Wednesday, November 27, 2013

3 Things I (Re)learned from SBL Baltimore

I just returned from the combined annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion. Here are the three most important things I (re)learned.

1. Bring comfortable shoes.

Last year, I made a wise decision in my choice of footwear and had no discomfort despite the massive amount of walking that was required due to the sheer size of the convention center in Chicago. This year, even though everything was relatively nearby, I had to buy a different pair of shoes after day 1 because I made a bad choice of footwear this year.

2. Lose the laptop.

If you're not giving a paper or having to write or revise your paper at the last minute, do not bring your ancient, massive, heavy laptop. You will not use it at all and you will not want to carry it around everywhere. Your smartphone is now more than adequate for 99% of what you used to bring your laptop for. If you have a light, small, awesome newer laptop, this may not be a problem for you.

3. Bring a coat to the East Coast. 

Even if the 10 day weather forecast for an East Coast city says the weather should be cool but not wintry during SBL, bring a hat, coat, and gloves anyway, not just a blazer and a scarf. Weather forecasters can't always see the Arctic cold snap coming that far in advance. Remember this when SBL is in Boston again in a few years.

Bonus Tip: Practice people skills.

Social interaction among academic types can be awkward at times. Navigating new relationships and just-made acquaintances can be complicated for those of us who tend more on the introverted side of things. Before next year, I plan to prep a little better and practice interpersonal communication skills, building rapport, and reading between the lines.

Friday, November 15, 2013

See You in Baltimore, Greenhorns?

A week from tomorrow you will be able to find me in the exhibitor's hall at the SBL/AAR annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. According to Le Donne's taxonomy of participants, I am primarily an "Observer." (I've also moved from regular participant to occasional observer in the biblioblogosphere, too, but you already knew that.)

I especially enjoy observing "Greenhorns" (like Joel and Jeremy, but especially Cliff) in all their wide-eyed idealism, basking in their fledgling exposure to academia, dreaming that one day they, too, will be respected scholars and tenured professors. I imagine they are the ones keeping the booksellers in business, too.

Perhaps I should have a booth in the exhibit hall where I could dispense free career advice to the master's students daydreaming over their future careers where "work" involves reading by the fireplace in an overstuffed leather chair. Ah, greenhorns, publishers need your purchases and schools need your enrollment and tuition, but they've run out of places for you to teach and make a living once you finish.

Most of my advice would be variations on what they can read for themselves at the following links:

If they think things might be different in Bible or Theology, I would point them to these 2012 posts from Peter Enns' blog:
If they insist on going forward with their plans (and the ones I talk to are unswayed by my cynicism), I'll recommend they head over to Wipf & Stock and buy Nijay's book: Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Really, Wipf & Stock?

I'd never heard of Preston Kavanagh until today, but apparently, he's solved all the authorship and dating questions related to the composition of the Hebrew Bible. Wipf & Stock has been publishing his 'brilliant" discoveries since 2009 with The Exilic Code: Ciphers, Word Links, and Dating in Exilic and Post-Exilic Biblical Literature, followed by the The Shaphan Group: Fifteen Authors Who Shaped the Hebrew Bible in 2011, and now Huldah: The Prophet Who Wrote Hebrew Scripture (apparently forthcoming per a publicity email I received through the Agade mailing list).

I can't find out anything more about this guy with Google. His author blurb on Wipf & Stock doesn't give me much confidence in his biblical studies training.
Twenty-four years ago, Preston Kavanagh retired from an executive position in a large company in order to seek the identities of those who wrote the Hebrew Bible. The Shaphan Group discusses what he found, as do his two prior books—Secrets of the Jewish Exile (2005) and The Exilic Code (Pickwick Publications, 2009). He and his wife, Lois, live quietly in Maryland.
The email announcement has an updated version of this bio. Apparently he has Ivy League degrees, but it's telling that the level of degree and the subjects studied are left unmentioned.
Preston Kavanagh holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard. He retired twenty-five years ago from an executive position in a large company to seek the identities of those who wrote the Hebrew Bible. Huldah discusses what he has found, as do several prior books, including The Exilic Code (Pickwick Publications, 2009) and The Shaphan Group (Pickwick, 2011). He and his wife, Lois, live quietly in Maryland.
So, let me get this straight, Wipf & Stock, you published these books by a retired businessman who devoted the last 24 years to cracking the Bible's coded data about who wrote it and when? Apparently, whoever acquired this guy's work forgot one of the prime rules of identifying crackpots: they are often untrained individuals who are somehow able to solve major perennial problems of the discipline. Also, hasn't "decoding" the hidden messages in the Hebrew Bible been widely debunked? (And yet, it won't go away.) So either this guy has new revolutionary ideas that deserve our attention or this is a shameless attempt to sell books to an undiscerning, popular audience that loves this stuff even though it's been disproven over and over (a la Michael Drosnin's bestsellers). I've looked at enough of Kavanagh's books on preview at to suspect the latter, but maybe, just maybe somebody can offer a good explanation or more info about Kavanagh to justify his claim to expertise. For now, he look to me to be just another crackpot.

It's a shame because Wipf & Stock otherwise publishes many quality studies by well-known Bible scholars such as Andre LaCocque, Stanley Porter, Richard Horsley, Marvin Meyer, and H.G.M. Williamson. I better not see this guy's stuff on the book tables at SBL. Anybody else have a similar reaction to this publicity email that came over Agade this morning? Here's the full description of the book.

Huldah: The Prophet Who Wrote Hebrew Scripture reveals—for the first time ever—the extraordinary impact of Huldah the prophet on our Bible.
Huldah was both a leader of exilic Jews and a principal author of Hebrew Scripture. She penned the Shema—the ardent, prayerful praise that millions of worshipers repeat twice daily. Moreover, Jesus quoted as his own last words the ones that Huldah had written centuries before—“Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Huldah was an extraordinary writer—arguably she ranks among the best in Hebrew Scripture. As such, she added to God’s Word a feminine aspect that has inspired numberless believers—men and women alike. 
This book’s new techniques reveal that though subjected to extreme verbal abuse, Huldah surmounted her era’s high barriers to women. As elder, queen mother, and war leader during the sixth century BCE, she helped to shape Israel’s history. And what, then, can this book mean to scholars—both women and men? Feminists need a rallying point and a heroine, and Huldah makes a superb one. In years ahead, experts might well place Huldah alongside the very greatest women of antiquity; indeed, they may even conclude that she is among the most influential people in human history.
Reading it again, I want to deconstruct every exaggerated and impossible statement, but I don't think his work is worth any more time or attention. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Forthcoming: Huehnergard's Introduction to Ugaritic

Since my graduate class on Ugaritic, I've felt the need for an accessible introductory Ugaritic grammar. The only true introductory text to date that I know of is Schniedewind's, but it appeared too late for my introduction the the language. Previous publications were too massive (Tropper) or written in languages I understood only slightly better than Ugaritic itself (Bordreuil and Pardee; only in French at the time I took Ugaritic) or ridiculously expensive (Sivan) or dated (Segert, Gordon). For those reasons, I'm excited to learn that John Huehnergard has finally published his own introduction. I've used many of his articles and other publications in the past on everything from Ugaritic to Aramaic and always appreciated his lucid explanations of complex issues. Here's the product description from Hendrickson's website:
Highly respected linguist John Huehnergard brings his command of and vast knowledge in the field of comparative Semitic linguistics to this introductory grammar. Every aspect of the grammar is enriched by his broad understanding, while maintaining an unexcelled directness and order to the learning of the fundamental grammar of Ugaritic.
Designed for students already familiar with Biblical Hebrew, this grammar contains the information necessary to help them become proficient in Ugaritic, and includes exercises to assist in learning basic grammar before commencing work with the actual Ugaritic texts. It is set apart from other gram¬mar books by its immense understanding of comparative Semitic grammar, and the concise and accurate manner in which Huehnergard presents the information.
Special Features:
• A glossary of all Ugaritic words used in the grammar
• An appendix by Ugaritologist John Ellison on the scribal formation of the Ugaritic abecedaries
• A number of full-color photographs of Ugaritic tablets
• Keys to the exercises
• Bibliographic information and indexes
I will definitely be spending a few minutes checking this volume out at Hendrickson's booth next month at SBL. If you teach Ugaritic, you should, too.

HT: Jim West 

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Bible and Cultural Controversy

My greatest wish for all people who engage with the Bible at various levels for their religious, cultural, moral, ethical, theological, and spiritual identities is that they would approach the text with open-minded honesty. Unfortunately, serious and honest discussion of the Bible's complexities is often abandoned as people attempt to read the text on their terms and interpret it as unequivocally reflecting their own point of view. Scholars and students, clergy and laity--all are guilty at some point of reading their preferences back into the text. On certain hot button issues, people can't even have a civil discussion anymore because the various sides are entrenched and intractable, convinced that their view is the absolute "truth."

Recently, Hebrew Bible scholar Esther Hamori has written two insightful pieces engaging this problem directly. The first dealt with the highly controversial issue of marriage specifically, and the second highlights the diversity of voices within the Bible itself, an important reality often overlooked or minimized in conservative Christian circles. I highly recommend reading both of her articles with an open mind. Here's the closing thought from the second piece:
Religious diversity is an inherent part of the biblical tradition. The Bible has significant internal variation, and there are different thoughtful ways to deal with that, but ignoring it is not one of them. My own take on this is that the rich complexity of the spectrum of voices is the very thing that gives the Bible its remarkable texture and depth, and that if the Bible is used as a "model" for anything, perhaps it could be used as a model for honest engagement with such a variety of viewpoints. But that's just me, and I'd expect another voice to say something different.
Her final words illustrate her expectation of push-back, disagreement, and discord inspired by her view. I know many people who would likely object strenuously to her perspective, but I find her call for "honest engagement" to be welcome and refreshing. I agree wholeheartedly.

Regarding her first article on marriage, I have to say (at the risk of offending or surprising more conservative readers including friends and family) that I agree with Hamori that the Bible reflects a variety of culturally-bound acceptable standards for marriage. In fact, evangelical Old Testament scholar John Walton uses the analogy of marriage in The Lost World of Genesis One to illustrate how we might use the same word to describe marriage today and marriage in the ancient Near East, but the word points to two very different cultural concepts. The cultural context is essential to properly defining what is actually meant by the term. Studying the biblical text in its ancient Near Eastern context and attempting to see the text through the worldview of the ancient world is an indispensable part of interpretation.

That said, I don't personally find this multiplicity of voices about marriage to necessarily serve as biblical support for gay marriage. Hamori doesn't explicitly offer it as such, but the implication is there. Her conclusion to the marriage article states:
Marriage in the Bible is not restricted to one man and one woman. The biblical models for marriage include a range of relationships and combinations, and these evolve with the culture.
The point is that marriage norms change with the culture. I won't argue that, just point out this is a cultural, not a biblical, argument in favor of gay marriage.

I will point out, however, that conservative claims of support for the "biblical definition of marriage" as one-man and one-woman are simplistic and narrow in their interpretation. Yes, Genesis 2:24 supports the "one flesh" sexual union of a man and a woman but calling that "marriage" in the sense of 21st century United States legal status is overreaching. Yes, Paul offers support for marital monogamy (1 Cor 7:2; 1 Tim 3:2), but that was the norm in the Greco-Roman world and in first century Judaism. Paul's support simply mirrors marriage norms of his day. Marriage as a legal and socio-cultural institution is one of the most culturally-bound categories in the world. Rather than appeal to the "biblical definition of marriage," supporters of traditional marriage should simply acknowledge it as such--they support traditional marriage according to centuries-old mores of Western civilization.

One final thought for those engaged in a defense of traditional marriage as "biblical": what's the biblical or theological rationale for Christians to mobilize politically in an attempt to force Judeo-Christian morality on an unbelieving culture that doesn't want it? (J. R. Daniel Kirk had a good post a few months back on this issue if you're interested.)

The bottom line here is that we would all benefit from more open dialogue and less partisan bickering over whether the Bible supports our cause or not.