2,400 Bible Scholars Walk Into a Bar…

I’ll admit it was late in the day, I was jet-lagging, my stomach was stuffed (thanks to my parents’ splurging on good Baltimore meals), and I arrived about five minutes after the paper presentation started. Nevertheless, the next forty-five minutes were more or less an existential crisis for this rookie Bible scholar: “I understand the words he is using to present his case for this theological issue. But I haven’t the foggiest what they mean in combination. In fact, I don’t think I’ve understood a single sentence he has uttered. So either I am completely losing my mind, or he is the smartest man on planet earth. Or both.”

Thus was my introduction to the world of Bible conferences, where thousands of Bible professors, researchers, and pastors get together to talk shop. Fortunately, my first experience at these things was overall quite positive, and maybe there’s still hope that I’ll start understanding some of these guys in the future.

What does one do at these things?

Last week (Wednesday through Saturday) I made my first appearance at the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Institute of Biblical Research, and Society of Biblical Literature, held in Baltimore, MD. As a seminary student, one always hears about these events when the time of year rolls around for all the professors to cancel class while they are doing their thing at the big Bible conferences, which, from a student perspective, sound like a modern day land flowing with milk, honey, and big words like “intertextuality” and “discourse linguistics.” At long last, however, I was able to attend.


The three conferences typically happen in the same week (with a few others thrown in), which is nice for international attendees. The level of theological conservatism runs from high to low as you move from ETS to IBR to SBL (to AAR, which also meets during SBL), and that itself forms one of the more interesting dynamics. As the week progresses, more and more people show up with whom you (if you’re theologically conservative) disagree, but from whom you have a lot to learn (for the very reason that they think differently than you).

As a first-timer, and in particular as a neophyte in PhD studies, my goal in attending was quite simple: to meet people and to learn as much as I could. No committees to lead, no papers to present, no panels to sit on, no seminars to chair – just running around to catch up with my seminary professors, meet future colleagues in my field, and sit in on some presentations as time permitted. (In the evenings, I also had the benefit of hanging out with my parents, who made the trip up from NC to see me).

The basic format of all of these Bible conferences is fairly simple (even if the sheer scale is overwhelming). The day is broken up into blocks, usually 3 hrs in length, during which various topic areas hold sessions in which multiple papers are presented. Sessions could be anything from the Gospel of John (which I attended), to Luke-Acts (also attended), to the Sayings of Jesus (also attended), to Bioethics, Archaeology, Gender Studies, Systematic Theology, Apocryphal Gospels, Textual Criticism, Minor Prophets, Hebrew Semantics, Wisdom Literature, Ugaritic, Dispensationalism, Cognitive Linguistics, and more (none of which I attended, due to time). Within each session, 3-4 scholars take turns delivering a paper, followed by a brief time of Q&A or, in some cases, a panel with multiple respondents.

Now, here’s the wrinkle that would probably baffle any outsider and certainly takes some getting used to. By delivering a paper, I mean, at least for most scholars, “reading the paper word for word for 40 minutes without pausing or going off script.” Of course, some are better than others, but the modus operandi in these settings is literally to “read the paper.” It’s a bit of an old-school vestige of higher academia that was arguably more effective in the past but hangs around because, well, that’s how it’s always been done. However, in every conversation I had about the topic, folks agreed that it’s not the most pedagogically effective means of communication. There’s some irony that many of these same men and women devote their day jobs to teaching ministry trainees how to preach or communicate effectively, but their own academic conference is a homiletical disaster. But it is what it is.

I don't even know where I found this online, but it is awesome. I think this was taken on Saturday morning.
I don’t even know where I found this online, but it is awesome. I think this was taken on Saturday morning.

All-in-all, I enjoyed the paper sessions and hope to participate next year; the jury is still out as to whether I will attempt to present rather than read verbatim, as there is always a risk if a newcomer attempts to challenge the status quo. More than this, I enjoyed observing how things work at these conferences, and I had a very encouraging time meeting with Bible scholars from a host of seminaries and undergraduate institutions. I’m not in “the guild” yet, but I met a lot of great scholars who set a solid example for me to follow as pastor-scholar.

Connecting to the pew

I’ll mention two general reflections I have on the experience: one for church members, and one for church leaders / pastors/ scholars.

  • Church members: Pray for pastors and Bible professors. While my experience at ETS and SBL was overwhelmingly positive, I could not help but observe the pressures that abounds for Bible scholars – whether those who serve in the local church or in a training institution – to be clever, creative, or innovative in order to win academic repute. It is at conferences like these where new ideas are tested out, paraded around, argued about, shot down, or successfully defended – directly impacting the subsequent movements in the field via journals, book publishing, and so forth. Not all of these new ideas are necessarily positive for historical, credally orthodox Christianity (even among the ETS crowd). However, in a high pressure environment where tenure, book contracts, and reputations are on the line, it can be very tempting to buy into some of these new ideas as part of the game. The right answer is not, of course, for Bible scholars to avoid these settings; quite the opposite, rather. However, I do think it is vital for the church to pray for their pastors, and seminary students for their professors, so they might remain faithful to God’s Word in these academic contexts. We need sound, biblical pastor-scholars who can engage with challenging scholarship, sift what is good from what is bad, and put fidelity to Jesus above their own curriculum vitae. Many, of course, do precisely this … but the temptation to flip around the priorities is very, very strong.
  • Scholars: Don’t forget the church. No doubt most scholars, at least conservative ones, enter the field of biblical studies out of some desire or calling to serve the church. Oddly, however, there was very little talk about the church during the sessions I attended or the larger plenary sessions. At ETS, while the topic (inerrancy and evangelicalism) always had the church looming in the background, there was very little explicit discussion about what all this research meant “for the pew.” Even less emphasis was placed on the church, of course, at the more theologically diverse SBL. Sure, there were sessions on, say, Worship, but in the main I did not hear much about the church apart from a few side conversations. Even many of the keynotes had a decidedly academic slant (which isn’t necessarily bad) with little emphasis on what it all means for the church (which isn’t necessarily good). My hope as a future pastor-scholar is to avoid falling into this easy trap of separating my academic life from my church life. What is the point of all this scholarship on God, Jesus, and the Bible if it ultimately does not have as its goal the strengthening and defense of Christ’s church (to the glory of God)? Isn’t that why we’re here? No one starts studying the Bible in order to present papers to academic colleagues; everyone first falls in love with Christ and the church. Let us not forget our first love.

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