In this Resource Review, I will offer an overview of the world of professional biblical and religious studies organizations. I had no idea what they were at first – or that they existed – so hopefully this will be helpful. The information I have here is particularly targeted at helping current students of biblical studies hoping to enter a doctoral program understand the kind of parallel universe they’re approaching.
The first thing you need to know, if you don’t already, is that like many communities in higher academics, biblical studies as a discipline has a variety of professional organizations that are by and large called “societies” or “organizations.” While this may sound medieval, the only rites of passage you will have to endure are membership fees and the sudden feeling of insignificance.
In large part, the whole point of these societies is the refined, scholarly version of what anyone else would call networking. The point is to share ideas, compare work and conclusions, argue about minutiae, and (naturally) catch up with old friends. As a result, it’s an invaluable opportunity for younger scholars to learn and get to know the discipline and its community. But, when you first join, and for years afterwards, you’ll be a mere newcomer who knows nothing and no one. (This is my current status, by the way.) So settle in, get ready to listen, and try not to bother anyone.
The societies I deal with in this post are the main ones you want to be aware of, although there are innumerably more if you search around. In each, I try to discuss how and why to join the organization, and what is required to present at one of their conferences.
Who’s Who in Biblical Studies Societies
The main societies you want to know about are as follows, listed roughly by largest membership and broadest in range, to more narrow either in terms of religious outlook or technical discipline.
American Academy of Religion
AAR is about as broad as you can get. Limited only to anything called “religion,” this group offers a venue for “ongoing reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values.” For the last number of years, AAR has joined with SBL (below) for its annual national conference, usually in November (brochure here). Also, like SBL, AAR has a number of annual regional conferences: Eastern International, New England-Maritimes, and Pacific Northwest. The wonderful thing about both AAR and SBL is that they are remarkably organized, and have meetings planned for the next handful of years already. Students can become a member of AAR for $55, which has a number of benefits, which include faculty position postings. I am not personally a member of AAR, and am not entirely sure what goes into qualifying to present at the conferences, but my guess would be that it is the same as SBL.
Society of Biblical Literature
The big kahuna for biblical studies is the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), whose mission statement is simply: “Foster biblical scholarship.” Anyone can join, and there are many benefits of doing so, not least of which include online access to the society’s Journal of Biblical Literature and Handbook of Style. More importantly, there is a student discount to join for $60 a year. As the oldest society for biblical studies (founded in 1880), it is the most reputable and respected.
Every year SBL throws a conference that is eagerly attended by thousands upon thousands of scholars from around the world. The conference booklet listing presentations is fatter than most college textbooks. Since the annual SBL conference is combined with the AAR conference, the event is even more massive. It’s an exciting experience, made only more exhilarating by the coffee stampede that occurs when the only Starbucks in the entire facility closes down at 2pm. Best of all, this coming year’s conference, held from Nov. 22nd-25th, will be in sunny California.
SBL also has an international conference each year, as well as numerous regional conferences that are usually held in the spring. These include Central, Eastern Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, Midwest, New England, Pacific Coast, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains – Great Plains, Southeastern, Southwestern, and Upper Midwest regions. It is possible, but not typical, for pre-doctoral students to present at the regional conferences (I did it). But the national conference requires presenters to be current doctoral candidates. Moreover, the SBL website is valuable in and of itself, with career and educational resources to boot.
The International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament
IOSOT (pronounced “YO-sot” or “EYE-oh-sot”) is the biggest, specifically Old Testament-focused society. It’s so large, it doesn’t have “conferences,” but “congresses.” And it doesn’t meet except for every three years at a given location around the world. The last meeting was in Munich 2013, which I attended and presented a paper (see here). Some prior meetings were Basel 2001, Leiden 2004, Ljubljana 2007, and Helsinki 2010. As far as I know, there is no way to “join” IOSOT, as much as attend and possibly participate in the congresses. The next one is slated to be in Stellenbosch, South Africa in 2016, so mark your calendars. Nor is there an IOSOT website, but only sites for the next congress. I’m not totally clear on whether you must be a current doctoral candidate to present at one of these congresses. I presented when I was in my masters program, so theoretically the answer is “no,” but it may have only been because it was assumed that I was a doctoral student!
When IOSOT meets, a number of other, more specialized organizations also meet, such as the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS, see below), of the International Organization for Masoretic Studies (IOMS), of the International Organization for Qumran Studies (IOQS), the International Organization for Targumic Studies (IOTS), and the International Syriac Language Project (ISLP).
International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies
One of my favorite organizations is the IOSCS, which is among the organizations that meets under the auspices of the IOSOT congresses. This group is “a nonprofit, learned society formed to promote international research in and study of the Septuagint and related texts,” the latter of which include the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature contemporary to the turn of the era. The main page of this organization includes lots of announcements that are regularly updated.
The IOSCS also publishes the Journal of Septuagint Studies (JSCS), which can be slow in coming but is usually worth the wait. The group meets at the triennial IOSOT congress, but also every year at the SBL national conference as well, which means you cannot present a paper unless you are accepted through SBL’s call for papers. It’s easy and quite affordable to become a member ($15 for students), which subscribes you to the Journal.
Evangelical Theological Society
Another group you may consider becoming involved with is ETS. Founded in 1949 with the purpose statement: “To foster conservative Biblical scholarship by providing a medium for the oral exchange and written expression of thought and research in the general field of the theological disciplines as centered in the Scriptures.” (Constitution, Article II.). ETS requires members to subscribe to a doctrinal statement, which says: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”
Membership is $15 for students, and includes a subscription to the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS). Somewhat frustratingly, the process of joining is a bit complex. Only those with a completed ThM or equivalent can become full members, and students can join only by applying with a recommendation from a full member. As a result, you’ll have to pester one of your professors to fill out a form when you apply to join.
ETS also has a national conference that follows SBL around each year. Like SBL and AAR, there are yearly regional meetings as well. It is possible, but not typical, for pre-doctoral students to present in the regional conferences (at least, I did it), but you must be a current doctoral candidate to present at the national conference.
Institute for Biblical Research
IBR is still another organization that may be worth your time, particularly if you wish to or have joined ETS. The group’s vision is to “to foster excellence in the pursuit of Biblical Studies within a faith environment,” which occurs primarily through conferences, seminars, workshops, and publications. One of the primary forms of the latter is the Bulletin for Biblical Research (BBR).
Like the IOSCS meeting at the SBL conference, IBR generally has their annual meeting during the ETS national conference, where they will hold a number of sessions for general attendance (see this schedule from 2013). Membership is somewhat confusing in this group also. One can only be a “fellow” after completing a research doctoral degree and requires two letters of recommendation from current fellows. You can become an “associate” member only if you are currently in a doctoral program, and get a letter of recommendation from a full fellow. Finally, “friends” of IBR covers everyone else, but still requires nomination by a full fellow. Fellows’ and Friends’ memberships are $62.00 per year. Associates’ memberships are $42.00 per year. If you also wish to subscribe to the Tyndale Bulletin, IBR’s journal, you may do so for $35.00 per year.
The Conference Scene
Part and parcel with joining any of these societies and organizations is participation in the life of the community. This means, at least, keeping up with the journals and publications either in print or online (or listed in newsletters). Ideally, however, you will also be able to attend the conferences. Doing so is a major project and can be very expensive, but is extremely beneficial for aspiring doctoral students. I will be posting a similar “Guide for Students” for attending these conferences – why you should, how to go about it, what to do when you’re there, etc.
It’s great if you can also begin participating in these conferences by actually presenting your own work. This can be difficult to do, and at the pre-doctoral level is generally limited to regional conferences or the odd coincidental vacancy that you providentially fill at a more significant conference. More difficult still, even if you meet requirements for presenters, it can be intensely competitive to get accepted. I’ll cover these topics a bit more in the next post.