Newell Scholar explores impact of women in early Christianity

Story and photos developed by University Communications.

A renowned scholar on Christianity is visiting Georgia College & State University to help further his research about the impact of women on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Dr. James McGrath, an expert on Christianity and this spring’s Martha Daniel Newell Visiting Scholar, is teaching a course this semester based on his recent book, “What Jesus Learned From Women.”

McGrath is developing the new course and plans to take it back to Butler University in Indiana, where he is a professor of religious studies and the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature.

Dr. James McGrath giving a recent presentation on the flow of information.
Dr. James McGrath giving a recent presentation on the flow of information.
“Dr. McGrath was chosen as the Spring 2023 Newell Scholar because of his vast scholarship and disciplinary reputation on the subject of early Christianity, a topic that we believe would be of great interest to our students,” said Eric Tenbus, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

“He has a tremendous teaching and publication record and joins us after having spent a semester on sabbatical at Oxford University,” Tenbus said. “We’re very excited to have someone of his academic record bring his expertise on this important and exciting topic.”

Scholars have visited and shared their unique expertise since 2011, when the Newell Scholar program was established with an endowment from alumna Martha Daniel Newell, ‘42. The program provides opportunities for students to engage, learn from and work alongside recognized scholars from other distinguished higher education institutions.

We’re very excited to have someone of his academic record bring his expertise on this important and exciting topic.
– A&S Dean Eric Tenbus
McGrath is the 11th Newell Scholar to visit. His course, “Women in Early Christianity,” has been well received by students.

“I’ve gotten a good reception here,” McGrath said. “There’s been a lot of academic curiosity and faith-related interest in this subject.”

He grew up in New York City in a mixed-faith family where one parent was Irish Catholic and the other Jewish. As a teenager, he began to question things and had a personal, religious experience which led to his decision to study more. He got his undergraduate degree at the University of London and Ph.D. from the University of Durham, both in the United Kingdom.

McGrath came to Georgia College because it’s a vibrant, liberal arts school similar to Butler University. Also because it’s a place where his “wide diverse range of academic interests” would have “conversation partners.” There may not be a large number of religious studies majors here, he said, but “they’re enthusiastic and doing interdisciplinary, creative things.”

The course is based on McGrath’s belief that some areas of the bible might’ve been misinterpreted. Much emphasis has been placed on the divinity of Jesus, he said, while ignoring the humanity. Because Jesus was human, McGrath said, he must also have had to learn. He points to a biblical passage that states Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52).

From there, McGrath makes the case Jesus learned from the women around him—most notably his mother, Mary. Some concepts in the Magnificat, which Mary professes to her cousin Elizabeth before Jesus’ birth, are later repeated by him. For example, Mary states the mighty will be brought low, and Jesus later teaches the first shall be last.

These texts have proven to have depths to them that, when you dive in and start swimming, you find there is more.
– Dr. McGrath
“These texts have proven to have depths to them that, when you dive in and start swimming, you find there is more,” McGrath said. “You can’t be born knowing everything and be fully human. Presumably, the best of humanity has to be open to learning and growing.”

Other women McGrath teaches about this semester are the Samaritan Jesus meets at the well, Mary and Martha, and the woman brought to him by the Pharisees, accused of adultery.

McGrath came to his conclusions by asking questions, then delving into untranslated works in Spanish and Italian—in addition to regularly-read texts in French and German.

“When I started looking in the gospels, I realized it had been there all along, but I had not really seen it,” he said. “One of my biggest takeaways from this book project is if we don’t ask these kinds of questions, then we miss things.”

While teaching his course on women and Christianity, McGrath is also working on two new books about the life of John the Baptist—one for academic consumption and the other for general readers.

One of his duties as the Newell Scholar is to plan programs for campus and the community.

McGrath already hosted a visiting speaker, Professor Susan Hylen from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. In February, she spoke about her new book, “Finding Phoebe.” Phoebe was the New Testament woman who delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans.

On Feb. 28, McGrath gave a talk on the ethics of information flow. He talked about whether the computer on Star Trek is better than Google and the new chatbot, ChatGPT. A Trekkie, McGrath sought to make the talk fun. He examined whether simple answers given by the Star Trek computer are preferrable to millions of results from a Google search.

“I’m not sure it’s utopian to get one short answer,” he said. “But, on other hand, so much information out there today is misinformation and easily spread.”

“My short answer—from someone who thinks way too much about these things—is: If you’re on a starship, and you often encounter crisis situations, then you want to be able to ask the computer and get a quick answer,” McGrath said.

At Butler, McGrath mainly teaches biblical studies. But he’s branched out into other areas too—merging religious themes with modern science fiction and music.

In light of that, he’ll also moderate a panel of campus speakers in April. From religious studies, history, mythology and other disciplines, they’ll talk about the importance of studying popular culture in academia.

I consider it a real privilege to be able to spend a semester as the Newell Scholar. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming.
– Dr. McGrath