 1535 she wrote a hymn that used apocalyptic interpretations of biblical themes to describe the radical overthrow of the Holy Roman Empire. That same year, the group of radical Anabaptists took control of a city in Empire Germany.

After the city was reclaimed and the apocalypse she and others predicted did not occur, Jansz was executed by drowning in 1539 for her connections to the radical group. Prior to her execution, Jansz produced more writings – including letters to her infant son – where she spoke less of the dramatic transformation she had once hoped for and more of a long-term change after having saw the apocalypse not happen.

“What interests me about her is that the biblical passages of apocalyptic hope (like the book of Revelation) that inspired her apocalyptic anthem are still important to her even at the end of her life – they just have a different meaning,” Hershberger mentioned. “I’m interested in this process of shifting interpretation: how was it for her to feel like the biblical promises had failed, as she understood them, and then to continue to trust them?”

Achieving freedom through the biblical text

In the summer of 2021, Hershberger was awarded one of the Graduate School’s Summer Research Fellowships. He spent the summer writing and researching the life of John Jea, one of his research case studies.

Jea was born in Africa and kidnapped by slave traders who brought him to America. As punishment, he was once sent to church by his slaver, but soon became a devout Christian who was later baptized.

Cover of John Jea's autobiography
Cover of John Jea’s autobiography

In Jea’s writing, he recounted a time when the Bible “spoke” to his slaver, but not to him because he could not read. Jea wrote that he was later taught to read the Bible by an angel to help him counter the interpretations of the Bible his slaveholder used to justify enslavement. Jea was finally able to use the teachings of the Bible, which he was now able to read, as justification for gaining his freedom in the 1780s.

“What was most interesting about this moment in the text is how much it symbolizes how the Bible is implicated in certain types of oppression and simultaneously a source of liberation,” Hershberger said. “Specifically, it shows here how the Bible not only relates to white supremacy but also to black liberation. Tracing this ambivalence – in a variety of cases – is the focus of my project.

Michael A. Bynum