Meet Your Professor: Eric Ottenheijm

In Meet Your Professor we will introduce you to the new teachers of seminars and courses at NOSTER. In this fourth episode, we introduce dr. Eric Ottenheijm (UU), who will teach the Research Seminar on Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity.

How did you get to where you are today, academically? What path did you walk?

Born in Limburg (Sittard), after finishing high school, I moved to Amsterdam for my love and a home, much like the young Jacob. I studied theology and Judaica at the former Catholic Theological University in Amsterdam (now TST, Tilburg/Utrecht). In my second year, we had lectures from Rabbi Prof. Yehuda Aschkenasy (1923-2011), and after two classes, I knew that this field would be my future. It wasn’t so much what he said since Yehuda was not a classical scholar. But the sometimes elusive language he used in teaching and the questions he asked fascinated me. I realized that in living Judaism there was something of a religious language that Christianity had once been a part of. That intuition would gradually expand to include other traditions and also encompass culture. I think that was mainly due to the open way of dealing with questions. It was accompanied by a Chassidic-tinged mysticism of human greatness and uniqueness, and a notion of responsibility that was not automatically labeled as failing or guilty. His teachings went beyond the necessary correction of theological anti-Judaism. Since then, the study of Judaism has remained related to the study of early or contemporary Christianity for me. It’s no wonder that my bachelor’s thesis was dedicated to the Rabbinic concept of faith (“Emoena”), and in my master’s, I investigated the Rabbinic and early Christian blessings over wine and bread during meals. From that time, I have developed a lasting love for what religion has to say about everyday life and for the “normal mysticism” of sharing meals, observing, and listening.

In my current context within Religious Studies in Utrecht, this understanding of religion (“lived religion”) extends to a critical reflection on religion in modernity and “secular” thought regimes, an insight for which I am grateful to my colleagues in Utrecht. Unfortunately, pseudo-theological and anti-Jewish stereotypes are still prevalent here, and in my teaching, I try to teach students to recognize and analyze them. Of course, that does not prevent objective criticism of existing religions. Although that is primarily a task for theologians and religious officials, I see myself as a bridge between both approaches.

One unique aspect of Yehuda, as his students called him, was that he used to invite specialists from Israel every year to give study weeks and lectures on Talmudic topics. Since 1985, I studied with Chana Safrai (z”l) and her father, Shmuel Safrai (z”l), who taught me the more literary and socio-historical study of Rabbinic sources (Mishnah, Midrash). I started my dissertation on the halachic disputes between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai (2004) under Chana Safrai’s guidance, but after her departure from the Netherlands, I completed it under the supervision of Prof. Judith Frishman and Prof. Piet van der Horst. Since 1993, I have also been a lecturer at Fontys University of Applied Sciences, teaching Talmudic studies and Biblical exegesis, and between 1994 and 2004, I was a study advisor for the Catholic Council for Israel and an advisor to the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. My scholarly work is not disconnected from that interreligious dialogue. Since 1996, I have been actively involved in the Ojec, where I organized study weekends for Jews and Christians for ten years. Interreligious communication has been an integral part of my work since my encounter with Yehuda.

What kind of research do/did you do and why? Which result do you remember the most?

I have always had a particular fascination with the remarkable role that Christian sources play in the development of Judaism itself, particularly in the transition from early Jewish to Rabbinic traditions. This goes significantly beyond thinking in terms of ‘Jewish roots,’ a concept that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s but has become problematic since then. Sometimes, it is precisely Christian sources that present the older variant, while at other times, practices or beliefs develop in parallel and in a shared world. Nowadays, we think less in terms of canonical uniqueness and have become more critical of our often hidden notions of religious or cultural superiority. Nevertheless, the intuition to think in terms of exchanges, borrowings, or mutual influences and interactions, always with a focus on lived praxis, developed during my studies but existed earlier in the work of the Israeli historian Gedaljahu Alon. It can also be found in contemporary thinkers such as Jacob Israel Yuval or Daniel Boyarin and his students Annette Yoshiko Reed or Christine Hayes, from the theories of interactionism and social linguistics. No religion is an island, as Heschel once stated, and that applies to both the past and modernity. My own research primarily focuses on two areas: the Gospel of Matthew in the developments of the first century, particularly with a focus on legal interpretation (halacha). One of my most exciting projects was a study of the vehement anti-Pharisaic polemics in Matt 23, a text that has become a breeding ground for Christian anti-Judaism. However, what I demonstrated here, by relating the text to archaeological data and debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, is how Matthew still fits completely within a sectarian Jewish landscape as we know it from the Second Temple Period. The synergy of data from textual and material culture surprised me. ‘Christians,’ I believe, were virtually indistinguishable from other Jews at that time, especially not for Romans or other outsiders. The second area is broader and covers the genre of parables. Since 2013, I have been researching how this genre of rhetorical miniature narratives develops in early Judaism, in interaction with both Greco-Roman fables and the Biblical Wisdom tradition, and how that genre is manifested outside the Jesus parables in the numerous Rabbinic parables. The Jesus parables are part of the same early Jewish narrative culture to which the Rabbinic parable also testifies. Here too, I enjoy searching for echoes of material culture, playing the role of Sherlock Holmes in search of interactions with objects, spaces, landscapes, inscriptions, coins, or texts. This rhetorical-realist approach to parables is highly appreciated by my colleagues in Germany and Israel. Recently, I have also been looking at the impact of parables in antiquity and modernity, as my research on the inn of the ‘Good Samaritan’ demonstrates.

Which themes will you cover in your module at NOSTER?

The course takes Judaism and Christianity as a bridge in approaching religion in a Late Antique context. We will critically examine some fundamental concepts through essays: what shapes our historiographic perspective and research questions, what thoughts on canonicity influence the selection and approach to texts or other source materials, how do we understand terms like ‘Judaism/Jewish’ or ‘Christianity/Christian’ in our research, what is religion and how does it relate to the social and the political, and what relationships can we envision between ‘things’ (material culture) and texts or concepts? The interesting aspect is that some of these questions have been debated for quite some time, for instance, since Seth Schwartz’s seminal book “Imperialism and Jewish Society,” while others are more recent. In this way, we are building bridges between generations of scholars.

Why is your module at NOSTER so fun/interesting? What appeals to the participants in the module?

The Late Antique period is a significant, albeit not the final, formative period in the development of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What makes it unique is that we find the original texts that continue to serve as references or justifications for practices and beliefs to this day. Undoubtedly, there will be students participating who possess more or more accurate knowledge in their own specialized field than I do. I hope to learn from those students and to share in what inspires them; I look forward to that. However, in the course, they will also be challenged by me and other students to reflect on the questions that consciously or perhaps unconsciously drive their research. Engaging in this process, as I have learned, cultivates a new maturity that, in the spirit of Levinas, should be inherent to researchers themselves. Whether we interpret this maturity in religious terms or not is less relevant; what matters is that we embark on a search for what deeply fascinates and engages us. In the confines of this course, we can and should exchange thoughts on these matters.

What do you notice about your students? Do you notice certain interests, perspectives or working methods that are characteristic of this generation of theologians/religious scholars?

What a wonderful question! I, of course, am now a bit older and a senior researcher. Well, what strikes me about students and young researchers is their boundless enthusiasm, openness to what may seem “different,” and their strong engagement with societal issues. My teacher back then had, in my opinion, a somewhat melodramatic faith in the “young generations,” but I can now only agree with that sentiment. The approach of current students is rarely limited to their own religious tradition; it is methodologically intra-cultural and multi- or sometimes interdisciplinary, with a keen awareness of the colonial and Eurocentric hegemony in language and analysis, and a sharp eye for the methodological limitations (gender, social, ecological) of the previously dominant concept of identity in religious studies or theological research. In other words, the perspective has definitively shifted from a fixation on classical religious institutions to the role of religion and religions in the breadth of society. This broader perspective is also crucial and highly fruitful for historical approaches.

What advice would you like to give to young researchers in religious studies/theology?

Never let anyone or anything take away your curiosity about a phenomenon, and never hesitate to ask questions.