If you’re a professional scholar, the answer is clear: Go! You can’t afford to miss it—not only for what you learn but for the opportunity to meet and interact with colleagues from all over the world.
But what if you’re a minister, priest or rabbi, or a religious school teacher or just plain interested in the Bible? The answer, I think, is still clear: Go! But you should know a little more about what you’re getting into before doing so.
One attraction is relatively easy to absorb: the exhibit hall. There you will find thousands of books about all aspects of religion and the Bible displayed by scores of publishers. Many even display books that are not yet out. But all have their newest and best-selling items. In short, this is the greatest religious bookstore in the world. What’s more, many offer discounts to anyone registered for the Annual Meeting.
The bewildering array of meetings (that is, papers) is more difficult to sort out. In general, you will get the exhilarating feeling that you are on the cutting edge of scholarship, but it can be very difficult knowing where to turn first, to know which of the nearly 1,000 presentations are for you.
The key is the program—now telephone-book size—that lists everything that is going on, as well as where and when. Plan your own schedule in advance, but don’t hesitate to deviate from the plan—either to talk in the hall, have a cup of coffee with someone, sneak off to your room for a nap or attend a different session than the one on your schedule. The most important rule is: Don’t feel guilty about what you miss.
In planning a schedule for yourself, look first at the name of the group, which will tell you the general topic covered. You will incline to your own general interests and be able to exclude areas that don’t engage you as keenly. Here are some examples of some of the section titles: Sociology of the Second Temple, New Testament Textual Criticism, Buddhism, Islam, Women and Religion, Pauline Epistles, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, Early Jewish/Christian Relations, Israelite Prophetic Literature, Historical Jesus, Rabbinic and Patristic Exegesis, Biblical Law, Hellenistic Judaism, Biblical History and Archaeology, Lesbian Feminist Issues, Mysticism, Israelite and Canaanite Religion, Synoptic Gospels, Social History of Early Christianity.
If few or none of these topics interest you, then the Annual Meeting is not for you: Don’t go!
As for those topics that interest you, look at the specific papers. Many are very technical. Cross them off. Look for the more general topics. If you find yourself in a session that is too technical or boring, simply walk out in media res or take a little snooze in situ. In short, be comfortable. Recognize that these are scholarly papers. Sometimes the background you will get is more important than the narrow point the lecturer is making.
Try to find out who the major scholars are and gravitate toward them. Their papers are usually more meaty and broader than the younger scholars.
Be patient with the process and with yourself. You will be learning more than you realize. Give yourself time to become acclimated to the process. You should probably commit to two years before giving up. The second year you will be less wide-eyed and more familiar with what is going on. You will see faces you recognize—perhaps even people you know.
My sense is that more and more non-scholars are attending the Annual Meeting every year—and learning and enjoying.
Of course, it is better to go with someone—to eat with, to compare impressions, to plan schedules.
If you would like to join a Biblical Archeology Society group to attend the Annual Meeting in New Orleans, drop us a line. If there’s enough interest, we’ll not only put together a group of like-minded people, we may even plan a special event.