Graduate Student Symposium: In Search of the Gnostic

I am very excited to invite you to our graduate student symposium called "In Search of the Gnostic."  This symposium is being hosted by the graduate students in my Gnosticism Seminar this semester.  They will be delivering the papers they have been preparing all semester. 

I am very proud of them and their push into new areas of study.  As you can see from the poster, they are working in all areas, from new feminist readings of classic gnostic myths to the fictionalization of gnosticism in the writings of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges to the gnostic turn in the writings and practices of the Tibetan teacher Longchen Rabjam.  We will be visiting gnosticism across the globe from the Jordan River, to China, to South America, to Colonial Pennsylvania.

The symposium will take place on Wednesday, April 19, 8am-12pm, in the Kyle Morrow Room, Fondren Library, Rice University.  It is free and open to the public.  Coffee and donuts will be provided.

Matthew Dillon defends "The Heretical Revival"

An announcement.  My graduate student, Matthew Dillon will be defending his dissertation on April 18, 12-2:30 pm, 215 Humanities Building, Rice University.  This event is open to the public.  He has written a book called "The Heretical Revival: The Nag Hammadi Library in American Religion and Culture."  Since I am one of the judges, I cannot present my opinion at this time - but only announce that it is happening.

Early Christian Controversies Conference

I just put together the poster for the research conference that has come out of the seminar I taught this semester on Early Christian Controversies.  We are looking forward to sharing our work.  I will be opening the conference with a paper I developed this semester called Traumatic Mysteries: Modes of Mysticism Among the Early Christians.  Franklin Trammell will be delivering his Rockwell Post-Doctoral Lecture, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Jerusalem Church.  Our Keynote Address will be delivered by Kelley Coblentz Bautch (St. Edward's University, Austin), Eve and the Feminine Mystique/Mystic.  Join us if you can.

Graduation congratulations

Graduation was this past weekend at Rice.  Rice has a wonderful tradition of the new doctors being hooded by their mentors.  It was a very special ceremony for me, hooding my first too students, who are now on their way as new PhDs., Dr. Franklin Trammell 2007 and Dr. Grant Adamson 2008.

Here are some photos commemorating their graduation.  Photos were taken by various members of their families.

Four of Rice Religious Studies PhD graduates: Dr. Jonathan Chism, Dr. Franklin Trammell, Dr. Daniel Brubaker, Dr. Grant Adamson, and me.

Four of Rice Religious Studies PhD graduates: Dr. Jonathan Chism, Dr. Franklin Trammell, Dr. Daniel Brubaker, Dr. Grant Adamson, and me.

Dr. Grant Adamson

I am very proud of Grant Adamson who just successfully defended his dissertation.

Christ Incarnate

How Ancient Minds Conceived the Son of God

The idea of Jesus’ pre-existence was developed circa 30-50 CE, and it did not necessarily differentiate believers in him from other Jews. The idea of his virgin birth was developed circa 70-90 CE as a defense against reports of Mary’s early pregnancy. Parthenogenesis was itself novel within Second Temple and early Judaism, and its harmonization with the previously developed idea of Jesus’ pre-existence differentiated proto-orthodox Christians from Jews. It also differentiated them from other Christian groups. Historical-critical methods cannot get at the details of this harmonizing thought process. Blending theory explains how the two separate ideas of Jesus’ pre-existence and virgin birth were harmonized and how the doctrine of Incarnation through parthenogenesis emerged: blended spaces have emergent structure and meaning that are not reducible to input spaces. Incarnation through parthenogenesis is not reducible to the ideas of Jesus’ pre-existence and virgin birth, any more than it is reducible to Paul and John, Matthew and Luke, Jewish or pagan literature. It was a new idea that emerged from the blending of two separate ideas in the second century and has since been taken for granted as it became proto-orthodox and then orthodox Christian doctrine.  Furthermore the cognitive theory of minimal counterintuitiveness suggests why the doctrine was historically successful: concepts that violate one or two expectations, such as the concept of a pre-existent Jesus who is incarnated through virgin birth, have mnemonic advantage over other concepts that violate no expectations or too many of them.

Dr. Franklin Trammell

I am very proud of Franklin Trammell, my first student to finish his thesis and graduate from the Bible and Beyond program at Rice.   Yesterday he defended his dissertation on the Shepherd of Hermas.  His thesis is called (

Re)growing the Tree: Early Christian Mysticism, Angelomorphic Identity, and the Shepherd of Hermas

.  He has illuminated the religious landscape of Roman Christianity, reconstructing a very old form of Christianity that is not only mystically-oriented, but from Jerusalem.  He has done what no one has been able to do.  Outstanding.  Congratulations Dr. Trammell!

End-of-the-Year Symposium

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Mapping Death

The Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Research Seminar



Keynote Speaker

Jeffrey J. Kripal

The Traumatic Secret

Bataille and the Eros of Death


April 23, 9 am-5pm

Fondren Library

Kyle Morrow Room

Master of Ceremonies


Graduate Student in Religious Studies: Bible and Beyond

Order of Events

9 am-9:55 amWelcome and Opening Address

APRIL D. DECONICK, Rice University

Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies

Death Journey as Star Journey: The Ophian Crux Resolved

Q & A

10 am -10:55 amFRANKLIN TRAMMELL, Rice University

PhD Candidate in Religious Studies: Bible and Beyond

Death, Ascension, & (Re)building in the Shepherd of Hermas

Q & A

11 am-11:55amGRANT ADAMSON, Rice University

Graduate Student in Religious Studies: Bible and Beyond

Dressed for Death: What do Genesis and Plato have to do with the Vehicle of the Soul?

Q & A

12 pm- 1 pmLunch break

1 pm-1:55 pmKeynote Address

JEFFREY J. KRIPAL, Rice University

J. Newton Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought

The Traumatic Secret: Bataille and the Eros of Death

Q & A

2 pm-2:55 pmMATTHEW J. DILLON, Rice University

Graduate Student in Religious Studies: Gnosticism, Esotericism & Mysticism

Initiation by Imagination: Death and Rebirth in Carl Jung’s Red Book

Q & A

3 pm-3:55 pmADRIANA UMANA-HOSSMAN, Rice University

PhD Candidate in French Studies

Death and Afterlife: Nomadic Wanderings in French Caribbean Literature

Q & A

4 pm-4:55 pmREBECCA GIMBEL, Rice University

Graduate Studies in Anthropology

Memory, Fear, and Resistance: Death as a Life Force in Contemporary Haiti

Q & A

4:55 pm- 5pmAdjournment

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Rice Graduate Studies

Preparing for Graduate Studies

I receive many inquiries regarding what preparations are needed for students who are considering applying for the PhD program in Bible and Beyond at Rice. Matthias Henze (Syriac specialist) and myself are the advisors in this program. If you want to work on Syriac materials and early Jewish pseudepigrapha, Professor Henze is the person to contact ( If you want to work with me in Coptic materials, this is how you should prepare yourself for the application.

1. Get a MA in a strong academic program in biblical studies, classics, near eastern studies, or early christian studies. Why? Because our PhD program is only a 5-year program. When you come to work in this program, this will be the point you specialize in the Coptic materials. There is not enough time for you to lay down all the foundational work that is necessary for you to have in biblical period, literature and languages, and then to also add the Coptic materials to your repertoire. The Coptic materials are not a substitute for the biblical corpus. They are simply more pieces to the puzzle of the early Christian period. They are important pieces indeed, and necessary for any historical understanding of the biblical period and the formative years of Christianity. But the biblical materials must be mastered first.

2. Second-year competency in Greek (preferably classical) and Hebrew (biblical).

3. Reading knowledge of French and German can be obtained in the first two years of our program, but it will behoove applicants to have at least one of these secondary research languages mastered before arriving on campus.

4. A plan to work on Coptic materials or Greek extra-canonical materials as a dissertation project, with the intent to try to understand what these materials tell us about Christian origins and early Christianity.

5. A commitment to the critical and academic study of religion.

6. Contact me, preferrably a year to six months before your application is submitted, so that we can begin discussing your interests and goals, and whether or not working at Rice is your best option.

The Bible and Beyond

One area of concentration in the Ph.D. program at Rice is the program in Biblical Studies. The major components of this program include the traditional study of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament within the historical context of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, while also acknowledging the rich and diverse literature beyond both canons. These include the Old Testament and New Testament Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi and Gnostic literature, and patristic literature from the Ante-Nicene period.

In recent years, biblical scholars increasingly have come to realize the importance of this literature “beyond the Bible,” not only because it helps shed light on the canonical writings, but also because this material is valuable in its own right. Importantly this literature reveals to us that the richness of Judaism and Christianity was far greater than that expressed in the canonical literature.

While the study of Jewish and Christian history and literature are disciplines in and of themselves, they are seen and studied together at Rice. A student may elect to emphasize either tradition, but the study of both is required.

The goal of the program is to train students to work independently on texts of their choice, to eventually become professors and scholars in the history, literature and interpretation of the Testaments and related literature. To do so, students will (1) become familiar with the history of the discipline, (2) learn the historical-critical method of interpretation supplemented by other methods used in the field, (3) gain linguistic proficiency in the relevant ancient languages, (4) study primary texts, and (5) become conversant in the history and material culture of antiquity.

Gnosticism, Esotericism, Mysticism

Traditional understandings of religion often focus on events, figures, and ideas that are more or less amenable to orthodox framings of what constitutes religious truth and practice. But what if we do not privilege these public “winning” voices, but look also at those heterodox or esoteric currents of the history of religions that have been actively repressed, censored, or simply forgotten by their respective cultures? What if, moreover, we privilege the psychology and phenomenology of religious experience over the authorial framing of these events by the faith traditions, even as we explore and analyze the profound ways the faith traditions shape these same “individual” experiences?

The comparative categories of mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism are all modern constructs, each different in nuance but all designed to ask just these sorts of dialectical questions, to relate orthodoxy to heterodoxy, and vice-versa.

This area of concentration in the Ph.D. program at Rice provides students the opportunity to study the varieties and commonalities of mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism as these phenomena are both shaped within and marshaled outside (or even against) discrete religious traditions. The Department’s approach to the study of mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism is grounded in the rigorous study of single traditions, to the extent that it demands distinct philological and historical training in particular cultural areas. It is also explicitly comparative, to the extent that it draws on multiple traditions—from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to Hinduism, Buddhism, and the New Age—for its comprehensive materials and theorizing.

The goal of the program is to train students to work independently on traditions of their choice and, eventually, to become professors and scholars in the study of religion. To do so, students will (1) become familiar with the histories and nuances of the comparative categories of mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism in the discipline; (2) gain linguistic proficiency in relevant languages; (3) study primary materials, including texts and practices; and (4) become conversant in the history and material culture of their chosen traditions. The result is a unique community of scholars and graduate colleagues actively engaged in the historical-critical, psychological, philosophical, aesthetic, ritual, somatic, contemplative, and phenomenological exploration of some of the most intense, unusual, and interesting religious phenomena known to scholars of religion.