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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive “Inside and Outside the Circle”: What Does the Festschrift Genre Tell About Our Discipline?

Gerald A. Klingbeil
Theological Seminary, Andrews University

When scholars celebrate significant birthdays they seldom receive flowers, cakes, or chocolates. More often than not (at least in the field of the humanities) they receive volumes containing research presented in homage to the honored scholar by former students, colleagues, and friends. Over the past decades I have edited (or co-edited) at least two Festschriften, have contributed to some more and have written a number of critical reviews of this genre. My interaction with these types of books over the years has challenged me to think more about the genre itself.


Festschrift: A Genre Critique

The Festschrift genre has a long tradition in academia, dating back several centuries. Editing a Festschrift is considered a significant academic achievement and is often an important sign of recognition in the establishment of a particular academic discipline. The German term Festschrift means literally a “celebratory volume.” The term has been used in volumes not written or edited in German. Sometimes, English Festschriften use the phrase “Essays/Studies in Honor of…” to indicate the nature of the collection as a Festschrift. Contributions to Festschriften often include different languages, reflecting the breadth of international interaction, even though the majority of authors nowadays opt for English as the preferred medium of academic discourse.

The publication of Festschriften has become a veritable business enterprise. Often these volumes are included as part of an academic series, honoring a member of an editorial board or an outgoing editor. Unfortunately, this leads frequently to an exorbitant price point—particularly when published in Europe, thus putting these volumes outside the reach of institutions (and individuals) whose acquisition budget is rather limited. Eisenbrauns, a small but vibrant publisher of quality research in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies has become one of the best addresses for the publication of Festschriften in the international market in this area. Fortunately, their pricing model is significantly lower than their European counterparts, without sacrificing editorial and production quality. However, it is customary that most of these Festschriften, published by institutions or departments, require a significant subsidy of that institution/department to the publisher in order to delimit the financial risks involved in publishing a volume that (a) can contain a plethora of different approaches and perspectives, (b) often covers a wide area of research interests, (c) cannot be used as a textbook (thus limiting significantly the capacity of the publisher to recuperate the investment), and (d) due to their often multi-lingual contents (including different languages) cannot be easily understood by undergraduate (or sometimes even postgraduate) students. Added to these limitations is also the fact that a Festschrift in biblical or ancient Near Eastern studies often requires specialized typesetting and fonts (due to the use of different ancient languages, such as cuneiform or hieroglyphics) which adds to the price. Fortunately, with the arrival of desktop publishing, more standardized Unicode fonts and easily available specialized fonts, this should no longer be a major prohibitive issue.

Some scholars receive a number of Festschriften, usually at different junctures of their professional life. A good example is David Noel Freedman who prior to his death received no fewer than three honorary volumes of significant proportions, reflecting his different teaching careers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, San Diego, as well as his monumental contribution (and influence) in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, particularly within the North American academic scene. In some instances, a Festschrift can be published as part of a special issue of a journal. It may also be produced in digital and in paper format as was the case for a volume published in honor of Boris Ilich Marshak (“Ēran ud Anērān: Studies Presented to Boris Ilich Marshak on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday,” [cited 3 March 2009]. Online: The volume was also published in printed format, Matteo Compareti, Paola Raffeta, and Gianroberto Scarcia, eds., Ēran ud Anērān: Studies Presented to Boris Ilich Marshak on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday (Venice: Libreria Editrice Cafoscarina, 2006).


Possibilities and Caveats

Due to their eclectic nature Festschriften often contain a wide range of studies dealing with different interests of the honoree, which make them less attractive to buyers who focus on topical collections or reference works. However, it is this possible caveat that, in my mind, marks an inherent strength of the Festschrift genre as it tends to include studies from rather distant fields. While cross-disciplinary research is an often repeated credo in academia, its implementation is not always easy, particularly considering that each (sub)discipline has (often implicitly) underlying paradigms that may or may not be easy to adapt to a different discipline—or are not even negotiable by practitioners of a discipline.

Different from peer-refereed journals or an editorial board managing an academic series, quality control is not generally built into the process for the production of volumes honoring a distinguished member of the academic guild. Since the qualifying characteristic of contributions to a Festschrift is some type of link to the honoree (perhaps as a student or colleague), the circle of potential contributors is often limited. In consequence, “a Festschrift frequently enough also serves as a convenient place in which those who are invited to contribute find a permanent resting place for their otherwise unpublishable or at least difficult-to-publish papers,” as noted by Canadian neuroscientist Endel Tulving, reflecting on the merits of a Festschrift (Endel Tulving, “Are There 256 Different Kinds of Memory?” in The Foundations of Remembering: Essays in Honor of Henry L. Roediger III [ed. James S. Nairne; Psychology Press Festschrift Series; New York: Psychology Press, 2007], 39).


And the Moral of the Story

From a sociological perspective, Festschriften reflect the social nets, as well as the geographical borders, that link (or separate) scholars and often show clearly the north–south divide. It is the exception to find a scholar from the Two-Third world contributing to the honorary volume of a colleague teaching at Yale, Princeton, Berlin, or Vienna. This particular aspect involving the internationality of academia is not easily resolved, even though some initiatives are under way that aim to provide professors and students of these regions with more affordable access to first-class scholarly resources and a voice in the international choir of scholarship. (See, for example, the important International Cooperation Initiative [ICI] of the Society of Biblical Literature. This initiative, chaired by Prof. Ehud Ben Zvi of the University of Alberta, involves a drastically reduced membership rate to the Society for students and professors residing in the Two-Third world, access to an increasing number of volumes published by the Society of Biblical Literature in pdf format, the establishment of a number of new monograph series, among them the International Voices in Biblical Studies series.)

I imagine that receiving a Festschrift is both gratifying and humbling. I remember the surprise and joy in the eyes of a beloved professor upon receiving a volume honoring him. Surely, it must beat receiving a chocolate or flowers.

As already noted, the landscape of Festschriften in biblical and theological research reflects very clearly the borders and enclosures that crisscross our international academic community and sometimes tend to cement them in further. Festschriften published for a German professor contain mostly German articles and the contributions are often geographically centered on a limited region. The same is true for honorary volumes in Hebrew, French, Spanish, or Russian. Looking over the proverbial fence is not always easy—especially when one considers that many paradigms and perspectives important in one context are not really relevant or considered pertinent in another. Latin American biblical scholars do not appear to be that interested in studies dealing with the editorial or redactional history of a given biblical text, but pay close attention to theological motifs linked to oppression and liberation. (See, e.g.,, the historical review of Miguel Ángel Núñez, “Relevancia y pertinencia actual de la Teología de la Liberación,” DavarLogos 4 [2005]: 49-63. The work of Severino Croatto and his disciples at the ISEDET in Argentina come readily to mind, e.g. José Severino Croatto, “The Debt in Nehemiah’s Social Reform. A Study of Nehemiah 5:1–19,” in Subversive Scriptures: Revolutionary Readings of the Christian Bible in Latin America [ed. Leif E. Vaage; Valley Forge, Penn.: Trinity International Press, 1997], 39–59.) However, the decision of SBL leadership to strengthen and interact with scholarship outside the traditional western hemisphere sends a hopeful sign. It needs to involve the conscious decision to listen carefully to non-Western scholars and their expertise and perspectives, and should raise funds that help to further integrate scholars across regions and cultural contexts. Considered from this perspective, Festschriften may actually be a helpful way of linking those who are inside the circle to those who are standing outside of it.


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