The Annual ETS, IBR, and SBL Meetings 2018

CCCIt has been about a month, but we wanted to provide a brief summary on the recent annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Institute for Biblical Research, and Society of Biblical Literature meetings in Denver, Colorado. Overall, it was another great year of presenting papers and listening to them, along with the usual social and professional activities surrounding the conferences.

As mentioned in a previous post, Stan presented a total of four papers and Dave one. Besides ours, of course, there were a good number of other papers that merit mention. Some of these include papers presented by some of our close colleagues.

I (Stan) was exceptionally busy this year, especially at ETS, but also at IBR. I chaired the open papers of the New Testament Canon, Textual Criticism and Apocryphal Literature session, where there was an interesting mix of papers. I enjoyed one on the correspondence between B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, and look forward to reading more on their constructive relationship that resulted in the famous Westcott-Hort edition of 1881. Less satisfactory was a paper that ended up being an exaltation of the Majority text, whether the presenter was knowingly arguing for this position or not.

As for my papers, I presented an invited paper on “The Language of John’s Gospel and Revelation” in the Johannine Literature section. This paper was an exploration, first, of how scholars have chosen to characterize the language used in John’s Gospel and Revelation. The supposed differences between the two—which are fewer than one might think, if one follows the categories found in the discussion—are often used to posit differences in authorship. I, second, examined alternative accounts of their differences, in particular linguistic reasons and specifically register variation. This is an area that deserves further consideration in the wider field of New Testament studies—and that Dave addresses in his work (see below).

My second paper was on Romans 5:1 and the difference an O can make, one of four papers on Romans in the New Testament Greek Language and Exegesis invited session that I also chaired. In my paper, I defended the subjunctive reading in Romans 5:1 and teased out its implications. The subjunctive reading, I believe, is indicated by the external (manuscript) evidence and the internal evidence—contrary to what many commentators assert. Most of these commentators shy away from the subjunctive because they assume it to be hortatory, when this does not necessarily follow from use of the subjunctive. The subjunctive can be—and in this context, is being—used to posit the next stage in Paul’s argument from justification to reconciliation to life in the Spirit. A further defense of the subjunctive can be found in my commentary on Romans, The Letter to the Romans: A Linguistic and Literary Commentary. I wish to thank my good friend Marty Culy for his presentation in the session, as well as his helpful comments during the session and after my paper.

My third paper was a joint presentation with my colleague, Francis Pang, entitled “Beware of Philippians 3:2: Reconsidering a Supposed Imperative,” in the Pauline studies open papers session. We are working on a book on Philippians, and this paper is part of that effort. We argue that the second person plural verb in Philippians 3:2 is probably not an imperative but an indicative, and examine some of the implications of this finding. We had a robust discussion at the end of the paper, with a reasonably large group considering that it was the last paper of the last session of ETS. I wish I could say that all of the papers went as well. Without mentioning names, I was sorely disappointed to hear a paper from a PhD student at another institution who simply did not seem to grasp the major issues or secondary literature regarding his topic—and this seemed to be his dissertation.

My only other paper was a presentation at an IBR session on the History of Biblical Interpretation, where I was asked to comment on my work as editor of the two volumes of Pillars in the History of Biblical Interpretation. This was a very stimulating session as one of four presenters on various dimensions of the history of interpretation. As I tried to emphasize in my paper, I think that deeper knowledge of the history of biblical scholarship is something that we should cultivate in our students (and colleagues). We must appreciate that ideas do not exist apart from the people who hold them. For example, form criticism is not so much a “thing” as an approach used differently by Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Dibelius, and others. I was very thankful for the invitation to be a part of this illuminating session.

I (Dave) presented one paper at ETS on speech functions and speech acts in Galatians 1:6–12. It was a section of my dissertation, which I defended this past summer, regarding the interpersonal metafunction of language as applied to Greek. I proposed that one (the?) major function of language is doing something (nothing new), and that there are two strata in which we can determine what is done with language use: the semantic stratum, based on the lexicogrammar of the language and strictly related to form, and the contextual stratum, based on the contextual usage of that form. I then applied this analysis to Galatians 1:6–12, the beginning of the body of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, to determine what Paul is doing there. You’ll have to wait for the publication of my dissertation to find out what I concluded! I ended my paper a few minutes early, so we had about 13 minutes for discussion afterwards. Most of the questions and discussion was positive and encouraging, focusing on the need to differentiate between formal function and use in context. There was one question regarding the meaning of the term grammaticalization—a word that was not used in my paper! But although the issue was irrelevant to my paper, I think it was a positive question, nevertheless, as it showed an interest in and desire to know (Greek) linguistics. I realize that it is still a sub-field that many biblical students and scholars are intimidated by, especially because of the insider-terminology that one must acquire in order to be conversant. But the fact that someone came to my paper and asked about the meaning of a linguistic term (and hopefully I answered in a way which was understandable) is encouraging. I hope more students of the Bible take interest in and learn some of the more technical aspects of Greek grammar and linguistics in the years to come.

There are a few observations that we would like to make after reflecting on this year’s conferences. First, ETS is probably one of the few academic societies where a majority of the attendees sit in on only one or two of the papers in a given section. At most of the other academic conferences, such as linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and even SBL, attendees tend to stay for the whole session, since usually the papers have some sort of unified theme and attendees are interested in that particular theme. While there is nothing wrong with attending individual papers rather than whole sections, we wonder why that is the case at the ETS meetings. For me (Dave), while I do have a very broad interest in New Testament studies and almost anything related to the New Testament interests me, there are a few sections that I like to attend because of my current interest in them (Greek linguistics, textual criticism and papyrology, Pauline studies, and Gospel studies, for example). Aside from trying to attend some of my friends’ and colleagues’ papers, these are the ones that I schedule, and I aim to be there for the entire section (barring other factors, of course, such as a scheduled meeting). One reason why ETS attendees tend to select individual papers rather than whole sections might be the fact that people tend to select papers by individuals they know (who are “proven”) rather than take a chance on someone they don’t know. And that’s perhaps why known scholars tend to draw bigger crowds than the unknown PhD student—but some of the best papers I’ve attended were by PhD students, as they are the ones who are often (but sometimes not, as mentioned already) on the cutting edge of scholarship in their respective fields.

Second, we found a wide disparity in the quality of the papers at the conferences. I (Stan) already mentioned the disappointing paper by a PhD student. This is a timely reminder that not all PhD programs are equal and not all demand the same of their students. As a result, some of the PhD students who presented did better jobs than some senior scholars in the same sessions, while others showed that they need to free themselves from some of the unfortunate strictures of much current PhD study—such as the influence of their teachers or, especially, of particular theological beliefs—and do more work of getting into the text.

Third, these conferences confirmed that most scholars are not so much interested in taking new approaches and arriving at new conclusions as they are in reinforcing traditional beliefs and propping up established positions. This is very unfortunate, as there are many new methods that merit scholarly exploration and no doubt many new exploratory ideas worth pursuing. We saw the same at many if not most of the book tables at both ETS and SBL. Many of the publishers–and the evangelical ones unfortunately as much as the others–are showing that they have very little new to offer scholarship and are content to republish established (and even not so established) previous scholarship or–and this seems to be a major trend–to publish or over-publish textbooks and lower-level books, often touted as addressed to a lay audience. We simply do not need so many repeat performances or books that dumb down our discipline any further!

With these thoughts in mind, we look forward to next year’s meetings in San Diego (aside from the beautiful weather in November!), as well as attending various regional meetings that will take place between now and then.

— Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon

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