Dr. TJ Wray – Submitted photo

Let’s start with your professorship at Salve Regina University, where you are on the Religious and Theological Studies faculty. You are primarily a biblical scholar. Tell us about that. 

Put simply, biblical studies is fundamentally concerned with analysis of the biblical text (called exegesis). Biblical scholars explore the various biblical books and passages in their historical, cultural, and religious contexts with an eye to authorship and literary forms. Some tools of modern biblical scholars include knowledge of the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), an examination of material remains (archaeology), and relevant extra-biblical texts.

You write on your Salve page that “the Bible influences nearly every corner of Western civilization.” Can you expand on that? 

In Western civilization, the Bible impacts the moral and ethical precepts of contemporary democracies, anchoring fields as diverse as law, politics, medicine, education, and business. The Bible’s remarkable stories, memorable characters, and eternal truths are immortalized in countless paintings, stories, songs, poetry, and film. And, of course, the Bible is the centerpiece of Judeo-Christian religious faith, ritual, and worship. It has inspired, comforted, and sustained generations through the countless challenges of life and loss. Conversely, it has been weaponized throughout history, including today, to justify hatred, war, and every imaginable social injustice under the sun, all in the name of God. It is my hope that my students learn to read the Bible for personal inspiration, to discuss it intelligently with others, and to recognize when others abuse it. I believe that no education, formal or otherwise, is complete without some basic understanding of the Bible.

Your current research includes an archaeological exploration of women in “biblical antiquity.” What are you finding?

In my work, I try to recover the meaning of the biblical stories that feature women and the ways in which these narratives have been largely neglected and misunderstood. Viewed through the lens of history and religious mindset of the biblical authors, a close reading of these stories calls into question our traditional understanding of patriarchy in the Ancient Near East. Biblical patriarchy assumes that men create and enforce the laws, dominate religious and political life, and have the final say in matters pertaining to all facets of family life. Such a male-dominated system insinuates that all women are subordinate to men. Recent strides in modern biblical scholarship, often supported by archaeological evidence, indicates that this is not the case. For example, we have found evidence that women could buy and sell property, initiate divorce, serve in the military, and perform religious duties—all rights and duties we once thought were reserved only for men.

And you have been on excavations of several sites in Israel, including Mount Zion, Jerusalem. Describe what you do and with whom you are working. 

I have worked primarily with my colleagues from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, whose primary aim is to examine and preserve this important site. Excavations reveal what appears to be a continuous human occupation for 3,000 years. I have worked on site (excavating) and off site as an instructor, presenting lectures in the evenings to students and volunteers.

What is the significance of Mount Zion? 

Biblically speaking, Mt. Zion is usually connected to the City of David or the Temple Mount. Located just outside Zion Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Mt. Zion site shows evidence of habitation from the Israelite, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Islamic, and Ottoman periods. All of this makes the site hugely significant.

What drew your interest to biblical studies in the first place? 

I took a course on Native Americans in high school and was fascinated with the various tribal customs and practices. From this, I began to explore other ancient civilizations on my own. A required course in Western Civilizations I took as college freshman is one of the few courses that remains with me to this day. From these early courses, I began to combine my love of literature and ancient peoples—which led me to explore world of the Bible. Once that happened, I was hooked!

You are also a prolific author. One of your many books is Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies. It’s based on personal experience. Please give us that story. 

It is strange that one of the most personally devastating events of my life led to a movement of sorts. In the aftermath of my older brother’s death (he was 43), I searched in vain for a book, article, or even a professional paper that addressed the unique grief of bereaved adult siblings. And while I was able to find material on the loss of a sibling in childhood, there was virtually nothing about grief experience of surviving adult siblings. So, I wrote a book about it. Of my all my books, it is my only best-seller and I consider it my seminal work. What I hoped to do with Surviving is to offer comfort, hope, and meaning to other surviving siblings—but I also wanted to start a grassroots movement of education (which was tough because there were no social media at this time).

At first, I organized and ran a peer-support, adult sibling grief group in Providence for several years. As I began to speak publicly, teach, present papers at conferences, and write more about this topic, therapists, hospice groups, and other professional organizations, including The Compassionate Friends, began to take notice. After nearly 20 years, what I hoped would happen has come to fruiton: There is more awareness and more support available for bereaved adult siblings than ever before. Our private Facebook group, Sibling Grief: The Loss of a Sister or Brother—which is carefully protected by four excellent administrators — has over 7,000 members. TCF now has adult sibling groups and therapists are beginning to offer services to bereaved adult siblings.

Another of your books is Good Girls, Bad Girls of the New Testament. Can you give us an overview? 

This book takes readers on a journey through the vast landscape of Roman-occupied Judea during the first century and select women, whose paths, either by providence or design, intersect with Jesus (or Paul). Some of the women I profile are familiar, such as Mary, the mother of Jesus. Others are more obscure, like the nameless Wife of Pilate. I share the real stories of these women—who have often been ignored or misinterpreted–and their importance in the overall Christian narrative.

And yet another is The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots. Again, please, an overview. 

I’ve always been intrigued with the role villains, monsters, and demons play in literature, film, and especially religion. Like most people, my early understanding of Satan was shaped by an amalgamation of (mostly) distorted Christian doctrine, inept Sunday school teachers, superstitious relatives, and popular mythology as portrayed in books, film, and television. Like many others from my working-class neighborhood, I believed in a literal evil being who stood in direct opposition to the goodness of God. But THAT Satan, the pitch-fork toting demon, concierge of hell, is entirely absent in the Bible. In my book, I explore the evolution of Satan, from a rather low-level heavenly functionary in the Old Testament to the Titan of Evil in the New Testament. (Spoiler Alert: Satan’s true metamorphosis happens beyond the pages of the Bible.)

 Are you working on another book currently?

I am working on a new book that focuses on the “Bad Girls” in the Bible. And, in what is a huge departure from my academic books, I just finished my first children’s book, “Slumbertown”—a book about sleep and dreams. This was a unique experience for me, working with a professional illustrator and researching children and sleep. The finished product is a lovely little book of which I am intensely proud!

When you are not researching, excavating, teaching, or writing, what activities allow you to unwind and recharge? 

I love spending time with my family, friends, and Great Dane, Jedidiah. My husband and I enjoy hiking, cooking, listening to music, and traveling. And, of course, I enjoy a good book!