Blog on The Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature
Boston, November 21-25, 2008
By Robin Gallaher Branch, Professor, Biblical Studies Crichton College, Memphis
OVERALL VIEW OF THE 2008 ANNUAL MEETING OF THE SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE
Matthew Collins, director of congresses and professions for the Society of Biblical Literature, gave a glowing conference report of SBL’s annual meeting, 21-25 November in Boston. He spoke at the traditional breakfast for the program chairs on the last day of the conference on November 25. His positive report—including SBL’s amazing growth— in the face of America’s economic woes quite frankly astounded everybody and is in contrast to other trade assemblies across the nation.
Collins said official registration tallied 5501. “This was 1500 more than we hoped we would attend,” he began, “SBL is growing faster than we thought it would!” In addition to incredible numbers at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, an added plus that made Collins smile broadly was this: “The exhibitors are ecstatic!” he beamed. Numbers in the exhibit hall were 5000 on Saturday (23 November) and 6000 on Sunday, he said. And the people were buying! Collins reported that exhibitors told him “books are flying off the shelves!”
Contacted later, Allen C. Myers, senior editor at William B. Eerdmans agreed with Collins. “We’re very encouraged by the attendance,” he said. He noted the good conversations he had with scholars and the renewal of many friendships at the conference. In particular, he mentioned how different SBL was from the AAR (American Academy of Religion) which had met a week earlier. “There was no activity at AAR at all. It was just dead in the exhibit hall,” Myers said.
Collins said that a reason the exhibitors’ responses are so important to SBL is that registration costs for SBL members actually represent only about half of what is necessary to pull off an annual conference. “So the exhibit hall keeps us up,” he said. Collins shared some statistics that show SBL’s amazing growth over five years, 2004 to 2008.
Summarizing his findings, Collins said that in the last five years there has been a 93% increase in the number of sessions, a 73% increase in the number of participants, and a 105% increase in the number of program units. In round figures, membership in 2008 was 9,000, up 2,500 from 6,000 in 2004.
The figures show that “we’ve pulled in almost half our membership in the last five years, and that’s practically unheard of in the convention business,” he said. He thanked the Program Chairs for their hard work and credited them with much of the success of the annual SBL convention. The returned the compliment by warmly applauding Collins several times.
In addition to all the details of running a convention, there are some humorous notes. On a lighter side, Collins said that in his ten years at SBL he is confronted constantly with what he calls the “Goldilocks Question.” Meeting blank stares from the Program Chairs, he confided that the Goldilocks Question involves room size. He’s constantly juggling these things: Is it too small, too big, or just right? A particular joy for him is to pass a large room and see a crowd overflowing into a hallway with heads and ears cocked toward the speaker.
Deuteronomy and Environmental Law
Sandra Richter of Asbury Theological Seminary presented a paper entitled “Environmental Law in Deuteronomy” in a session sponsored by the Institute for Biblical Research and attended by well over 300 people. Her paper began by asking if environmentalism is a Christian virtue. She concluded strongly that it is a virtue from Genesis on.
Richter mentioned several aspects of creation pertinent to environmentalism and ecology including the Creator’s satisfaction and the fact that in God’s creation, “there is always enough.” Moving further into the biblical text, she noted that the land is the incarnation of the blessing and is described as flowing with milk and honey. Most importantly, the land is a gift from God; and the people are repeatedly reminded of this throughout Deuteronomy, Richter said. Since the land is a gift, Israel occupies it in a tenant status. God the Creator owns the land. The land is good. The good land and its good produce belong first to Yahweh (Deut. 26:1-3).
Richter said that not even economic viability could serve as a rationale for greed. The biblical text supports these surprising facts that run against greed: The land must rest once every seven years; the beasts of labor are to eat, even if their food cuts into the laborer’s food supply, and the poor must have the dignity of working for their food by picking up the leavings of the harvesters (Deut. 24:19).
Why was the land to be given rest? “So that it could have the opportunity to replenish itself,” Richter said. Furthermore, rest on the Sabbath was commanded for the laboring ox, the laboring immigrant, and the laborer and his family (Exod 20:8-11; Deut. 5:14-15). Richter pointed out that the law outlined good agrarian practices—if the Israelite farmer abided by the law. Animals were supposed to walk the fields; in doing so, they would drop excrement, a natural fertilizer, and their hooves would break up the soil.
Throughout her talk, Richter mentioned modern practices that run counter to the biblical laws given in an earlier time. She posed the question: Should they be in force today? For example, one-crop fields today deplete nitrogen, which leads to a practice of heavy fertilization. In terms of animal husbandry, sows are artificially inseminated, penned in narrow metal cages and deprived of exercise and sunlight throughout their lives. Richter said that the law permitted the killing of animals, but it was to be done mercifully. Furthermore, animals under an Israelite’s care were to be well treated and encouraged to enjoy their brief lifespan with proper exercise, sunlight, and food.
Richter said that in her study she found no evidence in the biblical text that economic growth was an excuse for exploitation—quite the contrary. Instead, economic growth would come because of the ongoing good stewardship of the land.
In contrast to other nations (specifically the hated Assyrians), Israel was forbidden in warfare to cut down trees, especially fruit trees, for siege works (Deut. 20:19). Nut, fruit, date palm, and olive trees all take years to mature. A reason Assyria was so despised and feared by the world at the time was because of its practice of devastating orchards. Richter referred to the tradition that a farmer in Israel plants an olive tree for his grandchildren as an example of ongoing ecology.
In terms of the prohibition about muzzling an ox while it worked, Richter noted that in a subsistence economy, an ox’s daily food allowance may cut into the family’s supply of food. “But even in a shortfall, the beast was to be allowed the benefit from its labor,” Richter said.
The biblical text allows human beings to slaughter animals—but with care. “This is in contrast to the assembly line approach,” she said. In an illustration that drew gasps from the audience, Richter recounted how sometimes an animal on a slaughter assembly line is not dead immediately and goes through the process alive. For example, the animal can have its hooves cut off while it still lives, she said.
She summarized the concept throughout the Old Testament that the earth belongs to the Lord. “You may use it but you may not abuse it,” she said. Why? Because Israel’s husbandry of the land and care of the animals and the plants were to reflect in all ways the character of God. Israel’s charge from God was to manage all aspects of his creation with care so that they would be preserved, she said.
Consultation: Early Christianity and the Economy Section
SBL’s new consultation, Early Christianity and the Ancient Economy, sponsored five sessions. “The sessions went very well,” said Fika van Rensburg of North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Rensburg co-chairs the consultation with John Fitzgerald of the University of Miami. Among the sessions were ones on Galilee and the economy, as well as a book review of The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2007) edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris, and Richard P. Saller.
The papers this year demonstrate that much has already been done relating the New Testament to the economy of the Mediterranean world—and beyond, van Rensburg said. He sees “a decade or maybe a fifteen-year project” for the consultation. “We hope to do an economic commentary on the New Testament,” he said.
Fitzgerald added that the project, formally launched at SBL in San Diego in 2007, also had papers presented at the New Testament Society of South Africa (NTSSA) meeting earlier this year, the North American Patristic Society (NAPS) meeting in Chicago, and the 2008 International Congress of SBL in Auckland, New Zealand. Additional sessions are planned for NTSSA in 2009 at Stellenbosch and NAPS, again in Chicago, and SBL in New Orleans.
One of the papers presented at the Early Christianity and the Economy Consultation was by Bradford Kirkegaard of San Diego State University. Kirkegaard spoke on “Constantine’s ‘In Kind’ Donations and the Economy of the Early Christian Church.”
Kirkegaard said that the emperor Constantine populated the outskirts of Rome with churches. While this on the surface looks like beneficence, the gifts carried heavy maintenance responsibilities. The gift of the churches may not have meant an underlying economic boom or stability in the economy of AD 300-400, or an ongoing blessing.
Records of gifts included land for the church and adjoining land that would produce some sort of maintenance cash crops, metal objects associated with worship, silver, spices and oil. Included among the spices was pepper, a popular addition to Roman food at the time.
Kirkegaard wryly noted that the gift of churches required maintenance, which was a hidden cost—and a costly hidden cost at that. Maintenance was essential because people did not want to offend a powerful emperor. As such, the magnificent churches may not indicate a wealthy economy, Kirkegaard said. Indeed, in some cases the churches might have been a hindrance or drain on the economy because the in-kind income may not have helped the area’s poor.
Throughout his paper, Kirkegaard pointed out the validity of the Liber Pontificalis as a primary source concerning economic matters. He found that the largest churches received endowment gifts of 4000 solidi/year and the smallest received 600 solidi/year. But expenses were heavy. St. Peter’s burned 200 pounds of incense during Easter alone. A smaller facility, the church of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, burned 100 pounds of balsam annually.
Another costly item was the oil that was used for lighting. Kirkegaard noted that it is referred to as pure nard, something that may indicate that impure nard was diluted in some way. Spices and linens were in-kind gifts as well, according to the records. Linen, used for liturgical purposes, was popular because it was white and could be bleached.
Nard oil was in massive demand and very expensive. The leaves came from India in the Hindu Kush and were processed in Palmyra and Laodicea. Kirkegaard summarized his talk with a bit of humor: “Keeping the lights on in the large churches was no small matter—then and now!”
Teaching Biblical Hebrew
Helene Dallaire of Denver Seminary presented an entertaining, audience-participation paper that proved many of her points about the benefits of communicative language learning—even for a so-called “dead” language like biblical Hebrew. Dallaire is part of a three-year project on communicative learning entitled CoHeLeT (Communicative Hebrew Learning and Teaching) sponsored by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.
Assisted by Peter Vogt of Bethel Seminary and Randall Buth of the Biblical Language Center in Israel, Dallaire demonstrated a mock classroom setting of the first and last days of a first year Hebrew class in a seminary setting. On the first day, Dallaire meets each student at the door of the class and introduces herself in Hebrew. She then introduces one student to another. She encourages the students to meet and greet each other—all in Hebrew.
The first class continues with questions like “What is your name?” Students move around the classroom acting out the commands and putting in practice the new words and sentences they are learning. Remember: this is all in Hebrew and these are adult learners! By the end of the class, the students know commands, actions, endings, a few Hebrew words, and so on. One command is “Give me.” Two statements are “I have” and “There is.” Subsequent classes give opportunities for pronoun suffixes, dialogue, more Hebrew words, songs, and other learning areas. Hebrew songs combine learning vocabulary (largely from the Psalms) with memorizing scripture. Her classes are “sometimes taught 98 percent in Hebrew” she smiled. Dallaire, a French Canadian, speaks French, English, and Hebrew fluently.
“Communicative classroom learning is the way we learn our first language,” Dallaire said. “A mother does not hold a baby, rock back and forth, and say, ‘This is a noun and this is a verb.’ No. We learn by hearing and doing something again and again.”
The mock teaching session also involved a skit about Jonah and the whale. Dallaire laughed about the fact that while the Hebrew names were accurate, the text (which contained a lot of ad-libbing) contained a few liberties. There were signs in Hebrew for Tarshish, Jerusalem, and Nineveh. Participants went around following commands, getting lost and trying to do it right. The session was quite jovial. “People were talking and talking afterward. They didn’t want to leave,” Dallaire said.
The three-year Wabash project has found that retention with this method is much better than retention in the usual grammar-based inductive or deductive method. Bodily actions (called TPR, Total Physical Response), speaking, singing, and sight recognition are all involved in the communicative classroom method and aid in memorization and retention, Dallaire believes. The project’s website is http://www.ashland.edu/cohelet/.
“By the end of the semester the students are interacting in full sentences, and using correct verbal forms. The students know the perfect and imperfect tenses, participles, and the waw consecutive,” Dallaire said.
Dallaire is finding that this teaching method is a success with her students. “People who didn’t know Hebrew learn it and love it. It’s much easier to learn this way, and it’s more fun. It’s more natural, too,” she smiled. Would it work with Koine Greek? “Of course,” she smiled.
Update on Megiddo
Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University presented a much-anticipated update on excavations at Megiddo, an important mound in a southwest section of the Jezreel Valley. Located along the Via Maris, which connected Egypt with Syro-Mesopotamian economic and population centers, Megiddo flourished in part because of its location on this major thoroughfare.
Finkelstein noted that the University of Chicago started excavations on the mound in the 1920s, almost 100 years ago. A modern exploration of Megiddo began in 1994, and Finkelstein leads the Megiddo project that comprises European, Israeli, and American archaeologists and scholars.
Speaking to an audience that responded well to his talk and interacted with it with friendly laughter and humorous asides, Finkelstein noted that “the idea of exploration is not a treasure hunt.” Comparing the archaeological techniques of the 1920s to those of today, he stressed the benefit and reliability of new technology like radiocarbon dating; he also lauded the greater control current supervisors have over exploration, excavation, and data. “Students are better and easier to control than the hired workers they used to have,” he smiled.
“We are at Megiddo to create some order at this very important site,” he continued. He emphasized order in both chronology and stratigraphy. “In earlier years, there was not good control over pottery and other things. That’s why we’re here now.” He mentioned that his group has found “a good assemblage of pottery.” Furthermore, his group distinguished additional layers on the tell in contrast to the two identified by the team from Chicago. He credits better technology for the difference.
Finds at Megiddo include a huge temple and a building with a basalt stone floor dating to the Early Bronze Age. Because it is not native to the area, Finkelstein believes the basalt was imported to Megiddo.
The famous Megiddo stables probably date to the 9th and early 8th centuries BCE. They seem to date to a period later than Solomon, which is an important discussion point among archaeologists and biblical scholars.
Finkelstein believes the destruction of the palace took place in the late 12th century BCE. His analysis of the data indicates that “the idea was to take out the people of the palace. It was the mother of all destructions.”
Several times in friendly banter he challenged his hearers—if they disputed any part of his findings, talk or analysis—to bring him about 60 artifacts or other data.
Showing a slide depicting a pile of rocks traditionally known as the tomb at Megiddo, Finkelstein says he’s not willing to say it is indeed a tomb. It was discovered by Gottlieb Schumacher, the excavator of Meggido between 1903 and 1905. “What we can say about it for sure is that it was built in the Late Bronze Age and continued to be in use in the Iron I period,” he said.
Poster Session—Meals as depicted in Luke
Christine E Shander, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, presented a poster called “Literary Structuring of Meals in the Gospel of Luke.” The Poster Session encourages bystanders to walk by and talk with the presenters about their visual presentations.
Shander found that meals differ in Luke. In some meals, characters receive Jesus hospitably and receive his kingdom as a lifestyle as well. In contrast, meals sponsored by the Pharisees notably lack hospitable vocabulary. Actually, the meals with the Pharisees climax with their decisive rejection of him and their plot against him, Shander said.
She summarized that, overall, the intimate fellowship through meals embodies the extension of favor to the undeserving groups along with the consequential rejection of Jesus as foretold in the his mission statement at the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-30).
Perhaps the most interesting visual part of her poster was what she saw as a chiastic structure of some meals in Luke. Here is her research:
Shander found that the meals hosted by the tax collectors are geographical bookends regarding Jesus’ Galilean ministry. In B and B’, Jesus turns the criticism of the Pharisees back on the ones giving it.
Tamar, David’s Daughter, as a Biblical Writer?
Adrien J. Bledstein, an independent scholar from Chicago with a lengthy publication record, presented a paper titled “Abuse and Recovery: Telling the Story” positing that Tamar, the daughter of David, wrote many of the stories in the Hebrew Bible. Presenting in the Psychology and Biblical Studies Section, Bledstein ventured that Tamar, ravaged by her half-brother Amnon (2 Sam 13:1-21), was her father’s favorite child. A textual hint verifying this is that Tamar wore a richly ornamented robe; Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, was introduced in this way as well (2 Sam 13:17; Gen 37:23).
Bledstein said that Tamar’s garment, a protective, royal-priestly robe, resembled those of other Mesopotamian daughters of kings. These royal daughters often served as priestesses in their homelands and were literate.
Bledstein noted that scholars have wondered about the intimate details presented by the text in the stories of David and his family. Who would have known them or dared to write about them? Perhaps only a family member. She suggested that part of Tamar’s healing from the rape might quite literally have included the act of writing. Bledstein sees many clues within the text, especially the texts about women, that point to Tamar as author. She believes Tamar might have felt “compelled to tell and write about her own abuse within the superb narratives by the so-called Yahwist, Elohist and Court Narrator preserved in Scriptures.”
Bledstein finds the stories of David are full of irony and humor and yet written with an omniscient perspective that may have erupted from human grief. Bledstein believes that “Tamar transforms her lamentation to storytelling.”
Bledstein links the mysterious story of Moses and Zipporah on the road back to Pharaoh (Exod 4:24-26) with Tamar. Zipporah, circumcising her son, calls Moses her bridegroom of blood. “We may imagine that the violence done to Tamar is the ‘circumcision’ of her heart which provokes her to write the story of Israel, evoking healing and restitution for wrongs done,” Bledstein said.
BEYOND THE CONFERENCE CENTER ...
By All Means, Get to Know Your Doorman!
Here’s a survival tip for making it through a conference: Get to know your concierge and your doorman. I called my hotel, the Colonnade, two weeks before arriving and asked questions. The front desk connected me with the lead doorman, Norman Maines. Is there a workout room, I asked him. Yes. Is there a pool? Yes, but it’s outside! With three women in a room, can there be a rollaway cot? Sure! Should I take a cab or a shuttle from the airport? Take a shuttle but don’t pay for a roundtrip because too many people wait and wait for a return shuttle and end up racing to the airport in a cab and paying double.
When I arrived at the Colonnade, I looked for Norman, as he likes to be called, reminded him of our conversation, and thanked him personally. He turned out to be friendly, helpful and a wealth of information. He’s a man who unabashedly says he loves people. Norman obviously enjoys his job. Over and over in all our conversations he kept saying, “I love to serve!” And his enthusiasm and expertise have been recognized over and over again with awards. For instance he won the Governor’s Award for Hospitality and Service in 2005.
He’ll tell you the best place to eat nearby on a medium-priced budget (Atlantic Fish on Boylston Street) and how to see Boston slowly (go on the two-mile walking tour called the Freedom Trail and be sure to take a detour to the USS Constitution). “Must sees” are Fenway Park (accessible via the trolley), Faneuil Hall and Marketplace (for a true Boston experience). A “must do” for ages that range from toddlers to age 80 is the Boston Duck Tour. The vehicle is a bus that becomes a boat. You’ll crash and splash into the water and see Boston via an amphibious vehicle complete with its own conDUCKtor.
No question is too trivial or personal for Norman. Guests dressing for an important meeting often check their shirt color with him before leaving. “They like the opinion of someone in a uniform,” he explained.
Well, what does he like best about Boston? “It’s very diverse. That’s its charm,” smiles the Colonnade’s award-winning lead doorman, Norman.
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