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A Vignette from the SBL: How I almost met Bill Arnal

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  • Grondin
    Just back from the SBL Meeting in Toronto - a thousand bucks poorer, but somewhat richer in experience and knowledge. The first-time amateur (like myself) is
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 27, 2002
      Just back from the SBL Meeting in Toronto - a thousand bucks poorer, but
      somewhat richer in experience and knowledge. The first-time amateur (like
      myself) is bound to feel somewhat out-of-place at these meetings, since they
      have the strong tenor of reunion about them. Academicians who've interacted
      with each other for many years are naturally anxious to get together,
      compare notes, renew acquaintance, etc. Being a relatively non-aggressive
      newbie, I found it difficult to break into these circles, but I did have a
      few choice encounters of short duration. More on that later, perhaps, but
      for now, to the promised subject:

      Setting: Seminar on Ancient Myths and Modern Theories of Christian Origins
      Theme: Constructing and Deconstructing Mark
      Tuesday morning, "Territories" room of the Royal York Hotel, Toronto

      I had stayed over Monday night so that I could talk to Bill Arnal, whom I'd
      never met, and whose locator-card I couldn't find in the decrepit SBL
      rollodex "system", but who was listed as a participant in this seminar. Not
      knowing what he looked like, and not spotting anyone with the appropriate
      name-badge, I positioned myself in one of the chairs arrayed against the
      wall around the room, surrounding, but at some distance from, the large
      seminar table in the middle of the room. (Bill - I was that balding,
      late-fiftyish guy with glasses and blue sport-coat seated opposite you.
      Sorry to disappoint.) The dominant figure at the table wasn't the presiding
      chair - Ron Cameron - but rather, a tall, charistmatic, somewhat elderly man
      with wild white-hair and beard seated next to him. This turned out to be
      Jonathan Z. Smith - who was not, however, listed as among the participants.
      Nevertheless, it was his paper on the Levant that all were discussing. Down
      at the other end of the table, facing me, was a young turk, unbearded, but
      with equally wild (albeit dark) hair. Having in mind to give some advance
      materials on my Thomas theory to Bill and/or his friend Willi Braun (also
      present), and having some fear that these advance materials would somehow
      fall into unscrupulous hands, _and_ furthermore being somewhat the slave to
      stereotypes, I thought to myself, "If anybody's gonna try to steal my ideas
      on Thomas, it'll be that guy." Turns out, "that guy" was Bill.

      At first, however, I didn't know that. So when Ron Cameron remarked at the
      outset that "Bill Arnal" was feeling under the weather, and would be unable
      to participate fully in the discussions, I didn't yet know who he was
      talking about. Nor did I have any idea what this group was all about. As
      Smith began discussing his paper, however, it soon became evident that -
      shades of Frank McCoy! - Tyre and Herakles were to figure largely in it. At
      various points, for example, Smith remarked "Tyre and Galilee are
      unthinkable apart from each other," and "I've become this big Tyre
      enthusiast lately!" (Maybe he said 'great' instead of 'big' - my faulty
      recollection on this point reminds me of how easy it would have been, even
      had there been two careful people listening intently and directly to J's
      words, and even writing them down as carefully as they could, to have yet
      created two different "transcriptions" of those words.)

      After about an hour of discussions, Smith called for a break (which,
      unfortunately, was not the norm for these 2.5-hour sessions). In doing so,
      he jokingly remarked that he was deferring to Arnal's smoking habit. (As it
      turns out, Smith himself - like me - is a victim of the demon weed.) By this
      time, I had determined who Bill was, from a variety of remarks allluding to
      him from other participants, and from his body-language in response to those
      remarks (though he didn't actually say anything). Indeed, the degree of
      respectful deferral to Bill was noteworthy. It was obvious that, young as he
      was, he was considered a major force within the seminar group. Later on, one
      of the reasons for this became apparent - namely, that his book _Jesus and
      the Village Scribes_, with its emphasis on the "quotidian" (i.e., ordinary,
      common-place origins of things such as Q, as opposed to the sort of
      extraordinary origins often imagined) was connected with Smith's work. As
      one participant put it, "Arnal's Galilean Q-thing developed into Jonathan's

      Bill can (and will, I hope, after he recovers from the flu) say much more
      about this - and will correct my errors of understanding. If it's not too
      much of a simplification, it might be said that Bill's hypothesis is that
      Mark's gospel was a largely-fictional biography constructed out of known
      Jesus-sayings. Where Smith's work comes into the picture is that the Levant
      is postulated as a likely area where this might have taken place - the
      myth-making of that area being strongly influenced by the client
      temple-state Tyre and its prominent myths concerning Herakles.

      To return to the mundane - and to make a long story short - I followed the
      group of smokers outside at the break (and had one myself), but was
      reluctant to barge into the group of session-participants at that point. I
      thought I would be able to talk to Bill later. As it turned out, however,
      his illness prevented him from returning to the session, and so I have not
      yet met Bill Arnal, nor heard him speak. I'm quite confident, though, that
      he does - and that when he does, what he says is well worth hearing.

      Mike Grondin
      Mt. Clemens, MI
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