Academics is a funny business, and every once in a while it’s useful to laugh at ourselves, or others as the case may be. Along those lines, I want to share one of the funniest moments that I’ve ever been part of in New Testament scholarship. Before getting too far, though, I want to preface this by saying that the research seminars during my PhD were some of the highlights of the experience. There were always big names presenting on cutting edge work. Well, there was almost always big names presenting on cutting edge work. . . .
In the final year of my doctoral work at New College, University of Edinburgh, our Friday research seminar had a surprise guest one day. Apparently someone at the School of Law had made a request of someone at the School of Divinity that a visiting emeritus law professor (British-born, but had been teaching in the USA) present in our seminar, since this professor had an interest in NT studies (and had actually been one of David Daube’s students I later found out). They hesitatingly permitted it.
I was actually a bit excited because the guest speaker’s lecture concerned the Pericope Adulterae (John 7.53–8.11), upon which I was writing my PhD thesis. As anyone who is beyond four or five years removed from their PhD days will tell you, that time period is a kind of a golden era because it’s one of the few times in your life where you have read everything worth reading on a given narrow topic. Once you move on and have to join the working world and squeeze research into the cracks of time that are available (and don’t get me started on the ungodly amount of time that kids take away from research—of course worth it, but still, at least a book or two’s worth of research), it’s just nearly impossible to have canvassed a field of research in the way that you did when you were a PhD student.
At any rate, I was there at the time, and so immediately recognized that something was wrong with this presenter’s lecture—I knew it already. I recognized it immediately as an article published in Biblica. Sure enough, I looked down and the presenter wasn’t reading his notes on A4. Instead, he was reading from the library’s bound copy of Biblica volumes. He had literally gone down in the New College library, pulled out their copy of his article from almost ten years ago and was reading word-for-word in a research seminar full of about 35 or 40 people! I leaned over to my friend Dieter Roth and said, “He’s reading from the library’s copy of his own article.” Dieter looked at me like, “Surely not,” then looked up to see that, in fact, he was.
At this point, I started getting giddy the way schoolchildren do when they know recess is right around the corner because I knew that part of this article included a pretty sexually-explicit metaphorical reading of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4. Right on cue, he turned to Helen Bond, who was presiding, and announces, “I’d now like to go a different direction.” Helen said, “Would you like to disclose where that might be?” He indicated that he was pushing right ahead and launched into the second section of the article—his crazy interpretation of John 4. I can’t remember exactly how he got there, but he read Jesus’ request for water as some type of sexual innuendo. Not getting the reaction of affirmation he sought, he then decided to make it easier for us dunces who could not quite understand the sexualized nature of wells in first-century Samaria. “Do you get it? The bucket goes down, and then back up...it goes in, and then out.”
Yes, he said that. There are three further features about this presentation that deserve mentioning, though. Once I was clued in to the fact that this was not a normal presentation, I started really paying attention, not just formulating a question for response time. Once I did, I noticed that his speech was pretty slurred for a formal presentation and that his face was pretty red. “Does he look drunk to you?” I asked Dieter in hushed tones.
Even better than the possibility that this speaker was presenting-under-the-influence, or more accurately reading-aloud-previously-published-research-under-the-influence, he stopped several times to tell us that he might just be too radical for us. We might, he insisted, be too conservative to get what he was proposing. I don’t know if he thought conservative people don’t have sex or what, but I can assure you that there was no shortage of people who fell way outside the bounds of conservative Christianity.
Not satisfied to leave these assumed conservatives in a field of ignorance, though, he—I kid you not—engaged in hand motions to explain the sexual nature of the bucket going into and out of the well. He extended a hand with finger pointed, then retracted it, all the while saying, “The bucket goes in and out, and she said Jesus had no bucket.” If this wasn’t enough, he then turned to Helen Bond and gestured with his head like, “Get it?”
That feeling of barely-constrained laughter is one of the best feelings in the world, and that’s precisely how I felt at this moment. I kept thinking over and over, “Is this really happening?” and nudging Dieter in the ribs. Just in case he, too, was barely constraining his laughter, I wanted to make him laugh first. I cannot possibly put into words the level of absurdity involved with this presenter beckoning Helen, one of the few women in the room, to agree with him about buckets going down and up and making hand gestures all the while in front of a room full of established scholars and PhD students. I looked over at one point and Larry Hurtado was just covering his face.
The question-and-answer time held even more tragically comedic gold. Paul Foster, a highly-esteemed NT specialist at New College, outright asked the man why we should be listening to him at all. The man’s retort was, “You remind me of anti-Semitic New Testament scholars in the 1970s.” At this Paul’s eyes about popped out of his head, as they should have and as did all of our eyes. Before any of us could follow-up on this and make explicit just what a faux pas he had committed, or even get control of the situation unfolding before us, a student in the back asked what must be the most hilarious question I’ve ever heard at a formal academic paper. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement: “I’m surprised that someone your age is even having these types of thoughts.” That’s right, when faced with a seemingly crazy, likely drunk, guest lecturer making inappropriate hand motions and comparing excellent scholars to racists, apparently the right plan of attack is to make a thinly-veiled reference to his potential impotence. I could not possibly look at Dieter or anyone else for fear that I would lose it right then and there.
I have often wondered if all this actually happened in the scope of about one hour. But I swear it did, and there are many witnesses. Perhaps some will comment on this post. I’ve often wondered if anyone else was so lucky as to have something that crazy happen in a formal research venue. This is an official challenge to the readers of this blog to story-top.