Where Biblical Scholars Meet, Discuss, and Debate Their Work
By Kenneth Westby
The biggest event in religion and biblical studies is the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). This year’s meetings were held at the San Diego Convention Center November 17-20.
Once again, Dixon Cartwright and I attended SBL along with about 7000 other members from around the world. This is the gathering that attracts scholars and faculty from virtually every institution that offers religious studies in its curriculum plus a host of independent scholars, authors, and serious students. Dixon and I fit in the last category.
The four-day affair offers more than can be digested with 40-60 seminars going on simultaneously from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with evenings filled by various receptions hosted by publishers and vendors. The free food and drinks draw the underpaid scholars like flies to roadkill.
We attend these things to learn, see friends, and keep up
on the latest trends and discoveries in biblical studies, archeology, theology,
and related fields. Most seminars are a bore so picking those that have real
substance is important, but not always successful. The AAR/SBL combined meetings
offer a big and diverse tent. The AAR seminars include studies in religion per
se which include non-biblical religions. And of course, the AAR is also the
venue for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) scholars to show
their stuff…academically speaking. SBL is where the biblical “meat” can be found
with seminars on every area of Scripture from prophecy (one entire session I
attended was on “Babylon in
My First SBL Meetings
The year was 1974 and I was freshly fired from the Worldwide Church of God for leading an apparently unwelcome reformation. That year the SBL was having its meetings in Washington D.C. where I was living. I only remember the substance of one seminar and that was research on why Mormons send their missionaries to America and Western Europe while the Baptists and Methodists were still sending their missionaries to Africa. The Mormon Church had a different purpose and a deliberate strategy to fulfill it. You might recall that presidential candidate Mitt Romney did his mission work in France, and God knows France is a mission field crying for help…seriously.
I recall attending some SBL meetings with my colleague Dr. Charles V. Dorothy, a world-class scholar in my opinion. One year in the mid-80s we bumped into Dr. Herman L. Hoeh at SBL meetings in the Los Angeles area. Charles attended SBL faithfully until the year before his untimely death.
Meeting Friends and Debating Doctrine
A little neighborhood Italian restaurant made room for several of us friends for what turned out to be, as seems usual for us, a lively chat. I’m sure the diners jammed next to our table might have used stronger words to describe our friendly, animated, and at times, high volume discussion. Joining me and Dixon were biblical heavyweights Dr. Phil Arnold, Dr. James Tabor, and Everett Oakley. Between bites of penne pasta and Fettuccine Alfredo we managed to debate a number of doctrines from forgiveness and repentance to how the atonement works. The restaurant was packed and noisy but I think our table would have received the award for most laughter, passion, and debate.
Following dinner we continued our discussions to the relative quiet of the sidewalk out front. Before departing I posed a rhetorical question to our guys: “Why would a group of old codgers like us spend our own money and take the time and effort to attend meetings like these?” It was a rhetorical question for we all knew the answer. Earlier in our lives the fire had been ignited to learn all we could about our Great God. Understanding the Bible becomes a passion since it holds much of what can be know about our Creator. The desire is unquenchable. We shared the belief that it is the most exciting and challenging field of study there is. It was a fun night.
A few days later Dixon and I had lunch with David Sielaff who heads up Associates for Scriptural Knowledge (ASK), the organization the late Dr. Ernest L. Martin founded. David had invited an old college of mine, Al Carrozzo, to join us. Al drove down from where he lives and works in S. California. I hadn’t seen Al for many years and was encouraged to see he continues to have a heart for God.
Museums and an Old Hotel
An additional treat while in SD was the opportunity to visit a special exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the museum of history in Balboa Park. One of the panel seminars we attended at SBL was debating just who the people were who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most presentations were making the case for the generally accepted identity of the people of Qumran to be the Essenes. The three sects of Judaism that ancient writers discuss were the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. One panel professor from Yale disagreed and made the case that we can’t know with certainty just who the scroll writers of Qumran were.
Often the panel seminars will have several presenters summarizing their papers/articles/books on a specific topic to be answered by respondents who may challenge some or all of the panelists’ findings. Occasionally disagreements become heated and always they open the discussion up to questions and comments from the audience.
On the Essene debate I asked if the Essenes could be
associated with the Herodians mentioned in
The Essenes were a diverse group and some broke ranks to became a holiness sect withdrawing to a commune on the shores of the Dead Sea. It is likely that John the Baptist was for a time associated with that wilderness sect. To me it seems strange that the four Gospel writers would avoid even a mention of the Essenes unless they had earned another popular label.
The Cat in the Hat
The Park Manor Suites hotel where Dixon and I stayed is an eighty-one year old hotel that had been restored many years ago by a psychiatrist who bought it. His good friend was Dr. Seuss, the author of the popular children’s cartoons and books. In an anteroom off the main lobby hang several cartoons with rhymes Dr, Seuss had created for his doctor friend. One that caught Dixon’s startled eye depicted the Cat in the Hat declaring, “The time has come to kiss and tell . . . / All cats are homo-sex-u-well.”
Too Many Books
Book stalls took up the main floor of the huge convention center with about 180 publishers represented. For some of us bookaholics it is like turning a diabetic loose in a candy store. This year I used restraint and came away with just ten new books--all at least 40% off to SBL members. Everything you can imagine vaguely associated with religion could be found from standard publishers like Zondervan and Eerdmans to software vendors, to Eastern religions, and of course, a lone book stall devoted to homosexual “theology.” One book I saw was titled The Queer Preacher, another Take Back the Word – A Queer Reading of the Bible. I didn’t buy either.
An interesting and large booth we visited was that of Logos Software, the leader in full-featured computerized biblical research tools and resources. I have an edition of it but confess that I still like to have an actual book in hand to mark up. My nephew is CFO for Logos and his sister is one of its owners.
A Sexy Name?
I’ll never forget the second-take look Dixon had upon his face upon hearing his name called “sexy.” We were having an evening meal in the crowed bar/restaurant of the Marriott Marina hotel when our attractive and efficient waitress asked our names. She paid no attention to my name but upon hearing “Dixon” she looked surprised declaring she had never heard that name before, paused, and said, “that’s a very sexy name.” Dixon nearly choked on his sandwich. She cleverly had secured for herself a generous tip. I wonder if Dixon told Linda about this encounter.
For me the highlight of the SD visit was the unexpected phone call from my oldest son Kennet who was in the area on business. Kennet is an owner of a data management security firm and was visiting a major client in the area. He invited me and Dixon to dinner at Morton’s steak house for what turned out to be our best meal of the trip.
Was the trip worth the time and money? I think so. The seminars gave us new ideas, a survey of some of the current biblical research, and help in keeping abreast of a dynamic field. Dealing with the biblical literature which at its newest is 2000 years old requires honest research into the languages and cultures in which it was originally created and inspired by God. Now to read those ten books I purchased.