My Current Life
My name is Tim Seid. I am currently Associate Dean & Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies at Earlham School of Religion, a Christian theological seminary in the Quaker tradition. I have been there since 2001. In my role as Associate Dean, I maintain the institutional websites, manage institutional publications, direct the distance learning program (ESR Access), and handle student services. As a professor I teach two courses per year in New Testament studies. These courses rotate among Romans, Philippians, James, Hebrews, Gospel of John, and Jesus as Sage. My primary research interest has been in understanding the context of earliest Christianity as it developed among Jews and gentiles who were influenced by the Hellenistic culture -- most significantly in language, rhetoric, and philosophy -- in the early Roman empire. My Ph.D. is in Religious Studies (History of Religions: Early Christianity) from Brown University, where I studied with Stan Stowers. I've been swayed by his research and writing related to rhetorical studies, to the importance of interpreting early Christian writings in the light of Hellenistic philosophy, and to, what has been called, the radical New Perspective on Paul.
During the spring of 2013 I will have been on sabbatical and working on a project combining my three main interests in life (besides my wife and five daughters, their significant others, including my two grandsons). One area is the study of what has been called psychagogy, the philosophical practice of the "leading of the soul." The second area is my work with technology and the development of this social community website I'm calling Soul Share, where I envision people will learn about and practice this form of "Christianity." The third area is ministry. Twice I have served as a part-time pastor of a "programmed" Quaker meeting, one in southeastern Massachusetts and one here in Indiana.By combining these areas of interest, experience, and skill, I hoping to create something that will have an impact on the lives of many people around the world. On a recent trip from Indiana to Pennsylvania with a colleague, I excitedly and exhaustively (or exhaustingly) described this project and its rationale for nearly ten hours: all the way there and all the way back. Because this way of interpreting -- or reinterpreting -- early Christianity and this way of living as a follower of Jesus is so different and complex, I have a great challenge to explain to you its rationale and its practice. Here I feel the need for you to know who I am in order to understand why I think as I do and perhaps to trust me long enough to invest your own time and energy in thinking about what I have to offer.
My Early Years
I grew up as a "preacher's kid" (PK) along with my older brother and sister. Both my father and mother were graduates of Moodly Bible Institute. My mother had intended to become a missionary to Africa. My father had been sent off my his home in the upper peninsula of Michigan to go to Detroit to work. He tells of a conversion experience after which he never drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes again. I can say that I have never heard him once use a curse word. From Moody my father became interested in Dispensationalism and Bible prophecy. He served in Baptist and Bible churches in Aurora, IL, Noble, IL, St. Anne, IL, New Era, MI, and Whitewater, WI.
As a very young boy, I had a sense of calling, in spite of my antics during church services. During a missions week service, "while heads were bowed and eyes were closed," I raised my hand when the missionary asked who was willing to commit their life to God and go to the mission field. At a pizza party after church, the adults had a good laugh at my expense. I did at some point go to my mother to ask her how I could be saved. I remember she had her Bible, maybe she read the verses of the "Romans Road," and then I prayed the words as she recited them to me. As a PK I was in church whenever the doors were open. There were many experiences of going to a summer Bible camp at which many of them by the end of the week I had renewed my commitment to be a good Christian. It wouldn't last for very long after returning home.
Somewhere in my junior year of high school I had a spiritual renewal and a commitment to serve God. My fellow-students and my teachers in high school began to notice a big change in me. Instead of telling dirty jokes during class time, I began reading books like "The Bible as History" during lunch break. I began to do homework and took classes like Bible as Literature, a speech class in which I gave my first sermon, and a creative writing class in which I wrote a short story about romance and Christian conversion. I was a late bloomer in high school, but I found something that excited me. Yet, I felt like the ups and downs of my younger spiritual life were now near daily occurrences or at least weekly. I would determine on Sunday that I would live for God and I would repent of my teen-aged sins. But during the week I would fail to live up to the conservative Christian moral code in which one must have not only pure actions but pure thoughts. I didn't really understand much more about the Christian life than to read the Bible, pray, go to church, and don't sin. The most memorable aspects of Christian teaching were about the fact that at any moment Jesus could return to rapture the church from this world which would inaugurate the seven years of tribulation followed by the 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth. We were warned about every world leader, who just might turn out to be the anti-christ or any world-wide organization composed of ten entities who might be the ten toes of Daniel's prophecy. Each New Year's Watch Night service was ended with thoughts of how this might be the last year.
In spite of the imminent return of Jesus, I still made plans to attend Bible school. Rather than attend Moody in Chicago, I decided to enroll at the Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music (GRSBM, now defunct), where I would be much closer to my girlfriend, who would become my wife after three years. I worked hard at learning to study. I did a remedial course in English grammar and struggled through several years of Greek. I wasn't at the top of my class, though I did ultimately become a co-winner of the senior thesis award. At the center of our studies was always dispensational theology a la C. I . Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and John Walvoord. After graduation and a wedding, I decided to complete college by going to Grace College, a Grace Brethren college, also known for its belief in dispensationalism. I had every intention of finishing seminary there as well in order to go into the pulpit ministry.
I would spend two years at Grace to complete a B.A. in Biblical Studies. I took a couple of science courses, an English lit class, a couple of history classes, and one math class (a summer class in Probability & Statistics, which I wouldn't have passed if we hadn't been allowed to use the book to refer to formulas and to have a calculator). I had a failed attempt to learn about computers by taking a class in the Basic programming language. I immediately fell in love with the idea of using a computer, but I didn't have the math skills to understand the type of programs we were expected to write. What really excited me was getting to learn Biblical Hebrew, to do a Greek reading class in extra-biblical Greek, to take a class in philosophy and one in logic, and to get introduced to ancient civilizations. By the second year two experiences changed the course of my life. One was that I did so poorly in my class on Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations that the teacher wouldn't let me do the independent course I proposed on the Hittites. I had thought I was going to specialize in the Old Testament; it was that day that I began to become a scholar of the New Testament. I also became fascinated with the Hellenistic world. I dreamed of going on to graduate school in Classical Studies. Instead, we had our first child and I had to take a job with the company I was working for and spend a year planning my next move.
It was during this time that I went through a period of struggling with the issues of sin, morality, and conscience. For whatever reason, I became interested in smoking a pipe. This experience was a crucial point in my development. My conservative Christian upbringing taught me that things like drinking and smoking were sinful. Yet I no longer believed that these acts were fundamentally sinful. But the evening during a trip when I decided to buy my first pipe and tobacco -- a Dr. Grabow cheapie with Captain Black tobacco from a drug store -- I felt in my "conscience" like I was there to rob the place. In fact when I went back to the car and filled the bowl and tried to light it, I couldn't get it to work. I sucked and sucked on that thing and it wouldn't light. I gave up and we went to our motel to check in. This was one of the first times we had ever stayed in a motel -- besides on our honeymoon. When the woman registering us asked, "Do you smoke," I nearly fainted. I lied -- not really a lie, since I didn't actually inhale any smoke -- and told her, No. After we returned home I discovered that the hole hadn't been drilled all the way into the bowl.
Another story illustrates the point I want to make. A sister-in-law came to visit. She and my wife were going to go out for awhile. I lit up my pipe, but within a few minutes I heard the car returning. My sister-in-law had forgot her purse. I quickly got rid of the pipe. As she walked in the door, she exclaimed, "Are you cooking cabbage?" I don't know if it was then or some other time that I had a crisis of conscience: I dumped the tobacco down the toilet and threw the pipe into the neighborhood dumpster. The real crisis came later. My mind tells me there's nothing that makes smoking a pipe intrinsically sinful and evil. The conscience is not an infallible guide but an ingrained way of feeling. I was determined not to live my life based on perceptions and attitudes about right and wrong that were not rational to me. When I did stop smoking a pipe, it was because it was no longer convenient to do so and I became more aware of the danger of oral cancer.
The year following college graduation, we lived in northeastern Indiana. It was an extremely difficult period in our lives. One experience was particularly significant. We attended a Bible church in the area. The pastor was a friend of my father, and it happened to be the home church of my second roommate at GRSBM. I did my best to fit in, though by this time my rebelliousness and caused me to be sporting a beard. We became members of the church and then learned that they were trying to hire a youth pastor. Being eager to serve in ministry and desperately in need of finances, I applied for the position. They hadn't been able to find someone, so they offered me the position. They had been reluctant to do so because my beard was an offense to their Christian standards. So I shaved off my facial hair. When I was told the board had approved me for the position, I was told that they would not, however, be paying me since I was already a member of the church. I don't remember when I regrew my beard, but I haven't shaved it off completely ever since.
After a year of working as an area manager for a custodial service and then as an ESL teacher, I was accepted at Wheaton College Graduate School in Wheaton, IL, the bastion of evangelicalism, the home of the Billy Graham Center. I poured myself into the study of New Testament archeology, history, textual criticism, and Greek exegesis. I cared little for the religious aspects of campus life. I only attended one chapel service, and that was when Billy Graham had just returned from his famous and controversial trip to the Soviet Union. During my time at Wheaton, my classes still had an emphasis on eschatology, only now it was the study of Jewish apocalyptic. I was astounded to discover that they were many texts of the "intertestamental" period which had apocalyptic language very similar to Daniel and the Revelation. I became interested in the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (History of Religions school) of 19th century Germany -- mainly because it was presented as the school of thought to be opposed rather than embraced. It was also during this time that I came into contact with several authors of books that would come to be highly influential on me. One author was Martin Hengel, whose book Judaism and Hellenism I had already read. Along with his book The Atonement: The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament, I also read the published Harvard dissertation by Sam K. Williams, Jesus' Death as Saving Event: The Background and Origin of a Concept. My eyes were opened to a different way of interpreting early Christianity. Rather than interpreting it theologically based on our synthesis of Christian thinking, we could make sense of our texts by placing them in their historical and literary context within the Hellenistic world of the early Roman empire. The other important text was the watershed work of John Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity. While I was still interested in the Hellenistic context, I was also reading books like Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism and Davies' Paul and Rabbinic Judaism.
It was during this time that I began looking for a Christian denomination in which I would feel at home. After a few attempts, we ended up one Sunday morning at a Baptist church. I expected to be getting dirty looks for walking in to the church with a beard. It turned out that this Baptist wasn't like the Southern Baptist; it was an American Baptist Church USA (ABC/USA). It was what I had been looking for. Not only did we become members, but I also decided to go on from my M.A. at Wheaton to get an M.Div. from the local ABC seminary, then called Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, IL -- just up the road.
I was supposed to be able to transfer credits to Northern and graduate with an M.Div. in one year. At Fall orientation I learned that they had changed their policy and it would now take two years. Even though I had tested out of Introduction to the Old Testament at Wheaton with a perfect score (I had even found an error on the test), Northern was going to make me take an intro class. I did and am glad I did, since the approach to the Hebrew Bible was much different than what I had learned in Bible school. I developed a bad attitude about being there. Rather than being able to doing field work in a church as a pastor, I got stuck with teaching a junior high Sunday School class. I began looking for doctoral programs. No one thought I would ever get into a doctoral program. I didn't get into my top choices, but there was one that was beyond my hope. An Ivy League school; Brown University. And I got accepted. There had been a student at Wheaton College with whom I worked in the third shift custodial crew, who scoffed at the notion that I could be in a doctoral program. Years later, after he had done an M.A. at Yale, he applied to Brown and visited campus. Imagine his surprise and my delight to see him again. It was my poetic justice when I learned he had not been accepted at Brown.
My plan was go to Brown, study Hellenistic Judaism and to write a dissertation on Hebrews. Jacob Neusner, a prolific author, was teaching at Brown, as well as someone I hadn't heard of, Horst Moehring. Alas, it was not to be. Prof. Moehring became ill during the summer and passed away. And I was counseled that I might not want to put my graduate school career in jeopardy by trying to take a class with Neusner. I think it had been wise counsel, though I admire his work. The closest I got to Neusner was the Saturday evening, when I was doing a text formatting job for a professor in the Judaic Studies department building. The door was closed, but I recognized Neusner's voice in the hallway. After a brief conversation, I heard his office door close. For five minutes I heard the sound of rapid typing, and then he left. I can only imagine that he had just written another book.
For the next five years or so I took classes at Brown. My primary study was in the seminars led by Stanley K. Stowers. Although I am still in debt to the school, I am deeply indebted to the type of research Stan exemplified. He could be, as a fellow-student described him, taciturn, he guided us into the study of Greek rhetoric and philosophy as well as an approach to Paul for which Stan has become notable, primarily in his A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. I was hungry to learn about Hellenistic philosophy, though at the time I had little capability for it. I even tried taking a class in Epicureanism taught by none other than Martha Nussbaum, but I ended up dropping it. Her book The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics has been a crucial text for my understanding. What I wouldn't give for that opportunity again. The department hired a series of visiting professors during this period, all of whom were internationally-renowned scholars in their field.
I would like to say that my time at Brown was prolonged by my involvement with computers. This was the first time for me to get my hands on a personal computer. Apple was just getting started -- there was the original Apple Lisa in the closet of the graduate student room. I learned how to operate a computer, how to do word processing, and computer programming. I became friends with a group of graduate students in the Computing in the Humanities Users Group. Allen Renear, now professor and interim dean at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, took me under his wing and encouraged me in my study of text processing on the mainframe and on PCs. My LinkedIn profile lists the work I did during that time. In addition to the paid work, I also created tools for research and teaching. using primarily Apple's HyperCard program but also working in languages like Rexx, Pascal, and a little C++. An original Hypercard stack Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts lives on as a website.
Another irony of my life is that I spent no time during my course work having anything to do with the New Testament book of Hebrews. I became interested in the the study of classical rhetoric through the rhetorical handbooks and the elementary exercises (progymnasmata). Stan mentioned synkrisis (comparison) as a possible topic of dissertation research. He meant in Paul, but I recognized its occurrence in Hebrews. Largely on my own I set out writing a dissertation on Hebrews 7 to show how comparison functioned in the Melchizedek passage. My original plan came true, to some extent. No one had thought I would be able to finish my degree, especially when I had to take a four year's leave of absence to work. I worked much of that time as a typesetter and graphic artist at a print shop with a division creating fundraising booklets for police and fire departments around the country. After quitting that job finally, and finishing my dissertation, I started working at a kinko's in the computer services department. I began to learn more about desktop publishing and working with graphics. I created countless numbers of resumes -- for people who listed word processing as a specialty -- and two or three times that many for myself.
I had a deep crisis during this period, one that literally brought me to my knees. I came to reaffirm my evangelical upbringing and became a conservative, at least theologically and politically. I had thoughts about ministry once again and did a great deal of pulpit supply for American Baptist churches in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts. I was not able to be accepted into ordination, however, without going back to seminary -- after getting my Ph.D. There was no way I was doing that! But there were no teaching jobs when I came into the market.
During the summer of 1996 I came across an ad in the Providence Journal for a small Quaker meeting in southeastern Massachusetts looking for a part-time pastor. My wife had developed quite a good career in scheduling home health services at several companies. By this time we had five daughters, who would have to leave their schools and friends. I took a full-time job at another kinko's as a computer services manager, while serving the meeting part-time. Most days I felt like I did more ministry at work and did more computer work as a pastor, writing sermons, letters, creating a website, and printing and mailing a monthly newsletter.
There were some ways in which becoming a Quaker was an easy transition and in other ways is was difficult. Having been an American Baptist for over ten years had helped me to become more used to the social activism and to more liberal theology and practices. While the particular meeting I was at was largely traditional, the regional body, New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM), was a representative of what is typical for the umbrella organization, Friends General Conference. I became aware of a more moderate group, Friends United Meeting, located in Richmond, Indiana, where there were other Quaker organizations, including Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion (ESR). It took some time getting used to the liberalism and even anti-Christian attitudes I experienced, not to mention the shock of some that I was a pastor -- a "hireling" -- in a Quaker meeting.
For a few years, while attending the annual sessions of NEYM, I would meet the dean of ESR and talk with him about any open positions there. Finally, one year he contacted me asking whether I felt I had experience with distance education and teaching online. I had recently converted my ancient manuscript material to a website as part of my appointment at the Scholarly Technology Group at Brown. I also had a job as a content expert developing materials for an online course company.
Earlham School of Religion
After three years of success with the distance learning program, I received an appointment as assistant professor and began to teach two courses a year in New Testament studies. My main focus of interest was teaching a course on what I called Pauline Psychagogy. A fellow-student at Brown, Clarence Glad, had written a massive dissertation, which was edited down to a 430 page book and published as Paul and Philodemus: Adaptability in Epicurean and Early Christian Psychagogy. I began to follow the work of scholars who were interpreting Paul through the lense of Hellenistic philosophy, such as Abraham Malherbe, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, John Fitzgerald, L. Michael White, Loveday Alexander, Luke Timothy Johnson, and, of course, Stan Stowers. As I've said, I read several times the book by Martha Nussbaum, but was also interested in the translated work of Pierre Hadot, such as Philosophy as a Way of Life : Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault as well as the work of Ilsetraut Hadot in her contribution "The Spiritual Guide" to the volume Classical Mediterranean Spirituality: Egyptian, Greek, Roman in the series World Spirituality.
For a few years I served again as a part-time pastor of a Quaker meeting. Many of my sermons emphasized the concepts of Stoic philosophy and psychagogy. I would have been better accepted, I'm sure, if I had stuck to telling touching stories. On one occasion I remarked, when beginning a quotation of Cicero, "I'm sure you're looking forward to hearing this." My family heard the patriarch of the meeting mutter, "Not necessarily." I took advantage of this opportunity to preach my way through the book of Hebrews. I published the edited messages as something of a scholarly devotional in The Second Chance for God's People: Messages from Hebrews.
In 2008 I spent a month of my six-month sabbatical participating in a National Endowment in the Humanities Summer Seminar, "Identity and Self-Representation in the Subcultures of Ancient Rome" led by Eleanor Leach (Ruth N. Halls Professor of Classical Studies at Indiana University) and Eve D’Ambra (Professor and Chair of the Department of Art at Vassar College) at the American Academy in Rome. My focus of interest was on how philosophers were depicted in art within Roman households. I began researching the topic of philosophical advisors in households. I was not able to visit the famous Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, when we visited there and at Pompeii. Philodemus of Gadara, the subject of my colleague's dissertation, had been a philosopher-in-residence, and much of the library there, including works of Philodemus, have been unearthed from the effects of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. I did, however, get to give a presentation on Paul as a philosophical advisor in the Villa of the Papyri room in the Museum of Naples.
The other part of my sabbatical was spent teaching a course on Hebrews at the Bethlehem Bible College. I fell in love with Palestine and the Arab people and their language. I was fortunate to have other funding I could use to pay for a personal tour guide and travel to interesting places in the West Bank and in Israel. By this time I had reached the conclusion that the efforts to tie Paul to an inchoate rabbinic Judaism was a non-starter. I don't even know why someone would assume it to be the case in the first place. But for many Jews and Christians it is vitally important to their causes to see Paul as a precursor to the rabbinic figures of the second century and beyond. For many of these the Hebrew connection between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus is Qumran, another interesting place I got to visit.
Here is a very important statement by E. P. Sanders, the North American scholar, who nearly single-handedly, for the English-speaking world, advanced the idea of Paul working from a Palestinian Judaism (as opposed to a Diaspora or Hellenistic Judaism, which I consider to be a misnomer), in which Sanders admits the validity of seeing Paul within a context of a Hellenistic Judaism. This comes near the end of his talk at a conference in celebration of his life's work:
"I am nevertheless sorry that I ... did so little in Greek-speaking Judaism. In this connection, I should return to the question of the sources of Paul's thought. Troels Engberg-Pedersen recently indicated to me that he expected me to oppose the work that he and others have done on Paul and the Stoics. That is not at all my attitude. I compared and contrasted Paul to the Jewish literature that I had studied, with no intention to claim that he relates only to it, or that he derived all of his ideas from it. I am incompetent to treat Paul's sources thoroughly, since I am incompetent to compare him to Greco-Roman material. If I had two decades ahead, with as much energy as I had in my thirties, forties, and fifties, I would love to take up this issue."
Several years ago I participated in the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature. I had an opportunity to talk with Stan and told him, "I get it now. I only wish I could know what I know now and go back to graduate school and do it all again." He replied, "So do I." Now I take it he meant himself and not that he wishes I could do my graduate work again at a more satisfactory level.
There are two things I'd like you to know about me. One has to do with my wife of 33 1/2 years. For the past half dozen years or so we have been dealing with her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. I would like to think that we have modeled in the way we deal with her illness the concepts I describe in Soul Share. I think that's fair to say. For my part, in January 26, 2012 I had bariatric surgery. Nearly a year later I have lost over 180 lbs. I have thought about this process as working on myself. I'm continuing to eat healthy and exercise, while exercising my mind as well.
I have just begun a six-month sabbatical from Jan. through June 2013. My main project is this combination of my three interests in life: to argue for a reconnection to ancient philosophical practices as a form of Christianity, to develop what type of Christian philosophical life that would be and how someone would go about engaging in philosophical exercises in order to mature toward a goal of a divine, flourishing life following the teachings of Paul and the example of Jesus, and to create a social community website in which people learn about and engage in these practices, forming communities of friendship and living transformed and empowered lives.