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Examining Biblical Texts with Assistant Professor Hugo Mendez

February 12, 2024 | Kristen Chavez

Hugo Mendez
Hugo Mendez

Assistant professor of religious studies Hugo Mendez (FFP ’22) discusses his research in his recent book projects: one exploring the role of St. Stephen in early Christian communities, and the most recent examining the biblical books of John. He also describes his fellowship experiences – at the IAH and at the National Humanities Center – and how they provided the needed time and interdisciplinary connections to work on his current book.


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Kristen Chavez: Welcome to The Institute, a podcast in the lives and works of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m your host, Kristen Chavez. Today I’m speaking with Hugo Mendez, assistant professor of Religious Studies.

In spring 2022, Hugo participated in the IAH’S Faculty Fellowship Program as a Borden Fellow. During his semester residency, he focused on his research examining the gospel and letters of John in the Bible. He continued that work during a National Humanities Center Summer Residency in 2023. That work is culminating in a new book under contract with Oxford University Press, tentatively titled, Gospel Truth: John as a Falsely Authored Work. This comes after celebrating the release of his first book, The Cult of St. Stephen in Jerusalem, Inventing a Patron Martyr, released in 2023.

Hugo, welcome to the podcast.

Hugo Mendez: Thank you for having me.

KC: As I mentioned, you’re a scholar of New Testament texts and their role in early Christian communities and identities. Can you tell me a little bit about this field of research and what drew you to it?

HM: I entered the field of religious studies broadly and New Testament in particular, through what I like to say was sort of an unguarded backdoor. I had a background that at least informed a lot of how I think about this literature. I grew up with so many people to with family’s life experiences that shaped my thinking about religion. I had done a master’s degree in religious studies at the University of Georgia. But in my Ph.D., I had focused on linguistics. And in the course of that program, my doctoral advisor had encouraged me to actually work on biblical texts. And that was, for me, the moment where I think in the process of working with that literature, I really solidified what I wanted to do and what kind of research I wanted to move into.

I think that I loved linguistics, but linguistics asked questions about language, where religious studies was a way of using texts, using the language skills that I had learned, but thinking more broadly about human culture, human thought, human social formations. It’s such an interdisciplinary field, and it made for a much richer experience for at least the kind of research that I wanted to do. So after I finished my Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Georgia, I ended up doing a two year postdoctoral fellowship at Yale, which allowed me to transition to religious studies. I did a two year postdoc here at UNC-Chapel Hill, which completed that transition. And then I was very fortunate to be hired on to the faculty here at the end of that. And so this is now my eighth year at Carolina. And, yeah, very squarely, now a religious studies scholar.

KC: You found your niche, and you’re like, this is it, that’s where I’m staying.

HM: Yeah.

KC: Great. So tell me a little bit about your first book, as I mentioned, The Cult of St. Stephen in Jerusalem. What was getting into that research? Like since of course, you focus a little bit more on linguistics in your Ph.D. So in transitioning into religious studies, how did that go about for you?

HM: Yeah, you know, the great piece of advice that I got at Yale, when moving between fields was, you really have to move into a different field. And so I was strongly encouraged when I started that postdoctoral fellowship to work on a project that was really totally different than anything I had done before.

Obviously, the language linguistic skills carry, you’re still working in languages like Greek and Armenian, and Latin. But at this point, it was about really conceiving of a very different project. So that book in particular, looked at St. Stephen, who is the first Christian martyr of tradition – the very first person according to tradition, who was ever killed for their Christian faith in any sort of persecution experience. And what I was interested in was looking at how the fifth century church of Jerusalem essentially revived and expanded his memory. They were a church that was just beginning to rebuild after centuries in which the city had been effectively in ruins after the first and third Jewish Roman wars. This was a city that wanted to define its own unique identity. And so they chose a unique symbol for themselves. Stephen was one of the only saints that had a really strong local connection to Jerusalem among early martyrs. And so what the church of Jerusalem did was they invented traditions around Stephen, linking him to sites around the city. You know, this is essentially mapping the entire city and saying, right here’s where he got his morning cup of coffee. Here’s where he would spend his time and, and precisely in a way to appeal to pilgrims to the city,

KC: The religious Trip Advisor.

HM: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. This is a period in which they discover or invent his bones – probably fabricate his bones, but nonetheless, his remains appear and it becomes a major pilgrimage draw. This is a period where lots of, other sorts of things are surrounding this cult. They’re building large churches to Stephen associated with some of the special sites that they claim to have recovered. It’s this really fascinating moment of taking a character from the biblical page, lifting him off of it, and fleshing out a life that could appeal to pilgrims, could draw interest in coming to the city, but then could also help the city define itself. So whoever controls the bones of Stephen, whoever possesses the bones of Stephen has theoretically the power of Stephen. And so for the church of Jerusalem, all of these different examples of fabrication, invention, even forgery at times were meant to really help them consolidate their grip on the memory of Stephen.

KC: Thank you for that. And I guess along, a little bit along those lines in the way that you’re talking about, like forgeries. As I mentioned, your current book is looking at the biblical books of John and as pseudo historical texts. Can you explain what you mean by that?

HM: By pseudo historical texts, I mean a text that misrepresents its historical context, occasion or authorship. When you pick up a lot of ancient works, if you read something like a letter from antiquity, you assume as a reader that the person whose name is at the top of the letter is really the person who sent the letter. That the person who is listed as the addressee is really the person who received the letter. And that the situation that it’s describing is the actual historical situation.

But we know in the fields of classics and religious studies is that there are hundreds, really thousands of texts in the ancient world, that are pseudo historical, where people would, for instance, invent a different situation for their letters than the ones they were actually written in, or present themselves as a different author, or kind of author, than who they really were. So this literature is very diverse, very fast. And the motivations for producing these sorts of texts were very different.

HM: You know, for some people, you can imagine that, for instance, writing a letter in the name of Plato – and we do actually have pseudo historical letters written in the name of Plato – were ways of potentially experimenting, how would Plato have talked about this topic? What would a day in the life of Plato, as expressed through a letter, have looked like? Some of these things were done to explore the past to flesh out creatively, the biographies of historical figures. There was a market for letters like this, or other texts like this, the way that you know, people today are drawn to the letters of Abraham Lincoln. Back then people were drawn to the written remains of famous ancient persons.

But for that matter, you know, there are lots of different possibilities. Some of these things were hoaxes, some of these things were just simple compositional exercises, just to try to mimic the style of someone. To imagine how a historical person would have met a certain occasion. And so this literature already exists in the ancient world. What I’m doing in my book is suggesting that there are some biblical texts, some texts that are included in modern Christian bibles, that we haven’t really thought about in this way but that actually would fit very well into this sort of category. That whoever wrote them might have been experimenting, misrepresenting a little bit of who they were. And then, part of what my book is trying to do is trace out what the motivations for this would have been, and certainly relaying the evidence that I see that suggests that they would be pseudo historical.

KC: You mentioned the evidence, because I’m thinking that’s not I imagine, easy research project, right? Because you have these primary sources, but you don’t necessarily know, or they’re contradicting each other or, you know, contradicting other historical events. What does that research look like? And how do you parse out those sorts of things? Or is that too big of an answer for the whole field of research?

HM: You know, this is where maybe a little bit of the linguist in me returns, and I can, you know, kind of really bring my own discipline of training back into the discipline that I work in now. But essentially, the way that I’m thinking about these texts is really meant to answer a question or even a problem that we encounter in Biblical studies.

So if you look at the Christian Bible, there are four books that bear the name, John. So there is this one book that’s called the Gospel of John. It’s one of our earliest accounts for the life of Jesus, kind of a biography of Jesus, if you will. And then there are these three short letters called 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John, and they’re really small, the smallest of them is about 200, or some odd words. So really, really short. Now, the reason why all of these texts have the name, John, is that, in antiquity, Christians looking at them thought they might have been written by John the son of Zebedee, who was a disciple of Jesus. The texts never tell us who their authors are. They are strictly anonymous. And so this led to speculation in early centuries of who could have written this. So throughout the ancient and medieval period, Christians are thinking this might have been written by John a disciple of Jesus, so they slap the name John on all of them.

HM: By the modern period, you know, in the 20th century, biblical scholars had started to recognize that this explanation didn’t necessarily make best sense of these texts. For one thing, looking very closely at the language of these texts, there were just subtle differences that suggested different authors. There are even subtle differences theologically that could suggest people positioned in different sorts of contexts. And so the way that scholars have thought about these texts since is to suggest that well, one way to make sense of these texts is instead that they were written by different authors, but perhaps authors who were linked together. There are still many similarities between these four texts. And so scholars developed this idea that they could have all been written maybe in a single community or region – what scholars called the Johannine community, essentially this ancient hypothetical place, group of people who would have produced some of this literature.

What my work is doing is noting that if we look very closely at these texts, it’s true that they have strong similarities that bind them together. And then also really significant differences, both in outlook and in language. And what I’m arguing is that actually, the best way to make sense of how they emerged is to suggest that they might have been written by authors who knew each other’s works, and who decided to imitate one another. And so what I trace out in my book, or kind of the larger project, is that it’s sometime at the end of the first century, an author wrote the texts that we now know is the Gospel of John. It’s an anonymous text, although the author does subtly present himself as a disciple of Jesus, even though there’s good evidence for thinking that he wasn’t.

HM: In terms of what his motivations were for doing this, you know, is this kind of a symbolic thing? Is this a way of giving his text eyewitness credibility? Is this you know, what, what sort of program stands behind that, is something that we can kind of entertain and debate. But he writes this text at the end of the first century. And then when we look at later texts, first, second, and third John, we see authors who decided to directly borrow copy from that first text, and imitated style. They decided to write in the name and persona, so to speak, — maybe not the name, but certainly the persona — of that original invented author disciple. And so what we find in 1, 2, and 3 John are works that were meant to look as if they were written by the author of the gospel, but they were written by their own individuals, authors practicing the same sort of pseudo historical craft.


KC: That’s really interesting. Within this, you’ve been able to have two different hesitancies, as I mentioned, one at the IAH here at UNC, and then another at the National Humanities Center. As a faculty member, what does this mean to have those kinds of opportunities for your research?

HM: Yeah, they’re enormous. I mean, there’s no way around that. I think the people don’t realize what teaching and service really means in the life of faculty how deeply it impacts their time, their energy to do it well. It absolutely impacts your time and energy very much. And so, you know, for me, there’s research: things I have to read, time I have to dedicate to scratching out a book that’s going to be you know, 100,000 words long or something. And that’s time that you need. Yeah, I was very fortunate to have both of these fellowships and I think just to have the space to think, to work was incredible.

KC: Can you tell me a little bit about both of those fellowship experiences and how they went?

HM: Yeah, so I had one at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities here at UNC, the IAH. The challenge with that one a little bit was that I was doing it in this kind of waning but COVID pandemic moment. So, you know, facilities were closed, it was a lot harder to do the sort of work that I was supposed to be doing in community in the fellowship. I’m very happy to see that the IAH is fully reopened. And, you know, we’re all fully reopened as a country.

But yeah, but it was, it was still enormous. It bought out significant time from teaching, from service. And I mean, I wrote the lion’s share of my book, manuscripts projects, from that time. I got really deep thinking done during that time. And I got to do it in dialogue with people from different fields across UNC, which is just so crucial for helping you think about things.

HM: The second fellowship, so to speak, the summer residency at the National Humanities Center, I took this past summer. And it was a wonderful opportunity. You know, these spaces are, I think of zones of collective individual effort, right, where you’re surrounded by, in the case, the NHC, dozens of academics who are also working on their own projects, and just that atmosphere of joint work, but individual work — right? — is so incredible. I always tell individuals, you know, when you think about the origins of academia, it really began in the monastery, you know, in terms of just the medieval period. That’s where learning and writing emerge in the way that we tend to think about it today, as scholar.  You know, the monastic model is you get together for a few meals every day, but pretty much you’re focused on your own work in your cell. And in some ways, I think some of these centers are the kind of funny return to our monastic origins of, you know, really helping everybody focus on their own work, creating that atmosphere where everyone’s encouraged to do this, and also to collaborate as they want.

KC: Yeah, that’s great. And it’s creating that kind of culture. Since you first started thinking about this research and this line, how has it taken shape, or grown over time? What was the research journey like through this second book?

HM: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say it’s grown.

KC: OK. [laughs]

HM: That’s probably the big headline, in the sense that when I first started working on this project, I imagined one book, and what it’s become a really two book project. So I’m finishing the first I’m submitting it to the publisher this summer to Oxford. And it’s right on schedule, it’s where it needs to be. But, as is so often the case, in Biblical studies, when you start working on things, I mean, it’s just so much furniture to have to move around because the literature that I work on is some of the most commented literature on the planet – certainly some of the most widely read literature on the planet. And so I originally imagined a book that would talk about the Gospel of John, and the letters of John.

And instead, I’ve just split those into two different projects. So this first one is going to look at the Gospel of John, it’s going to engage some contemporary scholars, but I’m also trying to write a fresh story. I want to make a story that’s accessible to informed readers, but, ones that may not necessarily be steeped in all the secondary German literature that we have to read in my field. And then I’ll have the second book, which is mostly ready now, also ready to go to a publisher that will look at these lesser known but really interesting parts of this story.

KC: So you have one book down, one, almost ready to go. And another one soon coming. Does the process ever get any easier? Or smoother? How is that publication side of things look for you?

HM: Yeah, well, and that’s before, I’m co-authoring the next edition of the New Testament: A historical Introduction for Oxford University Press with my colleague Bart Ehrman. And so that also hit me this summer at the NHC. So yeah, there’s always books, there are always books. But, you know, this is what’s this is the most exciting part of this job. I mean, for me. I always say that, you know, doing a grad program is sort of your personality test. I have friends who did grad programs, and they love teaching, and they decided that cannot stand research.

I’m very fortunate to have been someone who realized I love this and then to have ended up in a research university, where I get to spend my time investigating, thinking about the past, challenging the ways that we’ve thought about the past. And the work of writing is always very difficult, very long, paralyzing at times. I mean, it’s a slog. It’s a marathon run, really is what it is. But it’s just such a privilege to do this.

KC: That’s great. Is there anything else that you think that you want to talk about that is coming to you?

HM: So I spent this summer residency at the National Humanities Center. And it was this really wonderful privilege to be there, it was great. You know, the hard part with an institution, like the NHC, of course, is that they only exist in so many geographies. And so, they’re sort of intrinsically less accessible, I think, to faculty. There are lots of faculty with incredible projects, who would love to take a fellowship in some different state or different country, but they have caregiving responsibilities, dependents, children, right, and they can’t uproot. And I think that’s what’s so amazing about a place like the IAH when you have a research university, and then you have a center within the research university that can serve the local faculty, and give them the same opportunities that exist in other places.

HM: So in my case, I was offered this fellowship a couple years ago, a very similar fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. It would have been wonderful. But then my childcare situation changed, and I wasn’t able to take it. And so it’s so meaningful to have places like the IAH, we’re very fortunate at UNC to have such a really wonderful of setup here and institution. And, you know, the more that it’s expanded, the more that it can serve the needs of our faculty, I think all the better for what we want out of UNC, which is world class research, strong international engagement with the work that we do here. That’s what the IAH gives time, space, and networks for.

KC: That is something that the IAH loves to do. So that is great news. As we begin to wrap up, we’ll end with a question that we ask all of our guests. Is there a book that has changed your life? Or if you’d like to think of even broader, I’m also interested in hearing about any other type of written or even creative works that may have made an impact on you.

HM: Yeah, I mean, I can talk about a work that made an impact on this project.

KC: Sure.

HM: And so this is Patricia Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions. This is a book that was written by a faculty member who’s actually here at UNC in classics, in which she looks at hundreds and hundreds of these sorts of ancient pseudo historical letters and from Greek antiquity. Ones that were not written by Christian authors, but we’re doing different things like, essentially fictionalizing stories, exploring some of the same kinds of territories. And, and I think it’s always amazing to read outside of your field as a scholar, read the work of colleagues also. I mean, her book really helped me think about an entertain possibilities for how ancient texts might have been written that I had never thought of before. And so I think if I give anyone a thank you for the kind of work that I’m doing today, I think Patricia is there. And again, very fortunate to have her really a stone’s throw away here.

In terms of books, movies, and other pop culture I love, that probably is for a different time, because I’m sure we can delve deeply into that.

KC: And it can be a separate episode. We’ll talk all about that. Great. Thank you so much. This has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for joining the podcast.

HM: Thank you.

KC: This has been The Institute podcast. Listen to other and upcoming episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Visit our website,, to find past episodes and transcripts. You can also learn more about our upcoming events, programs, grants and leadership opportunities for UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, and read stories that feature our arts and humanities Fellows. Thank you for joining us.



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