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Encomium on the CBA's 75th Anniversary

CBA Encomium – by Prof. Amy-Jill Levine – July 29, 2012

(not for citation without permission, and absolution)

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John Clabeaux has asked me to address the topic, “what is great and worthwhile about the CBA?” Were all the excellent things this organization does to be recorded, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” But John, that is, Clabeaux, not the other one, allotted me 15 minutes.

I am tasked with preparing an encomium, which is, inter alia, the eighth exercise in the progymnasmata series. Of course, the idea of anything pro-gym or dealing with exercise is antithetical to me – I get my exercise by schlepping my laptop to my office, running down sources, and making leaps of faith. The only vault I find of interest is the unopened one in the basement of the Catholic University building that houses the CBA office. But, I shall take the “when in Rome…” approach and adapt this talk to the encomium form.

The glorious nativity of the Catholic Biblical Association of America took place, according to the most secure manuscript tradition, in 1936, when Bishop Edwin O’Hara, chair of the Episcopal Committee on the Confraternity of Christian doctrine (the EC-CCD), convened American Catholic Scripture Scholars for the purpose of improving the quality of the New Testament normally used by American Catholics.

Recently, however, scholars have posed challenges to this historical reconstruction.

Some, we’ll call them maximalists, claim that the 1936 date is far too late and that the origins of the CBA date to the convening of apostles in Jerusalem ca 36, not 1936. The “19” was a text-critical error; originally it was meant to be an open quotation mark. One Old Georgian text found with other old Georgians at Emory claims that at this meeting, in 36, Saint John was elected president, following effective campaigning by the “Saint John” or S.J. contingent. The “Only Paul” party, or the O.P.’s, boosted Paul into the vice presidential slot. A subset of the O.P.s, known as “special ops,” led the charge for women’s full involvement, and they convinced the membership to elect Phoebe chair of the Board. Joe Jensen was appointed Executive Secretary.

Others, we’ll call them “minimalists,” unwilling to believe that a pre-Vatican II, even pre- divino afflante spiritu, ecclesial appointee would be interested in high-end biblical scholarship, claim the society was founded as part of a Vatican II initiative, and then it deliberately back-dated its history.

These minimalists also note inconsistencies in the official record: for example, although the organization is the “Catholic Biblical Association of America,” it presents itself as an international society with participating members from across the globe; as of 2011, the number of members was a little over 1,500. A few post-colonial -- or P.C. – critics among the minimalists went as far as to condemn the Association for exporting its Western, academic ideology, expressed in the Constitution, “The Catholic Biblical Association, in continuity with the rich tradition of the Catholic Church, is a scholarly, non–profit association, whose mission is:

  • To promote scholarship in Sacred Scripture and related disciplines;
  • To support effective teaching of Sacred Scripture;
  • To provide for the scholarly development, spiritual renewal, and mutual support of its members;
  • To serve as a resource of biblical expertise for the Church, including the USCCB and, as occasion warrants, other bishops’ conferences,

However, upon actually reading the documents and assessing what the association does, the PC-minimalists reversed their initial verdict and decided to join the celebration.

In either case, the CBA proved to be a blessing to the church, and to the world.

Among its acta, five points deserve special praise:

First, the CBA fully welcomes both participation by women and the inclusion of women’s issues in its discussions, its publications, and even its division of bathroom facilities at annual meetings. I started to subscribe to the CBQ in 1979, the year the journal published the report “on the Role of women in Early Christianity” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41.04 [October 1979], pp 608-613). There are some members of the task force charged with this report who are here with us this evening – to you in particular, thank you.

Second, we celebrate the publications of the Association. To cite just three: The CBQ, with its history of splendid editors, diverse editorial board, and articles from across the biblical studies disciplines, is the best biblical studies journal produced today. The critical reviews are by experts in the subjects covered, and are solicited from those experts rather than done on a volunteer basis. Its circulation in 2010 was over 3,800; all issues from 1946 on are available without charge to members and subscribers.

The CBQ Monograph Series, now under the able direction of Mark Smith, and shifting to the equally able direction of Rob Kugler at midnight on December 31st, began in 1971. It publishes the best of specialized studies. Yesterday at my first editorial board meeting for this series, I learned of the details of the editing process: there is an extensive pre-publication system that helps the series maintain its very high quality. One might think of the earlier drafts as the pre-monograph series. The board, however, rejected calling this corpus the CBQ-PMS.

Finally, OTA, Old Testament Abstracts first appeared in 1978; in 2011, more than 2300 books and articles were abstracted and, miraculously, the abstracts are solid.

Third, the meetings. Unlike many other professional society gatherings, at the CBA a sense of community trumps all the standard academic nonsense.

  1. Senior scholars and new members interact happily;
  2. continuing seminars not only allow for but promote free interchange of ideas;
  3. the seminars and task forces frequently look from the ‘what’ of the research to the ‘so what’ of the readers who hold the texts sacred, and so strengthen the bridge from academy to church;
  4. liberals and conservatives engage in honest conversation in a spirit of mutual respect;
  5. traditional biblical studies topics such as the depiction of G-d in 1 Corinthians and the construction of Hebrew poetry are complemented by studies of the Bible and Ecology and feminist hermeneutics;
  6. historical critical work such as the study of Divinity in ancient Israel is complemented by contemporary concerns, such as Verbum Domini and the new evangelism.

Conversations continue beyond the classroom and into meals and through into the social hour, or for some of us, hours, and then into the dorms and now, thank heaven, the hotels.

Fourth, in terms of religious identity, the CBA welcomes non-Catholics; there has been a non-Catholic president of the Society, non-Catholic speakers at liturgies, even non-Catholics serving as officers. And yet it retains its Catholic (capital C) ethos; that is, the Association does not sacrifice the particulars of its Catholic Identity on the altar of interfaith sensitivity. This spirit of inclusion and open inquiry is a manifestation of generosity of spirit, or, better put, grace. I am a recipient of this hospitality. The CBA is a family; hence the expression, cosa nostra aetate.

And fifth, while promoting its Catholic identity, the society is, as kosher Catholic teaching advises, also internally critical – and it makes its criticisms known in the form of critical love – what Leviticus refers to as tokhecha, rebuking the neighbor – rather than dismissal.

There is much to celebrate. I had originally thought of setting this encomium to music – several ideas presented themselves.

1. Given the Catholic references in the “Sound of Music,” there was the revisionist version of Edelweiss:

CBQ, CBQ, every quarter I read you
In its own right, so erudite
You’re the journal I turn to.

I can picture the second act of the musical, where the Synoptic Gospels task force, turning to the Lucan nativity, addresses the thorny issue of whether the Magnificat is an anti-imperial manifesto by singing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

2. Or, drawing upon last night’s Presidential address by Professor Harold Attridge, perhaps something more Irish-inflected might be appropriate. To the tune of “You’re a Grand Old Flag”:

It’s a Joha-ha-nine flag
A hagiadzo-o flag
And forever the Priest may he save…

(Perhaps you had to be there….).[1]

3. A third option was to play to interfaith relations and set the CBA encomium to the tune of “Hava Nagilah”:

Read a Megillah, read two Megillahs, read three Megillas
That’s the task force way.
Shift to a gospel, then an epistle, back to some Wisdom
That’s the CBA.

Then again, we in the CBA know that the plural of “megilla” is “megillot,” so that didn’t work.

Thus, we are back to Gilbert and Sullivan, with apologies.

The CBA’s the model of a biblical society
With academic rigor plus a touch of Roman piety
We know the sagas Chronicled and Deutero-historical
And we set ancient sources in their strata categorical.

Of course, the strata are called into question with each new publication. Hence the expression, cheese strata.

We read CBA and NTA and OTA with J+B
Respecting that the USCCB replaced the EC-CCD
We’ve OFMs and OMIs and OSBs and Carmelites
SS, CP, and Maryknolls, and Episcopalian proselytes.

It is to be noted that J+B is not the correct abbreviation for Josephus’s Wars of the Jews.

With source, form and redaction, our approach is hypercritical
our christocentric constructs participationist and juridical.
We discourse on hermeneutics with the Cappadocian exegetes
For epigraphic variants we look carefully between the sheets.

Glossing that verse would probably be palimpsestuous… we’d best move on.

We know J,E,D,P, along with G, M and L and Q
We read 1QS and 1QM, Greek, Latin and Hebrew
Vom Forschungsbericht zu Heilsgeschicht, our Shalom is in play
To celebrate the charismata of the echtkratiste CBA.

Kratiste is Greek for “most excellent.” In dynamic equivalence translation, it refers to people who get their book reviews in on time and within word count.

So colleagues here, of diverse creeds, both clerical and laity
Join in the common praising of the Scripture and the deity
And for our honoree, the CBAA, we raise our glass to heaven
For according to gematria, CBAA adds up to a perfect number seven.

For the kingdom and for righteousness
You model how we strive
Bravo, Kudos and mazel tov
On number seventy five!

[1] The original song slotted here was in recognition of the shared dormitory life, membership diversity, and Christian affiliation – and so of course to the tune of “YMCA”

It’s fun to go to the CBA-A
It’s fun to stay at the CBA-A
They have everything
That a scholar could want
You can hang out with lots of goys.

However, concerns over anything remotely to do with gender and sexuality were omitted, out of respect for those who might take offense.