2015 SBL Diary: Day 1

[This account is a little late, but as a Canadian without a U.S. data plan, and given the poor Wifi capability in the conference hotels, it’s been difficult to do much of anything online over the past several days.]

I flew into Atlanta via Buffalo Friday afternoon. I have a habit of arriving at airports with little time to spare to get on my flight; so it was a bit touch-and-go whether I would make the plane. But one mad dash through the airport later, I was on my way. Upon arrival, I grabbed some dinner and met up with some members of the NASSCAL board (Brent Landau, Bradley Rice, Janet Spittler, and Stanley Jones) for an informal get-together.

The proper first day of the conference began Saturday morning with the joint session put together by Christian Apocrypha and Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds. There was much anticipation for this session, as the subject of the first paper, by Geoff Smith, had been featured in a New York Times article the previous day. Smith’s paper, “Preliminary Report on the ‘Willoughby Papyrus’ of the Gospel of John and an Unidentified Christian Text,” discussed a 3rd/4th-century papyrus fragment that appeared on eBay last year. Smith contacted the seller and urged him to hold on to it; Smith also convinced the owner to let him work on the text. It contains a portion of John on one side, and on the other an unknown Christian text, written upside down. The evidence indicates that the papyrus is a scroll; the first text written on the scroll was John (probably the entire text), and then someone, probably the same scribe, wrote the unknown text on the reverse side. There is not enough text to determine what the second text is, but it could be something from the apocryphal acts or an apologetic work. We have some other examples of reused scrolls—P. Oxy. 654 with the Gospel of Thomas on one side and a survey list on the other, is one example—but they are quite rare, and typically these examples feature a non-Christian text on one side and the Christian text on the other. After Smith finished his paper, he was interviewed by the BBC; the media’s interest, he said, was in the story of Smith’s rescue of the papyrus from eBay and on the value of the manuscript. Smith said that he is trying to convince the owner to donate the papyrus to a library so that other scholars can have access to it.

The next paper in the panel was Kelly Coblentz Bautch’s “The Textual History of the Greek Book of the Watchers: Contextual Clues from Translation and the Value of Variant Readings.” The Book of the Watchers is a portion of 1 Enoch and the Greek text appears in a codex from Akhmim that also includes the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Martyrdom of Saint Julian. Bautch pointed out a number of interesting features of the manuscript: none of the texts have titles and they are incomplete (Gos. Pet. even ends mid-sentence) despite there being room on the pages for more text; as for the Enoch material, it comprises two portions of the text, written by two scribes, and with overlaps in content. Also, there is doubt now that the manuscript was found in the grave of a monk; it could very well have been deposited in the grave of a Christian interested in books.

Bautch was followed by Ross Ponder, who presented “A New Transcription of P. Oxy. 5072: Observations from a Recent Autopsy Analysis.” The fragment contains a story of Jesus performing an exorcism with some parallels with the Gerasene Demoniac and the story of the Lunatic Boy. Ponder prepared a translation of the text for the first volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures and presented on the text at the 2015 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium. His paper for the session was somewhat more detailed about papyrological matters but added little else to his previous work on the text. Ponder was followed by Thomas Wayment, co-author of the new book Christian Oxyrhynchus: Texts, Documents, and Sources with Lincoln Blumell. His paper, “The Interaction between Apocrypha and Canon: A Case Study of Oxyrhynchus,” compared canonical and noncanonical manuscripts found at Oxyrhynchus; he discovered that the canonical manuscripts bear the marks of use in liturgy but the noncanonical ones seem have been created for personal and perhaps missionary or instructional use. Wayment focused particularly on P. Oxy 4009, which has been identified by some as a portion of the Gospel of Peter; regardless, it contains sayings of Jesus separated by paragraphos markers (a feature found also in Ponder’s P. Oxy 5072). Wayment concluded from these and other examples that there seems to have been a connection at Oxyrhynchus between sayings collections and private use.

In her response to the papers, AnneMarie Luijendijk cautioned Smith and Ponder to avoid the temptation to reconstruct the texts of the papyri too much; sometimes, she said, we have to admit we do not know what the missing text says. As for Wayment, Larry Hurtado urged Wayment to avoid the use of the categories “canonical” and “noncanonical” for evidence from the first few centuries (a statement that drew some applause from the audience) and stated that the early papyri indicate that a text could be treated as both “ecclesiastical” and “personal.”

Over lunch I met with Shawn Wilhite and Coleman Ford of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies who interviewed me for their podcast series. I discussed my “personal journey” from believing Catholic to nonbelieving Christian Apocrypha scholar and several current projects (the York Symposia, NASSCAL, and my forthcoming critical edition of the Syriac tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). I then took an hour to roam around the book display and found, to my surprise, a new edition of the Vision of Theophilus at the Gorgias Press booth.

My afternoon was spent at the second Christian Apocrypha session of the day, this one focused on the Monastic Production and Use of Christian Apocrypha. The session began with Christoph Markschies’ “What Do We Know about the ‘Sitz im Leben’ of Ancient Christian Apocalypses.” Markschies recently put the finishing touches on vol. 2 of his Antike christliche apokryphen series, and is now at work on vol. 3, devoted to apocalypses and related writings. His discussion of apocalypses for the session focused on the Apocalypse of Peter from Akhmim and the byzantine-era Apocalypse of Anastasia (which is not really an apocryphon). For Apoc. Pet., Markshies looked at the origins of the manuscript and stated, like Bautch, that we have no evidence that the codex derived from the grave of a monk (thus, he ruled out a “monastic production and use” of the text). He stated too that the copyist seemed to have no interest in identifying the texts in the codex nor for completing the excerpts. As for the Apocalypse of Anastasia, it certainly has monastic origins—it is attributed to a nun from the 10-12th century and the manuscript derives from a Benedictine monastery. Incidentally, the miniature codex also contains a copy of the Second Apocalypse of John.

Markschies was followed by Hugo Lundhaug on “The Nag Hammadi Texts as Monastic Literature.” Lundhaug pointed out that the initial scholar on the texts, Jean Doresse, declared that, because of their unorthodox contents, they could not have been used by monks. Subsequent scholarship focusing on the carttonage in the bindings associated the codices with a nearby Pachomium monastery. Still, many scholars have problems understanding why monks would be interested in the texts. Lundhaug presented an argument for the use of the texts by established monks who could appreciate the material for its ascetic and esoteric qualities but not for its demiurgical speculations. He supported his position with the example of writers who urged monks not to read the Investiture of Michael, yet the manuscript evidence for the text derives from the White Monastery. Lundhaug concluded with a quotation from my former supervisor Michel Desjardins, that ancient people were just as clever, contradictory, and complex as we are.

Rounding out the session was a paper by Geoff Smith (yes, again) on the Sentences of Sextus, which is not actually a Christian apocryphon, so I won’t discuss it here, and Brad King’s “The Garden a Prison: Sex, Gender and Power in Eden.” King’s paper looked at the short and long versions of the Apocryphon of John and demonstrated how the redactor of the longer version minimized the misogyny of the text, so that asceticism is presented not as an ideal for Christians but as an option.

The Q and A session after the papers was taken up mostly by discussion among the panelists (the audience had thinned out considerably by the end of the session). I don’t normally ask questions of presenters but I was interested in what Markschies and Lundhaug thought about Mark Goodacre’s and Nicola Denzey Lewis’s articles that cast considerable doubt on the finding stories of the Nag Hammadi codices. Both essentially agreed that the discovery story is not as important for determining the origins of the codices as the contents of the codices themselves.

Sessions over, it was time to hit the receptions. I popped over to Zeba Crook’s hotel room for the Context Group reception, then crashed the Wabash Center party (particularly rich in free drinks and peach-based desserts), and finally the Harvard reception, at which I met Karen King. The weirdest part of the night was watching a group of tipsy scholars of various ages scale a fence after taking a wrong turn out of the Harvard gathering. After a few more hours of drinks and food at a local restaurant it was time to finally crawl into bed. Day one was over; on to day two.

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