Presidential Addresses of the Society of Biblical Literature: A Quasquicentennial Review

Article excerpt

Members of the guild who have served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature comprise an exclusive fraternity.1 They enjoy the respect of their peers on account of their contributions to the discipline. In their official capacity, they also command the attention of their peers once a year in accordance with the Society's constitution.2 As S. Vernon McCasland puts it in beginning his own presidential address, "Once each year with undisguised premeditation the members of this Society subject themselves to an address of unpredictable length and quality by one of their own colleagues, and in advance they cast the mantle of charity about whatever may be brought forth."3 In most years, the audience for the presidential address is larger than the audience for any other scholarly address devoted to the Bible anywhere in the world. This Sitz im Leben has produced different results on different occasions. Some of these addresses have been all but forgotten, while others have gone down as definitive statements on a given subject, be it a narrow exegetical problem or a broader question pertaining to the field of biblical studies. While these pronouncements from the podium only rarely set the scholarly agenda for the coming year, it would nonetheless be inexpedient to let this anniversary pass without pausing briefly to reflect on the ways in which past presidents have cast their remarks to the Society since its founding 125 years ago.

The presidential address is a hybrid form. It is delivered first to the assembled membership, and since 1895 it has also been the custom subsequently to publish the address in the pages of the Journal of Biblical Literature (which, like many other academic journals, began as a record of the Society's proceedings).4 A speech, however, does not belong to the same genre as the scholarly essay, and so the task of composing an address appropriate to both written and oral media can be a challenging one.5 Not all presidents have even made the attempt. None admits failure in this respect more frankly than Theophile James Meek, who begins without any remorse: "Hebrew syntax may not be a very exciting subject for a Presidential Address, but it is an exceedingly important one for the interpretation of the Hebrew text."6 Such a remark suggests that the published version of the address closely resembles the version delivered at the annual meeting. For the audience's sake, one hopes this is not always the case. Kemper Fullerton's review of scholarship on Isaiah, for example, comes to one hundred pages in print!7 A number of presidents have followed the lead of Fullerton and Meek in taking the occasion of the annual meeting to present results of their ongoing research projects. As might be expected of a discipline demanding a high degree of specialization, there have been a few years, one suspects, in which their remarks were accessible to a relatively small sector of the membership. Others have chosen to write more expansively on matters of abiding interest to all biblical scholars.8

To speak to the few or to the many-these two basic alternatives have remained the same over the years even if the audience for the presidential address has changed significantly. No more than a few dozen colleagues would gather at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the early years.9 Attendance gradually increased and, for a time around the turn of the century, meetings were held jointly with such groups as the Modern Language Association and the Spelling Reform Association. That a large percentage of the attendees were Christian clergyman is clearly assumed by clayton R. Bowen in 1924. The membership rolls nevertheless list the names of several Jewish scholars, including Morris Jastrow, Jr., who served as president in 1916. James Moffatt acknowledges their presence in the Society and the objections made by some Jewish scholars to the nomenclature "Old Testament" for the Hebrew Scriptures because it implies "a religious affirmation or synthesis to which they cannot agree. …