In his presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature delivered at Haverford College on December 26, 1916, Morris Jastrow (1861-1922) reflected on the role of the critic ("Constructive Elements in the Critical Study of the Old Testament," JBL 36 : 1-30). Jastrow noted that "the critic has never been a popular figure. At his worst he is an iconoclast, at his best he makes us feel uncomfortable. ... The biblical critic ... fortunately appeared at a time when it was no longer fashionable to burn people at the stake, but he has been alternatively denounced as an enemy to the church and as a foe to religion" (p. 1). Despite such risks, Jastrow argued, the fundamental commitment of biblical scholars must be to cultivate critical engagement: "A scholar tied or pledged to traditional views can never become a critic, even though his learning reaches to the pinnacles of human industry" (p. 2). Jastrow's words, which read as an encomium for critical methodologies and bear repeating in our own context, aptly celebrate the spirit and scholarship fostered by the Society of Biblical Literature over the last 125 years. And Jastrow spurs us onward, affirming that the "progress of critical study" cannot be obstructed "any more than it is possible to dam up the ocean" (p. 1).
Looking back at one facet of the Society's commitment to critical study, namely, book reviews in the Journal of Biblical Literature (titled Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis until vol. 9 [ 1889] ), one is struck by how gradually and variously the journal incorporated reviews into its content. This may be a consequence of the Society's initial stated purpose: "The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical study of the Scriptures by presenting, discussing, and publishing original papers on biblical topics" ("Constitution and By-Laws," JSBLE 7 : 71, emphasis added). Review of published materials was not a high priority. Accordingly, in the first fifty-four years of JBL (1881-1935, vols. 1-54), book "reviews" were sporadic (e.g., vols. 9 and 10 contain none) and only occasionally resemble what we expect today. Readers may find a line or two summarizing a book and evaluating its significance in the "Books Received" section (e.g., see two examples from vol. 47 reprinted below). More typical were articlelength reviews of certain scholarly theories, such as George Barton's "Higher Archaeology and the Verdict of Criticism," JBL 32 ( 1913): 244-60 (cf. S. M. Jackson, "Eberhard Vischer's Theory of the Composition of the Revelation," JSBLE 7 : 93-95; Lewis B. Paton, "Notes on Driver's Leviticus," JBL 14 : 48-56; C. W. Rishell, "Baldensperger's Theory of the Origin of the Fourth Gospel," JBL 20 : 38-49; and James A. Montgomery, "Torrey's Aramaic Gospels," JBL 53 : 79-99). There were also intermittent precursors to the genre as it currently appears in JBL. The first is Isaac H. Hall's brief review titled "A New ArabicFrench Dictionary" (/5BLE 5 : 108, reprinted below).
Hall's brief review is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it highlights the Society's early concern to locate and identify pertinent resources, to "map" the emergent territory of biblical and cognate studies: "This dictionary has been drawn from the best sources, and is the ablest production of the Jesuit establishment at Beirut. Its existence is not generally known by the Protestant missionaries." In this context it made sense to publish pieces like "Professor Tsagareli's Catalogue of the Georgian Manuscripts in the Monastery of the Holy Cross at Jerusalem" (trans. Oliver Wardrop; JBL 12 : 168-79). Extensive lists and descriptions of basic materials that would serve as the bases for analyses were thus being catalogued and made known to the scholarly world. second, Hall reminds us that books were comparatively difficult to come by. He made it a point to suggest ways to purchase the new Arabic-French dictionary ("through Westermann of New York, or through a consul at Beirut"). …