Society of Biblical Literature

2017 Boston

Psychology and Biblical Studies Seminar

SBL Annual Meeting, Boston, Massachusetts
November 18-21, 2017

Celebrating the Past, Embracing the Future
Saturday, November 18, 2017
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM

Belvidere A

This session will be in honor of the 25 years of the unit’s existence. Over the last two decades psychological interpretations of biblical studies has evolved from a new and unusual approach to being well-integrated into many types of scholarship throughout the academy. This session will focus on what the approach means currently and where active scholars expect it may go. The papers will all be solicited and include some of the founders of the unit as well-established scholars who have presented papers with the unit previously and other established scholars who have used a psychological lens in approaching the biblical texts and yielding fruitful results and have an interest in participating in the session.


Psychology and Biblical Studies Seminar
Business Meeting
Saturday, November 18, 2017
11:45 AM to 12:45 PM

Vermont (conference) (Fifth Level)


There’s No Place Like Home: PsyBibs and the Return to the Womb

Michael Willett-Newheart
PsyBibs–the Psychology and Biblical Studies unit of the Society of Biblical Literature–was born in my hometown of Kansas City, MO, at the 1991 annual meeting. Participating in PsyBibs over its first 25 years, then, has been a homecoming of sorts, and I agree with Dorothy, who was from Kansas: “There’s no place like home.” As I have presented and responded and presided and organized (and disorganized) in this unit, I have returned to the womb. And that’s what we’re all trying to do, right? Or at least that’s what Freud said that we’re all trying to do. (As Joyce said, “We’re all jung and easily freudened.”) In my panel presentation I will discuss the ways that I have contributed to this unit, specifically through papers, essays, and books. I will also discuss where I have seen the unit go in the last 25 years. Finally, I will make a few uneducated guesses as to where the unit will go in the next 25 years, in which I am fully prepared to participate. (That’s 2041. Hey, why not? I’ll be . . . Well, who knows how old I’ll be?) Come on and join us. I think that it will be fun! Because you know there’s no place like . . . (Click your heels.)

Death and the Future of Psychological Biblical Criticism

Stuart Lasine
Recent research on the psychology of death and the psychology of reading pave the way for new explorations of the ways in which the Hebrew Bible presents readers with the hard facts of human mortality. This paper focuses on Qoheleth and Kings, two books which may increase mortality salience for readers. Do Qoheleth’s statements on mortality indicate that he is “frightened of” or “obsessed with” death, as has been asserted? Do his words show that the “anxiety-buffering” mechanisms of the author’s society have failed him, as one scholar suggests? In terms of the psychology of pessimism, is Qoheleth being pessimistic or realistic about death? And if Qoheleth is an exception to the rule that the Hebrew Bible accepts mortality, as is often claimed, why did Freud find it remarkably odd that the Jewish Scriptures omit the possibility of a continuation of existence after death? I then ask whether psychology can help to explain why so many stories about human vulnerability, illness, and death are concentrated in the Elijah and Elisha narratives, including reports of mass murder, resuscitation of the dead and escape from death by ascension. Reports of reviving the dead have been said to recall childhood hopes that death is not irreversible. Such accounts often leave readers with a feeling of astonishment or uncanniness. If this is not how most readers of Kings react to these stories, does this imply that they take for granted that the dead bones of a wonder-worker can wield the power to revive a corpse? Are we being invited to view Elisha as an exalted “saint,” so that we can enjoy a kind of vicarious immortality by identifying with this seemingly invulnerable hero? The paper concludes with suggestions for future research on the psychology of reading about death in the Hebrew Bible.

A Psychological Commentary on the Bible? Precedents, Prospects and Pitfalls

D. Andrew Kille
In 1992, Fortress Press published the first edition of Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. This volume was followed in turn by Social Science Commentary of the Gospel of John (1998), Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (2000), Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (2006), and Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts (2008). In 2015, Bloomsbury T&T Clark brought out John Van Seters’ The Penteteuch: A Social-Science Commentary. Although the body of psychological approaches to scripture is large, there have been few attempts to attempt anything like a psychological commentary on an entire biblical book. Works like Fritz Kunkel’s Creation Continues (1973), a commentary on the gospel of Matthew, John Sanford’s Mystical Christianity (1993) on the gospel of John or Diarmuid McGann’s The Journeying Self (1985) and Journeying Within Transcendence (1989) on Mark and John respectively, are rare. How might we conceive of a Psychological Commentary similar to the Social Science Commentary that would provide textual notes to highlight psychological issues in the text? What could such a commentary offer to scholars? What might the challenges to creating such a resource? What might we learn from previous efforts about the possibilities and pitfalls of doing an extended psychological commentary?

Paul, the Philippians, and Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy— A Cognitive-Critical Biblical Analysis

Paul Anderson
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul sounds a number of themes and employs a variety of techniques that would have been familiar to Stoics and others within his Greco-Roman audience. Simply understanding the socio-religious background of a first-century audience, however, falls short of appreciating how the apostle operated and what sort of impact might have been anticipated among his audiences. Within a cognitive-critical analysis of a biblical text, the Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy of Albert Ellis casts helpful light not only on what Paul was saying, but also what he was seeking to effect among his readers. By first laying out irrational assumptions, followed by a critique of their distortive effects, it can be seen that Paul is seeking to avail his readers of a transformative way of seeing, which effects changes of both emotion and behavior. This Rational-Emotive analysis of Paul’s letter to the Philippians will suggest some of the ways that might so—both then and now.

Psychological Biblical Criticism in 2017: Retrospect and Prospect

Wayne G. Rollins
The creation of the SBL program unit on “Psychology and Biblical Studies” twenty-six years ago has led to many benefits. One is the discovery of an increasing number of biblical scholars smitten with the suspicion that religious history, habits, and texts cannot be fully understood apart from psychological reflection. A second, the topic of this paper, is the unconcealing of a history of psychological-biblical reflection in “six phases”, brought to the surface by the research and exchange of this program unit. Phase 1: Biblical Psychology in Dialogue with Philosophy: From the 1st to the 19th century; Phase 2, The New Psychology and the Bible: 1850-1915; Phase 3, The Anathematization of Psychology within Biblical Studies: 1915-1970; Phase 4, Another Perspective from Outside the Province of Professional Biblical Studies: Freud and Jung on the Bible : 1915-1970; Phase 5: The Renascence of Psychology in Biblical Studies : 1968 to the Present; Phase 6: The Instantiation of Psychological Biblical Criticism within the Guild of the SBL: 1991-the Present. The paper will offer brief proposals for future psychological biblical critical explorations (on the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic commentary, et al).and will conclude heuristically with the contention that “as important as historical, social, political, economic and cultural factors are in creating texts and interpretations, in the end, the psychic factors, conscious and unconscious, may prove to be the pre-eminent determinants of what is recorded in a text, why it was remembered , how it is said, why it is said, how it is read, how it is interpreted, and how that interpretation is received and translated, whether to good or grievous effect.“