Researcher of the Month – November 2020, Katherine Gwyther

Katherine Gwyther is a PhD student in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (PRHS) and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life (CRPL). Her research focuses on the Hebrew Bible and Utopian Studies and is funded by a School of PRHS doctoral scholarship.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now? 

When I started my ‘research journey’ back in my undergraduate degree at the University of Sheffield, I thought that philosophy would be the whole world of university education and academic study for me. However, after taking a module in my second year on Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern law, it changed my mind. Although I’m not entirely sure why, I loved the topic enough to write my undergraduate dissertation on Leviticus. I detoured slightly during my Biblical Studies MRes, also at Sheffield, to look at spatiality and the book of Joshua, but have since returned to biblical law and the book of Exodus. Even though this seems like a straightforward journey, I’m incredibly grateful to the research community (and scholarships) both at Sheffield, and now at Leeds, who have helped me remain as equally interested as when I began.  

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area? 

My interest in the intersection between biblical law and utopian studies, and the Hebrew Bible and utopian studies broadly, began with a rogue footnote that described Leviticus 25 as “utopian.” I was not entirely sure why the author described this text as utopian, nor why it was hidden in a throwaway footnote. I followed this down a rabbit hole to discover that this was not an uncommon way to describe Leviticus 25 and a more fleshed out exploration was the catalyst for my undergraduate dissertation. Along the way, I stumbled upon the discipline of utopian studies and its integration into Hebrew Bible interpretation. I soon found that the focus on this integration was limited and did not cover what seems to be really obvious utopian images in the Hebrew Bible like the Promised Land. This is what I’ve come back to examine in my PhD which uses a utopian reading lens, developed from the work of Fredric Jameson, to read Exodus 20–23. 

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I’ve just started my second year of my PhD, so my focus will now be moving from the existing literature on Exodus 20–23 to develop my ‘Jamesonian utopian’ reading lens. I am particularly interested in three key ideas with regards to Jameson and Exodus 20–23. These key ideas are utopias of construction; the relationship between utopia and dystopia, and utopia as incomplete and unfulfilled. What particularly interests me about these ideas of Jameson’s is that they are not the obvious utopian images that have been highlighted in previous studies of utopia and the Hebrew Bible. These studies examine texts which clearly display an alternate, non-existent society. Examples of this include the non-existent temple in Ezekiel and the alternative history offered in the books of Chronicles. By contrast, Exodus 20–23 is not so clearly utopian with its law codes and commands. However, by using Jameson’s reading lens, I hope to move beyond the current obvious utopian images and consider more nuanced ones. 

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two? 

At its core, my research is text-based and I tend to understand the Hebrew Bible first as a literary text, then as a religious one. However, it is not possible to study any element of the Bible without recognising its significance as a religious text and its subsequent impact and infiltration into the public sphere. One question that I keep coming back to in my research is what my utopian interpretation of Exodus 20–23 will mean for religious communities. Utopia and hope are well trodden ground in theology, but I have not found any link between studies interpreting a text using utopia and the impact of this interpretation for theology and belief – at least in biblical studies. Other areas of biblical studies such as feminist and postcolonial criticism have brought together the Bible as a religious and cultural text into their interpretations, but there seems to have been no attempt to do this in utopian ones. While I’m not entirely sure yet on how to bridge the gap and bring these two conversations together, my hope is that my thesis will suggest that this is a conversation that is worth having.

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