SBL Conference 2012

Earlier this week I was in Chicago attending the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference. Last year I presented a paper, much of the content of which ended up in my recently published book. This year I chaired one session but didn’t present anything. Here is a sampling of some of the interesting presentations I attended.

Ute E. Eisen spoke on metalepsis in Luke-Acts.  In literature, one form of metalepsis is when the narrator’s voice intrudes into the narrative.  For example, the story in Mark is told by an omniscient narrator but at one point (13:14) the narrator’s voice breaks in to say “let the reader understand.”  Likewise, in John 20:30 suddenly the narrator addresses the reader directly:

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

In modern literature, such transformations of authorial voice are typically not meant to be serious; in ancient literature it is a device that is often intended to enhance the realism and authority of the narrative. Examples in Luke-Acts where this appears to be the purpose are the prologue of each work, where the narrator says his investigative work enabled him to create the narrative, and the “we” passages in Acts, where the narrative starts to use the first person.  The “we” passages may also have been intended to enhance empathy for the characters of the narrative. Given how well known this is as a literary device, Eisen expressed surprise that there are still commentators who interpret these passages in Acts as an eyewitness account.

Troy M. Troftgruben talked about the long sea voyage in Acts 27:1-28:15.  Why all the minute detail in this section of Acts?  Some interpreters see it as a symbolic way to highlight Paul’s sufferings. Sea voyages were indeed perilous in the first century, especially during winter, and the text does stress the perils that Paul endured and was saved from. But others ask: if the story is allegorical, why so much elaborate detail? If the intended message isn’t really in the details, and details are ultimately to be ignored, why spill so much ink?  And why does the narrative “decelerate” so much toward the end of Acts?  Earlier in Acts, a lot of historical time is covered in relatively short sections of the narrative; here in chapter 27 relatively little historical time is covered in a very large part of the narrative. The answer Troftgruben proposes is that the long passage is intended to cultivate suspense.  Acts is a story, Luke is a good storyteller, and the whole story of Acts is building toward a climax of Paul landing in Rome.  The long sea voyage draws the story out, building in the reader or hearer suspense and expectant waiting for that climax.

A questioner raised the question about why in that case the ending of Acts seems to be so anti-climactic, with Paul just preaching to Jews, the Jews not being interested, and Paul proclaiming his intention to go to the Gentiles thenceforth. Troftgruben explained that he addresses this question in his dissertation, now published as A Conclusion Unhindered. Essentially he sees Acts as deliberately open-ended.  It shows that the story of the spread of the gospel to Rome and throughout the Roman empire is a story that is ongoing, one which the hearer is a part of.  This conclusion is remarkably similar to what I say in my own book about the ending of Mark being deliberately open-ended.

I went to one session about Q, feeling like a spy invading the enemy camp. Winking smile It was devoted to reviewing a book written 25 years ago that went way beyond establishing the text of Q:  The Formation of Q actually elaborated three versions of Q, three stages in the development of this imaginary document!  The author (John Kloppenborg) and four prominent scholars were assembled on the panel to sing hymns of praise to this landmark book.  The room was packed with about 50 people, unlike most sessions at SBL, where the number in attendance often barely exceeds the number of presenters. I thought I would see if anyone there expressed any doubts about the reality of the imaginary Q, any acknowledgement of all the scholarly works that have been written to debunk it in the intervening 25 years since The Formation of Q was written.  But as I listened to the first presentation I got the distinct feeling that in this group I wasn’t going to hear anything remotely like that.  That’s when it occurred to me that another session might be more interesting, and I left early, and that’s how I got to hear the excellent Eisen and Troftgruben presentations.

Another interesting presentation was the one by Tom Nelligan proposing that the story of John the Baptist’s beheading (Mark 6:14-29) in Mark’s gospel is in part dependent on 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.  Both texts revolve around a story of sexual impropriety with a close relative. I learned later that Dr. Nelligan recently completed a dissertation on the links between Mark and 1 Corinthians, and I’m looking forward to reading that.

Also very interesting was Thomas Brodie’s presentation of his thesis that the story of the paralytic being let down through the roof in Mark was inspired by the story of a sheet with pictures of animals being let down from the sky in front of Peter in Acts (part of God’s method of convincing Peter that associating with Gentiles was OK).  Not that Brodie thinks Acts as it stands now is earlier than Mark:  he sees Mark as dependent on an earlier version of Luke-Acts that he calls Proto-Luke. He expounds the basis for his Proto-Luke theory in his book The Birthing of the New Testament. The introductory chapters in that book provided much material for my own recent book, but I never had a chance to look closely at the detailed evidence he provides for Proto-Luke.  I’m just getting started on that now.  Most of the people at the session were not familiar with the Proto-Luke theory, and he gave a remarkably dynamic, and one might even say inspiring, introduction to it as part of his paper presentation. He has a new book out, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, which I will be reviewing when I can get a copy of it – the publisher was sold out at the SBL exhibit hall.

Also worthy of mention is K. L. Noll’s presentation titled Inventing Yahwism: The Religion of Ancient Israelite Religion.” By “Yahwism” he means the modern conception that something like the religion we now call Judaism existed very early, long before Judaism itself developed. He argues that there was no such “religion” earlier than the Hellenistic period. He points out that if the Hebrew Bible didn’t exist, we would still have plenty of early records that refer to Yahweh, and Yahweh would appear to be a normal run-of-the-mill Canaanite god, just like Chemosh or Baal. But those texts weren’t widely disseminated until the Hellenistic period. The only way you can have anything recognizable as a religion is if you have a system for distributing texts to ensure some kind of uniformity of practice and thinking.  There was no such mechanism before  synagogues arose in the Hellenistic period. You do have mentions in some early texts about public distribution of Yahwist-like texts, but we have no evidence that it actually happened.  What was actually happening was that elites were gathering lore and combining bits and pieces of it into literary texts, and preserving those texts among themselves. The whole idea of “Yahwism” rests on a handful of passages about teaching the people.  Those passages were composed by scribes who never did it and couldn’t do it.  A religious system requires construction of texts, dissemination of them, and maintenance – that is, keeping people attached to the texts.  No system can be disseminated unless the average person can assimilate it.  As Noll puts it, the average person shuns religious esoterica (which also probably means my blog is not destined to break any web traffic records). Yahwism would have required: 1. an effective system for disseminating the teachings of the system among ordinary people; 2. ritual reinforcement of those teachings; 3. a system of defense against the tendency to abandon the religious system.  Only when synagogues arose in the Herodian period does this framework arise. Therefore, Yahwism only emerged in the Hellenistic period.  Some Yahwist literature existed before Ptolemaic times, but it was not disseminated among the hoi polloi.  E.g., Jeremiah wasn’t known; the documents were handled by a small cadre of scribes.  The scribes wrote stories about public dissemination, and the stories might have been used later, but not before the Hellenistic period. Therefore, there was no Iron Age or Persian era Palestinian Yahwism.

Conferences are always a mixed bag. Sessions are often dry and boring, and presenters’ presentation skills are often remarkably poor considering they’re almost all professors who teach for a living. Many or most people attend academic conferences mainly for the social connections or to get a paper presentation into their CV, but these examples show that you can also learn about interesting current research. I was fortunate to hear mostly interesting papers presented in an engaging manner.

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