SBL 2007 (p. 12)

For the grand finale of the entire conference, I journeyed back to the Marriott (the land of modern torture devices disguised as chairs) for the “First Esdras Consultation” session, which had also begun at 1:00 while I was at Anson Rainey’s lecture. On the way over, I noticed the name tag of Leen Ritmeyer on someone I passed by on the sidewalk, but the person wearing it didn’t resemble the person of Temple-Mount architecture fame I had pictured in my mind (this was a much younger looking guy), though I’ve never met him before. If it wasn’t him, that would indeed be a heck of a coincidence to see someone with that unusual/distinctive name at a Biblical conference!

Then again, maybe my mind was playing tricks on me, or maybe I was just daydreaming. These several days had been very emotional, & now soon it was going to end, & just be history.

It was frustrating to have sacrificed the 25-minute opening by David Noel Freedman (an ordained Presbyterian minister, currently the Endowed Chair in Hebrew Biblical Studies at the University of California San Diego, & general editor of the Anchor Bible series), who presided over the session, but I figured I might be able to hear some tidbit-gems from him in between the remaining speakers. As it turns out, co-lecturer Lisbeth Fried (pronounced “Freed” just like “Freedman” coincidentally) was doing the presiding (i.e., introducing & timing the speakers).

To my surprise/shock, the room turned out to be another one of those 1-door mini-rooms that only held no more than 50 people–I had totally expected it to be a much larger venue based on Dr. Freedman’s prominent presence. Even more surprising was the fact that the room was not even full–there were almost a dozen empty seats, & unfortunately they were all up front. (Note–Anson Rainey’s lecture was in the same size of room, & he had an overflow crowd with people sitting on the floor in the back!) So when I entered the quiet room, as with the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, I immediately went to the first open seat I saw in the 2nd row (of about 5 rows).

Because of the podium’s position blocking my view, all I could see of Dr. Freedman were his hands. At one point, he attempted to pop open a soda can on the table, but wasn’t able to due to his being about 85 years of age, & during an interlude between speakers, someone (who I won’t name to preserve their eternal blessing) kindly opened it & poured it for him.

Lester Grabbe was just concluding his presentation when I arrived at 1:50 (it was his same persona on another quest), then came Tessa Rajak (first time I ever heard someone with a heavy British accent speaking Greek), followed by James VanderKam.

Dr. VanderKam’s a fairly well-known scholar (if you have a couple of hours to blow, try reading his vitae all the way through!), & I was surprised that there were only 19 people in attendance at this point!

Something else that struck me as odd throughout all 3 SBL days was that everytime I ventured outside of a lecture room, there were always people lounging. Now granted, these were hotels, & I’d expect that, but most of the people I saw had conference name tags on; & instead of sitting in on whatever session happened to be nearby, I was just surprised that so many were just sitting, chatting, sipping drinks like it was a casual social party. I even saw a few people snoozing. I recall seeing 1 young lady the first day at the CC just sitting off to the side of the long aisle on the east side of the building, with a backpack & pile of books near her, just dozing off.

Anyway, my point is that all the time I was there, I was either in a session, or traveling as briskly as possible to another one. It’s hard for me to imagine thousands of Biblical scholars being in the vicinity of a lecture with Fried, VanderKam, & Freedman, & only seeing 19 people in there at one point! Mind boggling!

David Carr, who had lectured at the ASOR Zayit session, was in attendance, & asked a long series of questions for Dr. VanderKam. Since 1Esdras is not my field of interest, I didn’t take any detailed notes as these papers were presented. Liz Fried was the final presenter, & she gave us an interesting handout: a 3-columned table comparing ANE themes with Ezra & 1st Esdras. The most interesting point I gleaned from her was that apocryphal 1Esdras conforms to Haggai & Zechariah better than canonical Ezra.

Probably the strangest thing I witnessed at any point in the entire conference happened while Tessa Rajak was speaking. Two of the hotel staff came into this little room, walked right up to the podium where she was standing & speaking, & began laying a cord & taping it down to the floor, & connected it to a microphone on the podium. Then they brought in a large loudspeaker on a stand, set it up right next to her (which was right in front of me as I was in the 2nd row, & the 1st row was empty–she being about 6 or 7 feet away from me). And they did this like it was an ordinary routine, like as if they were invisible & nobody noticed!

After connecting the cable, they turned it on, & Prof. Rajak–completely annoyed by their activity, told them in her proper British voice, “You can turn it off please, I don’t need it” (or something to that effect)!

I didn’t realize it at the time, but back when the session began, someone apparently had requested a microphone for Dr. Freedman so he wouldn’t have to strain his voice. I had begun to think that they were setting up for some other event after this session was over. It’s just weird that the workers didn’t excuse themselves & explain what they were doing when they entered the room.

Dr. Fried concluded at 3:20, & I was thrilled to discover that I was going to get to hear Dr. Freedman speak after all! During his opening presentation, he had apparently expressed hope that one or more of the topics addressed in this session–some of them proposing contradictory solutions–would resolve some problems pertaining to the study of 1Esdras. To put his remarks in context, here are the titles of the 5 papers given:

“The Rendering of 2 Chronicles 35-36 in 1st Esdras” by Ralph W. Klein

“The Origins of 1 Esdras: Redivivus Noch Einmal” by Lester L. Grabbe

“1 Esdras in the Hands of Josephus” by Tessa Rajak

“Literary Questions Between Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 Esdras” by James C. VanderKam

“Why the Story of the Three Youths in 1st Esdras?” by Lisbeth S. Fried

Dr. Freedman, using the microphone while remaining seated at the table where I still could not see him (it would’ve been inappropriate for me to get up & reposition myself right in front of him after he began speaking, & until he started speaking, I didn’t know he was going to speak), said (& these are fragmentary quotes, writing as rapidly as I could, but I think I got most of it):

I find each speaker convincing, which leaves the problem where it was before! … I have this great belief something will come up that will help solve the problem. … [We need] a new edition of 1Esdras to find out what 1Esdras is–that should help in resolving other issues. … I find each speaker persuasive, but none totally convincing. … My own appraisal is that Ezra & Nehemiah are the product of a collaboration … a very odd couple! … Ezra, a scribe, a professional … Nehemiah, a governor, an authority … [Now consider the KJV itself.] … What made it authorized? … King James put up the money, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes [was the] head of the committee who did all the work. … Who got the credit?

Earlier, I mentioned his frail physical condition not to embarrass him in any way, but to let readers see it contrasted with his mind, which is still exceptionally brilliant! In 5 minutes, he communicated a more effective & profound take-home message than all 5 other scholars combined (not to mention other respectable scholars such as David Carr who participated in the Q&As; & I obviously mean no disrespect to them, as they provided the intellectual fodder for Dr. Freedman to work with).

(For another interesting report of Dr. Freedman’s still-brilliant mind, I’d encourage everyone to read Todd Bolen’s account, which had transpired a few days earlier than mine.)

I had brought along a copy of “William Foxwell Albright: A Twentieth-Century Genius”, which Dr. Freedman co-authored with Leona Glidden Running in 1975, hoping to get it signed. This particular copy is from the personal library of Stephen Mann, former dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology who co-authored the Anchor Bible commentary volume on Matthew’s Gospel with Albright (& later authored the one for Mark). As I normally do, I waited for a minute or so because I figured other people would be swamping Dr. Freedman with questions & comments. Again to my shock, nobody did! So I nervously approached him, & asked him if he’d sign it.

Yet again to my shock (sorry for the repetition, but it’s true), he was very happy when I showed it to him (like as if I were re-introducing him to an old friend; cf. Grabbe’s reaction the previous evening), & gladly signed it. He wrote very carefully, & even took the time to write the date! I had acquired the book along with 2 letters sent by Dr. Freedman to Dr. Mann in ’75 & ’76 regarding his Mark commentary, & he had signed them simply “Noel”, the name his colleagues use, including the ones here at this session. The autograph he signed for me was “David N. Freedman”, so it’s nice to have both versions!

I thanked him very much, & was prepared to just turn & go, but with yet another shock, he asked me where I was from.

Stupid me, I said, “Up near Los Angeles.” And he said something like, “No, which school?” My heart sank in humility. Here I was taking this gentleman’s time, & I had lost complete sense of whether anyone else was now wanting to speak with him, & yet here he was kind enough to take this interest in me & make such an inquiry.

I told him, “I’m not really with any school, I study the Judean jar handles with royal seal impressions…” He said, “Ah!” in acknowledgement, being familiar with them of course. “…just as a hobby because they’re so interesting–I do it independently.

The final shock came now when he said, “Well good for you!

That just totally blew me away! That, dear readers, is a scholar. (It’s irrelevant whether I deserved such attention, which I didn’t.) I said, “Thank you so much for all of your contributions, sir!“, shook his hand, & as I turned to go (like the Space Shuttle re-entering Earth’s atmosphere) I again became aware of my surroundings & saw Dr. Fried looking on, standing next to him. I had written to her offline once last year in response to something she posted on ANE-2. I greeted her & thanked her for her presentation, then left … still floating on a cloud.

Then again, maybe I was just daydreaming.

G.M. Grena

P.S. A day after I posted this, I was informed that Leen Ritmeyer was indeed in the vicinity (at the NEAS conference; not that I never daydream, of course).

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