Forbidden Gospels Blog
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In Western religious traditions, God is conventionally conceived to be humanlike creator, king, or ruler enthroned in heaven. But what about the God of the unconventional Western traditions, the God of the mystics, gnostics, and sages? Like almost everything else in these esoteric traditions, God is hidden, secreted away. Sometimes God shows up in another universe beyond our world. Other times God is cloaked behind veils in celestial palaces or within a body of blinding light. Often God is understood to be utterly transcendent, utterly beyond us, while also immediately immanent, immediately within us. This symposium, the inaugural event of the Department of Religious Studies’ new Program on Gnosticism, Esotericism, and Mysticism (or GEM) offers academic reflections on these secreted traditions about God, from the ancient world to the modern period.
ROCKWELL SYMPOSIUM, April 15-18
April 15, 3-5 p.m.
April D. DeConick, Rice University
“The Gospel of John as a Transtheistic Early Christian Gospel: Reconceptualizing Johannine Origins and the Roots of Gnosticism”
John Turner, University of Nebraska
“From Hidden to Revealed in Sethian Revelation, Ritual and Protology”
BURKITT PUBLIC LECTURE, April 15, 7:30-9 p.m.
Kocku van Struckard, University of Groningen
“The Esoteric Quest and Western Culture”
April 16, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Kelley Coblentz-Bautch, University of St. Edwards
“The Hidden God in the Pseudo-Clementines”
Andrei Orlov, Marquette University
“Adoil Outside the Cosmos: God Before and After Creation in Enochic Traditions”
Bernard McGinn, University of Chicago
“The Hidden God and the Hidden Self in Christian Mysticism”
Claire Fanger, Rice University
"God's Occulted Body: Divine Involucra in Alan of Lille and Bernard Silvestris"
David Porreca, University of Waterloo
"How Hidden is God? Revelation and Pedagogy in Ancient and Medieval Hermetic Writings"
David Cook, Rice University
“The Vision of God in Muslim Dreams”
Jeff Kripal, Rice University
"On the Mothman, UFOs, and Other Monsters: John A. Keel and the Superspectrum of the Occult"
John Stroup, Rice University
"The Multidimensional Physics of History and the Problem of Transtheistic God-Language as Cultural Critique in the Popular and Learned Works of Joseph P. Farrell"
April 17, 8:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m.
Gregory Kaplan, Rice University
"How (Not) to 'Immanentize the Eschaton' and Other Problems for Hans Jonas and Eric Voegelin"
Steven Finley, Louisiana State University
"Hidden Away: Esotericism and Gnosticism in Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam"
Anne Klein, Rice University
“The Transcendent, the Mysterious, and the Hidden in Tibet: A Buddhist Logos”
Shira Lander, Rice University
“Scholarship on Ancient Palestinian Helios Mosaics: Hiding the Revealed God”
Marcia Brennan, Rice University
“The Modern Museum and Mystical Houston”
April 18, 8:30-11 a.m.
Jonathan Garb, Hebrew University
"Shamanism and Modern Kabbalah"
Bill Parsons, Rice University
“Contours of an Emerging Psychoanalytic Spirituality: Prospects and Problems”
ABSTRACT: Astrology as a way of understanding the world has woven its thread into cultures since Mesopotamian times. Along with its technical descriptions of calculation and interpretation, whether written on clay tablets or vellum, using stylus, quill or printing press, it has also taken form in sculpture, mosaics and painting, as well as inhabiting such esoteric bodies of knowledge as Kabbalah, alchemy and magic. Modern scholarship, viewing astrology from the outside, pays little attention to the language incorporated in such esoteric lore and has assigned it solely a cultural meaning, assuming astrology to be a form of divination, shaped by Aristotlean cosmology and Neo-Platonic philosophy. In so doing the Academy has failed to understand that astrology forms a lingua franca stitching together multiple paradigms of thinking. These fall beyond cultures, and bind, underpin and flow through them, reflective of and inherently part of human experience.
- Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, The University of Bristol, The Strange History of Astro-Archaeology
- Elliot Wolfson, Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New YorkUniversity, Theosis, Vision, and the Astral Body in Medieval German Pietism and the Spanish Kabbalah
- Kocku von Stuckrad, University of Groningen, Jewish Astrological Imagery in Late Antiquity
- Roger Beck, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto, Imagery and narrative in an ancient horoscope: P. Lond. 130 (Greek Horoscopes no. 81)
- Peter Forshaw, Assistant Professor in Western Esotericism, University of Amsterdam, Astronomia Inferior et Superior:Some Medieval and Renaissance Instances of the Conjunction of Alchemy and Astrology
- Geoffrey Shamos, Postgraduate research student, University of Pennsylvania, Astrology as Sociology: Depictions of the “Children of the Planets,” 1400-1600
- Liz Greene, Postgraduate research student, University of Bristol, The magical astrology of the British occult revival, 1885-1939
- Bernadette Brady, Postgraduate research student, Bath Spa University, The visual cartography of the sky since Mesopotamian times
- Darrelyn Gunzburg, Postgraduate research student, University of Bristol, Medieval frescoes and sculptures as astrological documents
Mark your calendars. Rice Religious Studies Department is hosting its Rockwell Symposium 2010, an international conference on April 15-18th in the Kyle Morrow Room, Fondren Library: Hidden God, Hidden Histories.
The symposium is designed to work on two distinct but related levels. On the first level, we intend the symposium as the inaugural event of the Department's new GEM Program, an area of graduate study at Rice that focuses on the traditional scholarly categories of Gnosticism, Esotericism, and Mysticism, but also seeks to revision, renew, and move beyond them in creative and positive ways.
On the second level, the symposium will serve as a platform to bring together a set of particular studies to be published under the title, Histories of the Hidden God. Papers will address the specific topic of the Hidden God and the relationship of that God to the universe and humanity. The “thesis” of this edited volume is the exploration of religious traditions that characterize an absolute being who is “beyond” the conventional gods and our cosmos, a being who may even be conceived of as existing outside the known universe. This absolute being may be portrayed in theistic or non-theistic terms. Its relationship with the cosmos and other beings may vary from a relationship that is utterly transcendent to one that is radically immanent.
By focusing on the manner in which these ideologies describe the relationship between this god-beyond-god(s), the cosmos, and humanity, one of the main goals of this volume is to attempt to view thinkers and groups, whose traditional labels (‘gnostic’, ‘dualist’ etc) have associated them with the history of heresy, within a broader world view that connects them with others who were conceiving God and the world in similar ways. Thus another goal of this project is the hope that our studies will engage academic language and discourse in such a way that will facilitate a better understanding of this type of ideology (transtheism?, metatheism? etc) as part of a continuum of forms of belief, rather than as something sharply distinct from more normative or mainstream theologies. If this can be accomplished, it would move us in the direction of opening up the study of gnosticism, esotericism and mysticism to non-judgmental, yet critical academic categories.
A schedule of speakers and events will be posted as soon as that becomes finalized over the next month.
David Frankfurter (University of New Hampshire) will be speaking at Rice on Monday, March 30, 5-6 pm in Humanities 119. His lecture, "Imagining Evil Conspiracy: From Early Christian Cannibalism to Satanic Ritual Abuse" addresses issues that he has raised in his newest award-winning book, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History.
Thirty scholars will be participating in round table presentations and discussions. Each scholar is contributing a paper. The forum is a working conference, with the intention to think tank together about this new material. What does it tell us about early Christianity that we didn't know before? That we knew before? What can we learn about Gnostic-Christian-Jewish relations?
HERE is the link to information about the CJC, including the daily schedule and scholars' abstracts.
There will be two public lectures in the evenings. If you are in the Houston area, you may wish to join us for these.
Professor Marvin Meyer and Professor Gregor Wurst
Reconstructing an Ancient Papyri Book:
How the Gospel of Judas was Restored and the Questions It Raises
Thursday, March 13, 2008, 7:00 p.m.
Rice University, Duncan Hall, 1055, the McMurtry Auditorium
Professor Elaine Pagels and Professor Karen King
What Else Didn’t We Know about the Early Christians?
Friday, March 14, 2008, 7:00 p.m.
Rice University, Duncan Hall, 1055, the McMurtry Auditorium
Thursday, February 28, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Farnsworth Pavilion, Ley Student Center, Rice University
Program and Panel Discussion sponsored by The Friends of Fondren Library
to honor the 2007 Rice Authors, Artists, Composers, and Editors
I have been asked to be one of five panelists, to talk about my book The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says. The moderator will be asking us questions, as well as the audience.
A reception follows, and books by all authors will be available for purchase.
For more information, call 713-348-5157 or 5908
Symposium on Early Christian Art
Saturday and Sunday, March 1–2, 2008
A two-day symposium featuring distinguished scholars from Europe and America will discuss various aspects of the function of Christian art, including its use in the format of Christian self-identity. The symposium will be moderated by the curator of the exhibition, Jeffery Spier of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
This symposium has been made possible by a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation.
Welcome and Introductions
Temple, Church, and Synagogue: The Evolution of Religious Architecture in the World of Early Christianity
Emblems of Catholic Identity in Rome and North Africa
Images at the Christian Tomb: What They Do and What They Expect
Fountains, Apses, and the Meaning of Water
The Earliest Christian Decorated Books: Function and Use
Art and Liturgical Disposition in Early Christian Churches
"Countless Imaginations" and the Authentic Likeness of Christ
Sunday, March 2
Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, Former Director of the Baghdad Museum will be talking about "The Looting of the Baghdad Museum: A Loss of a Nation's Memory".
He will speak about the fate of the Museum and its collection of priceless artifacts that have been lost.
Tickets: 281-497-7382 or at AIA-HOUSTON.COM
Coffee and Dessert Reception to follow at 8:30 pm.
Honoring Professor Florentino García Martínez’s great achievements for the Groningen Qumran Institute and Dead Sea Scrolls studies and initiating a new series of biennial conferences, the Qumran Institute announces
The Authoritativeness of Scriptures in Ancient Judaism:
The Contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature
A Symposium at the Groningen Qumran Institute, 28–29 April 2008
Organization: Mladen Popović (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Monday, 28 April 2008
9.30-10.15 Ed Noort (University of Groningen): The Need of Authority: From Joshua the Successor to the Joshua Apocryphon
10.15-11.00 Julio Trebolle Barrera (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain): Authoritative Scripture as Reflected in the Textual Transmission of the Biblical Books
11.30-12.15 Arie van der Kooij (University of Leiden): Authoritative Scriptures and Scribal Culture
12.15-13.00 Émile Puech (École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem, Israel): Quelques observations sur le canon des Écrits
14.30-15.15 George van Kooten (University of Groningen): The Authority of David and Christ’s Davidic Lineage in Paul (Romans 1.3, 4.6, 11.9)
15.15-16.00 Tobias Nicklas (Universität Regensburg, Germany): “The words of the book of this prophecy” (Rev 22.19): Playing with Authority in the Book of Revelation
16.30-17.15 Michael Knibb (King’s College, London, UK): “The Mosaic Torah is Conspicuously Absent in the Early Enochic Literature”: Reflections on the Status of 1 Enoch
17.15-18.00 Hindy Najman (University of Toronto, Canada): Exile, Exemplarity and Revelation in 4 Ezra
18.00-19.00 George Brooke (University of Manchester, UK): The Apocalyptic Community and Rewriting Scripture
Tuesday, 29 April 2008
9.15-10.00 Jacques van Ruiten (University of Groningen): Rewritten Bible and the Authoritativeness of Scriptures
10.00-10.45 Emanuel Tov (Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel): From 4QReworked Pentateuch to 4QPentateuch
11.15-12.00 Mladen Popović (Qumran Institute, University of Groningen): Ezekiel and Pseudo-Ezekiel in the Dead Sea Scrolls
12.00-12.45 Eibert Tigchelaar (Florida State University, Tallahassee, USA): Aramaic Texts from Qumran and the Authoritativeness of Hebrew Scripture
14.15-15.00 Charlotte Hempel (University of Birmingham, UK): Pluralism and Authoritativeness: The Case of the S Tradition
15.00-15.45 John Collins (Yale University, New Haven, USA): Prophecy and the Authority of History in the Pesharim
15.45-16.30 Jan Bremmer (University of Groningen): How Holy are Holy Books? A Comparison of Greece, Rome, Early Judaism and Early Christianity
17.00-18.15 Keynote address: Florentino García Martínez (University of Groningen/Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium): Rethinking the Bible: Sixty Years of Dead Sea Scrolls Research and Beyond
From: Aram Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies [email@example.com]
Subject: Mandaean Conference: Last Call for Papers
ARAM Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies is organizing its Twenty Sixth International Conference on the theme of The Mandaeans, to held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 08-10September 2008.
The conference aims to study Mandaeism and its relationship to Near Eastern religions and Gnostic movements, and it will start on Monday 08 September at9am, finishing on Wednesday 10 September at 6pm. Each speaker’s paper is limited to 30 minutes, with an additional 10 minutes for discussion.
If you wish to participate in the conference, please send your answer to the above ARAM e-mail address before March 2008. If you know of colleagues who might like to contribute to the conference, please forward this message to them or send us their names and email addresses. Yet, we would like to remind our colleagues that only academics are allowed to present a paper atan ARAM conference.
All papers given at the conference will be considered for publication in a future edition of the ARAM Periodical, subject to editorial review. If you wish to know more about our ARAM Society and its academic activities,please open our website: www.aramsociety.org
If you have any questions or comments at any time, I am always happy to receive them.
Yours sincerely, Shafiq Abouzayd (Dr.) Aram Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Society The Oriental Institute University of Oxford Pusey Lane Oxford OX1 2LE firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have any questions about the conference, ask and I will do my best to answer them. If you attended the conference too and want to add something to my list, or correct me if you had a different take, let me know in the comments and I'll flip your comment up to the main page.
This was one of the most extra-ordinary conferences I have had the privilege of participating in. I learned an enormous amount of information about disciplines I normally don't interact with, including statistics. The conference had so many high moments - and high emotions with many conference members yelling and becoming agitated, especially the archaeologists who seem to have very contrary opinions among themselves and about the involvement of the media in their discipline. At one point, Professor Charlesworth had to intervene and call for order.
What did I learn?
1. There were two stats professors on the panel: Andrey Feuerverger (who had to create a new methodology to deal with the problem and is now publishing his 100 page result in a refereed stats journal) and his very vocal critic, Camil Fuchs (who was one of the referees for Feuerverger's article). The stats are fascinating, and everything is dependent on Mary Magdalene according to both professors - whether Mariamenou kai Mara refers to her. If she is "in" the equation, the stats are astounding, double what had been previously aired in The Lost Tomb film. If she's out of the equation, then the numbers are not statistically meaningful. Many participants wanted Feuerverger to run different scenarios with different assumptions, but he was hesitant because the paper that he has written has already taken so much out of him in terms of time and commitment.
2. So everything is dependent on Mary Magdalene, a woman. The panel on Mary included myself, Jane Schaberg, and Ann Grahman Brock. My own conclusions about Mary:
2.1 Mariamenou kai Mara can't be maintained as the best reading of the inscription in my opinion. There are major problems with Mariame[noue]Mara, as Steven Pfann and Jonathan Price have pointed out. The inscription ought to be read: MARIAMEKAIMARA. This translates either "Mariame and Mara (=Martha)" (if the second part of the inscription KAIMARA were added at a later date with new bones of a new person were put in the ossuary) or "Mariam, who is also Mara" (if the inscription was written at the same time). Some at the conference wanted to play around with the inscription IDs and wondered if "Mariam, who is also Mara" might refer to Mary the mother, while the other "Maria" ossuary might refer to one of Jesus' sisters (according to the Gospel of Philip, Mary is the name of his mother, his sister, and his partner) or Mary Magdalene.
2.2 It is questionable in my opinion whether Mariamene (which is what Rahmani said Mariamenou derived from) is even a name for Mary Magdalene. The "E" has to drop out to get Mariamne which occurs in the Acts of Philip. But Mariamne in the Acts of Philip isn't distinctively identified with Mary Magdalene; she appears to have been understood in some of the manuscripts as Mary of Bethany sister of Martha. Mary Magdalene in fact has a plethora of names attached to her from the very early sources: Mariam, Maria, Mariamme, Mariammen, Mariamne, Maria he Magdalene (but not Mariamene, as far as I know - please correct me if I'm wrong).
2.3 The Magdalenes in our literature are memorial Maries rather than historical Maries. I contrasted the encratic Mary (female-become-male celibate) with the Valentinian gnostic Mary (wife of Jesus). I explained how these Maries are the result of communal memory functioning within different socio-religious environments. The earlier knowledge of Mary that they seem to be developing is the tradition that Mary Magdalene was a single woman, who was a disciple of Jesus, and an important Christian leader. This is plausible historical information about her.
3. On the final day of the conference, I asked if only family members could be in these tombs. I got "yes" from some of the archaeologists and "no" from others. When they were pushed, I got "we don't know." Why? because not all ossuaries are marked with information about relationships that the deceased had with each other. On average there is buried 4-6 people in one bone box, and sometimes the box only has one name on it. The period of ossuary burial in these "family" tombs is very brief. By the second century, catacomb burial arrived full force, probably influenced by Roman practice.
4. The KEY moment at the conference was when the widow of Joseph Gat (the man who originally excavated the tomb) accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award given by Princeton for her husband. She gave a moving speech in which she shocked us all. It has been said over and over by the archaeologists that there isn't anything particularly stirring about the cluster of names on these ossuaries, and no one seemed to notice them including Professor Gat. Mrs. Gat told us that when he salvaged the tomb contents her husband thought that this tomb was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and because he was a Holocaust survivor, he kept silent. He was afraid that a wave of anti-semitism would erupt if he said anything.
5. The patina expert (I am forgetting his name because he sat in the audience rather than up front on the panel floor) said that it could be significant that the James ossuary and the others in the Talpiot tomb had the same patina, especially since the Talpiot ossuaries were half covered with earth and the tomb had been breached. He said that the random sample that was tested wasn't high enough - another 50 ossuaries would need to be tested, and other tombs in the immediate proximity of the Talpiot tomb would need to be tested too. So there is more work that would need to be done to link the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb. But it is not the 10th ossuary that Gat found. The 10th one was plain, uninscribed and broken. The archaeologists were very verbal and very committed to this. Could there have been another ossuary looted from this tomb before Gat got there? Who knows. More tests would need to be run to figure this out. We found out that these tests are very costly and time consuming, so who knows if they will be conducted.
6. The DNA test that was run on the Mariame ossuary was so contaminated that the results have to be thrown out.
7. The results. We didn't take a vote, or anything like that. There seemed to me to be an enormous range of opinions, many of which were connected into theology and why theologically it can't be the tomb of Jesus and his family. There were some that said "No way" for other reasons. Most people I polled during the reception said that there wasn't enough evidence to make a positive identification (for various reasons), so they said they were "very skeptical" or "skeptical." A few people, however, did find it likely if not probable. There were a number of scholars who thought that this might be an early Christian tomb or what Professor Charlesworth called a "clan" tomb, rather than a "family" tomb.
Looking forward to spring, there will be the Codex Judas Congress, March 13-16. I am receiving abstracts from the participants now. I will get those posted mid-January. I am in the process of preparing my own contribution to the Congress on issues of authority in the Gospel of Judas, the First Apocalypse of James, and other early Christian literature. I am particularly interested on how appeals to the Twelve were being used by the Christian leaders of the second century. After the Congress, full length papers will be collected and edited into a conference volume. So keep your eyes out for that book.
Over the summer, I have several articles to prepare for various projects. One will be about sexual practices among Gnostics. This is for an edited volume that Paul Foster is putting together. I also am preparing a paper on angels in Valentinian traditions for a conference in Tours which will take place in September. I will likely focus on the Jesus Aeon-Angel as the microPleroma descending to earth and incarnating.
Also in September is the Coptic Association's meeting - this year in Cairo. I hope to be part of a session on (re)defining Gnosticism.
As for the Boston SBL in November, that is too far ahead for me to know exactly what I will be preparing for, although I know that the New Testament Mysticism Project will be continuing. So I will at least be preparing an entry for that.
I am also going to begin writing my second book for the general audience. I'm trying to decide - should it be a book on the Gospel of Thomas, making my scholarly work more accessible to a broader audience, or should I begin work on a book about how I think the early Christians (as Jews) began to worship Jesus?
In terms of teaching, this semester Coptic continues. We will finish the last five chapters of Layton's book and then move on to read the Tchacos Codex to prepare for the Congress in March. I also have a lecture class, Christian Controversies and Creeds, that covers the growth of Christian thought from the bible to Chalcedon.
So in the upcoming year, this blog will probably continue to feature the newest and latest on the Tchacos Codex, the Gospel of Judas, the Valentinian literature, and the controversies between various factions of Christians in the second and third centuries. I also want your suggestions as my readers. Is there anything that you would like to see me address in the coming year? Let me know via comments or e-mail.
Link to Codex Judas Congress information.
Especially note the two public lectures: one featuring Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst; the other Elaine Pagels and Karen King. The location has changed to the McMurtry Auditorium in Duncan Hall. I am working on setting up a table of books written by all the scholars who will be attending the conference. This will be set up outside the auditorium before and after the public lectures.
Graduate students, please consider submitting your topic for a poster session.
Link to Poster session information.
I have had scholars begin to contact me who are not on the slate but who would like to attend, and even present a paper. If you are in this situation, feel free to e-mail me.
I recall the meeting at the University of Michigan on Vision and Audition in 1995 when I proposed to the scholars present that we form the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism unit. I distinctly remember one of the scholars present shaking his head and admonishing us that our unit would never be approved because the SBL was not allowing for the expansion of its number of units. I'm one of those people that take such advise as a challenge, so we went ahead with the proposal anyway. Of the couple new units approved that year, we made the cut.
Why did I suggest that we form this group? The main reason was that the academy had no units studying mystical traditions or religious experience. So when my colleagues and I tried to present papers in other groups, our work was tangential and even marginalized in those sessions. The audience had come to hear about a particular text or set of texts - be it the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Rabbinic literature, or Nag Hammadi literature, or Thomas traditions, or Pseudepigrapha - and when we would try to engage them in a conversation about mystical traditions within this literature, it wasn't particularly productive because it wasn't their issue or interest.
But once we formed a space for the discussion of the mystical to occur, wow, did things happen. I think our unit, in terms of publishing books connected to our unit, is one of the most productive. I can list at least twenty books that have roots in our group, and these books are published in excellent scholarly series put out by Brill, Mohr-Siebeck, T & T Clark, SUNY, etc.
And what spins off should be noted too. From the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group has been the creation of the Religious Experience in Antiquity unit, and the New Testament Mysticism Project Seminar - more spaces for more scholars to explore connected but more specialized interests or research projects (as is the case with the New Testament Mysticism commentary). It is the snowball effect, and it is what vitalizes everything that our generation of scholars will produce.
These smaller specialized units allow a space for graduate students to be welcomed into the academy, to be supported as they look for jobs, as they begin writing for journals, and publishing their first book.
But complete specialization and separateness is not what I'm talking about. It is important to stay connected to the discourse of other groups. So the ability to do joint sessions on a common topic of interest is exceedingly vital. We try to put together a joint session at least every other year, to stay in touch with bigger issues and alternative methods.
This is what I mean when I say that SBL is a communal experience for me. And I can't imagine it being that way without the presence of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group to which I owe more than words can express. I just can't emphasize enough how these units can become your family, your home away from home. The people that I have met and worked with in these units have become very dear to me. I can't imagine a SBL meeting without this special space for us and our work. Or our Saturday night dinners, which is always a highlight of my meeting.
So I am SO GLAD that the SBL Powers have changed their minds and policy on new groups, allowing the growth to occur and supporting this as much as possible. I don't worry one bit about "over-specializing" - this isn't even a word in my vocabulary. What we are about is enlivening biblical studies, making it an exciting field for a new generation of scholarship. To do this successfully requires scholars to have the freedom to work on collective projects, to create units that support minority positions or interests as well as the dominant.
With more units, it means that we are going to miss things that we would like to have been part of. But when hasn't this been the case? It also means that the committees have to provide an agenda that the group wants to participate in. But this is what we want anyway - programming that is connected to the scholarship happening on the ground.
This means, though, that we are never going to have our agendas set two years in advance as the SBL Powers are insisting - because who knows what fabulous things we are all going to be doing then (smile!).
My experience of SBL is a communal one. What I mean is that this is the one time of year that I get together with scholars who are working on similar projects and texts. It is a time to catch up on what everyone else is doing and thinking. It is a time to share what I've been doing. It is a time to celebrate publications and other successes. It is a very valuable time to me, and the one year I missed when I was eight months pregnant remains a hole in my institutional SBL memory.
I have found that reading papers is actually a good thing especially in larger groups. No amount of predistributing paper is going to mean that anyone in the audience has read it and digested it. Predistributing only works if the group is very small - like a seminar - and the goal of the meeting is detailed discussion of the paper (like the New Testament Mysticism Project Seminar).
But this is not the goal of all sessions, nor should it be. The paper reading sessions have their own goal, and that is distribution of information for general comment. This is extremely informative especially when the committee has set up a coherent slate of papers, and offers one person to summarize and respond to the set of papers read. Hearing a paper read is not the same thing as reading it in my office, just as studies of orality and scribality have shown. Why? Because the orator can be interrupted, can be asked questions, can be probed for further information or reflection, can interact with the audience. It is these interactions, these intersections with others, that adds even more value to these sessions.
I might add, however, that orators need to distinguish between the written word and the oral word. Rewrite your academic paper into an oration (think: public lecture), and it will be more concise and easier for the audience to follow. I started doing this last year for my conference presentations, and I have found that the feedback from the audience is much more positive. Get your thesis out there, and a few solid points developed, and that's it. Leave the rest for the publication that will follow out later.
The other sessions that I find helpful are the book review sessions. In these sessions the respondents give a good sense of the content of any given book, have some critical remarks, to which the author can then reply. The best book review sessions are the ones where all comments and responses have been prepared ahead of time, and read at the conference. The Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group has done review sessions almost every year, and they are very successful in my opinion. The best book review I heard this year was by James Tabor of Jane Schaberg's Resurrection of Mary.
As for the number of sessions, when SBL first started to allow for more and more sessions (about three years ago I think), I was concerned that the sheer number wasn't necessary, and would keep the number of attendees down per group due to competition. But this just hasn't been my experience so far. I am developing a different sense of the SBL units now that so many are being put into place. These units function as small communities of scholars with like interests, goals, and projects. More often than not, these interests cannot (and perhaps even should not) be cultivated in already existing units, because the already existing unit has its own history, method, and past/future agenda. Even though leadership is made to shift in the units, they remain controlled by the community of scholars who launch them. I see nothing wrong with this as long as the agendas continue to be full of life for the community involved. And as long as the powers that be allow other communities of scholars to form their own groups to support their own research.
So if a group of scholars wants to open a unit on "History in Acts" as a separate venture from the Acts group (which has its own life and interests), then I say let it be. The more units like this that come into existence, the more research will be done and distributed. This policy allows for minority positions to have their own sessions, rather than be controlled by the dominant position which might already have a unit that is not interested in the minority position.
As for issues of attendance, I think that my original perception of needing to cultivate large audiences for all the SBL units is silly. The SBL unit's success has little to do with large or small audiences. It has to do with the community of scholars who form the basis of the group, whether or not the session is helpful to them. This community might consist of 20 or 120, but these are the people for whom the sessions are built to inform and interest, not the 5120 who could care less about the subject.
What to do about competing time slots? This has been the big drag of the programming from day one. I don't see any way out of it. There will never be a meeting without overlap. So it comes down to the luck of the draw and individual choice of attendance.
I want to emphasize only two things that I hope that the SBL organizers will consider. Stop 9-11:30 a.m. sessions on Saturday. We need this time for committee meetings. I do not like these early morning sessions at all.
Please judge room size better. I cannot believe that the panel on Judas where Elaine Pagels and Karen King were responding to Birger Pearson, Louis Painchaud, and me was put in a room that seated 75. People were sitting in the aisles, along the perimeter of the room, and hanging out the door. Those crammed in the doorway told me that at least 50 people tried to get into the room, but finally left exasperated.
Finally I want to say that I absolutely LOVE the Friday working sessions. I hope that SBL will continue to allow for these sessions. It is time for closed seminars like the New Testament Mysticism Project to get real work done on communal projects.