by Christine Collier
photography by Yelena Ovcharenko
On a Tuesday morning in March, accomplished author, archeologist and University of La Verne Religion Professor Jonathan L. Reed sat at his desk in a pair of blue jeans and a button down dress shirt awaiting the arrival of National Geographic. The producer and broadcast team were coming to discuss his role as one of their historical advisers on an upcoming 10-part series on the life and times of Jesus Christ. One would suppose, given the sheer enormity of such an event, that Jonathan would have put a hold on taking phone calls for the morning and refuse to visit with anyone who did not come bearing a life or death situation. Yet, there he sat, with his door wide open, ready and willing to lend a helping hand to anyone.
After years of uncovering the mysteries behind the world’s biblical wonders, it is now time for the man doing all the digging to be exposed. Who is this man who has traveled throughout the world, excavated in Israel, speaks fluent German, chisels marble, cooks Italian food and loves Tom Petty as much as he does classic opera? Behold, Jonathan Reed, a man whose natural curiosity for people and genuine interest in the world’s cultures began long before his college years. As the son of a professor of engineering, Jonathan was educated in Switzerland, from age 7 to 16, exposing him to a different culture. His father, Professor X.B. Reed, worked for Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, located in Zurich. Eventually, his father, along with his mother Jan Reed made their way back to the states. Jonathan was impacted with an experience that affected how he perceived the world. “It helped me appreciate diversity and the differences between people, and it gave me a curiosity about politics involving the United States and foreign policy,” he explains with a tone of appreciation in his voice. Jonathan describes the transition back into American society as “liberating.” “In America, there is much more freedom to succeed; there is much more freedom to fail,” he says. “But America is tremendous by offering the ability to do almost anything you want if you are willing to work for it.”
Armed with his education and a love for both teaching and archeology, Jonathan has traveled throughout the world and experienced much. This includes serving as director of the ULV study abroad program, Brethren Colleges Abroad (BCA), between 1996 and 1998, giving him the opportunity to live in Marburg, Germany. He has led students on trips throughout the years to various locations, including Greece, Israel and Rome. “I really like to integrate travel in my classes,” he says. “Students are just like me; you learn much better when you’re there.”
Jonathan’s love for hands-on experiences brought him to a Greek island in the summer of 2004, where for two weeks he was instructed in the art of marble chiseling from a master who used antique tools. “You can read all about sculpture, but it doesn’t make sense until you’ve tried your hand at it. Once you start, you kind of get into a rhythm. You can’t just do it for 15 or 20 minutes; you get a train of thought, and then you stick with it for two or three hours,” he explains. He is also an avid soccer player, and it is because of his wonderful sense of humor that he can joke about not knowing whose music he prefers more, Pink Floyd or Tom Petty.
But throughout Jonathan’s vast array of hobbies and professions, it seems his greatest love remains teaching. “I love to teach,” he says. “I see myself mainly as a teacher, and I actually do the archeology and do the scholarship in large part so I can be a better teacher.” He hopes to pass his enthusiasm for the world of archeology and religion on to his students. “When you write and do research and do archeology you start to get real curious about things,” he explains. “I try to take that into the classroom, that curiosity, and get students interested.”
This curiosity took hold of him when he was a student. Throughout his educational career, Jonathan immersed himself in religion, anthropology and biblical studies, which eventually led to a master’s degree from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in 1994 from Claremont Graduate School. Jonathan explains his natural gravitation toward the fields of religion and archeology as having been intrigued by “why people believed what they believe. I was much more interested in the practical aspects of everyday people.”
He is cautious in his approaches to his work as an archeologist. “You can’t have an agenda as an archeologist; you have to be open minded and critical.” According to Jonathan, in order for the experience of an excavation to be truly worthwhile, “you have to be open to the process, open to what you find and let what you find change your mind about religion.”
For Jonathan, this is all a matter of expectations. “As an archeologist, I’m not looking for evidence from Jesus; I’m looking for evidence about Jesus’ world, and once you understand Jesus’ world, you can understand Jesus better.” Yet, he is careful to note that “all of the big miracles of the Bible haven’t been proven, and they haven’t been disproved; it’s really a matter of faith.”
Speaking of faith; what is Jonathan’s faith? Surely a scholar so well versed in the field of religion is likely to have his own personal definition of “faith” or possibly a thought or two on the concept of the “afterlife.” And indeed he does. Yet, the real million dollar question is, will he share those views. Sadly, no. Jonathan tries to maintain a researcher’s skepticism of neutrality and prefers to keep his beliefs private. He has good reason. While some teachers may prefer to use the classroom environment as a forum for their personal opinions, Jonathan takes a higher road; he is not afraid to allow students to decipher the intricacies of religion for themselves. “I don’t really like my students to know my personal views about religion because then the argument becomes about me; I like them to explore that for themselves,” he explains. And his efforts don’t go unnoticed. As Lynée Sanute, a student in his Survey of the New Testament course, says, “Professor Reed presents the material in an engaging and interesting atmosphere.”
Even his co-workers are quick to attest to the kind of teacher and person Jonathan is. Randy Miller, adjunct professor of Communications, explains it well: “He’s this regular guy; charming, disarming, funny, without pretense or attitude,” he says. “He’s very easy to talk to, which I think helps make him so effective in the classroom. He is at once a brilliant scholar and author and a warm, engaging human being.”
Jonathan has an incredible presence in the publishing world. Out of a sincere desire to combine two worlds that he loved so much, archeology and religion, he submitted a proposal to a publisher to write a book on Jesus and Archeology. The response? “You’re not a big enough name; you’re too young.” Yet, the publisher liked the proposal so much, that he took the idea to Jonathan’s future co-author, John Dominic Crossan, and asked him to write the book instead. Crossan told the publisher he would write the book only if he could work with an archeologist as his co-author; he said the only archeologist he would consider was Jonathan. The ULV professor “jumped at the chance.” From there, a partnership was born that led to publications such as, 2001’s Excavating Jesus: “Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts” and 2005’s “In Search of Paul : How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.” According to Jonathan, one of the best parts of publishing a book is that it “continues the learning process; you don’t just write what you know, but as you’re writing, you’re interacting and you’re learning.” Next up is a new book entitled, “A Visual Guide to New Testament Archeology,” which will feature extensive photographs of the many archeological discoveries that have been made in recent years pertaining to the New Testament era.
Jonathan describes working with Crossan as, “completely invigorating and a fantastic experience. He’s been a great role model as a scholar and a human being.” The praise keeps flowing: “He’s very generous; he’s very approachable; he is an exceptionally nice person.”
The feeling is mutual. Crossan exclaims, “We had a blast” collaborating on the two books together. “It was an absolute pleasure and an honor to work with Jonathan.” Crossan knew of Jonathan’s work prior to meeting him because he had read his doctoral dissertation a few years earlier. Crossan remains to be one of the most accomplished scholars and authors in the field of religion today. He has written extensively during the last 30 years and has been the recipient of several awards, including the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in Religious Studies. Crossan has been interviewed and featured in some of today’s most prominent media resources, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and Larry King Live.
For Jonathan, success has its sacrifices, including some time away from his family: wife Annette Reed, who is a school teacher at Chaparral Elementary in Claremont, and his two children, Natania, 15, and Levi, 13. “Sometimes you make sacrifices,” Jonathan explains. “When I would go overseas on excavations, sometimes I would go without my family, and that’s a tremendous sacrifice; I think everyone faces that career-family concern.”
Jonathan has also been thrown his share of life’s obstacles. One month before his August ‘92 ULV start, he was hit by a car while riding his bike through Pomona on the cross streets of San Bernardino Road and Indian Hill Boulevard. “I was actually going to meet a friend, and we were going to go for a bike ride,” he explains. To make matters worse, the car then proceeded to roll over him. The accident caused a punctured lung, broken ribs and several broken bones in his back, which led to a 10-day hospital stay and some physical therapy. He was also in a severe car accident in October 2004, exiting a ULV football game, when a driver ran a red light at Garey and Bonita avenue, causing Jonathan’s Ford Explorer to flip and then spin. Both he and his son were lucky; his son was unhurt; Jonathan sustained some cuts and bruising to his left arm. Regarding both accidents taking place in the city of Pomona, “I now try and drive around it.”
Jonathan Reed has proven himself to be nothing short of a modern day renaissance man. He is a scholar, archeologist, author and teacher. Given all he has done, when he is asked what lasting impression he hopes to leave on the University, he simply says, “My key thing, is that I want students to remain curious about the world they live in and about the role of religion.”
Reed’s Take on National Geographic, Mel and More
Jonathan Reed describes the once in a lifetime opportunity of working with National Geographic as a “fantastic experience.” He explains that the TV special gave him the rare opportunity to re-create a crucifixion. “It forced me to think about every single aspect of the crucifixion, every single aspect of the cross, the nails, the rope—everything.” For Reed, it proved to be an enlightening experience. “When you do something rather than just think about it, it helps the process of figuring out how it must have been.”
Yet, becoming accustomed to the making of a TV special can take some getting used to, “I was excited and a bit nervous; it’s difficult being on camera because you have to describe very complex issues in just a few sentences,” he says. The 10-part series, which is being taped in Turkey, was due to be aired summer 2005 if all goes well with the initial pilot episode that was shown on Easter Sunday 2005. According to Reed, the series will examine “how archeology helps us understand Jesus’ life.”
What does Jonathan think of Mel Gibson’s crucifixion scene in 2004’s blockbuster hit “The Passion of the Christ?” He describes “The Passion” as having been “excessively violent.” He explains, “Crucifixion is a violent and brutal enough death; you don’t need to exaggerate it to an extreme.” Reed, along with other colleagues in the field, believes that if Mel Gibson’s depiction of the crucifixion had actually taken place, “Jesus would have been long dead before he got to the cross.”
“At a technical level, Mel Gibson’s crucifixion scene had a lot of mistakes,” he says. Jonathan believes some of these inaccuracies can be found in details such as the shape of the cross, the placement of the nails in Jesus’ ankles and the sign that was positioned above his head.