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

The Ninevites’ fast and the prayers upon Jonah’s arrival are still observed today by Christians in a service called Ba’utha, or the Fast of Nineveh. While Duke Ph.D. student Nathan Hershberger was working in northern Iraq, he witnessed and participated in this reenactment of the 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 congregants reenact these prayers during the time of ISIS’s attacks prompted me to wonder more about suffering and practices of interpretation, not just in Iraq but a variety of contexts and a variety of forms of suffering,” Hershberger said.

Hershberger spent three years in the region 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 course that would lead him to Duke to research the significance of suffering for biblical interpretation.

Hershberger is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in religious studies, specializing in Christian theological studies. He’s focused on how Christians “have read the Bible when it is connected to something deeply painful they’ve suffered.”

His research has centered around studying three religious cases to draw conclusions about the religious significance of suffering: contemporary Palestinian Christian interpretations of the narratives of Israelite conquest in the Hebrew Bible; Anna Jansz, a Protestant martyr; and the 1816 autobiography of a formerly enslaved person, John Jea.

Differences in Biblical Interpretations

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

Approaches by scholars studying this topic have traditionally assumed that biblical narratives in the Hebrew Bible about the Israelite conquest and occupation of the West Bank would be difficult for Palestinian Christians to read because the texts seem to justify their displacement. During his research, however, Hershberger realized that these texts weren’t as difficult for some of the various sects of Palestinian Christians to read because the Bible was interpreted differently due to each sect’s approach and views of the texts.

For Syriac Orthodox Christians in Palestine compared to Protestant Christians, the way the Bible was incorporated into their liturgy showed that it was less difficult for the Syriac Orthodox Christians to read about the justified occupation by the Israelites, Hershberger said, drawing on the ethnographic research of Mark Calder. He noted that Syriac Orthodox Christian worship incorporates more collective chants of passages and scripture, whereas 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 are doing things like chanting psalms and other scripture passages, it's easier for them to identify as ‘Israel,’ ” he said. “When they are all chanting a psalm together, they're participating in scripture in a different way. But when Protestants, especially evangelicals, approach it, it is more intellectualized. They have to make a leap between what the text is, what it means, and how it speaks to their life.”

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

“The text of the Bible doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is always experienced through specific practices that mediate it,” said Hershberger. “Reading the Bible well when it is difficult is a struggle, and part of that struggle is sorting through which practices help heal traumas and which practices do not.”

Shifts in Perspective and Belief after Failure

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

“I'm an Anabaptist, which is a small Protestant group,” Hershberger said. “Anna Jansz was an Anabaptist, too—part of the first generation of its founders when it originated during the Reformation in Europe. So, part of what drew me to a focus on her was a desire to reckon with 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 overthrowing of the Holy Roman Empire. That same year, the group of radical Anabaptists took control of a city in Germany from the empire.

After the city was reclaimed and the apocalypse that she and others predicted had not occurred, Jansz was executed by drowning in 1539 for her connections to the group of radicals. Before she was executed, Jansz produced more writings—including letters to her infant son—where she spoke less of the dramatic transformation that she had once hoped for and more of a long-term change after seeing the apocalypse not happen.

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

Achieving Freedom through Biblical Text

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

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

In Jea’s writing, he recounted a moment in which the Bible “talked” to his enslaver, but not to him as he could not read. Jea wrote that he was then taught to read the Bible by an angel to help him counter the interpretations of the Bible that his enslaver used to justify enslavement. Jea was ultimately able to use the Bible’s teachings, which he was now able to read, as a justification to achieve his freedom in the 1780s.

“What was most interesting about this moment in the text is how well it symbolizes the way the Bible is implicated in certain kinds of oppression and simultaneously a source of liberation,” Hershberger said. “Specifically, here it demonstrates the way the Bible is not only bound up with white supremacy but also Black liberation. Tracing that ambivalence—in a variety of cases—is what my project is all about.”