Society of Biblical Literature

Apart from my thrills at the book display theme park, I did actually attend some paper sessions, presenting at a few, listening at others. And a conference – even with 10,500 people – is never worth it until you encounter a really abysmal presentation and find one really good idea.

The worst: curiously, it was on a panel called ‘Race Matters in Political Theology’. And the moment was what may be called ‘Imperialising Theory-Speak’.

To begin with, I thoroughly enjoyed what Kowk Pui Lan and Eleazer Fernandez had to say, urging other US-based scholars not to become wrapped up in their own parochial concerns and ignoring the rest of the world. And the effort by some of the others present to defend Judith Butler, after I had dumped on her liberal and hypocritical ethics, left me somewhat bemused.

But the self-styled radical, Andrea Smith (who has written her own Wikipedia page), provided two moments of stunning imperialism. The first was to cut off a question regarding class, especially the complex interweaving of race and class in the USA.

She replied: ‘Seeing race as a superstructural dimension of class was demolished ages ago …’

‘That’s not what I said …’ interjected the questioner.

‘Let me finish my sentence’, she cut in. The sentence lasted another ten minutes.

The second moment was in response to my point – following on from Kwok Pui Lan – about the implicit imperialising of debates in the USA, especially the way specific issues with their own particular histories are assumed to be everyone’s issues. Again, in a stunning example of precisely that process, Andrea Smith asserted through a torrent of theory-speak that her position is indeed universal. Given that she also dominated question time and made sure she had the last word, I gained the distinct impression of being hectored into submission – the effect was much like being bombarded by a theoretical aircraft carrier.

The best: Christine Mitchell’s paper on the myth of the benevolent Persians. It was a timely reminder not to be seduced by the propaganda found in inscriptions from the halls of power. Christine focused on the Persian self-representation as benevolent imperialists, only to rip it apart. They simply refined the brutality of the Assyrians – much like the democrat version of imperialism in the USA, I guess. But it reinforced my growing awareness of the way so many scholars who deal with politics and economics in the ANE take at face value the self-assertions of ultimate and far-reaching power, let alone their paternal loving-kindness. The land is the mine, claim the rulers, and every one is my vassal, to whom I extend mercy. The reality was quite different.

Actually, there was one further moment, more a trigger for thinking about an unresolved question. It emerged from the murky depths of my mind during a session on domestic space in the ancient world. Amidst much discussion of ‘house sizes’ and so on, I recalled the curious practice in Mesopotamia with the transfer of domestic space. To begin with, measurements are always given for the internal space, inside the walls. One does not measure by means of the outside walls (to maximise the profit from the sale). And there is no document or contract that cites the acquisition of a whole dwelling. Instead, we find a room, or more commonly part of a room. The space was measured by spreading emmer wheat over the floor and then the space was transferred. But what does that mean concerning the sense of space, of lived space? How can you live in one third of a room, while your neighbours live in the other two-thirds? Did they have completely different notions of the demarcation of space, or perhaps the lack of such demarcation? How did they imagine, think and live space? No one on the panel knew the answer and no one who has written on this has one either. I spent much of my time on the way back to Berlin pondering this conundrum as part of the Sacred Economy project, wondering whether this act of experiential imagination is beyond us.


One of the glorious features of the USA is that the only criterion for getting anything, or indeed getting admitted to anything, is money. If you have the cash, they’ll let you do it. Take the biggest book display on earth – in the area of religion theology and biblical studies. It was a veritable theme park, with all sorts of wonderful people hawking their wares. The fact that this was my sixth conference in about five weeks meant that my mind was wired to enjoy this other, fascinating dimension at the book display.

To begin with, I was intrigued by the logo of IVP Press. Must be an Aussie who designed this one:

Missionary position, anyone?

Then there were the friendly people from ‘Ravel Unravel’, waiting expectantly for a string of religion scholars to sit behind a camera, answer four questions and promptly find themselves on the internet:

For some strange reason, no one was tempted. Then I met the lovely, quiet Buddhist man, hoping to sell one book and offering free pins. I loved it.

Of course, there is an ‘I’ in the Dalai Lama, who was present at the meeting, vying for attention with Heerak Christian Kim.

Deep …

Not to be missed was the intriguing project:

That should reshape the whole debate over secularism.

And then I met the founder and (to my knowledge only member) of the International Nimbarka Society.

I dream of having hair like that. He was a little nonplussed, though, when I mentioned that my main interest these days is Marxism and religion.

However, the highlight was the ‘Simple Truth’ stand. Here one began by throwing cloth balls (that’s Sean Burt) …

… into the mouth of a green frog:

One then fished for a Bible verse with a fishing rod, after which and depending on how many balls the frog swallowed, one was given either a beautiful badge:

Or an absolute must, a mobile phone screen cleaner:

Or a ‘tote bag’:

Or best of all – a t-shirt:

That’s pretty much my Christmas shopping done.

So enthused was I after my first visit that I brought others to undergo the stimulating experience:

That’s Tripp Fuller of ‘Homebrewed Christianity‘ (who interviewed me for a podcast), Jeremy Rollins and Clayton Crockett, both theologians.

The caption at the top left is, um, somewhat appropriate. By this time, the people at the stand began to know me rather well, welcoming me back with a smile.

Carrying on a certain theme of late

The high point of SBL may well have come today, just before a session in which I was involved in some ways. I was busting for a crap and knew I needed to present my paper shortly. A desperate search revealed that each cosy conference room had its own, somewhat intimate toilet, opening out directly into the room. The toilet in our room was ‘out of service’, so I thought, ‘what that hell’, and ducked into the one next door. Given my propensity, shall we say, for a good purge, I left behind something that would have made an elephant feel insecure. Slipping out of the room in order to return next door, I could clearly see the wilting effect on those who had gathered.

As someone pointed out, this question was probably the high point of an otherwise strange session I chaired this afternoon at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. How did we get there?

‘Twas a panel on a book I edited, Secularism and Biblical Studies, with some of the contributors speaking and then two respondents, James Linville and Russell McCutcheon. This ensured the debate was spirited, precisely the sort of the thing the initial and necessarily incomplete edited volume set out to do. But the strange thing was that despite the discussion continuing in many smaller groups well after the session finished, a strong sense of oddness pervaded people’s impressions afterwards. As chair I was not in a position to enter the debate fully, in which I would have sided with Hanna Stenström’s position. So these are perhaps some of the things I would have said in response (I leave aside the strange desire to foster an objective, apolitical, analytical and ultimately revived historical critical analysis of the ‘Bible’, as one among any number of sacred scriptures. And I leave aside the curious effort by McCutcheon to insert Jonathan Zed Smith (who should always be given a zed) into the debate, since all that did was reaffirm my sense that Mr Smith is less an innovative scholar than an extraordinarinarily – and that’s a very emphatic extraordinarily – traditional one).

The most puzzling argument, from McCutcheon, was that the ‘Bible’ is a discursive artefact – and by discursive he meant a discursively religious artefact. Or rather, the most curious thing about it was the assumption that a discursive artefact is somehow unreal, that as soon as you say it is a discursive artefact, you have thereby dismissed it and the discipline of biblical criticism. The only proper form of scholarship is thereby to analyse the discursive practice by which it became such an artefact. So a question came from the floor: how would you analyse a fossilised turd? To which the answer was that you analyse the dinosaur that produced the turd and not the turd itself.

Now, this answer showed up the problem of arguing that the Bible is a discursive artefact (and indeed social and historical artefact). To begin with, this position has been pretty much standard among intelligent biblical scholars for at least 30 years, so it is strange to find it regurgitated as an issue now. Further, the suggestion that the ‘real’ thing for scholarship is to analyse the social, historical and religious issues that produced such an artefact seems to be a call to revisit complex analyses have engaged in this analysis for some time (Philip Davies’s Scribes and Schools is but one example among many, as is George Aichele’s The Control of Biblical Meaning). But perhaps the most significant point is the assumption that such an artefact is somehow ‘unreal’, for this is a curious misreading of poststructural scholarship from some years ago. A discursive construct is, if anything, more real, than the fossilised turd. Or rather, if we locate the category of ‘discursive’ within the much longer and richer history of Marxist analysis, for which social construct is a key breakthrough, then a social construct is far more powerful and pervasive than any supposedly ‘concrete’ object. One might say the same about ‘Plato’ or ‘Shakespeare’. Ultimately – and using an immanent analysis – the need to make such a move says more about the the context of North American turf wars between religious studies and theology, if not struggles over the Bible itself.

All of which led me to suggest to Philip Davies that he might name his next article: ‘Is the Bible a Fossilised Turd?’

So it looks like I will finally write my book on The Sacred Economy, probably for Westminster John Knox. I have been gathering material for this for some years, so it is time to write an over-arching proposal for a Marxist reconstruction of biblical economics in the context of the ancient Near East. It has some Soviet-era parts (towards a Soviet biblical scholarship, as Sergey and I have been discussing), some Ste. Croix, Finlay and Polanyi, some freely adapted Regulation School economic theory, and a shit- (sorry, mum) bucket-load of data. Why do this? We still don’t have a model that identifies the economic motor of biblical economics, and we don’t have a way of accounting for its perpetual crises and rare stretches of relative stability.

Big picture? why not? Grand proposal? Sure, you live only once, unless you are a Hindu or Buddhist, but then you forget everything that happened in your former life anyway.

One issue concerns the in-built anachronism of any study of ancient texts, societies and economics. So some thoughts in that direction (yes, it is part of one of my papers for that annual gathering of that bespeckled, bearded and tweed-jacketed species (and that, as I have mentioned before, is only the women) known as biblical scholars at SBL):

On anachronism

All too often an unexamined feature of biblical scholarship is what may be called the problem of anachronism. One encounters it frequently in the struggles between historical critical approaches to the Bible and what are variously called ‘newer literary’ approaches or even (with a profound misunderstanding of the term) ‘postmodern’ approaches – these include a disparate collection running all the way from Marxist methods to postcolonial or queer analysis. The reply to the challenge posed by these newer methods (although they now date from the 1970s, although Marxist biblical criticism goes back to Engels) is met by the point that they impose modern categories on an ancient text and are therefore invalid. The assumption is of course that historical critical or archaeological or even social scientific methods are not anachronistic, that they are approaches appropriate to the biblical texts, their histories and their contexts.

This assumption relies on a curious blind spot, for the supposedly historically sensitive methods championed by those who make the charge of anachronism are equally anachronistic. In short, all the methods we use have an inbuilt or structural anachronism that is produced by our very different social, economic and ideological condition. This structural anachronism is produced by the very act of studying the past in the various ways we do so, for that act and our assumptions about a ‘past’ that must be studied in certain ways assume notions about the past that are produced by the condition from which we do so. However, we may take this a step further and argue that precisely those approaches assumed to be historically sensitive to these ancient texts or economic conditions are the most anachronistic of all, since their practitioners do not see the structural anachronism at work in the methods they champion. I would extend this point also to efforts to identify approaches from ancient sources – one may think here, as a sample, of the ancient novel, Aristotelian poetics, epistolary practices or approaches to economics – for the very study of and deployment of these ‘ancient’ methods is caught in the same anachronistic net.

How do we escape the net? I would suggest that the best way to do so is to build an awareness of that anachronism into the theory one is using. What does that mean? The theory proposed should – in a scale of increasing intensity – at all times be aware that it is engaged in an anachronistic task, that such anachronism is a necessary feature of any analysis of ancient societies, and that one structures the theory in order to include such anachronism in its very workings. The first two items (awareness and necessity) may be achieved easily enough, but the question of structure is a little more challenging.

I suggest that we approach it in the following manner: the theory in question should include a narrative of difference. Both terms are vital. By narrative I mean an account of the vast distance travelled in time between the society we are investigating and the one from which we undertake such investigation. That ever-present narrative, which will itself always be contested, rewritten and contested again, means we have perpetually before us the distance from those ancient economies and societies. By difference I mean precisely that: the effect of the narrative is that it produces a profound sense of the difference between our own social formation and that of the  societies, cultures, texts and so on we seek to study. Through that persistent difference is the issue of anachronism inescapably fore-grounded. Yet that narrative of difference is more dialectically complex than it at first seems, for we may, hypothetically, find elements that seem exceedingly familiar – money, agricultural production, trade, banking, tax, government spending and so on – but the way they are structured, their relationships to one another, the patterns of dominance and subordination, and, as we shall see with the Regulation theorists, their determining forms of social relations will be unfamiliar. At this point, the narrative of difference has its most difficult task.

For some reason that is beyond me, the good people at SBL have taken a dislike to me, putting me down for four performances in the fading empire called the USA:


Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Room: Laurel Hill – Intercontinental

Theme: Book Review: Antonio Negri, The Labor of Job: The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor (Duke UP, 2009)
Joint session with: Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity Group (AAR)

Roland Boer, University of Newcastle, Australia, Presiding
James Harding, University of Otago, Panelist (15 min)
Erin Runions, Pomona College, Panelist (15 min)
Adam Kotsko, Chicago Theological Seminary, Panelist (15 min)
Mayra Rivera, Harvard University, Panelist (15 min)
Hugh Pyper, University of Sheffield, Panelist (15 min)
Discussion (45 min)

During which I will try to look wise, serious and pro-Negri …



Economics in the Biblical World
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: 2022 – Convention Center

Theme: Economic Theory and Biblical Studies

Richard Horsley, University of Massachusetts Boston, Presiding
Roland Boer, University of Newcastle, Australia, Panelist (30 min)
Richard Saller, Stanford University, Panelist (30 min)
Walter Scheidel, Stanford University, Panelist (30 min)
Norman Gottwald, Pacific School of Religion, Panelist (30 min)
Discussion (30 min)

In which I argue that, since all interpretation is inescapably anachronistic, we need approaches that structurally build in anachronism into their workings, for which Marxism offers some of the best options. Hence Regulation theory and its regimes and modes of regulation.



Ideological Criticism
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Powell I & II – Renaissance Parc 55

Theme: Book Review – Secularism and Biblical Studies (2010, Equinox Press)

Roland Boer, University of Newcastle, Australia, Presiding
Ward Blanton, University of Glasgow, Panelist
Hector Avalos, Iowa State University, Panelist
Philip Davies, University of Sheffield, Panelist
Hanna Stenström, Uppsala University, Panelist
James Linville, University of Lethbridge, Respondent (20 min)
Russell McCutcheon, University of Alabama, Respondent (20 min)

Where I ponder how to repudiate most of my theses in the manifesto contained in that volume, but then I may just keep my mouth shut.



Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Sierra K – Marriott Marquis

Theme: The Revolutionary Bible

Andrew Mein, Westcott House, Presiding
Jorunn Økland, University of Oslo
“Duodez-Ausgabe des Neuen Jerusalems”: The Function of the Apocalypse in the Rhetoric of Karl Marx (25 min)
Roland Boer, University of Newcastle, Australia
Lenin, the Gospels, and What is to Be Done? (25 min)
Gerald West, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Appropriations of Jephthah’s Daughter (Judges 11) among the amaNazaretha: From the Early 1900’s to Today (25 min)
Break (5 min)
Jay Twomey, University of Cincinnati
Paul and the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King’s “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” (25 min)
Wayne Coppins, University of Georgia
Revolution and Violence in Ernst Käsemann’s Radically Lutheran Theology of Liberation (25 min)
Discussion (20 min)

Where I probably won’t talk about Lenin, but tackle that position assumed true through a thousand repetitions: that Marxism offers in some way a secularised version of Jewish and/or Christian salvation history. I’ve forgotten how many times I have fielded questions on that position, in China, Eastern Europe and other less interesting parts of the world. So I will take the opportunity to outline why that silly position doesn’t hold up, and why it is ultimately a theological position that inadvertently absolutises theology.

I was hoping to have these for the Society of Biblical Literature meeting last week, but at least they came before leaving Oslo. Two glorious Friedrich Engels T-shirts:

They will help me focus on two articles I want to write over the next few weeks, one on Engels, beer and tobacco (or the good life), and the other on Engels and women.

However, at SBL I was not entirely unclothed, for I had a Mao T-shirt in reserve:

(ht pc)

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