Thursday, November 28, 2013

SBL 2013 highlights

EXCELLENT SBL MEETING IN BALTIMORE. I went to some good papers, did some good networking, and was very happy with the review session on the new Pseudepigrapha book. This was the first year I have ever had two new books in the Book Display auditorium. (Click on all the images below for a larger version.)

My translation of the Hekhalot literature is to be reviewed at the 2014 SBL in San Diego in the Esotericism and Mysticism in Antiquity Section.

L to R: Jim Davila, Judith Newman, John J. Collins. Photo courtesy of Sarah Whittle.

As I said, I was pleased with this year's review of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, Volume One (photo above). There were people coming and going throughout the session and at peak attendance I counted about 60 in the room. I recall that there was an SBL review session on Charlesworth's two Old Testament Pseudepigrapha volumes back in 1986 or 1987. It took place around a single large table in a room and my recollection is that there weren't more than about 20 people present, which perhaps reflects something of the expansion of interest in the field since the mid-80s.

One of the reviewers, Liv Ingeborg Lied, has posted her review on her blog: Text – work – manuscript: what is “an Old Testament Pseudepigraphon”? In return, I am posting my response to her review below, along with the opening and closing paragraphs of my whole response.
First, let me thank all of the reviewers for their kind remarks about our new volume. It is gratifying indeed both to hear their praise and to receive criticisms that reflect such attentive reading and careful engagement with the volume. Their remarks will help us continue to develop our thinking about the second volume and today's discussion marks the beginning of what I trust will be a long and fruitful conversation generated by this new material. My remarks that follow should be heard with all this in mind. I would also like to thank my co-editors, Richard Bauckham and Alexander Panayotov, who read the first three of the reviews and shared their thoughts with me, some of which I have included here. ...

Liv Ingeborg Lied Liv raises some legitimate methodological concerns over the fact that we treat a large number of alleged quotations of now otherwise lost works ("conceived compositional units") as representative of actual lost works and that sometimes we even infer the existence of lost works from passages in the work of a later author which imply or hint at the use of an earlier source. This would be her third category, "entries that represent as works texts-on-page that are conceptualized in a rather different way in the manuscripts themselves." She asks specifically about the text fragment attributed to a Book of Noah, but implicitly about a number of other texts translated in the volume, "[I]s the textual entity described here a work at all, and if it is; what work are we talking about and to whom is this a work?"

The editors were of the view, as we said in the introduction, that the quotation fragments included in this volume and the forthcoming one could at least be argued to come out of earlier, otherwise lost "works" and that it was worthwhile to present the case for each so scholars could evaluate it. I imagine some will stand the test of time and scrutiny and others won't. The format chosen for presentation has ample precedent in earlier collections. All that said, there is always room for methodological reflection and refinement of what we are doing. And what we do with quotation fragments is, as Liv observes, complicated.

But much of the complication consists of factors that scholars specializing in ancient texts have learned to take for granted. Like the Book of Noah fragment (if that is what it is), most of our manuscripts of ancient or early medieval works are medieval and we must try to reconstruct the ancient work as best we can, often on the basis of maddeningly corrupt manuscripts. The complications of interest here are with the additional inference that a passage in the Book of Asaph (as best we have it in a medieval manuscript) which claims to give us the Book of Noah is actually an excerpt from an ancient book with that title.

Here it is not clear to me why Liv only allows that "other sources may point" in the direction "that there was an ancient conception of a work ascribed to Noah." This very cautious formulation seems to me to be a simple matter of fact. There are references to a book of Noah, not only in Jubilees 21:10 and 10:13, but also in Aramaic Levi 57 and in the Genesis Apocryphon v 29. There was a conception of a work ascribed to Noah. Whether in fact one or more such works actually existed is uncertain (I think it likely) and whether we can reconstruct part of it is more uncertain still. But I believe that Martha Himmelfarb has made a good case for the fragment in question to be a stratigraphically earlier version of material found in Jubilees. This material is connected both there and in the Book of Asaph with a book of Noah, so it may well be that that is where it came from.

Liv asks about this book, "can we really get to it, and why is it an aim to get to it?" My answer to her first question is: Quite possibly, based on the specific case that Martha has made. Why is it an aim to get to it? Because our aim is to recover every surviving scrap of writing from antiquity. Bit by bit, a letter at a time, whatever it takes. Until we're done.

I take it that Liv is not concerned so much with the question of whether any or all of the quotation fragments we have published actually come from ancient "works." A specific case has been made for each on its own terms and doubtless other specialists will find some cases more persuasive than others. Rather, she has broader methodological concerns about applying what she calls the "work-model" to these texts at all. Along these lines she asks some wide-ranging methodological questions.

First she says "We need to ask ourselves about the extent to which it is fruitful for readers of MOTP to get acquainted with this material in the work-format, or whether this format hides too much information, or even creates a map of second temple Judaism and late antiquity that may not fit the territory." My main response to this is that we chose this format as the best and clearest way forward to present the material to both a specialist and a nonspecialist audience. Our concerns were practical and not just methodological.

Second she asks, "[H]ow do we value the information contained in the source material when 'the ancient books' are what we aim for?" There are many different possible answers to this question. Her approach using New Philology values the manuscripts and texts in ways rather different from the ways we valued them, but both approaches have a significant contribution to make.

She asks finally, "Does the Pseudepigraphon have to be a book, identifiable as a 'work,' in order to be something in its own right at all?" My answer: I don't know. I doubt it.

Liv's three questions are phrased in a way that seems to imply she has answers in mind, so I am happy to turn them back to her and ask her for her own answers. And, again in practical terms, if she thinks there is a better way for us to handle these quotation fragments in accordance with our own objective of getting them published in a form readily useful to specialists and nonspecialists, I invite her to tell us about it. ...

In conclusions, once again, I want to convey the gratitude of the editors to this review panel for their warm welcome of the new volume, their praise, and their thoughtful critical comments.
UPDATE (29 November): Jack Collins was at the session and comments here. Since Jack brings up the dissatisfaction with the term "pseudepigrapha" in the discussion (especially in relation to the title of our book), here are some comments I made about the issue:
Regarding the question of terminology, I would like to sound a note of caution. The current discussion reminds me of the similar discussion of the term "magic" in the 1990s, in which specialists in the area expressed strong and quite justified reservations about the use of the term for what they were studying. Marvin Meyer offered a replacement term, "ritual power," and Jonathan Z. Smith argued that the term "magic" should be dropped in favor of more specific terms on a lower order of taxonomy, but by the early 2000s the discussion had died down without coming to any conclusion. This conversation was quite useful for helping specialists in magic understand better what they were studying, but ultimately the unsatisfactory term "magic" carried the day and it is the term used in the various SBL sessions in which the specialists carry on with the important work of understanding the ancient magical texts.

It could happen again. I appreciate the many problems with the term "pseudepigrapha" and I don't dispute that the current discussion is helping us better to understand the texts on which we are working. At the same time, I see no sign of a groundswell of support for new terminology that can adequately replace the term "pseudepigrapha." I cannot predict the future, but I see no need to assume that the current discussion will succeed in producing such terminology, and it may well be that at a certain point we pseudepigraphers will join the magicians and just get on with studying the texts. There is a certain irony that we are being told in the Pseudepigrapha Section that "pseudepigrapha" is a term we should drop and that should not have been used in our volume. When we reach the point of consensus that the title of this unit should be changed to something else that most of us can agree on, not to mention the title of the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, and the titles of both are in fact changed, I will be more worried about the word "pseudepigrapha" in our volumes.
I suggested the Unobtainium Section and the Journal for the Study of Unobtainium, but no one seemed to want to go with that.