New College, University of Edinburgh

Reflections on SBL 2016, PT. 1

I will have two abiding memories of my first trip to Texas – the warmth and the flatness of the terrain. For somebody who resides in hilly Edinburgh to be warm in November and to go out at night without a coat is almost impossible to comprehend. The other striking memory was the view from the restaurant of the Tower of the Americas. At a height of over 200 metres one certainly gets a sense of how few hills there are on the horizon. But SBL is about more than warmth and views.


My conference experience kicked off on Saturday morning with examining an Edinburgh PhD – along with my colleague and good friend Prof. Craig Evans of Houston Baptist University. So Saturday morning felt more like work than a conference. Straight afterwards, I attended the board meeting for the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. This involved lunch at the Chart House restaurant in the Tower of the Americas – I think the whole board was enthralled and captivated with the amazing view. Then finally at 4pm I managed to get to my first session: John, Jesus and History – Synoptic Gospels and Q. Many of the papers were fine presentations, but I had a sense of frustration. Since a number of the papers were by Q-sceptics, my sense was that there were few insights into any possible relationship between Johannine material and Q traditions. So although the papers were superbly presented and interesting, I went away with a sense that they had not delivered at least what I was expecting.


Sunday was not a day of rest. I met with several publishers in the morning and early afternoon, before heading to one of the few sessions I was able to attend. That was fortunate – because I was presenting! The session was a review of two recent books on Q: Sarah Rollens, Framing Social Criticism in the Jesus Movement (2014) and Giovanni Bazzana, Kingdom of Bureaucracy: The Political Theology of Village Scribes in the Sayings Gospel Q (2015). These are both exceptionally learned and well-written monographs – that both situate Q in a rural Galilean context being written by middling or sub-elite scribes in the early 60s. They argue respectively that these scribal figures advanced their own concerns of either social reform, or a small “p” political agenda. Despite the obvious scholarship on display, in the end I remained unconvinced by the central theses of both books. Both books appear to have neglected the creative impetus that the movement’s founding figure may have provided for challenging political elites or calling for social reform. The theories that these two agendas originated with middling scribal figures make it unclear why the Q document has any need to attribute these sayings to Jesus. For me, this raises the question of the relation of the Q traditions to the message of the historical Jesus. Admittedly, Q as a document written in Greek and perhaps arranged by various compilers, does not reflect the connected pristine ipsissima verba Jesu. However, one might ask whether Q is a faithful rendition of the message of Jesus? If so, are these assumed scribal figures those responsible for the intellectual creativity in challenging societal structures, or should that role be more accurately attributed to the movement’s founding figure? If not, then why is Jesus remembered at all in Q? Apparently he is not remembered for his sacrificial death in Q, but instead for his provocative teaching. If, however, that teaching does not originate with Jesus, but rather with a middling intellectual creative why are they not remembered rather than Jesus? Thus the difficulty with Rollens’ and Bazzana’s accounts of Q is to understand the need of reference to Jesus – unless he is indeed in some sense the source of the message found in the Sayings Gospel. If Q does correctly attribute that role to Jesus, then are not the scribes mainly responsible for the translation, arrangement and transmission of the Q material? This would imply they are not so much creative intellectual figures challenging the social norms of their day, but rather better described as literate individuals who transmitted the traditions of Jesus’ teaching. And if so, then it is that teaching of Jesus that is the creative impetus and origin of the social reform or political challenge, rather than viewing it as stemming from a set of faceless and nameless scribes who supposedly were struggling to cope with their own sense of obsolescence in first century Galilee.


On Monday morning I took some time to visit the Alamo. It was already packed by the time I arrived, but being in San Antonio a visit to this place of origin for the founding myth of Texas seemed essential. And besides, it was another opportunity to enjoy the warmth of a November day in Texas. In the afternoon I attended the session on Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish and Christian Studies: Christian Apocrypha. I was fascinated by Brent Landau’s paper on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 210 and the use of a digital microscope to recover the text to a greater extent. Admittedly the gains are incremental, but with its use of new technology to study papyri this was a paper from which I learnt genuinely new techniques that will enhance my own study of papyri.


This year’s SBL conference was a wonderfully enriching time, somewhat curtailed by a change in my plane schedule that meant I had to miss the final Tuesday morning session. The jet-lag has almost gone, but the memories of warmth, panoramic views, and wonderful scholarship will linger for a long time to come.



Written By Prof. Paul Foster

  • CSCO Team,
  • 3rd December 2016


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