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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A New Program Unit: Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity

Nicolae Roddy

The appearance of exciting new program units at annual meetings of the SBL is often the result of perceived necessity and sustaining vision. Usually designated as consultations at first, these new units emerge in the spaces between established professional and scholarly interests — bridging, enhancing, and sometimes appropriating their subjects in new methodological ways. One such consultation making its début among the fine new program units at the 2005 Annual Meeting is Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity. In response to this consultation's seriously overcrowded first session, one presenter observed, "It was certainly a topic whose time had come."

The purpose of the new Religious Experience consultation is to explore and delineate the broad range of references to divine encounter in early Jewish and early Christian literature in a multidisciplinary way and on a variety of levels. As such, it brings to the scholarly forum the first collaborative and sustained effort in early Jewish and New Testament studies to address the issue of religious experience. Previously, the lack of an adequate conceptual framework and terminology for the study of religious experience has relegated literary claims of divine encounter to affirming nods whenever a presenter touched on the subject, but the area has remained largely unsupported by any serious investigation. Indeed, the term religious experience itself has become an all too facile catch-all for a variety of religious phenomena described by early Jewish and Jewish-Christian writers in connection with (but not limited to) ritual, liturgy, mysticism, contemplation, prayer, magic, revelatory or theophanic encounters, and so on. This consultation attempts to hammer out what is meant by religious experience. It seeks to take references to divine encounter seriously in order to develop a scholarly terminological, conceptual, and methodological framework for investigating this phenomenon.

The inaugural session in Philadelphia opened with a plenary paper that provided a concise history of scholarship on religious experience. Relying on insights by Steve Wasserstrom, who also served as respondent for the first panel of presentations, the brief initial presentation rooted the modern study of religious experience within nineteenth century German Romanticism, some of whose intellectuals, Schelling in particular, affirmed religious symbol as an inherently meaningful manifestation of reality. Significant parallel contributions include Kant's argument that God is experienced through the moral life and Schleiermacher's assertion that such experience is rooted in the "feeling of absolute dependence" upon the infinite. In these cases, symbol is released from the stricture of purely rationalistic categories of thought, opening the way for further avenues of approach.

Perhaps the most notable early twentieth century developments include William James's psychological approach to religion, which posits mysticism as the basis of religious experience manifested in a variety of idiosyncratic forms and degrees, as well as Rudolph Otto's more widely known phenomenological approach, in which the description of the mysterium tremendum came to define the non-rational nature of religious experience for decades to come.

The subjective experience of the divine through symbol (myth, ritual, etc) became the hallmark for the definitive stage of this trajectory in the mid-twentieth century; namely, the History of Religions School, whose members include Gershom Scholem and Henry Corbin, and the Chicago School, represented by Joachim Wach, Joseph Kitagawa, and most notably Mircea Eliade. Eliade's contribution to the study of religion continues to provoke intense debate. Building upon Otto's description of mysterium tremendum and rejecting empiricist approaches, Eliade's facile acknowledgment of transcendent, metaphysical realities remains the weakest and most misunderstood pillar in his phenomenological approach to the history of religions, and the obvious target for critics. Participants in the Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity consultation thus stand on broad but not always stable shoulders. With the advantage of hindsight, it is hoped that many previously exposed pitfalls can be avoided and that serious methodological attention can be given to the expression of transformative moments in the lives of ancient Jewish and Jewish-Christian authors.

The consultation is led by Frances Flannery-Dailey, Rod Werline, and Nicolae Roddy, and supported by a steering committee that includes Daphna Arbel, Dietmar Neufeld, Christopher Rowland, and Alan Segal. First session presenters included Alan Segal, Robin Griffith-Jones, Celia Deutsch, and Crispin Fletcher-Louis, with Steve Wasserstrom serving as respondent. The afternoon session, which was nearly as crowded as the morning session, focused on religious experience in Paul. Presenters included Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Colleen Shantz, John Miller, and Bert Lietaert Peerbolte, with a response by Rollin Ramsaran. Abstracts of all papers may be found at, and it is currently expected that papers from both sessions will be published by T&T Clark/Continuum. Also worthy of note, the consultation will be co-hosting sessions with the Pseudepigrapha Group in 2006, and in 2007, it will co-host sessions with the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Group. It is expected that the tremendous success of the new Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity consultation will continue to generate excitement as it breaks new ground in the world of biblical studies.

Nicolae Roddy, Creighton University

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Citation: Nicolae Roddy, " A New Program Unit: Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2005]. Online:


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