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29 January 2023

Francesca Stavrakopoulou Q&A: “In my field, people often talk about doom”

The biblical historian on the government’s cruelty and The Last Temptation of Christ.

By New Statesman

Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a biblical scholar and broadcaster, was born in Bromley in 1975. She is professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at the University of Exeter.

What’s your earliest memory?

Throwing up on my mother. I was about two years old. I had a little pink teddy and I was sick on him so often that he became known as Stinky Pinky.

Who are your heroes?

As a kid, Moira Stuart and Kate Adie. They were authoritative and warm and courageous. Now I’d say Malala Yousafzai. She didn’t have to take on this role on this very public platform, but she has. The work she’s doing to fight for girls’ education around the world is incredible.

What book last changed your thinking?

The book that most profoundly changed my thinking is one I read when I was a teenager: The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. It retells the story of Christ, valuing sexual desire, giving a place to envy, jealousy, fear. It changed the way I thought about the earliest origins of Christianity.

[See also: Pico Iyer Q&A: “I feel radiant when staying in a monastery”]

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela. When I was in my twenties, I saw him at Cape Town train station. I’ve never witnessed such warmth for a figure.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

It’s a toss-up between Marilyn Monroe and England’s Tudor queens.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Jerusalem in the mid-seventh century BCE. I’d have to live as a high-status woman because life otherwise would be hard to bear. Maybe as a priestess or necromancer.

What TV show could you not live without?

The ten o’clock news, whether it’s on the BBC or ITV. It’s an evening ritual in our house. Even the cat begins to ready herself for bed when it starts.

Who would paint your portrait?

One of the artisans who produced panel paintings in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. These portraits often adorn the coffins of mummies or depict icons of gods and goddesses. I don’t think anyone else has managed to paint dark-haired, dark-eyed people so well.

What’s your theme tune?

“Goody Two Shoes” by Adam Ant. He was the first star I had on my bedroom wall.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

A woman I met on the train on my way to my first academic conference told me: don’t add your voice to the chorus of those telling you you’re not good enough.

What’s currently bugging you?

The cruelty of the current government. They privilege elite power, personal prestige and wealth over the well-being of other people. It infuriates me.

What single thing would make your life better?

An extra month in the Easter vacation and the summer vacation of the academic year, that no one else has.

When were you happiest?

The day I got married. I’m very soppy. To stand in front of all our favourite people and to make those vows, it was truly the happiest day of my life.

Are we all doomed?

As a species, yes. But as individuals, no. I work in a field in which people often talk about doom, equating it with some kind of divine destruction. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s no final judgement: when we’re gone, we’re gone. We only exist for as long as we’re remembered. The thing is, at the rate we’re going, there won’t be anybody left to remember us at all.

“God: An Anatomy” by Francesca Stavrakopoulou is published by Picador

[See also: Karen Bakker Q&A: “I am insatiably curious about Earth’s long-term future”]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con