Alan Segal, scholar of St. Paul, has died
Alan Segal’s expertise was in first-century Judaism and Christianity and I came to know his work through his book “Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee,” which I thought was a fascinating piece of scholarship. It illuminated issues of conversion in Paul’s time and ours. I dipped into some of his other writings as was my journalistic wont, and was always impressed by his effort to explore new ways of looking at settled issues. (Which made his seemingly dogmatic opposition to tenure for an anthropology professor, Nadia Abu El Haj, all the more confounding.)
I mention Segal’s passing (he died on Feb. 13) also because I found out about it from a post at Time.com by Joe Klein, which he titled “The Rivers of Babylon.”
A decade ago, after the endless and empty Bush-Gore presidential campaign, I decided that I’d had enough of journalism and quit my job as Washington Correspondent for The New Yorker to write books and chill for a while. As a transition to my new life, to take a break and clear my mind, I enrolled in several classes at Columbia University. The best of these was First Century Judaism and Christianity, taught by Alan Segal of the Barnard faculty. I’d always been interested in the Jesus story: it had taken the Jews and Greeks a thousand years to build their respective foundation myths; the Christians had done it in two generations–how on earth had that happened? (For a faithless deist like me, there had to be, you know, reasons.)
As it happened, I was enraptured from the moment I entered class to the strains of The Melodions’ reggae version of the 137th Psalm, “By the Rivers of Babylon.” This was lesson one: the events that transpired in the first century had their roots in the Jewish Babylonian exile. Segal was a delightful lecturer, a world-class Pauline scholar (he believed that Paul, one of the only Pharisees who wrote, had as much to tell us about ancient Judaism as he did about early Christianity). There were several memorable lectures on the social and political forces that accompanied the birth of Christianity. But on the essential question of what Jesus was really all about, Segal was content to show us a clip from the movie Ben Hur, where Charlton Heston is being marched through the desert as part of a chain gang. They reach a small town. As the Roman guard kneels down to rest, a shadow passes across his face. He looks up at a man–Jesus, obviously–offering him a ladle of water; the guard’s eyes widen and soften; he is transfixed, then transformed, dissolved into kindness: born again, perhaps. “I imagine it was something like that,” Segal said. “Some of us may have met people who inspired us, though perhaps not to so great a degree. Each of us will interpret it as we will.”
The sheer, simple brilliance of that observation has never left me.
That strikes me as the kind of tribute any teacher would cherish.