Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending the International meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature at the University of Amsterdam. Given the city’s pivotal history in Biblical scholarship, there really could have been no better choice of venue.
I have through the years attended many such events, but I was thinking what a first time visitor might make of something like this. Imagine a literate believer with a deep interest in the Bible, but no first-hand knowledge of the workings of the academy. What would strike that person about such a gathering? Actually, you can get an excellent sense of the proceedings from online materials, including the descriptions of the various Program Units who organize the sessions, and especially the detailed paper Abstracts. The latter in particular (160,000 words of text!) make for fascinating browsing. If you want a searchable overview of what a large portion of the profession is doing right now, here it is.
It would be possible to scour these materials for titles and topics that seem recondite, pretentious or just plain silly, and a couple of candidates do come to mind. I personally flinch when a scholar is offering a recondite study of (say) ancient Hittite mythology, and feels the need to lighten it by including in the title a jokey phrase borrowed from virtually anywhere – Star Trek, Batman, the Muppets, Lady Gaga…. (I am inventing that illustration: no actual Hittitologists were harmed in the making of that example).
Generally, though, presentations overwhelm by their erudition, in the scholars’ access to languages ancient and modern, and their extraordinarily wide grasp of non-textual disciplines, especially archaeology and anthropology.
Let me make a couple of broad observations about the themes that might strike a newcomer, and which would also have raised the eyebrows of an older academic generation. If you are a specialist in these fields yourself, pass over these following remarks as you will know the points all too well:
1.The definition of “Biblical literature” is so much vaster than might seem familiar to most mainstream believers, once we have included all the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books of both Old and New Testaments, the pseudepigrapha, as well as Gnostic literature such as the Nag Hammadi collection, and the Dead Sea materials. Papers ranged widely through such texts as 3 and 4 Maccabees, the Apocryphon of John, the Sethian texts, or Qumran text 4Q184. Although not claiming canonical status for other later documents, scholars also referred freely to later commentaries, including patristic and rabbinic studies.
2.Scholars approach Biblical texts through contemporary and currently fashionable academic theories and methodologies. I phrase that carefully because I don’t want to suggest that, say, feminist scholarship represents any kind of fad, but its enormous popularity is a strictly modern development, chiefly from the 1970s. Post-colonial readings are also popular, and, for me, highly informative, and I was disappointed that they were less well represented at this particular gathering than at many. Many panels reflected the strictly modern vogue for disability studies, a field that is barely twenty years old. In the Biblical context, that disability focus relates intimately to the whole matter of healing, wholeness and wellness. It also shapes the definition of threatening or anomalous beings, including giants, monsters and demons.
3.Time and again, we see the fascination not just with what the texts seem to say, but how they are read and understood. The processes of reading texts are of special concern – reading alone or collectively? In private or liturgical settings? Reading or hearing? Issues of reception and reception history also featured in dozens of presentations.
4.Related to this matter of changing understandings, some of the conference’s freshest studies focused on how the Bible has been absorbed in popular culture, and particularly film. There were excellent discussions of silent films on Biblical themes, as well as more modern religious-oriented features like The Ten Commandments, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Devil Inside, Lars von Trier’s Dogville, and even – may God forgive us – Roland Emmerich’s abominable 2012.
The next US-based meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature will be held this November, in Chicago.
In other European news, the wave of Islamic terror and intimidation continues unabated. In my case, it took the form of my standing innocently in a crowded Amsterdam tram when a young Middle Eastern man uttered the terrifying statement “Oh sir, please take my seat,” as if I was some kind of old person. If their goal is to destroy the morale of the white race, they are succeeding.