ISBL 2019 in Rome: Photoessay

Words and photography by Tavis Bohlinger; shot on Hasselblad.

There were few good excuses for any scholar in the EU to miss ISBL this year (the annual international conference of the Society of Biblical Literature), simply because the conference was held in Rome. What better location for a conference on biblical studies than the geographical center of historical Christianity? Furthermore, the event itself was held at one of the key training centers for Roman Catholic clergy and teachers in this iconic city, the Pontificial Gregorian University, a beautiful location in the heart of Rome’s main attractions.

But, if you missed ISBL in Rome this year, then we offer you here an insider’s glimpse into the specialness of the event and the grandeur of the city through the following photoessay. To see just how broad the scope of ISBL is when it comes to biblical studies, make sure to take a look at the Programme for the 2019 conference.

I have attended ISBL for half a decade now, and can say with full conviction that you won’t want to miss next year’s event, which is being held at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Start working on your proposal(s) now, as the call for papers will come sometime this Autumn.


The entrance to the Pontifical Gregorian University (hereafter PGU), where the conference presentations took place and where the exhibitor hall was located.
Looking out from the entrance to the University, one can see the Pont Instituto library across a sun-exposed square.
The Pont Instituto Biblico was a favourite retreat for some conference participants, due party to the fact that there was air conditioning in the top floors.
Another entrance to the library located on the ground floor.
The impressive main hall of the PGU, where registration and much conversation took place.
The exhibit hall was located in the basement, as were many of the lecture rooms, but this was a welcome location due to the air conditioning; temperatures outdoors hovered around 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.
A delegate peruses books for sale at the Sheffield booth.
The Brill table is visited by a conference participant.
The always-sharp Logos booth, where many questions were answered and many happy customers flocked (no, it wasn’t empty during the conference; we had two people there at all times).
The exhibit hall, as always, is a scholar’s feast.
The latest books and the best-selling classics are usually brought to the major conferences by the most esteemed academic publishers in the world.
The architecture of the University mirrored that of the city around it.
Roman architecture spans centuries of history, and around every corner is another exercise in form and structure.
The Italian flag waves proudly over the Biblioteca dell’Istituto Nazionale per l’Assicurazione Contro Gli Infortuni sul Lavoro, just down the street from the PGU.
The PGU seen from the Pontifical Institute library.
Trajan’s Column standing proud in the sun, just a block away from the PGU.
Yes, during breaks, espresso was served by veteran Italian baristas dressed in white jackets with gold shoulder lapels. What else would you expect in Rome?
A delegate’s Bible lays open during a break in the schedule.
We visited the Coliseum early one morning, and were rewarded with a stunning sunrise on the upper tranches of the ancient structure.
The contrast between old and new was evident everywhere in Rome; this is a section of the Coliseum foregrounded by a city bus.
The early morning sun paints the upper third of the Coliseum in warm light, just as it did thousands of years ago.
Looking at this ancient structure built for mass entertainment, it was hard not to image walking through these corridors so long ago, and the many types of people one might have encountered then.
The ancient stone monolith stands flanked by temporary structures of steel.
The Arch of Constantine, standing adjacent to the Coliseum, is an impressive structure both in size and aesthetic beauty; it is a beauty of power and prestige etched in cold stone.
We were fortunate enough to manage a visit to the Vatican City, just a 20-minute walk from the University. Here nuns walk towards St Peter’s Basilica on their way to evening Mass.
St Peter himself stands watch over the massive square leading up to the Basilica, which is the largest basilica of Christianity in the world.
The inside of St Peter’s was impressive beyond words, and outclassed what even a Hasselblad can capture.
Light streams through one of the many windows under the dome of St Peter’s.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s “Dove of the Holy Spirit” stained glass window sits in the middle of the far wall of St Peter’s.
Cherubs smile from every wall of St Peter’s, lending a note of joy to surroundings often heavy with reverent grandeur.
Paintings of biblical scenes can be seen through the massive obelisk which stands at the center of St Peter’s under its massive dome. Note the Holy Spirit as a dove in the middle of the obelisk’s roof.
A cherub is illuminated by the sun as it falls behind the horizon.
Buddhist monks take pictures of one another outside in the massive Piazza San Pietro.
The facade of St Peter’s is almost beyond description, impressing the pilgrim with a sense of gravity, awe, and reverence.
Yes, we did go to some papers, despite the draw of seeing as much of Rome as possible. Here is Gregory Lamb (SBTS) giving a robust paper on “Pauline Pneumatology in Philippians: Redemption, Fellowship, and Service” in the Paul and Pauline Literature section covering 1 Corinthians and Philippians.
I chaired the Paul and Pauline Literature session covering the Deutero-Pauline Letters on behalf of the Rev Dr LIM Kar Yong (Seminari Theoloji Malaysia). Here is Gustaf W. Henriksson (Göteborgs Universitet) presenting his paper on
“A Raising Grace,” which looked at Paul’s gift language in Titus and its connection to paideia.
Also in my session, Bruna Velcic (Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome), presented an intriguing paper on “Nuptial Imagery and the Bridegroom: Bride Metaphor in Eph 5:21–33; A Reconsideration,” which challenged some recent interpretations of this contentious section of the letter.
The third paper we heard was by Nikolaos Amanatidis (Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen), with his paper entitled, “Coming to Knowledge through the Hearing of the Truth: Interpretative Approaches to Col 1:3–8,” another example of fine exegesis in our section.
After chairing the Paul sessions and manning the Logos booth for the day, it was time to move outside again into the brutal heat. But the incredible architecture surrounding the library was reason enough to sweat it out.
Every alleyway presented another example of modern life amongst previous generations’ building design.
Rome has a charm all her own that finds its source in a desire to hold on to the things of the past, and thus watch them beautify with age; even peeling paint is a source of pride.
The main form of transport in Rome is also one of Italy’s most endearing exports.
Space is limited in the City of Seven Hills, so older structures are coupled to newer in an oftentimes absurd marriage of textiles and colours.
There is no end to restoration projects in Rome, as though the city herself were continually trying to heal wounds self-inflicted.
Every alley is a thumbprint of the city; so similar to every other, yet entirely unique in its own way.
The Parrocchia Santa Maria in Vallicella, an unmissable landmark on the walk to the Vatican City.
One of these is not exactly like the others; seen on the street walking back from St Peter’s.
A small chapel near our AirBnB (and the best local restaurant in Rome), the Chiesa di Santa Maria ai Monti.
Even as the sun sets in Rome, the people here continue to exude life through motion; Rome sleeps only a little, and moves much.
The Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore at dusk.
The Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore bejewelled by reflections from windows in the plaza surrounding her.
The south-eastern side of the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore was resplendent in golden rays cast by the departing sun.
The Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) is an arresting sight at dusk.
The Altar of the Fatherland seen through the ancient columns of the Roman Forum.
Rome is perhaps at her prettiest when the scorching summer sun gets tired and softens the intensity of his rays on his way to the horizon.
The cooler nights bring out a livelier side of Rome, evident in the tables spilling out into every alleyway from little cafés hidden in the walls during the day. Rome is at her best in these magical hours.
The sun finally having given up its assault on Caput Mundi (at least for today), the ancient basilicas scattered across the city sit in repose like dark sentries keeping watch over the souls of the saints young and old.
Departing Rome was a bittersweet experience, although the intense heat made us long for the cooler climate of England.
After just a short 2 hours of flight time, we caught Sulis as she waned over the British coast.
As we descended to Heathrow, Sulis flung her last rays of rust-colored light up against dark clouds over London.

Thanks for joining us on this visual journey. Stay tuned for more European conference adventures, as we travel to Aberdeen, Scotland for IOSOT and Warsaw, Poland for EABS this August.

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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger