Columbia is thrilled to welcome Jesse Nickel to our team of Biblical Studies faculty!
Jesse just moved back to BC after spending over three years finishing his doctoral dissertation under Professor N.T. Wright at University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland. He’ll return to Scotland in October to defend his thesis, but in the meantime he is diving into teaching his new courses at Columbia. To get to know the almost-Dr. Nickel a little better, we asked him a few questions…
You pretty much live and breathe biblical studies. Where does that passion come from?
I grew up in church, so I always liked hearing good sermons and teaching by my pastors. But I never really thought about studying the Bible long-term or in any serious way until I started working as a youth pastor. My senior pastor had just recently graduated with his M.Div from Regent College and started mentoring me. We would read books together and talk through them. The books we read helped me see how academic scholarship and Christian faith could come together, and I found it really exciting! I had always been a good student and enjoyed school, but I’d never had an opportunity to bring my faith and studies together.
I started out doing a general degree at UBC and randomly ended up in a first-year History of Ancient Greece & Rome class and found it really, really interesting.
One of the first books my senior pastor and I read together was The New Testament and the People of God by NT Wright, and it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. NT Wright is someone who knows the ancient world backwards and forwards and how this impacted the texts which make up the New Testament. I realized that if I wanted to go on to study the New Testament, having a background in classics could be really helpful. So I decided to major in that.
After UBC, I enrolled at Regent. At first, I thought I would focus on the history of Christianity, but then I had this amazing experience in a biblical studies class with Professor Rikk Watts. He was talking about how many things need to come together in order for us to really understand the Bible – why it was written, who it was written for, how God’s Spirit was active – and how learning to interpret the Bible is a skill we must apply ourselves to. Reading the Bible is not something to do flippantly – it’s something that needs to be learned and developed, and I had this strong feeling that it was what I came to Regent to learn how to do.
After your MA in Christian Studies (New Testament), you moved to Scotland to work on your PhD at University of St. Andrew’s under NT Wright. What was your thesis about?
The big-word title is “The Synoptic Jesus and Eschatological Violence.” I was looking at how first-century Jews answered the question of what it’s going to look like when God finally acts to save his people and restore and the world – specifically, what role would violence play in those events? How is God going to defeat evil and the enemies of God, and how does this expectation of ‘eschatological violence’ affect how we read understand Jesus’ teaching on non-violence, in the context of his proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom?
Having grown up in the Mennonite church, with our emphasis on non-violent peacemaking, I was interested in this topic. It mattered to me, and that’s important when you choose a topic you’ll focus on for four years.
Proudest PhD moment?
I took just over 3.5 years to write my thesis, and in the British system, it’s an entirely independent experience. It’s you and your computer and the library – no coursework or exams. A huge part of the learning process is learning how to be an independent researcher. To finally come to the point of having my thesis ready to be submitted was pretty incredible.
Something else that was really amazing was finding out that Professor Wright thanked me in one of the footnotes in his book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God on page 1431 (“My thanks to Jessiah Nickel for discussion of these…”)
So what’s your favourite passage of Scripture?
Is it OK if I pick two?
2 Corinthians 5:17, where Paul talks about how “If anyone is in Christ, new creation.” God’s work of making us and making the world new – restoring, redeeming – it began in Jesus and through the power of the Spirit, we actually have that new creation starting now, making us who are we meant to be in God’s image. I’ve held onto that verse for years.
The Sermon on the Mount is another favourite. It’s such a central passage of Scripture that centers on life in the kingdom – what does it actually look like to be the people of God and God’s new creation? It’s an incredibly high call and it only makes sense from a kingdom point of view.
What’s one book you would bring on a year-long retreat?
The Brothers Karamazov. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read more than once, and each time I read it, it’s more meaningful.
What drew you to your role here at Columbia? What are you most excited about?
Columbia’s focus is less on academic research and more on quality teaching. I enjoy research, but my passion has always been to be an educator rather than just a scholar. I’m here to use my gifts to be a teacher.
Also, more importantly, my other role here is pastoral. To be involved in the discipleship of students was even more important for me. There’s a huge emphasis at Columbia on spiritual formation and on equipping students to understand the Bible and serve God in all areas of life, and these are things I’m really excited about.
Why do you believe it’s so important for Columbia students to study the Scripture from an academic perspective?
For me, my first few years out of high school were hugely important. When you’re in your late teens, your world is really opening up, and you have a ton of voices speaking to you. It’s an important time to help students see that the Bible is an exciting, true, thoughtful, intellectually credible, life-giving voice.
Tell us about your family?
Liana and I grew up together at church and, after starting to date in high school, were married in June of 2004. Liana has a bachelor’s degree in interior design and worked in the industry for five years. While we were in Scotland she was a marketing and events manager at a farm shop and café, which she absolutely loved. She is also an incredibly knowledgeable and talented baker and pastry chef of everything from bread to macarons.
Our daughter Annelise was born in February of this year so she is almost seven months old. She is a very smiley baby with a fantastic head of hair, and has brought much joy into our lives!
I love golfing, running. When I was younger, I was secretly a fan of rap music.