In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sam Boyd, a CU Boulder scholar of Biblical studies, dove into the study of religious texts ‘so I know what I’m talking about’
When he tells people about his research, Sam Boyd is often met with perplexed looks and questions. But why are you studying the Bible? Don’t we know everything there is to know already?
But the University of Colorado faculty member simply smiles and explains that while the Bible is extremely popular — it’s the world’s best-selling book of all time — it’s still ripe for exploration.
“The answer is always, ‘No, we know next to nothing about it still,’” said Boyd, an assistant professor of religious studies and Jewish studies.
Perhaps that’s why Boyd, who also serves as the director of undergraduate studies for the Program in Jewish Studies, is such a productive scholar — he’s driven by an intense curiosity and the desire to solve what he describes as a “really interesting, sophisticated puzzle” in understanding the Bible.
Case in point, he’s in the process of writing his second book, which is based on an article being published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies this spring about the Tower of Babel passage in the book of Genesis. This year, he was also a member of the inaugural cohort of fellows in the Research and Innovation Office, a prestigious new program that seeks to build and enhance scholarly leadership across campus.
Beyond that, fellow professors say Boyd is a congenial colleague who is dedicated to service within the department and building bridges to other disciplines. As a teacher, Boyd is “inspiring and challenging,” forcing students to think critically about widely accepted views of the Bible, said David Shneer, chair of the religious studies department.
This well-rounded faculty member, who became CU’s first Biblical scholar when he arrived in the fall of 2015, is already considered a rising star in his department and across the campus at large.
“He’s unbelievable, and we’re really, really lucky to have him,” said Nan Goodman, director of the Program in Jewish Studies. “He’s really ramped up the intellectual rigor of the department, both for the students and among his colleagues. His scholarship is meticulous and innovative and he has really shed a huge amount of light on what the Bible is as a text.”
Boyd didn’t always want to become a professor — in fact, when he was a kid, he dreamt of growing up to be Indiana Jones. He studied economics and American history as an undergraduate at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and was working at a bank when a series of conversations caused him to rethink his career path entirely.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Boyd remembers having happy hour debates with his coworkers about Christianity, Islam and other religions. But for Boyd, these after after-work conversations went much deeper.
“I thought, ‘I should go read these texts so I know what I’m talking about’ and I just got hooked — that’s what led me on this journey,” he said.
He earned a master of divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary before earning his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2014. Today, he uses more than 20 languages to study ancient texts and gain a better understanding of the conversations Biblical scribes were having with the world around them through their writing.
“The basic question I ask is, ‘Where did the Bible come from? Why did people start writing it?’” he said. “People think of the Bible as just a book you pull off the shelf at Barnes & Noble and it’s always kind of looked like this, and that’s not the case.”
Though religion can be a polarizing issue, Boyd has made a point of reaching out to pastors, rabbis and imams in Colorado to introduce himself since arriving at CU Boulder from Chicago three years ago. He said he hopes his work can help spark a constructive dialogue that transcends political and religious differences.
“I am not out to tell people whether God exists or whether there’s one or many gods or whether God is a man or a woman — that is not what I do,” he said. “I’m interested in the people walking around in the ancient Near East whose thought is reflected in what becomes the Bible, the very real issues of what it means to be human in the world.”
Because interpretations of Bible passages are referenced so frequently in popular culture, political discourse and everyday conversations, Boyd and his colleagues say they believe it’s more important than ever to understand what this book actually says.
“Whether it’s the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh or whether it’s our presidential election, it’s important for us to get it right and be responsible with it, whether we’re religious or not,” Boyd said.
The topic of his forthcoming journal article and book provides a perfect example of why Boyd’s research into ancient Biblical texts is so relevant today.
Traditionally, the Tower of Babel story has been interpreted like this: People attempted to build a tower that reached heaven, but were stymied when God caused them to speak different languages and scattered them across the earth.
In the modern era, politicians and pundits have used this interpretation in debates about immigration reform, arguing that multilingualism is a sign of God’s curse and should be avoided at all costs; a similar interpretation also appears in literature and art. For example, Pat Buchanan, who unsuccessfully ran for president three times in the 1990s and early 2000s, has cited the Tower of Babel story to argue against multiculturalism in America. Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor who made an unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid, used “Tower of Babel” to criticize Democrats’ love of diversity in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.
But based on his analysis of the syntax and the order of Biblical chapters, Boyd argues that the story is not about language at all.
“When we take the Tower of Babel story and put it in its ancient Near Eastern context … Syrian kings would talk about ‘one mouth’ as a political metaphor,” Boyd said. “It had nothing to do with everyone speaking the same language, but was about political unification and fragmentation against authority. And boy, if we’ve gotten that story wrong, that has a big impact on people’s political metaphors, a big impact on art history, on literature.”
In essence, much of Boyd’s research can fundamentally change the way we think about the Bible and call into question long-held notions about morality, human behavior, diversity and other topics.
These types of research revelations from Boyd consistently impressed the 12 other inaugural Research and Innovation Office faculty fellows, a cohort of early to mid-career tenured and tenure-track professors who were identified as leaders in research, collaboration and systems thinking.
The first group of participants in the new program spent 2018 forming cross-campus relationships, improving and developing leadership skills, setting professional goals and discussing the significance of their roles within the university community and in society at large. The second cohort will begin the fellowship in January 2019.
“Most of the faculty in the program were mesmerized whenever Sam spoke because he had such a breadth of understanding of humanity and history through his studies of the Bible,” said Kirsten Rowell, program director for the fellowship program. “We had a really broad group of intellects in the program, and we were all thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to understand more.’”