This coming week, on Thursday, I head off to the annual Society of Biblical Literature, which this year is being held in San Diego.   I’m not sure if I’ve discussed the meeting on the blog before.   It is the main professional meeting that I go to every year; it’s always held the weekend before Thanksgiving (well, Saturday through Tuesday).   I go on Thursday evenings because I always have a commitment there first thing Friday morning.

The SBL is a learned society for all professors of biblical studies – and graduate students and others academically committed to the field.  It’s not a really a conference that layfolk would or should be interested in.  It is a group of serious scholars talking serious scholarship using serious scholarly jargon based on scholarly assumptions.   Not fit for normal human consumption.  When I say a “group,” that makes it sound rather small, like a couple of dozen people.   And it’s not actually that kind of group.  It’s a group of many thousands.   The Society meets at the same time, in the same place, and in the same hotels as the American Academy of Religion, which is about the same size, and covers all the religions not involving the New Testament and Old Testament.  Which is pretty remarkable when you think about it:  OT and NT together have as many scholars in North America as all other religious traditions combined.   That says a lot about American culture.  Altogether there will probably be 8000 or 9000 or more scholars there, in San Diego.

At the meetings there are dozens of sections meeting at the same time.  In all of them there are academic papers being read on academic topics of every theme imaginable in the academic study of religion — or in the SBL, on the NT and OT.  There is also an absolutely enormous book display, with dozens and dozens of publishers who publish books in religious studies setting up booths, many of them with hundreds of books, in a massive ballroom of some kind.   I used to find this book display to be rather depressing.   There are all those hundreds of books that I really should have read by now, staring me in the face.  And all those hundreds of books that really never should have been written in the first place.   There’s a lot of schlock out there, not just by amateurs but by professional scholars as well.

Still, truth be told, this meeting is one of the real highlights of my year, and has been for a very long time.  The first time I went was 1982, and I’ve been every year since – so this is my 32nd time.   When I first started going I was an eager graduate student who knew almost precisely *nobody* in the field other than the people in my own graduate program and my professors.   The meeting was lonely at the time.   Now I know hundreds (thousands?) of people in the field at every level.   And rather than having to look around for people to talk to or things to do, I simply can’t squeeze in everything that I need to do.

There are lots of papers that I would love to go to, and should go to, but simply can’t.   For years now I have used the meeting as a way of seeing people that I want (and sometimes need) to see:  old friends, former graduate students, editors that I work with, and so on.    And from morning to late at night, I do almost nothing else (except browse the book display).   My SBL calendar books up nearly two months in advance.

This year, in addition to all the people I’ll be seeing, I’ll be involved in actually *doing* something on three occasions, which is about normal.

  • Friday morning I’ll be giving a paper for the Biblical Archaeology Society FEST. Even though I’m (quite obviously) not an archaeologist, I’ve done presentations for the BAS for about 25 years.   The FEST is not officially connected to the SBL; the BAS simply holds it at the same time so they can get scholars going to the SBL to do presentations for them.  Since the first year they have held the FEST (this is year 17) I have given mine on Friday morning at 9:00.   The FEST goes on for three more days, morning and afternoon and evening.  Unlike the SBL, it *is* for laypeople.   They have 20 different scholars each give an hour and a half paper, geared for this particular audience, on some aspect either of archaeology or biblical studies more broadly.  See    My paper is:  “Are the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony?”  This is tied to my current research for a trade book that I’m tentatively calling “Jesus Before the Gospels,” about what happened to the oral traditions of Jesus in the years/decades before anyone wrote them down.
  • I will be on a panel at the SBL that will deal with how scholars should or could write about the early Christian apocrypha (that is, the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses that did not make it into the NT) for popular (as opposed to scholarly) audiences. I’ve been doing that since my book Lost Christianities in 2003.   The idea behind the session is how to make these complicated texts, and the scholarship based on them, accessible to non-experts.  There will be six of us on the panel; we each will present a paper of about 15 minutes; and then there will be a general discussion with the audience.
  • There will be a review session of my book How Jesus Became God. A “review session” is when a panel of experts evaluate a book, saying good or nasty things about it; then the author has a chance to reply, leading to a discussion (or arguments!) among the panelists and author, and finally a general discussion with the people in attendance.   On the panel will be Michael Byrd, the guy who edited the book written against mine, called How God Became Jesus; Craig Evans, whose essay in that book about the death and burial of Jesus was the subject of a number of responses that I gave on my blog back in the summer; Larry Hurtado, a scholar well-published in the field of early Christology who is often critical of my work even though we tend to agree on most things; Dale Martin, professor of NT at Yale and one of my closest friends, who read the book for me before I sent it off to the publisher; and James McGrath, a scholar in the field who is, I think, generally sympathetic with my views.   So there could be some fireworks.   I don’t know what each of them will say during their 15-minute presentations, and I will have to respond to their comments for a total of 25 minutes.  Needless to say, that puts a good deal of pressure on the respondent.   Could be interesting….

And so that is what I have to look forward to in the coming week.  And before then, I need actually to prepare for these sessions.   Busy times ahead!