My trip to the SBL in Chicago—Part 2

BAR rears its head (or raises its rear)
No doubt for logistical reasons, several religious studies conventions took place about the same time in Chicago. The venerable American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) hosted its annual convention immediately before the SBL (Nov. 14-17) at the Chicago Mariott hotel downtown, thus allowing scholars to go from ASOR to SBL without leaving town.
BAR was different. The well known Biblical Archaeology Review is a traditionalist magazine that, IMO, often sensationalizes and not seldom misinforms. Over the years I’ve avoided this rag like the plague. In any case, BAR is published by the Biblical Archaeology Society which elected to compete with ASOR and SBL-AAR by scheduling its annual conference simultaneously a few miles away. The BAS convention billed itself as a fun-filled Bible and Archaeology “Fest.” From this one might consider it a lightweight convention, but at $575 its whopping registration fee was anything but lightweight and enabled attendees to hear such notables as William Dever, James Charlesworth, and James Tabor (along with his media sidekick Simcha Jacobovici) among others. Many presenters at the BAS conference also happen to be on the BAR masthead—a veritable roster of head-in-the-sand conservative retrenchment.

Alfred E. Neuman

Here are suggestive titles of some BAS presentations—and one or two brief comments:
– Josef Garfinkel: “The kingdom of David in light of the Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations”
        [Umm…Finkelstein and the minimalists have proven that there was no “kingdom of David.” The question now is whether “David” himself was mythical.—R.S.]
– James Tabor: “Is there reliable archaeological evidence related to the earliest followers of Jesus?”
        [Alfred E. Neuman’s answer: “Absolutively!”]
– Bart Ehrman: “Jesus and other divine men”
        [Hopefully Ehrman did better with other “divine men” than with Jesus in 2012.]
– James Charlesworth: “Jesus, Mary, and the newly discovered synagogue at Migdal”
        [What did Jesus and Mary do in that synagogue, anyway?]
– Jodi Magness: “The ancient village and synagogue at Huqoq in Israel’s Galilee”
        [Let’s not get too excited. The synagogue is Late Roman-Byzantine.]
Some SBL presentations
I attended a few SBL presentations that promised more than fluff. They were a mixed bag and I’ll report on a few of them here.
– Among the others (besides myself) who presented in the Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship unit was James Linville (Univ. of Lethbrige, Canada). I missed his first paper but the second, on Sunday, was a rousing broadside entitled “On the fairytales of Bronze Age goat-herders: Ancient Israel as the New Atheists’ foil.” Linville is not one to pull punches. He described ancient Israel as “rude, crude, ignorant, misogynist, unjust, and unpleasant—everything we don’t like.” Turning to the contemporary scene (BAR should have been listening), he observed that religion in North America is ultimately consumer driven, that the media overlooks secular scholars in the field, that archaeological discoveries cater to religious conservatives (“nutcases”), that the SBL “does the Church’s work,” and that further separation between secular and religious scholarship is needed. Here here!
        [Dr. Linville considers my comments in some ways a mischaracterization. I direct readers to his blog where he clarifies his position in extenso. Incidentally, my being late to the SBL session was by no means intentional (as Dr. Linville suggests) but the result of several factors, some self-induced. For example, I failed to set my alarm clock for Central Time when arriving in Chicago from Oregon the night before. Thus I woke up thinking it was 7:00 AM when in fact it was 9:00 AM!—R.S. 12/8/12.]
– “The motif of the five trees in the Gospel of Thomas and in ancient literature” (Eric Crégheur). Crégheur reviewed the enigmatic concept “five,” about whose symbolism I’ve always been curious. He covered the OT, Greek literature, and Gnostic scriptures. Unfortunately, Crégheur left out Manichaean parallels (“too late”?) though he did direct attention to the Pythagorean pentad and to the theme of five in Plato (Republic, Laws). In all he had little new, and certainly offered no key to the symbolism of “five.”
– “The Mandaean Book of John and the New Testament” (James McGrath, expanded online here). McGrath barks up the wrong tree. Contra Bultmann and Lidzbarski, he bows to the current cultural (and hence academic) imperative that significant elements of Mandeism simply could not have been pre-Christian. IMO this is flat out wrong and sufficient grounds alone to disqualify McGrath’s work on Mandeism.
        McGrath places far too much weight on the late dating of the surviving Mandean corpus. Yet he coyly admits that some “unexplainable” elements could be quite early. In other words, McGrath straddles every fence. He returns over and over to what is “inherently more likely” as if that were an unfailing diagnostic parameter. McGrath doesn’t seem to realize that certain seminal events in history, such as the birth of a religion are—by definition—extraordinary.
        McGrath did note some important points, however, such as that “Sabians” is another word for the Mandeans in the Koran (see Chwolsohn’s massive opus on the “Ssabier”) and that Theodor bar Koni referred to the Mandeans as “dostheens”—i.e. Dositheans. The implications of these equivalences are, IMO, fundamental to future research into Christian origins. They show that the gnostic Dositheans, in particular, lie at the heart of the whole matter.
        McGrath is surprisingly short (perhaps 5’4”). Regardless of what he is saying, McGrath has an invariable grin perennially pasted to his face. After awhile I found this offputting, like the unchangeable mask of someone not trusting enough to disclose his true feelings.
– “Early groups of Jesus’ followers: A survey of the first two centuries.” This was a discussion of new books and ideas, focusing on Jewish Christian groups. Participants were Simon Mimouni, F. Stanley Jones, Daniel Boyarin, Edmondo Lupieri, and Annette Reed. The main give-and-take was between Mimouni and Jones, both of whom have published widely in the field. Unfortunately, I have not read their latest material and will make only general comments.
        It’s evident that considerable confusion reigns in this subfield, largely as a result of nomenclature: specialists are still not agreed which among a plethora of groups existed, when and where they came into being, and what they were (or should be) called. The cause, I would suggest, goes back to ancient times: the naming and characterization of many of these groups are artificial. Already in McGrath’s talk (see above) we witness equivalences (Sabeans = Mandeans = Dositheans). IMO, many more equivalences need to (and can) be made. This strategy has largely escaped Mimouni and the other speakers who still take all the subgroups mentioned by the Church Fathers as historical realities. A systematic review of the Church Fathers is required, without naive preconceptions, in order to shed light on this morass in Jewish Christian studies. In his reply to Mimouni, F. S. Jones correctly noted that “We must leave behind the category systems of the heresiologists.”
        Listening to the papers in this section, I found it disheartening that Mimouni overlooked the Nasarenes (Epiph. Panarion 18). I personally asked him about this group which Epiphanius writes “preceded Christ” (and which I equate with both the early Mandeans and with the Natsarenes). Mimouni had little to offer. I also shook my head on a couple of other points he made. For example, he equated the Nazoreans and the Ebionites. I consider the correct progression here to be: (early) Nasarenes (with sigma/tsade) –> (later) Ebionites. He also stated that “The Nazoreans [who were orthodox, acc. to Epiph.] of the fourth century were descendants of the first century Nazoreans.” In sum, Mimouni has a traditionalist view of the field. As Jones stated diplomatically: “Mimouni’s book remains regrettably in the church history genre.” Despite his avowed expertise, I fear that Mimouni has become quite muddled and wonder how much of lasting value he can contribute to the field.—R.S.

 Next →

[Link –> My SBL Nazareth paper (PDF)]

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


My trip to the SBL in Chicago—Part 2 — 3 Comments

  1. I wish I could have gone to the conference but I am just a contrarian blogger and armchair scholar, without portfolio, and on a strict budget, alas.

    But did you hear the lecture of one Gunnar Samuelsson, whose convention abstract stated that the later texts referencing crucifixion were just as vague or even more vague than the earlier texts he used for his epononymous thesis? In other words, is what he is implying, is that crucifixion according to the traditional Christian sense on a two-plank or two-beam cross, never happened, that the Romans never crucified, or if they did, the texts cannot support the claim.

  2. Thanks for the reference to Gunnar Samuelsson. I looked him up online, and see that his 2010 dissertation (400 pages) concluded that the “stauros” (Gk) really meant “beam” or “pole,” not “cross” as conventionally thought. Yet Samuelsson apparently still thinks Jesus died on a cross: “I am a pastor,” he writes, “a conservative evangelical pastor, a Christian.” He is at pains to point out: “I do believe that Jesus died the way we thought he died. He died on the cross.” I guess he’s simply saying that this form of crucifixion was very rare in Roman times. He’s certainly not a Jesus mythicist nor even unorthodox.—R.S.

  3. It comes down to this, which I’ve made a point of on JesusMysteries. One is either a Scholar, or one is a Preacher. I personally find preachers who “pose” as scholars, hypocrites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *