November 25, 2016

Some Things I Learned at #SBLAAR16

The Society of Biblical Literature meets jointly with the American Academy of Religion. Thus, "SBLAAR16", although many don't realize the official hashtag now alternates each year, according to the downloadable app. If you want to search tweets and facebooking for this year, you'll need to search both #sblaar16 and #aarsbl16. Next year, I assume, it'll be #aarsbl17.

Its mission today depends on whom you ask.

I was in San Antonio for six days. Here's a recap of the highlights from my experience there.

On Thursday, 11/17/16: Before SBL started, I learned a lot listening to Anthony Le Donne and Larry Behrendt discuss Jewish-Christian borders in the context of their friendship. I also learned Anthony cannot shame me into ordering something other than a hamburger, and that Irish Pubs in San Antonio, strangely, do not serve vindaloo.

On Friday, 11/18/16: I learned the IBR (an SBL Affiliate group) has a regular program unit called Ancient Historiography and the New Testament. How did I not know about that before this year? I learned that Anders Runeson is an amazing doctoral supervisor, because he's not only responsible for Jonathan Bernier and Jordan Ryan, but Wally Cirafesi, who presented impressively on Synagogues in the Fourth Gospel. Later at the IBR session, I learned that NT Wright likes to talk during presentations when the crowd's large enough (because he sat behind me). I also learned that Ben Blackwell loves to talk about Biff Tannen. Go figure.

NOTE: From this point on, if you want more information, you can search by presenter and read their abstracts at the SBL web site's 2016 Online Program Guide.

On Saturday, 11/19/16: I learned that both Elizabeth Shively and Michael Whitenton have been following the work of David Herman in cognitive narratology, which is thrilling. It was especially interesting to hear Shively combine genre theory and schema theory in discussing "the mind-narrative nexus". In that same session, Mark Matson showed how the absence of specific locations and temporal detail in Luke's travelogue contrasts sharply with the rest of GLuke, essentially telling the audience to suspend "story time" for a "fictive space". Although I'd wanted to attend the Josephus section, I committed to spend time in sessions on the Synoptic Gospels, because that's where I need to do the most anthropological research, observing the Gospels scholars in those sessions. They are indeed such fascinating and curious beings. My notebook is filling up rapidly.

After lunch I caught some reviews of Richard Hays' Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Unsurprisingly, there were strong and general compliments, but some felt Hays pushes his method too far. For example, Moberly passed out a copy of Yeats' The Second Coming, pointing out the two famous excerpts "the centre cannot hold" and "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity", which we've all heard many times but which do not - for most of us - evoke the rest of the poem's content. Thus, how can we say "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" is necessarily meant to evoke ALL of Psalm 22 on Jesus' lips at the cross? The line was undoubtedly familiar, but did people know the whole thing? It seems difficult to say so. Still, I bought the book and I'll look forward to reading the Matthew chapter especially.

My favorite is the one whose eyes follow you.

I missed the Historical Jesus session with A.-J. Levine and Dominic Crossan (see Anthony's write up of that on The Jesus Blog) but I caught the one later on, in which Chris Keith's work in Jesus' Literacy was rightfully praised. Also in that session, a senior scholar acknowledged the prominence of the recent memory approach, in his general survey of the field, but when politely pressed during the Q&A that senior scholar couldn't describe how it might be compared or contrasted with his other main topics. It's disappointing when professionals haven't fully done their homework on the growing trends in their fields. Another senior scholar (who presided but did not present a paper this year) also said to my wife (something to this effect) that the memory approach was a niche designed to support new scholars in the field. That comment is a tragedy only for the scholar in question. The memory approach is a big part of the shift that is presently underway, and those who don't pay more attention are only going to be hurting themselves.

That night was the blogger dinner, which has shrunk over the years (as has blogging) but it was still fun to see friends old and new. It was also the first time since breakfast on Saturday that I saw my wife, Sarah. She'd been in different sessions all day, learning all sorts of things, which you can read about on her blog.

At some point on Saturday, I also learned from one seminary professor that a comment/idea I shared in our conversation last year is now a regular part of his class lectures on reconstructing the historical Jesus, which is not a bad start. May his tribe henceforth increase!

I briefly raided the book room on Saturday morning to find Jonathan Bernier's new book, hot off the press, but Michael Barber had just snagged the last copy, right as I got there, so I ordered one at the conference discount. I dearly wish J-Bern had been able to make it. When the subject is historical Jesus research, a bit of Bernier really makes everything better.

I can't be mad. I'm glad Michael loves him some J-Bern. Grrrrr...

On Sunday, 11/20/16, Sarah and I both attended the John, Jesus, and History session where Marianne Meye Thompson, James Crossley, Chris Keith, and Jens Schroeter. It was probably the best all around panel I got to this year, and the Q&A was absolutely the most fun. Mid-day sunday was our afternoon in the book room, catching up on new books and running into old friends. By the end of the week, Sarah wound up buying eight books and I bought ten! We also bought a copy of Dale Allison's Constructing Jesus (2010) for a dear friend who really should read that book asap, and he knows who he is, and I hope that he will.

On Sunday evening we sat in a session on Ancient Fiction and heard an interesting paper from Eric Vanden Eykel that's related to his new book on the Protoevangelium of James. After that we split up again and I did some more anthropology in the Matthew section, observing Matthean scholars in their native environment. They didn't eat me. Perhaps someday I will acclimate to their peculiar ways and their deeply embedded cultural repertoire of textual and theological references. Maybe someday I'll also learn the best way to pitch them an abstract about literary representation of the historical past. I got some more excellent advice on that front. More news may come soon, hopefully, on my own ongoing development...

On Sunday night I had a wonderful surprise dinner invite from some young scholars who give me very much cause for great hope. I shall say no more, except that historical imagination is of critical importance for NT studies, and that hope is a precious thing, always.

A magnificent masterpiece of historiography! 

On Monday, 11/21/16, I began my day with the highlight of my week. All four panel reviewers heaped glowing praise on Steve Mason and his magnum opus (for now), A History of the Jewish War: AD 66-74. It's a magnificent book - I've read nearly half of its 689 pages to date, and I may attempt a review at some point, but not now. Hearing Dr. Mason and Erich Gruen give lectures is always exceptional, although I wish their type of thinking were more common among New Testament scholars. On that note, perhaps the best news of all is that Mason promised a new book addressing historical theory and methodology from a pedagogical angle, to be published next year. I will put out further details about that as soon as I can confirm.

Mid-day Monday, I made some appointments to meet individually with a couple of scholars and I snuck in just in time for the Q&A of what must have been a whiz-bang session in Bible in Ancient and Modern Media. Sometimes I learn more from the Q&A when I'm not well versed in the sub-field. Make that, especially when I'm not well versed in the sub-field. I also got to meet Tommy Wasserman for the first time IRL, and a senior textual critic and patristics scholar told me he's enjoyed reading my blog for several years now, every time it shows up in the running feed on Tommy's blog. This fine gentleman of very obviously good taste also said I do a good job of "asking the perennial questions" and he thinks that doing so is important. Well, hallelujah and amen to that, kind sir!

It matters, you guys. It all matters. Keep working!

A final highlight on Monday evening was catching most of the review panel for Eva Mroczek's intriguing new volume, The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. (This is another area where I sit in mostly to learn new things about a related sub-field.) I haven't yet perused more than her table of contents, nor gathered about this new book much more than its gist, but it's garnered some chatter among those whom I notice. What's more, if I'm gathering correctly, its basic argument seems unassailable, and its impact seems potentially enormous. Best of all, meeting Eva was another first time "online IRL" moment, and it was fun watching her live non-verbal reactions to the presenters' thoroughly positive reviews. I must say, I don't think I've ever seen anyone be simultaneously so kick-ass and so adorable. We should all take notes watching Eva, probably. I know I'm going to do so.

Constructing Worlds in Books, in Minds, in Groups

By the way, that's the best thing about going to SBL, really. You not only cement your familiarity with the names and faces, but you get to put personalities together with scholarship. You get to learn who's an insufferable blow hard and which ones are absolutely the salt of the earth. Yes, there surely are some of each, but then, we all have our moments!

On Tuesday, 11/22/16, I was delighted by Eve Marie Becker's "Beyond History: How the Fourth Gospel Transcends Ancient Historiography" and absolutely in awe of Rafael Rodriguez' "What is History? Reading the Gospel of John as a Historical Text". I had to run out quickly from there, however, because someone scheduled the John, Jesus, and History section concurrently with the final Historical Jesus session. With a bit of speed, and a scheduled break for the HJ group, I arrived in time to hear Jordan Ryan present on "Jesus and Synagogue Disputes: A Historiographical Approach to the Institutional Setting of Luke 13:10-17", after which followed the delightful surprise of Bas van Os (first name sounds like "Bus"), on "Deconstructing the Chronology of Jesus". Admirably, my new best friend Bas demonstrated a stunning mastery of the ancient record from Josephus, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius, and surprised me with a connection or two that I had not made myself. Provocatively, he reviewed problems with the universally rejected chronology of classicist Nikos Kokkinos, but then argued persuasively that the more preferred chronologies among NT scholars aren't necessarily any more defensible than Kokkinos' chronology, if you apply the same rigor to examining all of them. As soon as I can make time, Bas and I need to talk more; hopefully, a lot more.

Between Bas van Os' SBL paper, Helen Bond's recent NTS article, "Dating the Dath of Jesus", and Jonathan Bernier's forthcoming project on dating the NT books, a time may be soon coming where we might need to clear the field a bit and formally re-open the field of New Testament Chronology. Perhaps someone with the appropriate privileges might even propose a new SBL program unit? I can be patient. I raise my game a bit more every year...

One last word on that Tuesday morning schedule. It's an absolute crime that those two sessions were scheduled competitively because I had to miss out on top quality papers by Anthony Le Donne, Tom Thatcher, Michael Barber, and Brant Pitre. Whoever's responsible should be scowled at severely. Harumph.

After that last paper, Os and Jordan got a free airport shuttle run in the Heroman mirth-mobile, and then Sarah and I drove north. The pain of leaving SBL16 was diminished somewhat by my very first trip to the famous Texas instittution known as Buc-ee's, and Sarah would blog about her first SBL the next day at Earth's Crammed with Heaven.

In the end, the only bad thing about this year's SBL was that it ever had to end.

Hopefully we'll see all y'all next year in Bawstan...

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