Emanuel Pfoh – Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (Introduction)

While I am on vacation this weekend, and since we recently sent our imprimatur to the publisher for our own book project (so I no longer have any pressing matters or deadlines), I thought I should catch up on book reviews (since muses never sleep nor do they take vacations, it seems).  Emanuel Pfoh was goodly enough to send over a copy of his edited collection of essays Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (Biblical Intersections 3; Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2010), and since he is a friend, I decided what better place to start?  (Plus, I do have a soft spot for Gorgias Press)

The table of contents can be found listed here (earlier blog post); in a nut-shell, the book contains seven contributions plus an introduction and is broken up into three sections (Method, Criticism, and Case Studies, respectively).  I will start with the introduction and then review each of the three sections individually (rather than by contributor) and write up a final conclusion of the book as a whole when I complete the reviews of the sections.

My initial impression of the book was one of hope; overall the use of sociology and anthropology in Biblical Studies is a mixed bag.  Some sociological studies are quite good (like those by Erich Gruen or John M.G. Barclay) but these tend to focus on periods of time rather than Biblical Studies as a whole (Barclay’s work on Jews in the Diaspora primarily centers on the Hellenistic through Roman periods and Gruen’s work centers on the Hellenistic period).   And these are also about more documented periods in time, wherein we can better gauge the social conflict, the varying types of assimilation, things that might not be so easy to determine from Biblical literature (and in much of these works, pseudepigrapha and inscriptions make up a large portion of their case studies).  Pfoh and his contributors have done a fantastic job of attempting to challenge the status quo in Biblical Studies with the use (and abuse) of sociology and anthropology.

Pfoh writes:

Although some social anthropologists … attempted some work on a sound anthropological comprehension of Biblical images, myths and depicted practices, … and cared little for issues of historicity, in general sociological and anthropological approaches and proper social-scientific criticism of the Old Testament have usually aimed at strengthening a not usually disputed historical image of ancient Israel.  In other words, these approaches have often taken for granted the historicity of many biblical figures, events and socio-historical processes … and proposed anthropological, sociological and/or socio-scientific explanations for realities depending more on ancient stories but hardly confirmed by independent archaeological or historical work.

I believe this is quite telling of the general thrust of the collection of essays.  Pfoh also writes (astutely):

My point is that historical reconstructions have been based on an acceptance of the biblical narrative’s ‘historical’ plot and supplemented with socio-anthropological insights.  But the real critical attempt would be to see how anthropology and sociology can modify and enhance our representations of Israel’s historical past without relying or depending slavishly on the Bible’s depictions.

Overall the introduction, as short as it might seen, is packed with reasons to critically examine not only anthropological and sociological roles in the study of the Biblical narratives, but also in their application, that is to say, specifically how and why they might be applied.  His words trace the usefulness of earlier attempts while gently nodding towards the flaw of starting from a presupposition of historicity rather than upon the evidence and where it may lay.  Overall, I am pleased with the production and I believe the route Pfoh has decided to take will make for a fascinating read.  I look forward to the positions laid out in the actual meat of the book.  More to come as I explore it further.

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One Response

  1. New Testament studies are long overdue for a major paradigm shift: from Q-Theory based Historicism, to Mythicism. And to help this, the New Mythicists need to be aware of considerable support, from the well-established academic subdisciplines, of “Mythography” and Folkloristics. Phoh’s chapter in “Is This the Carpenter” begins to help make this clear.

    As I note in a recent letter to the blog site Vridar: “Mythicism, the application of Mythography to the New Testament, was on its way – until a few decades ago. When Fundamentalist “scholars” discovered that it was all too convenient, politically, to advocate an Historical Jesus. A position that allowed scholars to appear to be pious enough; appearing to acknowledge at least that “Jesus is real.” Even as however a scholar could allegedly be almost as critical as one would want to be, about exactly who and what that Jesus was like.

    Historicism in fact has predominated in religious study in recent decades for several different reasons. Not only was it 1) politically convenient in an era of “New Evangelism”; 2) the view that “Jesus” came entirely from the Old Testament and its God – was constantly supported in churches in effect, by traditional “harmonizising” sermons. Sermons that were always at pains to “prove” that Jesus and Christianity were absolutely true, loyal, to the Old Testament god. While any contrary hint that Jesus came, to a significant degree, from Greco-Roman Platonism and Philo say, seemed to show Jesus being impious, and disloyal to Judaism.

    There have therefore been many cultural biases at work, to ensure the temporary “triumph” of Historicism in religious study. Among other forces,3) the decline of Classics departments in most universities, helped to leave New Testament Studies with no serious cross-cultural information on Greco Roman culture; and created the ethnocentric, provincial “Wholly Jewish Jesus.” A view which was able to ignore all cross-cultural influences from especially, Greco-Roman culture, thanks to the simple fact that Classics departments were being dissolved all over the United States and overseas.

    Recently however, historicist Old Testament studies at least, recently underwent a challenge from the Copenhagen School of Thom Thompson and others – like Pfoh – and their “minimalist” school. This school at last seriously challenged the historicity of at least. the Old Testament. While this school can help the resurgence of New Testament study. Of a New Testament study that finally is properly based not on problematic and even naive assumptions of the historicity of Jesus. But that finds that “Jesus” makes far, far more sense, when correlated, cross-referenced to, the various cultural beliefs and myths of Greco-Roman and ANE culture.

    But to accomplish this, Mythicists need to be aware to three forces working against them: 1) the political convenience of Historicism; 2) the convenient interface with traditional conservative harmonizations; that asserted that Jesus was totally loyal to the OT and its god, and that Jesus was Wholly Jewish. And we need to be aware of 3) the decline of Classic departments – and any and all awareness of ties between Christianity and Greco-Roman culture and myths. Which left hundreds of earlier classic references to Greco-Roman, Platonistic Jews like Philo, looking stranded and anomalous In spite of efforts of recent scholars like Earl Doherty to re-link Christianity to Neo-Platonism.”

    Pfoh’s efforts though, can help New Testament studies remember the importance, after all, of Greco-Roman influence, and myths, on New Testament Christianity.

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