“Mentsch” is one of those Yiddish words that has found its way into English. It means a decent human being, someone who is generous, who does not overreach. Leo Rosten says it refers to someone who has “a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”a
For more than 25 years, three societies—the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR)—held a joint annual meeting in which scholars of the Bible, religion and archaeology gathered to present papers to one another. In the early days, attendance was small enough that everyone could and did stay in the dormitories at Union Theological Seminary in New York. At that time, it was only SBL and ASOR. Only one afternoon during the meeting was devoted to archaeological sessions (but they were the most popular). AAR, organized in 1964 as the National Association of Bible Instructors, then changed its name and soon began holding its annual meeting with SBL and ASOR.
I began attending the joint Annual Meeting of these three learned societies in 1976. A few years later, I began reporting on them in every March/April issue of BAR. Gradually, my reports became full-fledged articles. Each year, as I flew out to wherever the meeting was being held, I asked myself whether I would be able to find anything to report. “Would there be anything new to say?” Somehow, there always was.
In the mid-1990s something began happening that I did not report because it seemed inappropriate: ASOR was becoming less prominent. Its name was getting smaller and smaller on the cover of the program book. It was gradually being pushed aside. In 1997 the final break came. ASOR would no longer be a part of what everyone had come to call the “Annual Meeting.”
In 1998, for the first time since the three scholarly organizations had decided to hold the joint Annual Meeting, ASOR held its annual meeting separately.
Did ASOR leave, or was it pushed?
Stories vary, but what it came down to was money. The Annual Meeting is run by something called Joint Ventures. And only SBL and AAR are controlling members of Joint Ventures. As attendance at the Annual Meeting grew—the 1999 Annual Meeting attracted approximately 8,000 people—the Annual Meeting began making money, big money, but only for Joint Ventures, not ASOR. One might suppose that this would have resulted in Joint Ventures being more generous to ASOR, a comparatively small, struggling scholarly organization specializing in the archaeology of the ancient Near East. After all, to SBL, ASOR was small change.
But the opposite occurred. Annual Meeting negotiations with ASOR were handled by SBL. Each year SBL tightened the conditions for ASOR’s participation in the Annual Meeting. Finally, SBL advised ASOR that it would no longer be credited for any part of the registration fees of its members and that ASOR members who were not also members of one of the other two organizations would have to pay higher, nonmember registration rates, none of which would go to ASOR. SBL also began charging ASOR for the rooms in which ASOR papers were presented and the audiovisual equipment used. The bottom line was that participation in the joint Annual Meeting would cost ASOR between $20,000 and $30,000 each year. ASOR had never made money as a junior participant in the joint Annual Meeting, but it could not afford this loss. In 1996 ASOR 074withdrew. Henceforth, the Annual Meeting would be the joint Annual Meeting only of SBL and AAR.
Some thought this would be the death of ASOR. Who would want—or could afford—to go to two annual meetings? How would ASOR ever mount an annual meeting on its own? In an effort to feed off the big Annual Meeting, ASOR began to hold its own annual meeting a few days before the big Annual Meeting, in or near the same city. In 1997 only 350 people attended ASOR’s separate annual meeting in Napa, California; immediately following the ASOR meeting, the big Annual Meeting was held in San Francisco, with about 7,000 in attendance. For a couple years, it was touch and go. ASOR was losing money on its own annual meeting, almost as much as it would lose if it had agreed to SBL’s conditions to be a part of the big Annual Meeting. The outcome seemed in doubt, especially because ASOR was changing its focus from Biblically oriented archaeology to a more Bible-neutral archaeology.b The name of its semi-scholarly publication was changed from Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology, even though 83 percent of its membership opposed the change.
Many felt that ASOR had overplayed its hand in Annual Meeting negotiations with SBL, that ASOR would now shrivel and die. Its leadership was cliquish and out of touch with its membership. It was impoverished both financially and, some said, intellectually.
But then things began to change. ASOR’s 1998 meeting in Orlando, Florida, was better. And its 1999 meeting in Boston last November was positively exciting. Attendance was up to nearly 550. As a result, ASOR broke even; it was no longer losing money it didn’t have on its annual meeting. Many people remarked on the friendlier atmosphere. ASOR leadership has been opened up to more people, including younger scholars. Papers at the meeting were given not only by seasoned academic scholars but by independent scholars—people without, heaven forfend, an academic affiliation. Subject matter also broadened. Sessions included matters directly related to the Bible as well as, for example, Egyptology.
ASOR is still not out of the woods. The banquet at the 1999 meeting cost $60 and was therefore out of the reach of most graduate students and junior academics. And there is still plenty of room for improvement in the quality of the papers at the meeting.
But clearly a corner has been turned. People are now saying that leaving the big Annual Meeting (or being pushed out) was the best thing that ever happened to ASOR.
ASOR now has its own annual meeting—apart from SBL. It is no longer in bed with an elephant, as someone remarked. ASOR’s meeting is more like a big family gathering. While its interests overlap in some respects with SBL’s, ASOR also has its own legitimate, independent archaeological interests unrelated to the Bible. If it continues to hold its annual meeting separately, ASOR should expand its archaeological coverage. Its writ includes—or should include—not only Biblical archaeology, but Egyptology, Assyriology, Hittitology, classics, Greek and Roman civilization, and certainly New Testament archaeology, which it has almost completely ignored. ASOR’s natural allies (and potential joint annual meeting partners) are small organizations like the American Oriental Society, the American Research Center in Egypt and perhaps the Archaeological Institute of America. From the viewpoint of its archaeological interests, there is no reason for it to hold a joint meeting with SBL. SBL adds little, if anything, to ASOR’s program.
ASOR’s annual meeting is now timed to permit attendees to proceed to the big Annual Meeting immediately afterward, but fewer and fewer people are doing this—fewer than 50 is the estimate. A whole week of papers is just too much for most people; they cannot afford the money or the time, or in some cases both. And who has that much zitzfleischc anyway? So why hold the meetings one after the other? For people who can afford the money and the time, it would be more convenient to hold the ASOR meeting and the Annual Meeting at different times and in different places.
In short, ASOR is getting stronger, not weaker. Its opportunities are broadening, not narrowing.
And SBL is doing just fine, thank you, without ASOR. Attendance at SBL’s Annual Meeting continues to grow, and the dollars keep rolling in. Just consider the numbers: 8,000 times $75 (the average registration fee) is $600,000. In addition, Joint Ventures rents booth space (mainly to publishers) in a vast exhibit hall. Approximately 275 booths times at least $1,000 per booth would produce $275,000. Total: $875,000. The expenses are hefty too. But the six-figure profit—half of which presumably goes to SBL and the other half to AAR—is also hefty. Who’s to complain?
If you think that this is the best of all possible worlds, it isn’t. There is a loser in all this. The losers are the thousands of Bible teachers—from universities, colleges, seminaries, community colleges, high schools and other kinds of schools—who come to the SBL annual meeting. Their primary interest is the Bible, not archaeology. But they are fascinated by archaeology as it relates to the Bible. They are anxious to incorporate archaeology into their scholarship and their teaching. That is why the archaeology sessions at the Annual Meeting have always been among the most heavily attended.
The split between the two organizations is simply another wedge driving archaeology and Biblical studies further apart, a fact that should be lamented by both Bible scholars and archaeologists—in short, by both SBL and ASOR.
SBL has announced its intention to develop its own archaeological programs at the SBL-AAR Annual Meeting. Perhaps it can do this. At present, however, the SBL program booklet for the Boston meeting boasted of “nine archaeologically oriented sessions,” while at the same time acknowledging that the ASOR annual meeting would include 49 sessions and 250 presentations.
In short, SBL still needs ASOR. Or, more accurately, SBL members still need ASOR, even if SBL’s institutional leadership doesn’t. 075SBL should invite ASOR to return on a basis that doesn’t cost ASOR money. SBL can afford it, and ASOR can’t. It is as simple as that. It would not be difficult to figure out a dozen ways to structure a return, but the bottom line is the same: ASOR should once again be a part of the Annual Meeting, with its own sessions, at no cost to ASOR. Bible scholars would once again have a rich offering from which they could choose to attend those sessions—whether Biblically oriented or archaeologically oriented—that best fit their research or teaching concerns.
That should be the end of this piece, but unfortunately it isn’t. The Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS), which publishes this magazine, has had a minor role in this drama. For several years, the Biblical Archaeology Society has been organizing one or two sessions a year for the Annual Meeting (not under its own name, but simply as SBL sessions) as a service to the archaeological community and those attendees at the meeting who were particularly interested in the broader-based questions we raised at these sessions. They were exceptionally well received, and we were happy to make this contribution. When ASOR withdrew from the Annual Meeting, we increased the number of SBL sessions we organized, in part to fill the gap left by ASOR’s absence. Again, these sessions—organized not under our own name but simply as SBL sessions—were unusually well attended and universally applauded.
Then, at the 1999 Annual Meeting in Boston last November, we too were sidelined (see “Come to the Additional Meeting,” BAR 25:06). Announcement of our sessions was buried at the back of the program booklet. No mention was made of the Biblical Archaeology Society, so our sessions could not be located. The scholars who delivered papers at our sessions were not listed in the index. When we arrived in Boston, we learned that no audiovisual equipment had been placed in the rooms for our sessions. In desperation, we arranged for the Annual Meeting staff to place microphones and slide projectors in the four rooms where our sessions were to be held. When we returned to Washington, we got a bill for nearly $2,000 for the audiovisual equipment. So, although we have been told that our sessions were the finest ones at this Annual Meeting, it is unlikely that we will organize any hereafter.d Whatever archaeological content we were able to provide in ASOR’s absence will probably not be there in the future. Which makes it all the more imperative that SBL invite ASOR back into the fold on a basis that doesn’t cost ASOR anything. ASOR has something to contribute to SBL and its members, even though it isn’t money.
So, SBL, be a mentsch and invite ASOR back. In truth, you need them more than they need you.
“Mentsch” is one of those Yiddish words that has found its way into English. It means a decent human being, someone who is generous, who does not overreach. Leo Rosten says it refers to someone who has “a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”a For more than 25 years, three societies—the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR)—held a joint annual meeting in which scholars of the Bible, religion and archaeology gathered to present papers to one another. In the early days, attendance was small enough […]