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.
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.