Biblical Scholarship: A Report on the First Global Virtual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature

| Past,Present

The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) tried something new in March 2023: holding a virtual global meeting. SBL was founded in 1880 and is “the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.” SBL holds an Annual Meeting in North America (which now draws over 7,000 participants) and an international meeting.

Until recently in North America, SBL was also structured in regions, with 11 in-person (and later, hybrid) meetings held each spring for participants to share scholarship, hold business meetings, share a meal, and reunite with colleagues. The regional meetings drew not only senior scholars in Hebrew Scripture, New (Christian) Testament, Near Eastern Languages, and related fields, but also graduate students. The meetings were an enjoyable way for participants to practice delivering papers and fielding questions with less stress, less expense and less travel time than attendance at the Annual Meeting.

In May 2022, SBL’s governing body, the 15-member Council, issued a press release explaining the elimination of the regions. The release stated in part, “The pandemic laid bare disparities of access and opened new opportunities in higher education. It highlighted concerns about accessibility and the physical challenges related to health risks, in addition to other obstacles that our members face, such as increased financial burdens, uneven distribution of resources, and international inequities.”

Consequently, the Council announced the launch of a virtual global meeting that would incorporate inclusive design principles. According to SBL, the meeting was “designed from the ground up for a virtual environment [and] offered experiences, opportunities, mentoring possibilities, presentation formats, and accessibility that are not possible in an in-person meeting.”

The various presentations in late March 2023 were offered over 10 paper, poster and networking sessions, comprising approximately 140 content hours. Here is an overview of several interesting presentations in the area of New (Christian) Testament and early Christian origins.

“Female Letter Carriers in the Documentary Papyri.” Peter Head, University of Oxford

Starting with the example of the deacon Phoebe, mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans (16:1), Head examines 12 examples of female letter carriers as mentioned in ancient papyri. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1679, for instance, concerns an unnamed letter carrier, “the seamstress.” It mentions some clothing and the carrier’s daughter. Head presented several other examples as well.

A typical role of a letter carrier would be to bring the letter and other news to its destination; there appears to be nothing special about female carriers as compared to men, including travel. Head states that carriers never read the letters they were carrying. The evidence he cites does support the importance of Phoebe, however (commentators on Romans frequently overlook Phoebe and the other women named in this important epistle): when Phoebe acted on behalf of the early Jesus movement, she probably had other tasks to complete in Rome, perhaps including bringing people together in a leadership role. Head’s intriguing paper is yet another study demonstrating the important role of women in the early church.

“John’s Gospel originated in the 70’s CE for refugee disciples fleeing Jerusalem.” Burton Everist

Everist argues that, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is no victim – he is in control. The temple is a major focus – but Jesus is the temple. John is trying to encourage the fleeing, demoralized disciples, who are in effect refugees. While most scholars generally date the final form of John’s Gospel toward the end of the second century CE, Everist argues that it was written closer to the 70s, immediately following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the expulsion of all Jews from the city. Everist maintains that God did not promise the fleeing disciples protection from the evil one; the world hates them, but they are sent into a world that God loves. This is an interesting perspective on the theology of this Gospel.

“She Who Was Chosen: A Comparative Survey of the Role of Mary in the Qurʾān & New Testament.” Omar Naisan, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA

Naisan offers a very positive perspective toward Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Qurʾān depicts Mary in some depth as a character in her own right; she is, in fact, the only woman referred to by name in the entire Qurʾān. In contrast to the New (Christian) Testament texts about Mary, the Qurʾān traces Mary’s early life in some detail, portraying her as a “revolutionary” who lived in total service to God. Also, the Qurʾān takes four verses to sympathetically recount Mary’s labor in giving birth to Jesus: her “pain, suffering, doubt, rejection, reassurance, comfort, and ease.” In this way, the Qurʾān humanizes Mary in a unique way and in more depth than in Christian tradition, thus outlining God’s role as her midwife and putting Mary’s prophetic role on the same level as that of being Jesus’ mother. The Qurʾān’s treatment of Mary is thus more relatable to women than is the Christian perspective. The Qurʾān and other texts greatly enhance scholarship on issues around the early Jesus movement.

“Body and Freedom: Re-reading 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 in the Syndemic World.” Yichen Liang, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL

Doctoral student Yichen Liang examined St. Paul’s understanding of the body and the relationship between the body and community. The Corinthian community was influenced by Stoicism and Gnosticism, so there was a belief that the body was separate from the soul. Paul refutes this and tries to move the members of the Corinthian Jesus group from an individual to a communal perspective. Thus the resurrection is both physical and spiritual. Paul maintains that sin is not just concerned with the individual but affects the whole community and that when he speaks about the body of Christ, he is speaking in corporate terms. This theological perspective is closely related to freedom – how it empowers others, etc.

Ms. Liang links Paul’s corporate understanding of the body of Christ to the concept of syndemic epidemics such as COVID-19. (A syndemic/synergistic epidemic is the aggregation of two or more concurrent or sequential epidemics or disease clusters.) Our COVID-19 crisis urges us to care for the collective at least as much as the individual (while avoiding extremes). The communal/collective perspective of the highly influential theology of St. Paul is extremely important in our time, in part to correct for the hyperindividualism that is especially prevalent in our culture.

The Importance of Biblical Studies for Today

SBL continues to be a major organization for high-level scholarship in Biblical studies. Many of the offerings of those who present papers at SBL’s meetings, while primarily geared toward fellow scholars, can (and, arguably, should) also inform the general public in significant ways.

  • Whether we like it or not, Christianity has had enormous influence on the West and thus the world; it is therefore crucial to carefully examine its roots in Judaism, paganism and the early Roman Empire and to set the record straight about two millennia of misinterpretations, prejudice and even violence.
  • Today we live side-by-side with those of different religious backgrounds. Muslims, for instance, followers of the Abrahamic religion of Islam, are our neighbors. Muslim scholars can help Christians and Westerners more fully understand important figures such as Mary and Jesus.
  • St. Paul – a devout Jew who preached the “good news” of the Jew Jesus, who came to be known by many as the Christ/Messiah/Promised One — has been traditionally portrayed as a major leader who told women to be silent in the churches. The truth, however, as revealed by scholars, is that such sentiments were expressed in literature disseminated after Paul’s death. Paul himself – as revealed in Romans and his other authentic letters – actually had great respect for women and worked with women leaders in his circles. These revelations could have enormous influence on women around the world – and on the Christian denominations that continue to prevent women from exercising leadership roles – if leaders would acknowledge and respect the scholarship that uncovers the evidence.
  • Much Christian theology focuses on the individual – individual salvation, individual sin, individual belief. Scholarship reveals, however, that the founding documents and figures of what became Christianity have an essential corporate or communal message. Those of us in the West, perhaps especially in the US, would be wise to pay closer attention to this perspective – in our politics, our religious practices, our national economy, and our daily lives.


The author expresses her gratitude to the National Coalition of Independent Scholars for supporting her attendance at the 2023 SBL Global Virtual Meeting.