Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Open Letter about SBL

I have concerns about the Society of Biblical Literature. I have been on steering committees and functioning as a chair for different groups on and off for the last fifteen years. Since the AAR-SBL split, I am concerned about the 'health' of our Society.

1. We were told at the Chairs' meeting about the gigantic increase in numbers of groups and therefore number of people participating by delivering papers and presiding. This was represented to us as a great sign of our vitality and growth.

But I don't think so. In fact it is the opposite. The drastic increase in the number of groups is alarming. We should not kid ourselves that this proliferation means growth and strength. Our groups have proliferated to the point that there is so much competition for audiences that entire sessions are beginning to have only a handful in attendance. Papers that may have taken a year to prepare may have an audience of five. This means that there is little discussion and little in terms of dissemination of research to the broader community. As more and more specialized groups form, they are breaking down the membership of the traditional larger groups, causing members to have to choose between the new specialized group (which will eventually run out of steam) and the traditional larger group it is co-opting. This means that the memberships of the groups are getting carved into smaller and smaller pieces, and instead of spreading our knowledge we are ending up talking only to ourselves.

We need to put the brakes on the formation of new groups, and find ways to connect together the ones that we have in place. Whenever possible, steering committees should be finding ways of absorbing groups into each other while maintaining their agendas. I'm not just talking about joint sessions. I am talking about a main group that might have subgroups or panels working on specific projects and these subgroups or panels might rotate sessions or years. What I'm saying is that we need a new model for group formation and maintenance. Limiting the number of sessions per group might help, but it isn't going to be the answer because there are just too many groups now.

2. We have to fix the problem of overlapping in the program similar groups or groups with similar interests. This is not just a complaint. This is a MAJOR problem that is forcing members of different groups to choose between groups that they should not have to, and we shouldn't want them to. Their membership in different groups and participation in those groups is vital to the 'health' of the Society. I think that SBL should consider hiring external consultants to resolve this scheduling problem for us. It is a persistent problem that has become much worse now that AAR is not meeting with us. It is not impossible to fix.

3. The problem comes down to this: AAR sessions are not overlapping with SBL sessions anymore. It was enough of a struggle for us when we competed with other AAR sessions. But now we have significant increase in the SBL sessions (but not an equally significant increase in the SBL membership) and these sessions are overlapping with each other in such extreme ways that the groups are not going to be able to sustain themselves, unless they have a membership that has no other interests or no other competing groups.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The busiest SBL ever!

I don't know about the rest of you but this was by far the busiest SBL meeting I have ever attended. I had so many meetings with various committees and projects, not to mention two presentations, that I found myself running from this thing to that and always being late for everything. I was on the go from 7 am to 10 pm every day. I apologize for missing some really key meetings and sessions, including presentations by my colleagues in the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Section, which were booked opposite my own presentation and other meetings I had.

What do I think about this year's meeting?

1. The SBL staff in Atlanta have to figure out how to stop overlapping similar sections. This has been a problem since I started chairing a group fifteen years ago (which I no longer chair). It never gets better and it has never been solved. It was bad when groups were only allowed two sessions each, and it is worse now that the groups have proliferated. Our mysticism sessions were held at the same time slots as the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism group, the Religious Experience group, the Pseudepigrapha, and a number of others. The problem is that many of us are members of several of these groups, and the overlap means that we have to choose between groups instead of supporting all of them.

2. More is not better. We have too many groups now that the Society has allowed them to proliferate after the split with AAR . The sudden drastic increase in groups means that there is more competition for audiences. I cannot tell you how many rooms I saw as I ran from one thing to the next that had five or less people in their audiences. This is embarrassing all around - for the presenters who prepared papers, for the groups who sponsored them, and for SBL.

3. We were told at the Chairs' Breakfast that 4,400 attended this year (compared to 5,000 last year). We were told that this is because the meeting was not in the northeast where there is more attendance, but this is not the reason I was hearing from colleagues who didn't come. I think this number is inflated since this must be the registered people, not the attendees. Many people who had preregistered canceled at the last minute and did not come as they had planned.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Report from New Orleans

Phew...I couldn't figure out how to use my Blackberry to post, but I did figure out how to use the wireless on my lap top, and from my hotel room nonetheless. I know you have to be laughing, but this wireless computing is all new to me and a little intimidating because I don't know the ropes. But once I figured out that my hotel had a wireless connection and how to hook up to it, well here I am.

This is the first SBL conference in a long time that doesn't feel 'magisterial'. It feels small(er), like the conferences I used to go to twenty years ago. The book exhibit is disappointing. It is packed into two rooms - small exhibit halls, and it looks to me like there are less booths and less books in those booths. In one way it was nice not running around a big convention center since the conference is based in two hotels across the street from each other. But the flip side is that things are cramped. And I really miss my AAR friends who I haven't seen now for two years.

The sessions have been going well, although many presenters decided not to come, leaving paper spots and panels vacated. Our working group on Friday lost its afternoon session because of cancellations. The EJCM book review session on Saturday was missing a reviewer, although his paper was read, and one of the coauthors, although his response was read. The James and Q session was missing half its panel, although I heard it was awesome (sorry I missed it). The Moshe Idel session suffered because Idel didn't turn up and one of the reviewers on the panel, so I feel bad for Francis' group on Religious Experience which had put that together. One of the panelists for Elaine Pagel's celebration of the Gnostic Gospels session that I was on couldn't come at the last minute. And these are just the groups I attended or heard about. It is the oddest year in terms of attendance that I have ever witnessed. Let's put it this way. I have been attending SBL for about twenty years now, and I can count on one hand the number of cancellations of papers I can recall. Until this year!

So I don't know what is happening, but I sure hope it is not a trend. And the sooner that we can join back up with AAR the better. And when I say this, I mean REALLY join back up with them.

And a note about food. I am sick of the same menu which includes shrimp, crawfish, catfish, oysters, in all versions and renditions everywhere. And since I am allergic to all these, my one and only menu choice has been steak. It was nice at lunch today to get the breakfast buffet where at least I could get an egg and some fruit.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I'll be out of touch for a few days

I fly out to New Orleans tomorrow and I will be out of touch with my blog until I get back. I haven't yet mastered posting from my blackberry. I will post about the conference when I get back and settled at home.

Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Sessions at SBL 2009

Please try to make these sessions. All of them should be terrific. Our sessions are usually very productive and informative. I am posting here the information from the program book which includes the room numbers.

The first session includes a book review of Christopher Rowland's and Christopher Murray-Jones' long-awaited book on New Testament Mysticism.
Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Napoleon D3 - SH
Reviews of Christopher Rowland and Christopher Morray-Jones’ book, The Mystery of God: Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament (Brill, 2009), and responses by the authors.Silviu Bunta, University of Dayton, Presiding
Alan Segal, Columbia University, Panelist (10 min)
Kevin Sullivan, Illinois Wesleyan University, Panelist (10 min)
Charles A. Gieschen, Concordia Theological Seminary - Fort Wayne, Panelist (10 min)
James R. Davila, University of St. Andrews, Panelist (10 min)
Christopher Morray-Jones, California, Respondent (15 min)
Discussion (20 min)
Break (15 min)
Elizabeth Morton, McGill University
The Role of Ecstasy in the Formation of Abraham, the Sage (25 min)
Dragos-Andrei Giulea, Marquette University
The Noetic Turn in Jewish-Christian Mysticism: Revisiting Esoterism, Mysticism, and Internalization with Philo, Clement, and Origen (25 min)
Discussion (10 min)
The second is on second-century mysticism in Christian sources. I'm going to be talking about my next project which is mapping the initiatory rites of the Gnostics (lots of astrology here). Grant Adamson and Franklin Trammell are my graduate students. Adamson will be presenting an important paper on the Gospel of Judas and horoscopes. Trammell will be talking about Hermas' view of the church as the androgynous body of God. Jonathan Draper will be discussing the Ascension of Isaiah.
Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: Balcony J - MR

Theme: Second-Century Christian Mysticism and Gnosticism

Kevin Sullivan, Illinois Wesleyan University, Presiding
April D. Deconick, Rice University
Star Gates and Heavenly Places: What Were the Gnostics Doing? (25 min)
Grant Adamson, Rice University
Fate Indelible: The Gospel of Judas as Horoscope (25 min)
Discussion (15 min)
Break (15 min)
Franklin Trammell, Rice University
The Tower as Divine Body: Visions and Theurgy in the Shepherd of Hermas (25 min)
Jonathan Knight, Katie Wheeler Research Trust/York St John University, UK
The use of Jewish and other Mystical Traditions in the Ascension of Isaiah (25 min)
Discussion (20 min)
The third session is on mysticism in early Judaism. I am not as familiar with the presenters and papers, except my colleague and friend Rebecca Lesses, and anything she is discussing is well worth hearing!
Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: Southdown Room - SH

Theme: Mysticism in Early Judaism

Silviu N. Bunta, University of Dayton, Presiding
Matthew J. Grey, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Joseph and Aseneth, Hekhalot Mysticism, and the “Parting of the Ways” between Christianity and Judaism in Late Antiquity (25 min)
Rebecca Lesses, Ithaca College
Female Jewish mystics in late antiquity: real women or literary construction? (25 min)
Discussion (15 min)
Break (15 min)
R. Jackson Painter, Simpson University
Mystical Identification with Christ in the Odes of Solomon (25 min)
David Larsen, Marquette University
And He Departed from the Throne: The Enthronement of Moses in Place of the Noble Man in Exagoge of Ezekiel the Tragedian (25 min)
Discussion (20 min)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Codex Judas Papers to be released

Excitement everywhere. The Codex Judas Papers are going to be published in a couple of weeks. The Codex Judas Papers is the collection of papers written by scholars who attended the Codex Judas Congress last year on the Rice campus. I am the main editor, and these papers are top notch. Many people have asked me for purchasing information once the book was released. So here it is.

The people at Brill have kindly offered a 25% discount for the book to my blog readers. It is an expensive book ($256) - nearly 700 pages - so this will be a substantial discount ($64) which reduces the price to $192.

People always ask me why these books are so expensive. I am not in the publishing business, but what I am told is that the reason that these kinds of academic books are so expensive has to do with the print run. They have very small print runs - just enough to sell to the world's libraries.

When you place your order with Brill, use the discount code 47900, and you will receive 25% discount. ISBN: 978-90-04-18141-0. The toll-free number for ordering in the States is 800-337-9255. The discount is valid until December 31.

New Testament Mysticism Project

Please note: the New Testament Mysticism Project will only be holding its morning session on Friday (9am-12). The afternoon session has had to be canceled due to several presenters canceling their trips to New Orleans. I don't know our room number yet.

UPDATE: meets in Edgewood AB - SH

Monday, November 16, 2009

Will I see you in New Orleans?

I have heard from many of my friends and colleagues that this year they are not going to attend SBL - always a last minute decision. Why are so many people not going this year?

I am just finishing my presentations - thankfully! - but have come down with a bad sinus infection. My doctor raised her eyebrows when I said I had to get on a plane Thursday. I hope I feel better then than I do today!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Letter from Israel Knohl

I received this letter from Professor Knohl this morning. He asked that I post it on my blog which I do below. Just to be clear, the line Professor Knohl is referring to is this one: "When I watched one of their previews, I could not believe the nonsense that the (NGS) narrator was stating. The narration suggests (dubbed on top of some Israeli folk music) that Professor Knohl's reading and interpretation is going to revolutionize and destroy the heart of Christian belief."

It is not my interpretation that Knohl's reading will threaten Christian belief, rather it is the spin that National Geographic has put on it. One of the things I have been trying to communicate on this blog is that the media spins us and we need to be concerned about it. The media is taking our work and spinning it to whatever sensation the media thinks will sell. When scholars like me or Knohl are filmed, they are required to sign an agreement that whatever is filmed can be edited and used in whatever manner the company wants to. This is how the media gets away with spinning our work and words in whatever direction is desired, without any care whether or not we think our work or words support the media's sensationalism and interpretation.

My real concern is that all these "new" finds and the scholars working on them are going to appear sillier and sillier, and what could be very significant to our understanding of the history and formation of Judaism and Christianity will be further marginalized and neglected by other scholars and the broader public who have become confused and numbed.

I want to get the message out there that serious work is being done on these "new" finds, but it takes time and patience to sort out what is going on. The process requires years of scholars examining the new evidence and offering opinions, until some sort of consensus forms, or two dueling positions arise.

If you see a "documentary" that claims things like "it will revolutionize Christianity", etc., beware. New finds usually don't overturn established religions, which have weathered the Copernican Revolution, the Enlightenment and Darwin, adjusting their teachings (or not) to survive. Most often new finds supplement our previous knowledge, and sometimes they will provide us with information that will require us to adjust older paradigms or shift them. But rarely do they require us to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Dear April,

I was very sorry to read the following line in your blog : "Professor Knohl's reading and interpretation is going to revolutionize and destroy the heart of Christian belief". I have not seen yet the NG film, but if this is indeed what they say, it is ridiculous. In my view, my reading and interpretation of the inscription supports the historicity of the Gospels story about Jesus predictions of his death and resurrection rather than "destroy the heart of Christianity".

With regard to your suggestion to explain the word "HAYE" in line 80 as "revive" I must say that in terms of the Hebrew syntax I find this interpretation very problematic. If this was really the meaning of this word, we should expect to find the object of the reviving act immediately after that. Like we find it in Hosea 6 "He will revive us". However, the words which appear after the word HAYE are "I Gabriel" and they can not be the abject of the revival act. In my view, this proves that we should understand the word HAYE here as a commandment: "resurrect, come back to life".

I would be happy if you could post my response at your blog.

Best wishes,

Israel Knohl
Israel Knohl
Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor of Bible
The Hebrew University

The Swell Season

Last night Wade and I went to the Warehouse here in Houston to see The Swell Season perform. The Swell Season formed following the critically-acclaimed movie Once a few years ago. Normally I don't write about entertainment items on my blog, but this group and performance was SO amazing, I just have to pass it on. The entire band (The Frames) was there too. It was the best concert I have ever attended of any venue or type. Glen Hansard (the lead guitarist and vocalist) was the most incredible musician - he has an energy and a passion for his songs that is stunning. I really was impressed with the seamless mix of traditional instruments (including piano and violin) with rock band instruments. Check your local listings and if they are coming to your area, I highly recommend going. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

National Geographic and the Apocalypse of Gabriel

Is National Geographic at it again? This time with the Gabriel Stone instead of the Gospel of Judas? It appears that they are going to be airing next week another sensationalistic "documentary" about how the Gabriel Stone may destroy Christianity's "unique" claim for a resurrected Messiah. When I watched one of their previews, I could not believe the nonsense that the narrator was stating. The narration suggests (dubbed on top of some Israeli folk music) that Professor Knohl's reading and interpretation is going to revolutionize and destroy the heart of Christian belief.

Professor Knohl's reading of the stone is severely challenged (in fact there is a brief article in the recent Cathedra, pp. 133-144 [in modern Hebrew] where Elisha Qimron and Alexey Yuditsky challenge some of the previous readings). The area of the tablet where Knohl reads "In three days live" is eroded. I have seen this line because the stone was here in Houston and we held a conference on it last semester. The tablet does not say, "In three days live." The tablet probably says, "In three days raise us up" and the reference is biblical to Hosea 6:1-3, which I have commented on in previous posts about this stone.

Come, let us return to Yahweh,
for he has torn, and he will heal us;
he has stricken, and he will bind us up,
will preserve our life.
After two days, on the third day
he will raise us up, that we may
live in his presence.
Let us know, yes, let us strive,
to know Yahweh.
As the dawn (breaks, so) certain is
his going forth.
He comes to us as surely as the rain,
as the spring rain that waters the land.

Almost every line of the stone is an allusion to other scriptures. The author is compiling and rereading them in such a way that they map out anew what will happen in the last days. This Hosea passage was being interpreted by the author of this apocalypse to refer to the liberation of the remnant of Israel that had been in exile and was now camping around Jerusalem and engaged in the last battle. God would raise up the exiled remnant and give them victory within three days was the promise being made.

I continue to be concerned with how the media is using academic discussions, especially over newly found objects that have yet not been vetted by the academic community, to threaten Christianity. The media will cry "wolf" enough times that pretty soon Christians won't listen to any academic argument, because they will not be able to distinguish the exploited and sensationalized from the rest.

So be careful consumers. Know that the goal of these so-called "documentaries" is entertainment. They pretend to be "balanced" but they are not. They take minority positions, and positions that cannot be maintained in light of the evidence or have not been vetted by the academic community at large, and make them sound reasonable and authoritative. It is all smoke and mirrors. So beware.

ADDENDUM: Michael in the comments mentions that this type of post will be used to characterize me as a "conservative scholar" who is trying to conserve the faith. Let it be known that this is not the case. Whether Christianity survives or not is not my concern. But good rigorous scholarship is. The Gabriel Stone is not going to make any difference to Christianity or its central tenet the resurrection because the Gabriel Stone does not even refer to the resurrection of a messiah, suffering or otherwise. What I worry about is the media's continual cry about how this new discovery or that new discovery is going to change Christianity and it is going to destroy the faith. This sort of media sensation does nothing more than dull the ears, so when we as academics have something that is actually important to say that may indeed impact Christianity, no one is going to listen.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What are the different Gnostic types?

I have been working on understanding the larger parameters of ancient gnosticism. In that process I have developed some language to talk about the different kinds of Gnostics we find in the ancient (and likely modern) world.

This material is being published in my paper for the Codex Judas Congress. I will probably be talking about this at SBL during the session honoring the work of Elaine Pagels. What you are reading here is my own analysis and language that has come out of years of research into the ancient Gnostics. You won't find this in any book on Gnosticism (yet! - it will be the framework for my next book The Gnostics and Their Gospels). So if you find this useful and start to use this language in your teaching or research, I would appreciate it if you would reference me - either this blog, or better, my published article: April D. DeConick, "Apostles as Archons: The Fight for Authority and the Emergence of Gnosticism in the Tchacos Codex and Other Early Christian Literature," in the Codex Judas Papers: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Tchacos Codex held at Rice University, Houston, Texas, March 13-16, 2008 (April D. DeConick, ed.; NHMS 71; Brill: Leiden, 2009) 243-288.

Lodge Gnostics: these kinds of Gnostics would define themselves as Jewish or Christian. They attend regular synagogue and/or church, but they also attend additional "lodge" meetings where they learn more esoteric teachings and likely participate in special rituals that the lodge has developed. They are beginning to interpret their scriptures differently from the way the rabbis and priests are doing from the pulpit. They are discussing this at their lodge meetings. Some of the leaders of the lodge may be writing new theological material and this is being distributed and read among the members of the lodge. The rabbis and priests still see these people as part of their flock and are willing to engage them in conversation and theological discussions.

Reform Gnostics: these kinds of Gnostics would define themselves as Gnostic Jews or Gnostic Christians. Gnostic would be an adjective for them. They associate with the synagogue and/or church, but their lodge meetings are more central to their religious life. They would like to see their synagogue or church reform to reflect the esoteric teachings and practices they are partaking of in the lodge meetings. Some of these Gnostics may even be opening their own synagogues and churches and running them themselves as Jewish and Christian alternatives to the traditional places of worship. They have developed a subversive interpretation of scripture that is not being well-received by the traditional rabbis and priests. They may be writing additional scriptures, but understand them to be a supplement to the traditional ones. There is tension developing between the leaders of the reformers and the leaders of the traditionalists who are rejecting the reformers' interpretation of scripture and ritual activity. The word "heretic" starts to be trotted out.

Separatist Gnostics: these kinds of Gnostics would define themselves as Jewish Gnostics or Christian Gnostics. Gnostic would be a noun for them. They think that the traditional synagogue and church is so corrupt that it is beyond redemption. So they belong to synagogues and churches that they themselves have opened and operated. They are not interested in reforming the traditional synagogue or church. They see themselves as starting over and starting right. They are the "authentic" Jews and Christians. They have their own interpretation of scripture that is subversive. They have their own rituals that may or may not be a reflection of the traditional ones. They likely have begun to add new scriptures to their canon, and may be rewriting the old to reflect their beliefs better. They try to convince traditionalists to leave the synagogue and church and join them because they perceive the traditional faiths as corrupt beyond repair. The word "heretic" is normally being used. The tension is so high that persecution from the dominant religion often occurs.

New Religion Gnostics: these kinds of Gnostics would understand themselves as Gnostics, as members of a separate religion. Many have left behind former religious associations. They no longer perceive themselves as Jews or Christians although their brand of Gnosticism likely contains elements from those religions. The place of worship is entirely their own. Their theology tends to be eclectic, drawing on a number of religious traditions. They usually have their own set of scriptures that is different from the traditional religions. They have their own rituals. Over time this new religion is either persecuted by the traditional faiths (in cases of totalitarian state-sponsored religion, when Gnosticism isn't the state-sponsored religion), or the tension between the Gnostics and the traditional people of faith weakens because the traditional faiths are no longer being threatened (in cases where religious freedom is permitted or at least tolerated). In this latter case, the Gnostic religion can survive.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Are Gnostics heretics?

I have really enjoyed reading the comments you left in my post about the Gnostic quiz. Something that occurred to me again and again as I read what you had to say is how much this term exists in tension with traditional religions.

The traditional religions define themselves as "not Gnostic" because the term is perceived as a marker for "heretic." So Mormonism, for one example, will self-define as "not Gnostic" (as we saw in some of your comments) while an outsider studying Mormonism and its formation may see the major signifiers of a modern Gnostic movement (as we also saw in some of your comments). Why? Because Mormonism has the esoteric teachings and practices surrounding the Temple in which the insider's knowledge is transmitted to the initiate, a transtheistic god viewed in ways very different from traditional Christianity, new revealed scriptures that reinterpret and critique traditional interpretation, and a critical subversive stance regarding traditional Christianity. And it became a separatist Christian tradition, if not a new religious movement (again, this is likely a matter of perspective).

Keep in mind that "gnosis" is not a particular set of beliefs so much as it is knowledge that is esoteric (hidden and revealed to a few), mystical (direct immediate experience of God), and subversive (critiques traditional religion).

It is this last segment of the definition that makes "Gnosis" different from other forms of knowledge and other religiosities. The Gnostics believe(d) that the traditional religion does not understand even its own scripture, and that they alone knew/know the true God who exists beyond the god(s) of traditional religion. So my question today is this. Are Gnostics "heretics" by self-definition? In other words, is this only a polemical perspective of the non-Gnostic defining the Gnostic as a heretic? Of is there something intrinsic about Gnosis that makes it heretical?