Few members of the Princeton faculty have been honored with the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching; fewer still, with the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities. John G. Gager, the William H. Danforth Professor of Religion, has received them both, in 1998 and 2005, respectively. In addition to this impressive career as scholar and teacher, John has also performed exceptional service to the University as chair of the religion department (1980-87, 1990-91), director of the Program in the Ancient World (1988-89) and master of Forbes College (1992-2000).
John was born in 1937. He graduated from Yale in 1959 with a degree in French after studying at the Sorbonne his junior year. He went on to study at the Yale Divinity School (1959-62) and the University of Tubingen (1963-64) before enrolling in graduate school at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1968. After teaching for a year at Haverford College, he arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1968. While it would not be quite accurate to say he never left – John taught at Hebrew University as a Fulbright lecturer in 1987-88 and returned as a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies in 2000-01, and he served as a visiting professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes for several weeks in 1988 – it has been a long and happy relationship.
John’s orientation toward the study of early Christianity has been resolutely untheological, setting him apart from most scholars in his generation. He has insisted on seeing Christianity as one among many competing religions in the ancient world, and he has not contented himself with using ancient Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism merely to illumine early Christianity, but has devoted serious study to them as well. He has been one of the pioneers in introducing the insights of anthropology and sociology to the study of early Christianity. His Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (1975), was both controversial and influential, as can be seen by the frequency with which chapters have been reprinted in collections.
One of John’s central achievements is the rethinking of the nature of ancient anti-Semitism. His groundbreaking study, The Origins of Anti-Semitism (1983), made a compelling case that there was little continuity between pre-Christian attitudes toward the Jews, which he sees as largely positive, and later Christian anti-Semitism. It is the highest compliment that this study provoked our colleague Peter Schaefer to write his book on ancient anti-Semitism, Judeophobia, because he believed John’s picture of ancient attitudes was too rosy.
The final section of The Origins of Anti-Semitism offers a revisionist reading of the thought of the apostle Paul that John developed further in his most recent book Reinventing Paul (2000). Inspired by the Canadian theologian Lloyd Gaston, John argued that Paul never preached the rejection of the Jews, but rather insisted on their assured salvation by way of the Torah, criticizing them only for trying to block Gentiles from taking advantage of the new road to salvation that Jesus’ death had opened to them. Gaston the theologian was looking for a Paul that he as a Christian could embrace, a Paul without anti-Judaism. Gager, the humanist was intrigued by the possibility of a paradigm shift, as he would put it, of standing the accepted reading on its head. The new reading remains controversial, but it has been extremely influential, and John’s contribution to it has been so substantial that it has come to be known as the Gaston-Gager theory.
Another area in which John has made important contributions through the years is ancient magic. In his first book Moses in Greco-Roman Paganism (1972) he showed that one of the central ways Moses was understood in the Greco-Roman world was as a magician. More recently he published an important collection of texts. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (1992). In these books and several articles, John argued powerfully for the wide diffusion of magical practices in antiquity at every level of society. With the attention to the social dimension characteristic of his work, he has insisted that many of the terms associated with magic in antiquity were by no means neutral descriptions, but rather slurs directed at the practices of opponents: what we do is piety, what you do is magic.
As the Presidential Award indicates, John has also been an extraordinary effective and beloved teacher. His signature course for the undergraduates was Religion 251. The New Testament and Christian Origins. Over the years it has brought the religion department hundreds of majors, and, perhaps even more noteworthy since it is an introductory survey, it has launched dozens of undergraduates on scholarly careers. On the graduate side, John is most closely identified with the Jesus chat group (so christened by an early participant), weekly meetings over dinner to discuss important new scholarship on ancient religion. But despite his skill as a lecturer and a seminar leader, many students tell us that John’s most important teaching was performed outside class hours in his office or in the religion department lounge, where he was willing to continue the discussion begun in class, to take up a new topic, or simply to listen.
John’s willingness to keep the conversation going after class hours carries over to his love of the outdoors and in particular of rock climbing. Some undergraduates were lucky enough to encounter John even before their first week of classes a leader of the Outdoor Action trip. And over the years many a graduate student has left Princeton with a new hobby that began with an invitation from John to join him climbing the wall at the Armory.
It is hard to imagine the religion department without John. His colleagues very much hope that emeritus status will not discourage him from gracing the department lounge with his presence on a daily basis.