For nine years, I have written reviews of the Annual Meetinga as objectively as possible. This year, however, I admit to being prejudiced—prejudiced in favor of this year’s meeting because it was held (for the first time since 1974) in our hometown, Washington, D.C. Not only that, but the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS), publisher of BAR and Bible Review, was a major participant.
One of the Meeting’s prime features was an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution consisting of two unique objects that BAS brought to this country for the occasion. Lent to us by the Israel Museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority, the two artifacts were the ivory pomegranate from Solomon’s Temple inscribed “Holy to the Priests, belonging to the Temp[le of Yahwe]h”b and the recently-excavated ossuary, or bone box, of the high priest Caiaphas, who, according to the Gospels, presided at the trial of Jesusc
Thousands of Washingtonians, tourists and registrants at the Annual Meeting flocked to the exhibit, which proved to be a major attraction on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol for the ten days it was here.
A catalog that describes these two rare objects and places them in meaningful historical and archaeological context, is still available from BAS. (You can order the catalog for $14.95 by calling 1-800-221-4644.) This stunningly beautiful, 48-page full-color catalog is clearly one of the most elegant productions ever offered by the Society.
To celebrate the exhibit, BAS co-sponsored, with the Israeli Embassy, a reception or special friends in the Embassy’s Jerusalem Hall. Another elegant success.
We also offered a three-day seminar for laypeople in conjunction with the Annual Meeting. Seminar participants had the pleasure of studying with several illustrious archaeologists who were in town for the Annual Meeting. Among the speakers was Avraham Biran, who has been excavating at Tel Dan in northern Israel for 27 years and who this past summer uncovered an inscription that refers to the “House of David” and the “King of Israel.” The 60 seminar participants gave the 85-year-old archaeologist a standing ovation.
For the scholars at the Annual Meeting, BAS and the Society of Biblical Literature co-sponsored a plenary session in which Zvi Greenhut and Ronny Reich, both of the Israel Antiquities Authority, analyzed the Caiaphas ossuary and its inscription; and in which Avraham Biran presented the latest from Tel Dan. For the many hundreds of scholars in the audience, this standing-room-only event was a highlight of the four-day convention.
BAS also had one of the most attractive booths in the 95,000-square-foot exhibit hall, where we offered books, slide sets, videos and replicas, as well as books published by the Jerusalem-based Israel Exploration Society. Scholars scooped up everything in sight, especially copies of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism and Ancient Churches Revealed.
So you can see why it is difficult for me to write an objective, unbiased account of this year’s Annual Meeting.
The most aggravating aspect of the Annual Meeting was trying to find one’s way around the Sheraton Washington Hotel, where most sessions were held. We at BAS are familiar with the hotel because it is only a block from our offices. Nonetheless, it was maddeningly frustrating trying to find particular meeting rooms, even with the help of the inadequate floor plan in the Annual Meeting catalog. (After four days of attending meetings, I still don’t know which of the two floor plans in the Annual Meeting catalog—“Lobby Level” or “First Level”—is the higher.) Finding one’s way 048among the strata of an excavation is child’s play compared to finding a meeting room in the Sheraton Washington Hotel. And the hotel signs are inadequate for such a complicated building. One solution to this problem is to have young people stationed at important intersections to answer queries. (This solution is used at World Congress of Jewish Studies meetings, held every four years at the Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus in Jerusalem.) But more complete signs would also help.
The hotel also needed more and better-staffed stations offering quick sandwiches, fruit and cookies. Long lines at such stations make no sense. At one point, I felt so desperately hungry that, unable to wait in line, I stole a cookie; I have since sent a check to the hotel in payment.
Most of the sessions I attended—it was impossible to attend more than a tiny fraction of them—were exciting, diverse and well-presented. They often raised more questions than they answered; perhaps this is the mark of good scholarship. One such session was devoted to the archaeological evidence of ancient Moab, Israel’s neighbor and sometime-enemy east of the Jordan. Six scholars (alas, none a Jordanian, despite BAS’s offer to help finance attendance by Arab scholars at the Annual Meeting to present papers) delivered talks on different aspects of the Moabite problem. The origins of the Moabites are unfortunately even more obscure than the origins of the Israelites. Oddly, the speakers made little effort to correlate their evidence from east of the Jordan with evidence on the other side—the Israelite side—of the Jordan. Such a comparative approach could be very productive. There are apparently still modern political problems in doing this too openly: Foreign scholars don’t want to jeopardize their positions in the host country. People working in Jordan, as well as in Egypt, are still reluctant to make Biblical connections. Israeli scholars and scholars working in Arab countries only occasionally appear on the same panel. It would have been interesting to have an Israeli scholar compare the situation as the presenters described it in Moab with the contemporaneous situation in Israel. We hope the time will soon come when modern political considerations will no longer deflect scholarship.
Eighty-five-year-old Cyrus Gordon, now of Brandeis University, was one of the few “grand old men” who presented papers. He is as acute as ever. Gordon analyzed the Joseph narrative in Genesis, “the finest literary tale in the Biblical tradition,” against its Egyptian background. In a masterful presentation, he showed how an understanding of second-millennium B.C. Egyptian romances and culture informs and enlightens the Genesis story. This effectively refutes scholarly efforts to place the composition of the story in the period of Israel’s divided monarchy or later.
The Dead Sea Scroll sessions (called Qumran Sections by the scholars) have settled down to the somewhat plodding, but absolutely necessary, meticulous reconstruction and recovery of the texts themselves. These sessions were well-attended, but mostly by specialists, many of whom are themselves preparing the editiones principes of fragmentary texts. The texts are now available to everyone and work is proceeding responsibly but with dispatch; it will be years, however, before the syntheses begin to appear, first by the more daring and courageous and, let us hope, by the senior scholars who, after a lifetime of immersion, control the broadest range of knowledge both in detail and in breadth. Devorah Dimant, a prominent Israeli Dead Sea Scroll scholar, spoke of the “growing need to see the overall picture,” despite what she described as “the constant pressure to publish [the texts themselves].”
Sociological and anthropological models often provide a new understanding of Biblical and post-Biblical history. Richard Horsley, an expert in early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism, noted that even for earlier periods sociology is changing the way we think about Israelite history. For example, we no longer believe that the Assyrians deported large masses of the population after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. The indigenous peasants were left on the land; only the ruling classes were deported. The more we probe, he remarked, the more we realize how little we know—which in part explains why we turn to sociological models for enlightenment. Horsley’s position did not go unchallenged, however. Another scholar claimed the archaeological evidence showed that the Assyrians did indeed de-populate certain areas.
In this same session, entitled “Sociology of the Second Temple Period,” James Pasto of Cornell University observed that nationalism is an anachronism that was imposed on segments of ancient Jewish history by 19th-century scholars who were using inapplicable contemporary concepts to interpret the past. (On the other hand, one wonders if we in the 20th century don’t often do the same thing, except that our contemporary concepts are somewhat different from those that were current in the 19th century.)
The scholars in this session then proceeded to try to puzzle out what Galilee was like in Jesus’ time. How Jewish was it? How Greek or Hellenistic? How pagan? How did these elements interact? And how do we know? What is the evidence? What can we learn from texts that have survived? From archaeological excavations? From the newest trend in archaeology—the archaeological survey? From sociological and anthropological models? How do we put it 049all together?
In an insightful paper in another session, Carolyn Higginbotham of DePauw University tried to understand the Egyptianization of Palestine during the Ramesside period by comparing it to the Romanization of Britain in the Roman period, about which we know considerably more. She then applied the sociological model extracted from the Roman evidence to the Egyptian domination of Palestine, explaining how local elites were dependent on Pharaonic might, how Egyptian culture came to symbolize authority, and concluding that Egypt ruled Palestine not by resident governors, as has been so widely supposed, but through local indigenous administrators who reported to circuit-riding Egyptian authorities. Whether right or wrong, this is the kind of analysis we can expect more of in the future.
The origins of ancient Israel continues to be a hot topic. Unfortunately, proponents of the various views are largely talking past one another. Even the effort of Diana Edelman of James Madison University, to bring together on a single panel some of the more extreme contenders, did not result in their directly addressing one another’s arguments: Each stated his own position (all the panelists were men). John Van Seters of the University of North Carolina claimed that “the recovery of the early history of Israel is hopeless.” Thomas Thompson, now of the University of Copenhagen and representing the Scandinavian school, argued that questions of historicity of the Biblical text could be answered only negatively, never affirmatively. On the other side, Max Miller of Emory University referred darkly to the “Bible-bashing rhetoric” of some recent scholarship. Said John Bimson of Trinity College, England: “I want no return to the bad old days when scholars were out to prove the Bible true, but the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction.” This is a conversation that will doubtless be continued and, one may hope, sharpened.
I have sometimes commented in these annual reviews on the condition of ASOR, one of the three constituent scholarly organizations that holds sessions at the Annual Meeting. ASOR members form the core of professional Near Eastern archaeologists in the United States. Yet their organization has been continually sidelined in the Annual Meeting: ASOR’s name no longer appears on the program cover, and only SBL and AAR sign the program acknowledgments. SBL and AAR, not ASOR, really run the Annual Meeting. SBL and AAR, not ASOR, divide the various materials in the program. The ASOR program is relegated to seven pages (out of 170) in the back of the bus—I mean the back of the book. ASOR’s business meetings are not even listed in the program book and are held at another hotel miles away.
Six of the best ASOR sessions were co-sponsored with SBL, leaving precious little to the pure ASOR-sponsored program.
But the problem goes much deeper. ASOR is an organization in trouble. It has a long and distinguished history and a core of devoted and loyal supporters. In contrast to the straits in which ASOR finds itself, its overseas institutes are for the most part flourishing. These include the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Researchin Jerusalem, the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia. These overseas institutes are now raising much of their own money, have their own governing bodies and are operating largely autonomously. ASOR, the umbrella organization, is not central to their existence; on the contrary, the overseas institutes may contribute more to ASOR than vice-versa. ASOR is thus relegated principally to its publications, fellowship awards and a modest annual meeting program.
For years ASOR has teetered on the edge of financial disaster. Some may argue that its financial condition has recently improved, but few contend that it is financially healthy.
SBL, by contrast, is a thriving organization, financially and programmatically. It is in the midst of what promises to be a successful endowment campaign. It has gar-nered the support of nearly 5,000 scholars.
Dare I utter the unutterable? Doesn’t it make sense at least to consider bringing ASOR under the SBL umbrella?
If this were simply a matter of organizational fiefdoms, it would hardly be worth discussing. But the considerations are much broader. Archaeology is perhaps the “sexiest” aspect of Biblical studies. To be less provocative, archaeology is certainly one of the most popular areas of Biblical studies. The few sessions devoted to broad archaeological issues are always among the most crowded at the Annual Meeting. Yet there is comparatively little of this at the Annual Meeting. Several prominent SBL leaders have confirmed to me that this is because SBL does not want to step on ASOR’s toes: Archaeology is ASOR’s domain. SBL doesn’t have an archaeology section per se, but it has sections on almost every other imaginable aspect of Biblical studies. The reason seems obvious, though seldom remarked upon—ASOR. The sessions on New Testament archaeology are in fact organized by SBL, not ASOR, because ASOR does not even make a pretense of covering New Testament archaeology as such.
I do not mean to imply that there is overt competition or ill-feeling between ASOR and SBL, because there is not. But perhaps what ASOR is doing could be done better if it were somehow folded into SBL.
How this could be done is another question. But it might be well for ASOR and SBL leaders to “go to Oslo” for some private talks and to consider candidly where their joint interests lie.
One major problem, aside from the threat to ASOR’s identity, is that many of ASOR’s archaeologists don’t like the “Biblical” rubric. However, there is no reason why these archaeologists cannot continue doing precisely what they are now doing under the auspices of SBL. Biblical archaeology, especially as defined by Albright, is surely broad enough to cover all kinds of Near Eastern archaeology. Biblical studies in general are broadening to include all kinds of text studies, computer analyses, sociological and anthropological studies and so forth.
So the only problem is the name, not what the archaeologists are doing. Those few archaeologists who would be offended by the “Biblical” association might instead tie up with the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), which has no Biblical connections and indeed leaves most Near Eastern archaeology to ASOR.
This is an unusually difficult and complicated situation, but it is time for these organizations to consider a more effective organizational structure that will permit archaeology related to the Bible (in the broadest sense) to expand and flourish. Biblical archaeology has that potential, as the more than 225,000 subscribers to BAR attest.
While I am talking about organizations, there is another archaeological organization that our readers should know more about. It meets for three days just before the Annual Meeting, in the same city, so that its members can then attend the Annual Meeting. Its name is the Near Eastern Archaeological Society (NEAS). It is an exciting organization that meets in conjunction with the Evangelical Theological Society.
I learned of the NEAS meeting from my friend Bryant Wood, the Society’s vice president, who invited me to attend. Nearly 20 years ago, in the December 1975 issue, I wrote about the Near East Archaeological Society. I complained that NEAS required affirmation of a statement of faith as a condition of membership: “The Bible alone and The Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in The Autographs.” Unless you’re willing to sign the statement, you can’t be a member of this scholarly archaeological association.
The sessions at the NEAS meeting were on a high scholarly level and it did not appear that the scholarship was affected by theology. Indeed, in several talks it was accepted that certain Biblical passages were not literally accurate. Some of the scholars who had been invited to present papers obviously did not accept the Bible as literally true in all respects. And of course I was made to feel warmly welcome, especially because I have many friends among the Society’s members, including President Keith Schoville.
When I raised the issue of the “Statement of Faith” with several of the Society’s leaders, they didn’t offer much of a defense. Indeed, requiring a “Statement of Faith” undermines the credibility of the Society’s scholarship, suggesting as it does that the theological commitments of the members are injected into their scholarship. This does not appear to be the case. These people are willing to discuss the issues—all of them—on the basis of the evidence. Their scholarship should not be burdened with a “Statement of Faith” that makes it suspect. I told my friends in the NEAS that if they drop the “Statement of Faith” as a condition of membership, I would like to join.
What I wrote in 1975 is equally applicable today: “We do not object to anyone who adopts this [statement] as his [or her] own personal statement of faith. However, we believe it is entirely inappropriate as a condition of membership in an organization devoted to scholarly archaeological pursuits.” I hope one day soon to be a member of NEAS.
For nine years, I have written reviews of the Annual Meetinga as objectively as possible. This year, however, I admit to being prejudiced—prejudiced in favor of this year’s meeting because it was held (for the first time since 1974) in our hometown, Washington, D.C. Not only that, but the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS), publisher of BAR and Bible Review, was a major participant. One of the Meeting’s prime features was an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution consisting of two unique objects that BAS brought to this country for the occasion. Lent to us by the Israel Museum and […]