For Dr. Lisa J. Cleath, realizing her calling wasn’t about one single moment — it was a step-by-step process. Growing up in a Protestant environment where the authority of the Bible was of interest, Cleath gained an affinity for the Bible at a young age. Biblical authority was always top of mind, which also informed her collegiate studies. Along with it was her love for language and the way the Bible functions in Christian contexts.
After attending Wheaton College in Illinois where she double majored in French and Bible/Theology, Cleath attended Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California to pursue a master’s degree. After Fuller, she pursued a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Culture from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
At each stage, Cleath’s confidence rose along with a belief in her ability to pursue a ministry in academics. “It was through my educational process that I think I came to have clarity on a sense of calling for this vocation,” she says.
As a California native, Cleath spent her early years in Monterey Park, which is known for being an area that has a robust Chinese American community. Today, she’s conscious of how her identity is weaved into and becoming essential to her work.
“My embodiment as a mixed Asian American woman is something that is constantly feeding and present in my teaching and in my research,” she says. “I'm still just kind of starting to reflect on that. I'm excited to grow in thinking about how my identity is an important piece and lens in my work.”
While Cleath specializes in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, her work is especially focused on Second Temple Judaism. In her previous role as an associate professor of biblical studies at Portland Seminary at George Fox University in Oregon, she taught an array of topics, such as biblical interpretation, archaeology in the Bible, social justice in the Bible, migration, the history of the Old Testament, and more.
She points out the distinct connection between her instruction and her research. “It's very interconnected and integrated … It's through dialogue with teaching that I can develop these topics,” she notes.
Cleath’s recent research included examining ancient Near Eastern politics and considering how text serves to authorize political action. This is relevant to the United States in church history because people use the Bible here to authorize their actions, she explains. Because of this, Cleath researched historical cases in the ancient world that highlight how texts are connected to political authorization.
Upcoming research includes a comparison of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible. Cleath uses the books as examples of narratives that come from communities in exile that have undergone centuries of historical trauma through Imperial colonization and displacement. “I compare that to Native American communities that have undergone centuries of displacement through Imperial colonization. And in that piece, I look at the importance of narrative for building resiliency,” she explains.
In teaching and research, Cleath explores the interpretation and application of these topics in the modern world. “I'm interested in the application because I want to both be honest about the way the Bible has been used to harm people and then also look for ways that it can be used to heal those wrongs and repent,” she explains.
Cleath began serving as the assistant professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary this fall. Among many things, she brings a wealth of knowledge about the history and languages of the context in which the Hebrew Bible was created. “I'm interested in how it's been applied within these contexts, and especially in the American church context. For me, I have a passion for both that history and its application.”
As the world of Biblical studies evolves, approaches are changing and ushering in new and fresh ideas, including critical theory and application in teaching. “I'm hoping to bring those two things together, which includes thinking about one's motivations for studying the ancient world and studying the Bible,” Cleath says.
Because embodied pedagogy is another interest, her approach will also include multimodal methods — thinking about how students can enter the classroom and use all of their senses and their being to approach the material beyond cognitive understanding, she says.
Cleath has looked forward to joining Princeton Seminary for a number of reasons. High on her list is forging connections with faculty and students.
“I think I'm going to learn a lot from the other faculty and from talking with the students,” she says. “I'm excited to meet students from different contexts than I've not been exposed to while in Oregon in the past five years. It just seems like a really rich environment for dialogue.”