One of the nice things about the Annual Meeting (its “softer side,” if you will) is that venerable professors, particularly those on the verge of retirement, often receive well-deserved panels of tribute. This was the case with Eric Myers, Duke University’s Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies, who is retiring at the end of the academic year. There’s not too much to say about this one… everyone had nice things to say. ;-) It was nice to see one of my favorite undergraduate professors in action; Tom McCullough, one of Myers’ archaeological brethren in the Galilee, chaired the panel. And Sean Freyne gave a paper highlighting the ways in which Myers’ work has influenced historical Jesus studies, which was particularly interesting to me, as I used some of his research on Galilean synagogues while writing a paper on Luke 4:16-30 last year.
I also attended a panel review of Prof. Joel Kaminsky’s new book (which we are using in his Sibling Rivalries course) Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election. A number of excellent scholars--including Ellen Davis, Jacqueline Lapsley, and Patrick Miller--took part, and their reviews were all very positive. Ben Sommer was more critical, arguing that the book’s relative avoidance of rabbinic texts and later Jewish literature on election make it more suitable for Christians than Jews. As he understood it, the book was more about Paul, and his particular understanding of election, than about the concept as a whole. Having recently read the book, I would disagree with this assessment. Christian understandings of election are not addressed in any detailed way until the eleventh chapter, where they appear alongside some rabbinic views. Nevertheless, I find myself in agreement with my classmate Christy Groves, who suggested (somewhat cheekily) to Prof. Kaminsky that he should have omitted this chapter from his final work. In my view, the role of election in early Christianity—and early Judaism, for that matter, is much too complicated to be summarized in a handful of pages. It may be fairly accurate to say that early Christianity encouraged conversion as a means of obtaining chosenness while early Judaism did not, but these deceptively clear waters can get pretty muddy pretty fast. A number of Christian communities (some of the Gnostic groups, for example) apparently eschewed the larger world and did not seek converts, while the well-documented activities of the “God-fearers” suggests that Judaism’s barriers of entry and exit were fairly fluid in the Greco-Roman period. It might have been more fruitful to conclude with a more developed set of “concluding reflections” (to use Prof. Kaminsky’s own term). The book brilliantly demonstrates the centrality of election in the Hebrew Bible, and also offers some reassessments of how this critical concept should be understood. As a result, it seems impossible to simply discard election in the name of universalism, as some theologians have done. So… where do we go from here? This is a big question, and I think that it deserves some kind of answer.
The final major panel on my calendar was convened in honor of the release of the second edition of Wayne Meeks’ The Writings of St. Paul. Initially, I expected a mood similar to that of Prof. Myers’ panel; a lot of congratulatory remarks, but not much else. I could not have been more wrong. John Fitzgerald, the co-editor of the new edition, provided some details of its creation, including the difficulties surrounding the decisions to retain, omit, and add texts. Dale Martin (Prof. Meeks’ successor at Yale) drew upon these difficulties to comment upon the myth of the omniscient scholar; despite what some of us might think, it’s simply not possible to read everything! Margaret Mitchell also provided some welcome words, including the ever-appropriate reminder that there is still much to be learned from Paul. The session was ably--and occasionally hilariously--directed by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, whose one-man act included disappearing beneath the podium to reemerge as a “disguised” Alan Segal (who had already left San Diego and thus was unable to deliver his remarks in person).