Candler’s Pitts Theology Library has acquired the archives of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible. The acquisition establishes Pitts as SBL’s official institutional repository and positions the library as a center for research on the development of the field of biblical studies.  

Founded in 1880, SBL includes scholars from a wide variety of academic disciplines: biblical studies, history, literature, archaeology, anthropology, theology, and sociology, among others. It is international in reach, with 8,417 members from 96 countries.

The society’s archives provide a comprehensive history of the field of academic biblical studies, according to SBL Executive Director John F. Kutsko.

“SBL’s institutional age is older than the learned societies of many peer disciplines, which reflects the premier position biblical studies and theology held in universities in the 19th century and earlier,” he says. “Because of that past, the SBL archives don’t just record the history of the institution, but also the history of the modern, critical study of the Bible and its cognate literatures, cultures, and history of interpretation.”

Previously housed at Drew Theological School in New Jersey, the archives arrived at Pitts in mid-February. They include 445 document boxes, 2,345 volumes of books, journals, and meeting program books, administrative records, committee minutes, correspondence, and publications, including books published by SBL as well as the society’s quarterly publication, the Journal of Biblical Literature. The archives will be augmented annually as the society’s history continues to grow.

“We’re delighted to strengthen our connection to SBL in this way,” says Richard Manly “Bo” Adams Jr., director of Pitts Theology Library and Margaret A. Pitts Assistant Professor in the Practice of Theological Bibliography. “This acquisition positions Pitts as a global center for the study of the history and sociology of the field of biblical studies. We look forward to organizing and digitizing this important collection to make the archives accessible to researchers around the world.”

Two factors that played in Pitts’ favor in relocation discussions were Candler’s strong tradition of biblical scholarship and Pitts’ role as the official repository for two related organizations, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). Having the three archives—SBL, AAR, and ACPE—in the same location will enable a deeper exploration of the movement of ideas or trends from the academic realm to applied practice. 

Pitts’ location was also a factor in the move: SBL is headquartered in Atlanta, and having the archives close to home seemed advantageous. Kutsko says he is grateful to Drew’s library staff and to Andrew Scrimgeour, Drew’s dean of libraries emeritus, for taking excellent care of the materials and for partnering in the relocation effort.

AAR is also headquartered in Atlanta, and each fall, AAR and SBL hold a joint annual meeting that is the largest humanities meeting in the world, attracting more than 10,000 scholars and providing opportunities for them to present papers to their peers. The program books of these meetings are an integral part of the SBL archives, giving clues to the development of biblical studies as an academic discipline.

“Researching the papers presented at the meeting across the years will enable scholars to identify patterns or trends in the field of biblical studies, and examine in detail how it has evolved over time, becoming more self-reflective as it has grown,” says Kutsko.

Another consideration in the move was Pitts’ commitment to digitizing assets to make them available online to scholars and the general public alike. With Pitts’ expertise in digitization, SBL will be able to uphold its similar commitment to making sound biblical scholarship accessible to a broad audience.

Kutsko points to SBL’s Bible Odyssey Project website, launched in 2014, as one example of successful public engagement. An educational tool designed to make the Bible and biblical scholarship more accessible to the general public, the site now receives 5,000 visitors per day.

And an even loftier result is possible, according to Kutsko: Making the SBL archives accessible to the general public could help reduce extremist views through the examination of 200 years of historical and biblical scholarship.

“Scholars often disagree. The interpretation of a scripture, or any story, can change over time, shaped by new discoveries, critical and close reading techniques, and the cultural contexts of the readers themselves,” he says. “Because the texts aren’t black and white, the reader comes away more savvy, realizing that everything is more complex than you might first think.”

Others think of broadening the audience more in terms of SBL’s increasing inclusivity of varied global contexts. Koog P. Hong, assistant professor of Old Testament at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and one of the society’s nearly 3,000 international members, appreciates what he calls SBL’s “bold vision to serve the global theological community” by incorporating disparate voices in biblical scholarship from every part of the world. He sees the move of the society’s archives to Pitts and its subsequent digitization as proof points of SBL’s commitment to international scholarship.

“The SBL archives at Pitts Theology Library will become an invaluable resource not only for archiving the past but also preparing the exciting future the society’s bold vision will give rise to," he says.

Led by Brandon Wason, curator of archives and manuscripts, Pitts staff are currently working to update the archives’ inventory. Wason expects the list of contents, called a “finding aid,” to be available online by mid-May. At that point, the archives will be available to visitors who visit the library in person; digitization of materials has begun, but will take several years to complete.

As the archives are digitized, SBL’s Kutsko expects the contents to become primary sources for scholars and students to reflect on the evolution of an ancient, interdisciplinary field.

“I personally look forward to many hours in the archives’ new state-of-the-art home, and I will be encouraging scholars all over the world to make a research pilgrimage to it, either online or in person.” 

To access the list of contents of the SBL archives, visit Pitts’ Archives and Manuscripts search page after mid-May. To view the archives in person, make an appointment to visit Pitts’ Special Collections Reading Room here

Top photo: Adams and Wason examine a box from the SBL archives. Photo by Debra Madera.