I arrived home Wednesday night from the 2010 Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting held in Atlanta, Georgia.  This year’s conference was an especially good one, in my experience, at least. I still look back with fondness on my first national SBL meeting in San Diego — the setting alone is hard to beat. However, as my own understanding of the field of biblical studies progresses, I think I gain increasingly more as I attend these conferences. Besides listening to some excellent papers at the various sessions I attended, I was able to meet a good number of scholars and students that share many similar interests with me, and had many great conversations.

I don’t think I’d be able to list all those who I met and talked with (I’m afraid I’d inadvertently leave someone out), but I’ll try to share here what sessions I attended and who I heard give presentations. I hope to follow this up in the near future with what notes I took from these sessions. Unfortunately my notes are not especially extensive this year as the capacity of my laptop’s battery is apparently decreasing (it lasts only 1.5 hours on low-power setting).

You should also check out Jim Davila’s PaleoJudaica.com, where he posts his “RANDOM SBL 2010 REFLECTIONS AND LINKS” — he has links to a number of other blogs by scholars who were at the conference.

Some of the best sessions that I attended were those of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group. I have attended the sessions of this group since my first SBL in San Diego (2007), following the lead of my MA advisor, Andre Orlov, and my current supervisor, Jim Davila.  The group’s first session, Saturday morning, focused on reviews of two books: Peter Schafer’s The Origins of Jewish Mysticism and Guy Williams’ The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle – I have read neither of these books, but after listening to the reviews at the session, I am very interested in both.  Although Peter Schafer himself was not there, we heard some well-written reviews from Jim Davila and Seth Sanders. Rebecca Lesses was there, but didn’t give a presentation — not sure what happened there. I posted a link to the text of Davila’s review here.  As I said there, the review was awesome and really took Schafer to task for taking lightly the possibility of real experience/praxis as a background to what was going on in these texts. Davila asked: “Why was Hekhalot literature written?” He explained that it consists of manuals that readers can use to obtain divine revelations, mystical experience, mastery over spirits–ritual practices that were intended to be used. He argued that we must grasp this notion in order to understand these texts–this was point of his book Descenders to the Chariot. Schafer minimizes these elements of the text.

The theme of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism’s Sunday session was: “Possible Provenances of Merkavah Mysticism.”

  • The first paper was Jonathan Knight’s on “The Transformation of Merkabah Mysticism in Early Christianity” (read by Silviu Bunta). Knight argues that the early Christian text “The Ascension of Isaiah” was written in the early 1st Century CE, likely before the Gospel of John, and must have had influence on the early Christians’ Christology. This text is like the Jewish merkabah mystical texts and this tradition was very influential for Christians. In the text, Isaiah ascends to the seventh heaven, gaining greater glory as he passes each heaven. He is temporarily transformed into an angelic glory in order to be able to behold the vision. In the highest heaven, he sees three Divine Beings, including the Beloved One and the Holy Spirit (seen in angelic form). In one recension of the text, Isaiah even briefly glimpses the Great Glory (the Father). This text gives us a good example of an early mainstream Christian view — the text is not secondary or peripheral to the Christian tradition.
  • After this paper, Bunta then read his own, entitled “The Convergence of Adamic and Merkabah Traditions in the Christology of Hebrews.” This was a great paper — Bunta argues that the Book of Hebrews describes a temple ritual in which Christ takes his followers to the heavenly sanctuary to participate in heavenly cult (heavenly ascent). He described how the text depicts Jesus as behind the veil of the temple. Jesus leads worshipers through the temple curtain and into the Holy of Holies, the rest of the Lord, where the throne of God and that of the Eternal High Priest are set. All of this is done as part of the early Christians’ ritual praxis — a ritual ascent to heaven. Bunta argues that many of the references to Christ draw on ancient Adamic traditions — Adam is the High Priest, the Son of God, the image of God, the Kavod, the one who sits on the Throne.  The angels were ordered to worship Adam (Testament of Adam, compare Heb. 1:6). Christ is the Heavenly Adam that became the earthly Adam.
  • Jack Levison then gave a generally positive review of Bogdan Bucur’s (a Marquette grad) book, Angelomorphic Christology. The main idea in this complex, but important study is that many early Christians attributed to the Holy Spirit angelic characteristics (for example, in the Ascension of Isaiah, the Spirit looks like an angel). Also, the Spirit works through, or manifests itself in the angels (especially the seven principal ones) — according to Clement, these angels represent the Holy Spirit.

Sunday evening, the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group held a gathering/reception for Hebrew University Professor Rachel Elior. It was a nice, informal meeting (there were 8-10 of us there initially) in which Prof Elior was presented with a Festschrift in her honor, celebrating her influential work in Jewish studies, including Jewish mysticism.  Elior was very kind and gracious — someone who has a big heart, who loves the subjects of her research and loves to share with and help others.  I was able to speak with her and expressed my thanks to her for her influence on me through her book, The Three Temples. Another LDS PhD student, Matthew Grey, was also there — his work on post-70 AD Jewish priestly circles has also been influenced by her research. The Festschrift was put together by Andre Orlov and Daphne Arbel and contained contributions from many great scholars in the field. For more on this, see Rebecca Lesses blog post, here.

As it is very late and I am still rather jet-lagged, I will have to continue this report later (hopefully soon).

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