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Midwest SBL 2009

Midwest SBL 2009 February 16, 2009

I got back yesterday from the Midwest Society of Biblical Literature meeting at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. I wish to make a public apology for my constant coughing at the conference, which I’m certain was annoying (it certainly was to me – having bronchitis is a pain in the neck…er, lungs). In spite of this, and some sleep deprivation, it was a great conference.

I spent Saturday at the Gospels section, where I read a paper entitled “Written Islands in an Oral Stream”, about the oral context of the written Gospels, methodology, and the relevance of this subject to the Synoptic problem and the historical Jesus. There were a lot of interesting papers in the section. Michael Halcomb, fellow biblioblogger, spoke about Jesus’ death in light of the concept of diffusion and change. Lee Sang-il spoke about ‘codeswitching’ (i.e. changing languages) in Luke-Acts, and drew to our attention something I personally hadn’t noticed before, namely the many different ways that Nazareth is spelled in Luke-Acts. In light of some of my recent interests, I immediately began wondering about the languages spoken by the author, as well as how much these variant spellings might be due to the use of an amanuensis unfamiliar with the place name (or at least, not used to writing it down). Clare Rothschild filled in for a last-minute cancellation with a paper on Pisidian Antioch (which she had the opportunity to visit recently) in Luke-Acts.

In the morning session (and thus before my own paper) Travis M. Derico read a paper entitled “There Is No Such Thing As ‘Orality’: Some Consequences for Synoptic Criticism”. I couldn’t help wondering whether there would be any point to my paper that afternoon! But Derico’s point was rather that there is no one thing that can be spoken of generically as “orality”. Specific historical and cultural settings, as well as different genres, result in “different oralities”. One important point in the paper (which I also made in mine) is that the important differences between folksongs and epic poetry on the one hand, and Gospel narratives on the other, make it problematic to generalize about the latter on the basis of studies of the former. He also shared some fieldwork he did recording oral stories among Christians in Jordan. After my own paper later that day, during the question time, we had some interesting conversation about why I continue to think that, even though orality is a crucial part of the story, so too is literary dependence.

On Sunday morning I went to a session chaired by Holly Hearon on teaching the Bible, focused on the subject of textbooks. Rather than coming away from the session with a list of useful alternative texts to try out, I found that many, and particularly those who like to teach the Bible to some extent inductively, find the sorts of textbooks available problematic to a greater or lesser extent. The conversations were very valuable, in particular our discussions about the challenges of teaching undergraduates with diverse backgrounds, assumptions, degrees of interest and prior knowledge. I found myself imagining a textbook or reader that would accompany the primary texts, but rather than discuss “Who, What, When Where and Why”, would either provide background information to be read before reading the text (e.g. a reading about “rent captialism” and the 8th-century socio-economic context of Amos before reading the book of Amos itself) or after reading the text (for instance, one that asked about possible perplexities in a Pentateuchal narrative, and then introduced the Documentary Hypothesis as one of the ways scholars have tried to make sense of the text). A nice moment was when one member shared the experience of reading Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel, and how clear it was when reading that book that Wellhausen’s source critical approach was an attempt to make sense of the text, not impose a pre-defined framework upon it. Critical reading of the Bible is nothing other than an attempt to take the Bible seriously, all of it in all its details and with all its difficulties. Pretending that the Bible doesn’t have these features is, by way of contrast, an act of infidelity to Scripture.

At that session I was also able to draw the extremely useful material at archive.org to the attention of some professors who were unaware of it. Students are going to continue to turn to the internet rather than books in spite of professors’ warnings, and so I’d much rather they use the old series of the International Critical Commentary than Matthew Henry for academic papers – or books by Julius Wellhausen, for that matter.

It was good to hear at the meeting that the president of Olivet Nazarene University seems to be prepared to lift the restrictions on Richard Colling (author of Random Designer). If true, this means it is unlikely that the AAUP will have to take any further measures with regard to the situation. This was a matter of some concern at last year’s meeting, and is one of the reasons other meeting venues were proposed. I think that, even though the matter seems to be in the course of resolution, it is good that next year’s meeting is planned to be held at Valparaiso University. Although the attendance this year was excellent, there seemed to be fewer attendees from Ohio and Michigan. Changing the venue from time to time in the region is a good thing in terms of bringing the event closer to people who might find one particular location that little bit too far for convenience.

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