Recapping SBL 2018

This year’s annual national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature occurred in the Mile High City, in circumstances that were just perfect. If you haven’t been to Denver recently, especially traveling in from the airport, you are in for a treat. A really superb, dedicated rail-line whisks passengers from the terminals to Union Station downtown, on 16th Street, where a bus service takes passengers up and down the pedestrian-dedicated boulevard free of charge. Nothing could be easier or more convenient, and it’s cheap, too (9 bucks each way—and only $4.50 if you are old like me!).

The conference sessions occurred in the convention center and in several adjacent hotels, all within one block of one another. As usual, the books display was a crowd pleaser, with scores and scores of publishers hawking their wares, including our own Concordia Publishing House, whose booth was manned by Dr. Christopher Mitchell and his wife, Carol. Great to see the Concordia Commentaries prominently displayed, included the latest offering by Jeff Gibbs, Matthew 21:1–28:20.

The sessions, as always, were of mixed value. Since I always go to edgy hermeneutical things, I have no one to blame but myself for attending “Feminist Hermeneutics of the Bible” and listening to “Violence Overcome by the Political Ontology of the Syrophoenician Woman,” as well as “The Subaltern Women in the Gospel: A Postcolonial Taxonomy.” But, seriously, somebody has to keep a finger on the pulse, even if some of these folks have difficulty keeping a finger on the text. But there were many really striking and helpful presentations, as well. Worthy to be highlighted were the following:

Thomas Schmidt, “The Testamonium Flavianum in Light of Jewish and Greco-Roman Reports about Jesus,” which took a different look at the well-known positive “testimony” of Josephus concerning Jesus in Antiquities 18, which virtually all consider to be a Christian interpolation into his text, and suggested that it may well be genuine if read differently, i.e., with an understanding of its words and phrases as suspicious of and not laudatory of Jesus.

Fritz Graf, “Canonical Texts in Greek Religion: From Orpheus to Homer,” which asserted that in the ancient world, authors and not texts were authoritative.

Jens Schroeter, “The Canon of the New Testament: Some Observations concerning Its Origin and Meaning,” which gave a good summary of the relationship between the regula fidei and the Scriptures.

Bryan W. Y. Fletcher, “Voice in the Greek of the New Testament,” which explored the Greek verb with, let us say, not entirely satisfactory results (you cannot just cherry-pick your evidence!).

It must be said that the Gospel of Mark sections were the focus of my attendance at the conference.  Four were on the schedule, with one a joint section with the Synoptic Gospels section, considering the 25th anniversary of Richard Burridge’s foundational work “What are the Gospels?” and another an open section with papers on various topics, including James M. Neumann’s interesting and valuable “The Intertextual Memory of Mark 1:11.” Central, however, were the two sections with the common theme “Reading Mark: The Interpretive Implications of Mark’s Original Format.” These considered issues surrounding orality, oral presentation, audience, etc. At the first of these, I presented a short paper entitled “Hearing Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane” and, related to it, gave an oral presentation/performance of Mark 14:32-43. With this pairing I sought to show that a close reading of the text is foundational to an oral presentation, but also that an oral presentation raises awareness of issues and problems that a silent reading of a text will likely miss. This went well and elicited lively discussion.

Finally, let me commend Andy Bartelt for his continuing leadership in organizing a “Concordia Reception” for those associated with, as well as friends of, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, and Concordia Publishing House. While each of the three entities chip in funds, it is clear who bears the greatest responsibility.

All in all, this was one of the better SBL meetings in recent memory. Next year’s event will be held in San Diego, California, again, the weekend before Thanksgiving.

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