Dr. Heath A. Thomas, President and Professor of Old Testament, Oklahoma Baptist University
Why do you love teaching and researching about the OT/HB?
Despite its antiquity and strangeness, the Old Testament exposes and illumines the modern world with familiarity and insight precisely because those ancient texts help us understand what life is all about. Through story, proverb, prophecy, and poetry, the Old Testament presents what it means to live well, what is right and wrong with the world, what the good life looks like, and how to navigate a broken world. And, the Old Testament engages the human condition in a way that sets human beings always and ever in relation to the God of Israel, the great One with whom humans must deal. Insights from the ancient wisdom of the Old Testament frame meaningful human action in the world today.
What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?
I find my research is haunted by the theological vision of the Old Testament, particularly the poetics of its story-telling and its theological freight. I return to the focus on poetics, theology, and the human condition again and again. It may be resonant in my scholarship because of my training in English Literature and critical theory at my alma mater, Oklahoma Baptist University. But whatever the case may be, I want my students to catch the theological vision of the Old Testament by attending to the poetics of the text; once they do that, then they will begin to sense how the text enlivens the human condition.
Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them? (1 paragraph)
One of my academic heroes is Prof. J. Gordon McConville, who was at Oxford for a number of years and then at the University of Gloucestershire. I caught up with him at Gloucestershire and he was the primary supervisor for my doctoral work (Paul Joyce, then at Oxford, was my second supervisor). Both Gordon and Paul were wonderful. I resonate with Gordon’s work precisely because he attends to theological questions by close readings of the biblical text, all the while informed by the most recent global scholarly engagement on those texts. His instincts were informed, no doubt, by his doctoral supervisor, Gordon J. Wenham, who I count as my doctoral “grandfather.” I so appreciate how Gordon and Gordon uncompromisingly drive back to the poetics and theology of the text, engaging global scholarship, with an ever-present eye to what God is saying to the ancient and modern worlds.
What books were formative for you when you were a student? Why were they so important and shaping?
Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).
Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Ethically (OTS; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000).
As you can see, it is hard to narrow down to two or three works for me! I mention these four works because each taught me how to read the Hebrew Bible with different lenses and with sensitivity. Law and Theology reminded me that a close read of the biblical text attends to, focuses upon, and explores theological questions. Story as Torah helped me understand how to read biblical narrative and how to ask questions about the ethical import of biblical texts (especially difficult texts). Berlin’s work (as in all her fantastic scholarship) helped me read poetry and attend to biblical questions attentive to the texture of the text: how it is that the lines of poetry and prose are composed. She helped me deal with the Hebrew Bible as literature, defamiliarizing it from my prejudgments. Something similar could be said of Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, which I found to be a towering work of literary criticism, unavoidable for biblical scholars (and not just Old Testament scholars). I agree with the accolades given to Sternberg’s work: it is brilliant. Sternberg and Berlin remind me that the Old Testament presents sophisticated, complex, intelligent, and nuanced literature that must be interpreted with literary sensitivity.
Read Thomas’s Work
Heath A. Thomas, Habakkuk (THOTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018)
Heath A. Thomas and Bruce R. Ashford, The Gospel of Our King: Bible, Worldview, and the Mission of Every Christian (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).
Follow Thomas Online
If you ran into me at SBL, and you didn’t want to talk about OT/HB studies, what would you want to talk about?
I think I would talk about one of three things: family goings-on (I have two high-schoolers and two grade-schoolers and my wife and I are partners in crime), leadership and higher education (I serve as President of OBU), or literature and criticism (which I love to read…I am into the work of Christian Wiman, Rita Felski, and Matthew Mullins right now). If we were in a city that was close (like Denver!) I would want to duck out of SBL and go fly-fishing, as that is a great passion of mine.
What is a research/writing project you are working on right now that you are excited about?
I am finalizing, with Craig Bartholomew (another great hero of mine!), a theological introduction to the Minor Prophets. We have been working on this steadily now for a number of years. This is a labour of love and an exciting volume that will assess the big-picture question of the unity (compositional, theological, thematic, redactional) of the Minor Prophets in the light of the most recent scholarship, the theology of each individual book, and brief explorations of pertinent texts. The goal is to read the Minor Prophets as a theological text so as to hear God’s voice in and through them, attending to the literary, historical, and theological questions the texts raise. This includes reading the Minor Prophets in the light of Jesus (or, Jesus in the light of the Minor Prophets!). Finally, I am working on a number of separate projects, as well: a commentary on the Minor Prophets (Baker Academic), monograph on Lamentations (Bloomsbury), and an intro to the Old Testament (Baker Academic), and these are progressing steadily. I am grateful for the work!