Jack Tannous, an associate professor of history and Hellenic studies, assumed his position as chair of the Committee for the Study of Late Antiquity on July 1. In this Q&A, Tannous shares a bit about himself and his plans for the CSLA in the midst of an academic year that is shaping up to be unlike any other.
How long have you been involved with the CSLA?
I did my Ph.D. at Princeton and when I was a graduate student, I regularly took part in Peter Brown’s Group for the Study of Late Antiquity (GSLA) events. When I came back to Princeton to teach in 2012, Professor Brown had retired and the CSLA had begun as a successor state to the GSLA. I have been actively involved with CSLA since I started teaching here.
How does your research pertain to the CSLA?
I am very interested in everything late antique, but I study the Greek, Syriac, and Arabic- speaking Christian communities of the Middle East in the late antique and medieval periods, especially around 500-1000. So my research is geographically eastern and chronologically towards the later part of late antiquity.
Do you have any fond memories of the CSLA and/or its affiliates?
In Professor Brown’s GSLA, he would have these seminars on Sunday afternoons where a scholar would be invited to present on his or her work and they would be questioned by people in the seminar at length. There would always be a break for refreshments and Professor Brown would say that we would come back and “hammer” the presenter with questions in the second half. But in the second part of the seminar, there was never any hammering or confrontation. Quite the opposite. It would invariably turn into a conversation between Professor Brown and the presenter about their work. It was an amazing intellectual experience to watch Professor Brown discuss someone’s research and to see how his mind worked and the way he approached and thought about different issues. It was an education to be able to witness those exchanges.
When I came back to Princeton to teach, I also started up the CSLA graduate book group. As a graduate student, I had taken part in the last series of John Gager’s “Jesus Chats,” a lively book group he ran in the Religion Department, but which stopped with Professor Gager’s retirement. I wanted to revive that tradition. The CSLA book group is now run by a committee of students, but initially, I would run the meetings. We would eat pizza and debate different books and it was great fun. When you have a group of very smart people working on a variety of different topics, the conversations are always very rich; I always learn so much from the graduate students.
What plans do you have for the CSLA, virtually or when on-campus activities resume?
AnneMarie has really done an amazing job with CSLA and I hope to continue what she has set up—the regular lectures on a broad variety of topics, the lunches for graduate students with visiting scholars, the CSLA graduate student book group, and more.
One thing I am hoping to do is to get CSLA involved in supporting some new initiatives to create online teaching resources to help secondary school and college teachers incorporate pre-modern history into their curricula. I am hoping we can find ways to share what we do here at Princeton in late antiquity with the broader public.
What’s one book you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?
This past summer, we had a Christian Arabic reading group that met every other week and read parts of various medieval Arabic texts written by various authors. One week, we read some of Ibn al-Ṭayyib’s (d. 1043) Tafsīr al-Mashriqī, a commentary he wrote on the Gospels. The text hasn’t been properly edited and is only available in a rare early 20th-century edition done in Egypt but it is absolutely fascinating. If you are familiar with medieval Qur’anic commentaries, reading it will very much remind you of that genre, but it is a Christian text, so reading it is a bit of a surreal experience—the form is of one type but the content is different. And even though Ibn al-Ṭayyib writes in Arabic—he says that he writes it in Arabic because if he wrote in Syriac, not everyone would understand it—he’s very much part of the East Syrian exegetical tradition and in many ways, represents the end (and culmination) of the Antiochene tradition of biblical exegesis that goes back to people like Theodore of Mopsuestia in late antiquity.
Commenting on the famous passage in Mark (13:32), where Jesus says that no one, not even the Son, knows the time of the end of the world, only the Father, Ibn al-Ṭayyib says that Jesus actually did know the time, but didn’t tell people. Jesus was being like a crafty physician, Ibn al-Ṭayyib says, who tells a patient what’s best for them for their own good. He says that if Jesus had told people that he did know the time of the end, but refused to tell them what it was, they would have imputed bad motives to him. Conversely, if he had told people that the end of the world was still a long ways off, they would have been lazy.
These are not the sort of exegetical moves that I think most people have seen made or are accustomed to, which makes reading the text a wonderful exercise in defamiliarization. The Tafsīr al-mashriqī is definitely something I would recommend to others to read and study.