This morning the future of the AAR and SBL is on my mind as I begin preparing the sessions for the New Testament Mysticism Project. Why AAR severed our joint meeting has been a topic of conversation between many of us, but one issue is always brought up when I talk to my AAR colleagues - that the American Academy of Religion wishes to distance itself from the bible-centered study of religion that dominates the Society of Biblical Literature. Many of my colleagues in AAR are glad to see the "theologians" (their word) go. Then I think of ASOR, who just voted not to join with us again. Why? Could it be that the archaeologists don't want to deal with the biblical scholars because they perceive us to be "theologians" too? I don't know the answer to this because I have not spoken with members of ASOR yet.
I think those of us who are historians in the Society of Biblical Literature, if we haven't already should be concerned about the perceptions of our colleagues in related societies. What does it mean that we are perceived as "theologians" and not historians? As an historian, I am particularly worried for us. Will we become increasingly isolated in the Society? What will it mean to the study of Religion that the AAR will have lost along with the "theologians," the historians of ancient Israel, the Second Temple Period, and early Christianity?
I have worked very hard in the Society of Biblical Literature to develop programming that takes a hard line on the historical method, one that does not favor canonical texts at the expense of non-canonical, nor modern Christian theology (the group membership contains people of all faiths). Ten years ago when I started the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group, I did so largely because my historical interests in Second Temple Literature (across the canon and across Judaism and Christianity) was so marginal within the Society at the time that I felt isolated. Last year, some of the members of this group gathered to begin writing a commentary on New Testament Mysticism in order to bring the full range of ancient Jewish and Christian materials we have been studying together to bear on the New Testament texts and their mystical interests.
I have to say that these "across-canonical/across-faith" groups in the Society have been extremely successful. I encourage members in the Society of Biblical Literature to grow other similar groups so that we can create forums of exchange with people who are "other" than ourselves, working on texts "other" than those we are most familiar with. This type of group helps to safeguard the historical method from priviledging our own faith positions I think. And it is a way for us to continue learning.