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Focusing on a Dead World

Photograph by Mark Philbrick

Combining his studies in Greek and Latin with his passion for Near Eastern history and the New Testament, Professor Eric Huntsman, the current Ancient Near Eastern studies (ANES) coordinator, is running a program that helps students gain a broad understanding of the civilizations of the ancient Near East and the languages of the Bible, with a focus on the history, literature, religions, and cultures of Middle Eastern countries from 3,000 BC to AD 640.

Originally a premed student, Huntsman intended to be a doctor or a lawyer, but an honors course called Greek Through the New Testament and a Pearl of Great Price class taught by Hugh Nibley developed within him a burning excitement for the ancient world, which eventually changed the course of his education and his career. “My initial interest in Greek was for the New Testament,” he recalls. “Once I got into Greek, I fell in love with the whole ancient world and the classical world in particular.”

It was Huntsman’s passion and that of other professors with similar interests in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the ancient world that began the development of the ancient Near Eastern studies major. There was already a Middle Eastern studies major and religious education to study the Bible, but Huntsman and others wanted to create a program that would provide an academic study of the Bible. They decided to create a new program that focused on the history, culture, and language of the Middle East. In 2005 the program was formed, and Dana Pike became the first coordinator.

The major draws from four departments: Comparative Arts and Letters, History, Asian and Near Eastern Languages, and Religious Education. The program is housed in the Kennedy Center. “But it’s different from all the other area-studies programs,” Huntsman points out, explaining the challenge of finding study abroad programs, “because it’s about ancient cultures and civilizations—in short, dead rather than living peoples.” While students are encouraged to go to the Jerusalem Center for the cultural experience, they aren’t required to travel to the Middle East. There are, however, a few internships available through archeological digs and fieldwork. “We are trying to expand opportunities for students to do internships at biblical history museums,” he assures.

With or without a study abroad or an internship, ANES students learn critical reading, thinking, and writing skills that prepare them to pursue graduate work, academic careers, library science programs, and other opportunities. This program also provides additional and relevant information for students who want to teach seminary or institute for the Church Educational System. “About a third of our majors actually go on in biblical studies,” explains Huntsman, and he names Chicago, Princeton, and Berkeley as some of the top universities for graduates to continue their studies. “Some of our students go into law school or other programs. Also, we are getting an increasing number of our students who are interested in foreign service.”

Near East Versus Middle East

The Near East and the Middle East are the same geographic area. The only difference is ancient versus modern. “In the ancient world,” Huntsman says, “what is now the Middle East was considered near Europe, but as Europeans’ understanding of the world grew to include the Far East, it became known as the Middle East.” The study of the Near East is the study of “ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Israelites and Jews, and Greeks in the Near East.”

Common Misconceptions About the People

“I think many Palestinians get painted with a broad brush, which is patently unfair,” Huntsman says. “Most of the Palestinians we know are lovely people. What a lot of people don’t know is how many Palestinian Christians there are, and the Palestinian Christians are not originally Arabs. They are Arabs by culture and language now, but they are actually the descendants of the Christians in the Holy Land who were there before the Arab invasions in the 600s. They have this amazing history. They believe in Jesus like we do. They have been worshiping there since Peter and Paul.”

Must-Sees of the Middle East

“Obviously everything in Jerusalem is interesting, but my favorite part of the Holy Land is actually Galilee,” admits Huntsman. “Even though there are fewer archaeological sites, it’s the landscape itself. In fact, sometimes my students would say it’s easier to imagine Jesus being there on a hillside in Galilee than it is where we have five layers of churches that they built on top of each other in the middle of modern Arab Nazareth.”

The Greatest Secret of Europe and the Mediterranean

According to Huntsman, Turkey is the greatest secret in Europe and the Mediterranean world. “It has ancient Hittite ruins. It has some of the best-preserved Greek cities in the world. If you want to see Greek ruins, you don’t go to Greece—you go to Turkey. Ephesus is probably the second best and most important preserved Roman city—after Pompeii, which was covered in ash by a volcano,” he explains. “Then you have the journeys of Peter and Paul in Turkey. And you have the Byzantine Empire, which was the ancient Eastern Christian Empire through the Middle Ages. Turkey itself is amazing.”