Contributed by Stan Zygmunt, Director of News and Media Relations, The University of Scranton
A travel course meant to engage students in the present-day lives of Christians living in the Holy Land has led to a new perspective regarding the ancient religious texts researched by The University of Scranton Theology Associate Professor Michael G. Azar, Ph.D. Here, he shares how his course, Christianity in the Middle East, deepened his theological scholarship in unexpected ways.
“The focus of my scholarly work has mostly been the Biblical and patristic periods, but I started this travel course because I was also interested in current Jewish-Christian relations in the Holy Land,” Dr. Azar said. “Now, the contemporary experience informs my scholarship in ways I didn’t really expect. The book I am currently writing on Orthodox Christianity and Jewish-Christian relations focuses not just on ancient theological sources, but also incorporates contemporary Christian-Jewish interaction in the Holy Land.” He never thought he’d be doing both in the same project.
Dr. Azar’s early research focused on the New Testament and the way Christians and Jews interacted with one another in the first few centuries after Jesus.
His first book, “Exegeting the Jews: The Early Reception of the Johannine ‘Jews’” (Brill, 2016), examined Greek patristic readings of the “Jews” of St. John’s Gospel.
Through his research, Dr. Azar began to realize that much scholarly work has focused on Jewish-Christian relations from Western perspectives. What he found missing was the interaction that has existed in the Holy Land for the past 1,500 years.
“I am focusing on ways Orthodox Christians in the region continue to interact with or speak about Jews in the period between the early church to the founding of the State of Israel,” Dr. Azar said. “Since the 600s, Christians and Jews in the Eastern Mediterranean region have generally shared the experience of living as subjected communities. In Western civilization, Christians were the dominant community. When you shift the focus to that of Eastern Christians living with Jews as subjected communities, that changes your perspective. With the State of Israel, Jews, for the first time in centuries, are the dominant community.”
Dr. Azar is a deacon in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and a National Endowment for the Humanities Faculty Fellow at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. He also is among the organizers planning the 11th bilateral dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Jews planned for late 2022.
Dr. Azar’s parents are from Lebanon, so the Christian communities in the Middle East have always been part of his background, but not part of his scholarly work. During his dissertation research as a doctoral student at Fordham, Dr. Azar spent some time in Jerusalem. There for a few months, he had the opportunity to interact with local Christian communities. He also noticed that most tours of the Holy Land lacked this interaction and did not benefit these communities. That planted a seed in his mind for a travel course.
“The pilgrimages focused on Jesus, but not the people living there who bear his name,” he said, noting that the tour groups “treat the Holy Land as a museum, visit the prominent sites only and do not interact with the local Christians who live there.”
Dr. Azar designed the travel course at Scranton to overcome that critical missing piece.
“The travel course, Christianity in the Middle East, does take students to the holy sites, but the main focus is to allow the students to get to know the local Christian communities,” Dr. Azar said. Not only their history and statistics, he adds, but also their everyday lives. “We visit with Christians operating nonprofits,” he explained. “We also visit a Christian-founded brewery. By doing this, we introduce ourselves not only to local Christians but more broadly to Palestinian culture as well, because the vast majority of Christians living there are Palestinian.”
Dr. Azar notes that until he started the course a few years after arriving at Scranton, his research focused on ancient texts. Through this course, though, he began to realize that contemporary relationships have a tremendous effect on the way scholars understand the ancient world.
His current project, “Orthodox Christianity and the Reframing of Christian-Jewish Relations,” examines the ways in which Orthodox Christianity’s history, hermeneutics and contemporary expression in Palestine and Israel can redefine the academic field of Christian-Jewish relations. His research is supported through a Faculty Fellowship at the Gail and Francis Slattery Center for the Ignatian Humanities at The University of Scranton and through a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Grant from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Biblical Association.
Dr. Azar’s travel course is also having a ripple effect with his students. Sofia Zingone, a philosophy major at Scranton and a student fellow at Scranton’s Gail and Francis Slattery Center for the Ignatian Humanities, participated in the travel course in January of 2020. Now a junior, she is working on a project to explore ways to incorporate the Christian community into tours of Bethlehem.
“The course Christianity in the Middle East, which included my travel to Jerusalem with Fr. Azar, was the inspiration for my project,” Zingone said. “The most touching part of the trip was when Fr. Azar took us to a Greek Orthodox Mass spoken completely in Arabic. Connecting with the community of this church was very moving, and after Mass, we spoke with members of the community over coffee. It was truly amazing to spend time with a Christian community in the Holy Land, a place so important to the Christian traditions. Being able to talk and relate to Christians from a very different part of the world was a unique and genuine experience.”