University academic wins prestigious national book prize for ‘provocative’ analysis of God

A ground-breaking book that undertakes a forensic cultural analysis of the physical representation of the God of the Bible has been awarded a prestigious national literature prize.

God: An Anatomy, written by Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion, has won the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize 2022, which celebrates the best non-fiction writing on any historical subject.

Published by Picador, God: An Anatomy sets out to challenge the common vision of the biblical God as an incorporeal being and discovers that he was originally represented as a ruddy-cheeked, dark-haired, and extremely masculine deity.

Shortlisted with six other major works of non-fiction, the book scooped the £2,000 first prize at the ceremony held at the Society of Authors, in London.

“I am delighted and stunned in equal measure,” says Prof. Stavrakopoulou at winning the 21st edition of the prize. “My book was up against a daunting array of brilliant and very diverse works, so I was shocked when they announced it had won. It was a thrill to receive the prize from Professor Olivette Otele, who’s not only a brilliant historian but a fantastic writer.”

Prof. Stavrakopoulou, of the Department of Classics, Ancient History, Religion and Theology, started work on the book in 2016 and was awarded a Leverhulme Research Grant to undertake the extensive research and fieldwork required. This involved repeated trips to the Middle East – Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan – and included several assents of Mount Sinai, where she visited the sacred fissure in which Moses is said to have hidden when he saw God’s body.

“It’s the book I always wanted to write – to find out why this deity, out of all the ancient gods, is the one who managed to survive into the present day,” she says. “I wanted to set God in his natural cultural habitat, and what we discover is that he was no different than the other gods in ancient southwest Asia. The book dissects God and his early history, unpacking the cultural, religious and social ramifications of his body, from his feet to his face.”

Released in 2021, God: An Anatomy was shortlisted for The Wolfson History Prize and named one of the Books of the Year by The Economist. It also attracted some rather more sinister social media responses from those who objected to the book’s approach.

“I was aware that it was provocative – it unsettles our cultural assumptions about the idea of God,” adds Prof. Stavrakopoulou. “Theologians tell us we are in a social relationship with God but how do you do that with an abstract being, someone who is incorporeal? We are a social species, and it’s by means of our bodies that we socialise. And what we find when we examine the ancient cultural context is a deity who was believed to socialise with humans because he had a body too.”

The PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize is awarded annually for a non-fiction book of specifically historical content, and previous winners have included historians David Olusoga and Exeter’s Richard Overy. Launched in 2002, it was inspired by Marjorie Hessell-Tiltman, who bequeathed £100,000 to the PEN Literary Foundation to found a prize in her name.

Among the shortlisted books this year, included Midnight in Cairo: The Female Stars of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s by Raphael Cormack, and Julie Kavanagh’s The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge and the Murders that Stunned an Empire.

Chair of the judging panel Prof. Otele said: “The breadth and depth of God: An Anatomy simply amazed us. This outstanding book challenges and enhances our perception of a deity, the Bible and even the representation of masculinity.”

Fellow panel member, the author Dr Emma Southon, added: “God: An Anatomy is not only a magnificent work of paradigm shifting scholarship, it is also entertaining, rich and full of pleasures. Both a joy to read and to learn from, it is an outstanding work.”