The Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta
November 20-23, 2010
Overall View of the 2010 Annual Meeting
At this year’s meeting in Atlanta, there were more than 4800 conference participants in 470 sessions, and more than 1700 people on the program. “Nearly 20 percent of all SBL members participated in the program,” said Charles (Charlie) G. Haws, manger of programs for SBL. Last year, registrants in round numbers tallied 4400; so the 2010 meeting represented an increase of about 400.
Plans continue for the SBL’s International Meeting at Kings College in London during July 4-8 and for SBL’s annual meeting in 2010 in San Francisco. The latter meeting will be held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Obvious positives about the 2010 combined meeting are: 1.) that book exhibitors will have to exhibit only once, and 2.) that a combined meeting will reduce the strain on travel budgets for those with membership in both societies.
In addition to San Francisco, concurrent meetings with the AAR will be held in Chicago in 2012 and in Baltimore in 2013.
Interspersed throughout in italics and indented are blurbs about Atlanta, truly one of America’s great cities, and its attractions.
The Fox Theatre, aka “the Fabulous Fox,” was built in 1929. It survived the Great Depression, bankruptcy, and encroaching American land development. For generations, the theatre has delighted audiences with its onion domes, minarets and grand ballrooms. The all-time showstopper, of course, is the Fox’s Moller organ, the second largest theater organ in the world. It has an amazing number of pipes: 3,622!
Richard A. Freund
Freund argued that in the development of a Rabbinic economy, the Rabbis inserted a series of laws designed to prohibit Jews from purchasing many items from outside a Jewish economic structure. Freund’s paper challenged the usual explanation of purity vs. impurity as to why these rules came about regarding glass, metal, and other marketplace commodities.
Instead, the Rabbinic laws were protectionist, declared Freund, and used to bolster lagging parts of the economy. The laws went into place because of what Freund called “the two disastrous rebellions against the Romans in 70 CE and 135 CE.” Freund argued that the laws served to protect what was left of the Jewish economy and to differentiae Jewish life from that of the neighboring Christian and Roman populations in the land.
Freund mentioned the lack of additional scriptures offering a rationale for these purchasing restrictions. In other words, the laws in the Talmud were simply there because the Rabbis said so. Freund stated that it is well known that the standards of the Rabbinic age did not consistently continue the standards of the Biblical age; the world had changed and the Rabbis met the changing social and economic changes with changes of their own.
A humorous example involved Jewish pottery. Evidently everyone at the time knew that Jewish pottery was poorly made and inferior to that of other nationalities. Consequently, it would be logical to buy the best from other vendors, right? Not so, said Freund. The Rabbis ruled that Jews had to buy pottery from Jews. Another example was the Sabbath lamp: The restriction that Jews had to buy a specific kind of lamp led to “developing a Jewish oil lamp industry,” Freund said.
Ultimately, protectionism served to keep people in the area and to create jobs, Freund maintained.
Matthew J. Lynch
Lynch argued that “physical diminishment or debilitation of the body is a common response to social shame” in the Hebrew Bible.
Suffering a disaster is shown in modes of dress and in altered behavior like facial expressions, wailing, and trembling. Mourning and shame overlap in Hebrew culture. It is interesting, however, that there is not a Biblical Hebrew word for blush.
Lynch sees an interaction between trauma and mourning. A practice was to embody being conquered and to embody being hungry. The idea was to attract God’s pity--for God was known to have pity on the destitute--and therefore to urge God’s action.
“The opposite of shame is a full tummy,” Lynch said.
The Georgia Aquarium is the “world’s largest” and home to 100,000 fish.
Noah M. Marsh
Leviticus 18 makes clear, Marsh argued, that everyone’s honor must be protected—including the honor of other nations. Furthermore, if the head of a household is dishonored, “the dishonor trickles down—like Reaganomics in ancient times,” he quipped.
The Biblical text sees honor as a limited commodity. A person cannot gain honor at the expense of a fellow countryman’s honor (see Lev. 18:20). A family that gives its child to Molech, another deity, “profanes the name of HaShem and diminishes the honor of HaShem,” Marsh said.
Ultimately, “all people derive their honor from HaShem,” Marsh said.
Buckhead is known as Atlanta’s most glamorous neighborhood. It earned its moniker from a buck’s head attached to a tavern in the early, early history of the state. Now the area sports malls, elite restaurants, and beautifully landscaped and maintained Southern mansions.
Some Personal Observations
It’s been a pleasure dealing with editors at the SBL meeting over the years. I’ve dealt with InterVarsity Press, Zondervan, Eerdmans, Hendrickson, Westminster John Knox, and Baker and found the companies professional and honorable.
One thing I’ve noticed is how editors keep their secrets. Editors from different reputable publishers individually have told me how they rewrite submissions and seldom receive thanks. Two independently told me of completely redoing two absolutely horrible submissions; yet each author on viewing the final copy praised himself for how well he had written!
I replied that those comments, albeit selfish and self-centered, indirectly complimented the two editors, for the mark of a good editor is being able to make a submission better.
N. T. Wright
The new creation functions through redemption. The vision of the love of God is redefined by the death of his son, the Lamb of God. Therefore, the kingdom and the cross are thoroughly integrated in the four gospels, and Jesus is the embodiment of Israel’s God. The Shepherd dies for the sheep.
Because the Kingdom of God is radically defined in terms of suffering, the Kingdom is for this world. Salvation is for this world. The Kingdom brings victory. The cross is the victory which overcomes the world. A result of the entwining of Kingdom and the cross is that forgiven people are part of the work of righting the evils of the world. This radical new theology of the Kingdom of God led to massive resistance during Jesus’ time; likewise, today’s culture does not want to know about this Kingdom, Wright said.
Atlanta’s High Museum of Art was designed in 1983 by Richard Meier and named one of the ten best works of American architecture of the 1980s. The High Museum has a minimalist look. It contains a permanent collection of 11,000 works including contemporary art, folk art, sculpture, and five centuries of European painting.
SBL Women Members’ Breakfast
My table enjoyed a frank discussion. Several women noted the way men in their institutions are advanced over women. One woman said she would voice an idea in a meeting and get no response, but as the meeting progressed or at a next meeting, a man would voice the same idea and be enthusiastically received. Another woman who wasn’t being taken seriously for a promotion at her institution applied to other institutions and brought back acceptances to her dean; he suddenly took her very seriously, and she got the promotion at her home institution. Yet another woman mentioned that men are comfortable promoting themselves, but women are comfortable only with asking questions.
Informal tips about promoting oneself in a healthy manner abounded and included the following:
Fields maintained that the grammar method - the traditional way of teaching Biblical Hebrew - leaves a student thinking in his or her mother tongue and translating the Hebrew back to that mother tongue. That way of teaching makes learning to think in Hebrew difficult.
Fields asked himself if he were willing to explore other options in teaching Hebrew; options that seemed to increase retention levels and enjoyment levels among students. Retention levels, he’s discovered, apply both to remembering Hebrew and to class attendance. Fields pointed out that often the Biblical languages are electives.
Now a firm convert, Fields believes the immersion technique engages the students more fully and more beneficially than does the traditional grammar memorization. The more students are engaged in their learning process, he said, the more they enjoy what he called that “blue skies” feeling—the feeling that they can learn, enjoy, and even have a command of the language.
Fields observed that commercial programs for teaching modern Hebrew involve immersion in the language. “There’s an 80 percent overlap between modern and Biblical Hebrew,” he said.
In discussion afterward, Helene Dallaire of Denver Seminary explained that the communicative approach to language learning involves hearing, speaking, enacting, doing, memorization, reading the Biblical text, and, of course, examinations.
She believes that students who learn Biblical Hebrew via the communicative approach retain it longer and prefer it because, quite simply, it’s more fun. In addition, a student “attains proficiency much faster with the communicative approach,” she said.
Furthermore, a communicative approach is a more natural way to learn a language because it involves listening, comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing. “It’s easier to read after you learn how to speak,” Dallaire said.
Tyndale House Breakfast
Carson, speaking on “Contrarian Reflections on Individualism,” noted that not many voices today support individualism. The prevailing thought today seems to be that goodness resides in various expressions of community.
Carson offered new thoughts on this subject. He noted that countries that discourage individualism like Japan, Saudi Arabia, and even Australia are hostile to the Gospel. He bemoaned the lack of individualism on North American campuses.
Yet Jesus advocated individualism in the sense that a disciple was to hate even primary relationships. Paul had troubles and was at time rejected by churches he founded.
Carson posited that individualism must first be differentiated from the “self-isms.” In Japan, a person exists to serve the culture, the state; perhaps stemming from this idea is that there is not word for sin in Japanese.
Carson voiced these frequently asked questions of theology: To what extent does God interact with the world? To what extent does God judge the world? Our answers to these questions, he answered, quite likely constitute the most important parts of our life.
Job maintains that God frightens him at night in dreams and visions. But Elihu counters that God may speak through a dream or vision in order to turn a man from wrongdoing or keep his life from perishing by the sword (Job 33:14-18).
Job suffers in the book bearing his name. But Elihu maintains that while God may cause suffering, he also bandages wounds.
The chapters present God as a teacher (Job 36:22). Mediation also is present in the chapters, Pilger said. She spoke of a mediating angel, one who shows mercy to the sufferer and may stand up for the sufferer as an advocate.
The angel has found the ransom for the sufferer. The key, Pilger discovered, was that there was no active participation needed on the part of the human in this redemption. The idea of this kind of mercy is rare in Job, she added. God directs the suffering human being’s redemption via a mediating angel. The merciful angel as a mediator leads the sufferer back to God.
Piedmont Park, two miles from Atlanta’s downtown, was developed by the Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects. It contains a dog park, picnic facilities, and Lake Clara Meer.
SBL Session in Honor of David Ussishkin: The Signal Fires of Lachish
Although calling him the leading scholar in Biblical archaeology, Finkelstein thoroughly roasted Ussishkin in an opening talk entitled The Hercule Poirot of Archaeology? Finkelstein sketched Ussishkin from his European and Palestinian connections, through his kindergarten years, and on into a career marked by a careful study of many archaeological sites.
For Ussishkin, “facts come before theory and that’s why he’s the Hercule Poirot of archaeology,” Finkelstein said.
Another way Ussishkin resembles the famed Agatha Christie sleuth is his disdain for consensus, Finkelstein said. For Ussishkin, consensus is the greatest enemy of academic work, and he has attacked it.
Karen H. Jobes
“We’re at the top,” she told the attending scholars. But she cautioned them as well that even scholars may be inadequate in understanding God and the mysterious mode in which he has given us his word.
She called attention to the simplicity of the children’s song, “Jesus Loves Me,” pointing out it contains Christology, epistemology, hermeneutics. Its first verse is “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so! Little ones to Him belong: they are weak, but he is strong.”
Jobes told of caring for her terminally ill mother. “The death of a parent can teach us love we cannot learn in any other way,” she said, and many in the audience nodded.
Before his death, Jesus chose to spend his time with his friends, his disciples; he did not choose to spend time with his family, Jobes continued. Jesus’ teaching during his last days gives us confidence, indeed full confidence to know that in our own deaths we are returning to God, she said.
Just before her mother died, her mother expressed doubts about her faith. “What if it isn’t true?” she asked her daughter. Stunned, Jobes went numb for an instant. Then she felt as if God’s grace intervened immediately, for she replied, “Jesus loves you, and Jesus wouldn’t lie.” That settled it for her mother.
“Let us be children of the Father and willing to trust Christ’s love for what we do not know,” Jobes concluded. “Let us focus on Christ’s love, a love that will love us to the end.”
Centennial Olympic Park is downtown Atlanta’s 21-acre park. It’s known for its easy access to the Georgia Aquarium, and the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Center, and the Philips Arena.
Harper said that the Old Greek translation of chapter 3, the closing theophany in Habakkuk, offers a “distinctly different spin from that of the Masoretic Text.” Harper’s paper mentioned several interpretations and interpretative angles. For example: In the MT, Yahweh appears to be reminding his hearers of the escape route followed in the Exodus. But details in the OG text “remove specific Sinai connections,” he observed.
Textual differences in translation, Harper continued, could reflect societal conditions. For instance, the Church Fathers reinterpreted the passage in their own context, he said. “Use the evidence of the Church Fathers with extreme caution. They wrote hundreds of years later and in a different social context,” he said.
Harper’s paper walked the hearers through the text, pointed out OG and MT differences, and showed the vitality of the text in the early patristic writings. His paper illustrated that translation techniques vary over the centuries and among translators, but all translators struggle with this: Difficult, obscure, and no-longer-in-use Hebrew words.
Maarten J. J. Menken
The pastoral and leadership analogies of sheep and shepherd abound in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Mark 14:27, quoting Zechariah. 13:7, gives a positive image of the shepherd. Possible interpretations of this verse are that God strikes Jesus or that it is the will of God to strike Jesus.
Matthew may have rewritten a bit of Mark’s gospel. Matthew 26:31, also referencing Zechariah 13:7, distinguishes two kinds of sheep: Those who belong to a flock and those without a shepherd. In Matthew, the Gentiles also belong to the flock.
However, the Epistle of Barnabas offers a different perspective. Barnabas 5:12 states “When they strike their own shepherd, then the sheep of the flock will perish,” Menken said. In Barnabas, the sheep of the flock are the persecutors of the prophets and are people who plot an evil plan. Menken maintained the Barnabas text is a vehemently anti-Jewish statement and serves to emphasize the Jews’ guilt.
Menken said that obscure apocalyptic texts like Zechariah 13:7 “often generate multiple meanings. Zechariah 13:7 proves to be no exception.”
Goodrich tackled Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward, a parable widely considered to be “the most puzzling of Jesus’ teachings.” People throughout the ages have scratched their heads when trying to figure out how a steward is commended for reducing the debts owed his master.
Using insights from Pliny, Goodrich demonstrated that landowners at the time had modest financial goals for their large estates; they preferred a moderate and consistent rate of return and avoided what we would call high-risk investments. From an analysis of Pliny’s letters, especially 9:37, Goodrich argued “that these modest goals enabled, and at times required, proprietors to adjust their leasing arrangements in order to secure the repayment of debts and the longevity of their tenants.”
Pliny’s remarks showed that he liked to purchase property with tenants in place, that expelling tenants was not an option and that suitable tenants at the time were in short supply, Goodrich found.
Building on the material in Pliny’s letters, Goodrich then argued that in reducing the debts of his master’s tenants, the steward in Luke’s parable was not unjust but instead was successfully securing the repayment his master’s debts and therefore “the long-term profitability of his master.”
Goodrich concluded that the actions of the steward in Jesus’ parable not only were shrewd but also were honest, and therefore “deserving of both praise and perhaps exoneration.”
Druid Hills, another famous Atlanta neighborhood, was made even more famous because scenes from the movie Driving Miss Daisy were shot there.
O’Brien sought to investigate the theological implications of “darke” poetic texts and openly wondered what it would mean “to do theology in a truly prophetic poetic mode.” Her paper--the best I heard at SBL--drew on the work of Yvonne Sherwood, who compared Biblical prophetic poetry to that of John Donne, the English cleric and poet.
Wrap-up Thoughts on the Conference—with Thanks to Qoheleth
A time to iron and a time to wear rumpled,
A time to write a book and a time to see it gloriously displayed,
A time to be a PhD student and a time to stand amazed that the PhD is finally done,
A time to hurry to get a paper ready and a time to face its critical peer review,
A time to graze at consecutive receptions on Saturday night and a time to dine with conference friends,
A time to interview at the Career Center and a time to rejoice in the job at hand
A time to present and a time to listen,
A time to hustle to get to a conference and a time to go home, to rest, and to be thankful.
Robin Gallaher Branch
Robin Gallaher Branch is Professor of Biblical Studies at Crichton College in Memphis, Tennessee and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her PhD in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002-2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. The Fulbright turned out to be one of the happiest experiences of her life. She fit in so well with her new colleagues in the Faculty of Theology that she was asked to stay on for a finite appointment through December 2004. Her academic career so far includes these accomplishments: She has presented over 52 papers at US and international academic conferences; published over 50 book reviews; published 49 articles in books; published 19 articles in academic journals; and delivered over 150 guest lectures. In August 2009 Hendrickson Publishers published Jeroboam’s Wife: The Enduring Accomplishments of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women. An unexpected and very rewarding award came in January 2009 when Mason YMCA in Memphis chose her for its Spirit Award for 2008; the award cited her work (specifically original plays based on stories from the Bible) with middle-school boys in an after-school program.
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