Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew SBL program unit

Dear Colleagues,

We want to share with you our disappointment and concern over the recent downgrading of  the Linguistic and Biblical Hebrew program unit from a section to a seminar (on the distinction, see here) by the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting Program Committee. We are sharing this development with as many of our colleagues as possible, because it is deeply concerning in several respects and we think it deserves a response from the scholarly community.

First, it is concerning that the decision is being made by a committee as to what are in the interests of the scholarly community, rather than by the community itself. The very structure of program units (consultations, seminars, and sections) suggests that the community is the primary determiner of where its own scholarly interests lie. The Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew section has been an active and well-attended participant in the annual meeting for 30 years, contributing to biblical scholarship through its educative aims (see description of the program unit below) and the numerous publications that have emerged from the sessions.

Description of Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew program unit: The goals of this section include: (1) to provide a unique, cross-disciplinary forum for the application of modern linguistic theory and methodology to the study of biblical Hebrew; (2) to encourage interest in linguistics and its advantages for biblical exegesis and interpretation among biblical scholars who do not have prior training in linguistic theory; (3) to promote publication of scholarly works which apply linguistics to biblical Hebrew.

Second, we found the process of renewal to be confused and unprofessional. The decision was dragged out for almost half a year, during which time the steering committee worked to put together the sessions for 2016 without any certainty that the section would be allowed to continue.

The below links are intended to document the process and outcome of our renewal attempt. We thought it important to share all of these with our colleagues before asking that you share your support for the Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew program unit and concern over the decision making process and outcome of the SBL Annual Meeting Program Committee. We ask you to share your views and ideas about the future direction of the study of Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew by writing to Prof Jacobus Naude, the program unit chair of LBH at*

*Note: An earlier version of this post mentioned a petition. The committee has one “waiting in the wings,” and may yet utilize it. For now, we think it is prudent to begin with a call that support be expressed to the steering committee chair, Jacobus Naudé at the above e-mail address (see the open letter for list of option being contemplated).

Jacobus Naudé, chair
Tania Notarius
Adina Moshavi
John A. Cook

Initial Proposal (October 2015)

Response to Initial Proposal (2015/10/20)

Revised Proposal (2015/11/10)

Response to Revised Proposal (2015/12/21)

Final Decision (2016/03/02)

Letter to John Kutsko (2016/04/15)

SBL Resolution Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew (2016/05/10)

Clarification e-mail to John Kutsko & Response (2016/07/03)

Email exchanges

11 Responses to “Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew SBL program unit”

  1. George Athas Says:

    John, where was that petition you mention?

    • johncookvw Says:

      George, we are not quite to the point of petition yet; that reference was mistakenly left in and I’ve removed it now.

  2. Daniel Wilson Says:

    This is very disappointing. I’m not finding a link to the petition. Am I missing something?

  3. toddborger Says:

    Thank you for posting this information here. I am troubled by the turn of events for this section almost as much as I am by the process by which it was attained.
    I am curious–and I know this is related only indirectly to your topic here–whether or not the cancellation of the Bible Translation section last year was a result of a similar process and for the same reasons.
    It seems that the main problem for the committee was a concern for paring down the number of sections and removing what some apparently saw as redundancy. In reading the very long list of sections on the current SBL site, I can understand the concern. I assume that the committee is taking similar action in all these areas? Or is it only the Linguistics group?
    I have not presented a paper nor submitted one to this group, as best I recall, but I have been attending the sessions for a number of years. They have always exhibited the highest caliber of scholarship, a clear dedication to the advance of biblical literacy, and have always been very well attended. I am very sorry to see this change in status.
    The letter above mentions “a petition . . . provided here.” Am I missing something in my browser? Or is the petition elsewhere?
    Thanks again for your work, John.

    • johncookvw Says:

      Thanks for your comment Todd. From our perspective (or at least mine; I won’t presume to speak equally for the other steering committee members), the process is indeed similar in motivation and, unfortunately, likely outcome as the cancellation of Bible Translation. While we can understand the desire to pare down sections, it is particularly problematic that the process has come to the point of a mandated cooperation between two sections whose leadership unanimously agree are separate disciplines!

  4. Steve Runge Says:

    John, what basis did the program committee offer for the decision? Were there issues they wanted addressed? The reason I ask is that the Greek counterpart (BGLL) went through this a few years ago and there were specific things the steering committee was to address before renewal was to be granted, which it eventually was. Knowing this would help inform our responses to the society.

    • johncookvw Says:

      Steve, the rub is that we spent last fall and winter answering the central question of whether and how linguistics and philology are separate disciplines that should not simply be folded together. Apparently our lengthy argument (see the letter in the previous post) did not win the day, but frustratingly the committee never gave a clear reason why not other than an implied “we disagree.” While we are mandated to cooperate with the philology and Hebrew studies section and reassess after a year, we have thus far received no criteria for such a reassessment, after multiple requests. I’m glad the Greek section fared better that we are.

  5. Chip Hardy Says:

    John and Rob:
    This is indeed unfortunate and troubling news. Please keep us informed on the details moving forward. As someone who floats between the worlds of philogical and linguistic investigation of the Hebrew Bible, I would like to see both sessions renewed and strengthened. It seems like an odd state of affairs when biblical literature scholars don’t understand the difference in these fields. A simple comparison of the paper topics from the different sessions in any given year would demonstrate the variance. Who are the members of the Program Committee making the decision?
    Second, it seems like the committee is concerned about the language of the second goal regarding exegesis and interpretation. Would revising the goals demonstrate the differences more clearly?

    • johncookvw Says:

      Thanks for your comment Chip. Agreed, a simple comparison should clarify the differences, but somehow it has not. The names of the program committee members can be found in the paperwork linked in the previous post. Revising the goals might help, as may the next year’s collaboration with the philology section, which aims at clarifying the differences between our disciplines. Neither section is happy about a forced merger.

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