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SBL 2008 Day 2

November 23, 2008

There is nothing like having all your business done and being able to just enjoy the conference. So, with the weight of my own paper off my shoulders I had a wonderful day watching other scholars laying their burdens down before the altar of academia.

In the morning I headed off to the Hebrew Scriptures and Cognate Literature session. While my intent was mostly to see fellow biblioblogger Alan Lenzi, the papers in the whole session were quite strong.

Martti Nissinen (University of Helsinki) spoke on “Wisdom as Mediatrix in Sirach 24: Ben Sira, Love Lyrics, and Prophecy.” Nissinen argues for ben Sira both knowing and using Song of Songs in Sirach 24. He sees a feminine wisdom functioning in the same way as Ishtar in Mesopotamian material — as a mediatrix of revelation from the divine to the human (here the Torah). Fun stuff, but he pushes the analogy too far when he tries to bring in ancient rites of sacred marriage. Ben Sira might be in love with wisdom, but there’s there’s no need to tie it back to UrIII.

The second paper was Sara J. Milstein’s (New York University) “Expanding Ancient Narratives: The Phenomenon of Revised Introductions in Biblical and Mesopotamian Texts.” By and large this paper was sort of a combination of information found in Jeffery Tigay’s The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic and Marc Brettler’s The Book of Judges (Old Testament Readings). I was hoping for more of a diagnostic on how to evaluate data based on a different methodology. However, this might have been an unreasonable expectation for a 30 minute paper.

Alan Lenzi (University of the Pacific) spoke on “Invoking the God: Comparing Laments in Mesopotamia and the Hebrew Psalter.” His theory, grossly summarized, is that the comparison of psalms of lament with Mesopotamian šuila prayers is a poor comparison since the social context for the two are different. The differences in invocation is indicative of the differing relationship that the petitioners have with the pertinent deities. Good stuff. Questions asked represented almost the whole gambit of Brandeis folks including David Wright, Tzvi Abusch, and Jack Sasson.

Matthijs J. de Jong (Netherlands Bible Society/Leiden University) spoke on “From Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy to Biblical Prophecy and Back Again”  and John W. Hilber (Dallas Theological Seminary) on “Egyptian Prophecy in Broader Ancient Near Eastern Perspective.” Both papers dealt with prophetic issues, the former looking at when a prophet became known as a נבא “prophet,” while the latter dealt with slippery task of identifying prophecy in Egyptian texts before the Ptolemaic period.

After the morning session, I had a slight change of plans. I had met up with David Wright and David Bokvoy at the previous session, and we headed off to the Israelite Religion in its West Asian Environment session.

Garth Gilmour (University of Oxford) gave a paper entitled ” An Iron Age II Pictorial Inscription from Jerusalem Illustrating Yahweh and Asherah.” The picture was inscribed on a sherd discovered during the PEF excavations at the Ophel in Jerusalem in the 1920’s. While a paper is in press (with pictures of the sherd), Gilmour’s paper addressed all the expected issues: are the two figures actually gods? are they male and female? is it right to see the female as Asherah? is it right to see the male deity as YHWH? Obviously, Gilmour holds the answers are Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes. We obviously have here an Iron Age II sherd of a male and female deity pictured together. Logic would dictate (given the textual evidence) that the godly couple are YHWH and his Asherah. I guess this means that we should now rename Boston Penuel, since I have seen the face of God and lived.

Shawna Dolansky (Northeastern University) spoke next on  “The Judean Pillar Figurines: Interpreting Iconography.” Dolansky holds that Judean Pillar Figurines(JPF) probably derived from earlier Cypriot figurines from the LBA which themselves come from an earlier bell-shaped goddesses from Crete. She then brings up seven thousand years of ancient Near Eastern representations of naked goddesses holding their breasts. She concludes that the motif had more to do with Astarte rather than Asherah and that the motif is not a symbol of fertility but rather a symbol of apotropaic symbol of divine protection. However for some reason, any time someone brings up Çatal Höyük in a discussion of something from the Iron Age II I get extremely skeptical.

The real reason I headed off to this session to begin with was Ziony Zevit’s paper (American Jewish University) ” Seeing Gods in All the Right Places.” Since I’ve been working on seeing gods, this was an obvious paper to attend. At the beginning Zevit warned his audience that they must forget all of our “post-Kantian” categories. Good advice, as it turned out. Looking at pre-exilic texts (Gen2-3, Gen 17, etc), it is apparent that God was visible. What did it mean then for folks to לראות את פני יי “to see the face of YHWH” (e.g. Exod 34.23-4)? What do we do when some of the cult sites we’ve dug up don’t have anything to see? He sees it as a literal experience of the divine even through an aniconic cult. That is to say, the key to seeing YHWH is the emotial response of the participants.

Following Mark Goodacre’s third law of enjoying the SBL, I was a bit of a tart and then absconded to the Paleographical Studies in the Ancient Near East session to see Dennis Pardee (University of Chicago) and David Schloen (University of Chicago) speak on “A New Alphabetic Inscription from Zincirli.” I hope to post on the paper individually later, so I’ll forgo a discussion of that for now.

In the last session of the day, I hit Archaeological Excavations and Discoveries: Illuminating the Biblical World which had as its theme Archaeology and the Media. I’ll confess, my reason for attending was to see fellow bloggers Chris Heard‘s (Pepperdine University) “Decoded, Debated, Debunked: Reviewing The Exodus Decoded” and Antonio Lombatti (Deputazione di Storia Patria) “Jewish Burial Practices in Second Temple Period, the Shroud of Turin, and the Media.”  Both of these presentations were wonderful; but since you can read their thoughts on their blogs, I’ll pass over them in silence except to say that they represented the best use of media (powerpoint, etc) that I’ve seen not just at this SBL, but at any conference of biblical scholars. Excellent job, guys!

Chad Spigel (Duke University) spoke on “Were the Academic Responses to The Lost Tomb of Jesus Effective?” His paper explicated the discussion after the debacle that was “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” Spigel thinks that the critique of such “documentary films” needs to stress the methodological differences between documentaries and academic historical work. Further, on a popular level, the documentarians are better at getting their message out on the air waves than scholars because they understand the landscape better.

Lynn LiDonnici (Vassar College) gave a paper entitled “In Search of the Quest for the Real Discovery of Noah’s Ark: Archaeology and the Television Religious Documentary Genre.” LiDonnici’s paper was based on the the premise that most of the pop-archaeology comes from the 70’s picture In Search of Noah’s Ark. Her discussion was both scholarly and humorous (something that is required when dealing with this subjects).

Ian Werrett (Saint Martin’s University) presented  “A Scroll in One Hand and a Hatchet in the Other: Essenes, Latrines, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.” The paper focused on Zias and Tabor’s theory of proposed Essene latrines and the fact that they presented the theory to the press long before any paper was presented. Werret shows that there are discrepancies between the Temple Scroll, the War Scroll and Josephus. Additionally, there’s the issue of Locus 51 — a structure seen by both de Vaux and Magnes as a latrine, and found inside the walls of Qumran. More importantly is the way the story was disseminated to the general public.  We must avoid the temptation to publish press releases before allowing access to other scholars for peer review. To date, Zias and Tabor have not presented any evidence to prove their point.

All in all a good day. Now I’m off to meet up with fellow bibliobloggers for dinner.

  1. November 24, 2008 8:59 am

    Zia and Tabor and their third co=author have indeed presented their evidence, published in:
    Zias, Joe E., James D. Tabor, and Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue. “Toilets at Qumran, the Essenes, and the Scrolls: New Anthropological Data and Old Theories.” Revue de Qumran 22/4 (2006) 631-640.

    Stephen Goranson

  2. November 24, 2008 9:19 am


    I’m not a DSS scholar, so I am going on Chad Spigel’s presentation.

    The impression he gave was that it provided no hard data. The article in Revue de Qumran dealt with textual materials from DSS and Josephus as well as the lab samples, but the article did not stratify these samples. That is to say, they did not archaeological prove whose poop was in the potty.

    Once again, I’m no expert on all this. Does the paper in question adequately stratify the fecal remnants? (I’m at the convention center, not a library.)

  3. November 24, 2008 4:12 pm

    Due to lack of time last nite I did not attempt to answer the paper on the laterines, however I did reply to it in the forthcoming journal article. Basically his paper is a classic example of what happens when textual scholars with little if any experience in biblical arch. or antho. attempt to tackle the questions associated with Qumran. It was well presented, but in my opinion, wrong as one has to look at the entire site and not just one issue. Moreover it was peer reviewed and accepted for publication before it was announced to the media. After that I had no contact nor control over what the popular press had to say in the media.

  4. November 26, 2008 3:37 pm

    Nice summary, Jim. I was very happy to see so many friendly faces. And I was glad to have so much time to field questions. I think that is too often downplayed in SBL presentations. I actually wanted to present in 15 mins and take questions for the other 15. But I think I ended up with something more like 20-10.

    It was good to see you, if only briefly.

  5. November 27, 2008 12:16 am


    I really enjoyed your paper. I think that SBL papers are best when they showcase new ideas, welcoming feedback from the scholars attending and such. Too often that’s not the case, but yours was such a paper. Always fun.

    It was nice to see you briefly as well. If we both continue bringing our spouses to the conference, we should try and all go out.

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