Anthropologizing the Bible

Wouldn’t it be great if some really astute people trawled the web every day in search of the best writing? It is in fact great and it’s being done by the good folks over at The Browser. If you haven’t visited, Robert Cottrell provides some background in this piece. As if all this weren’t enough, The Browser has a sister website, Five Books, that is an embarrassment of riches. While these sites are free, we can support them either by donating one dollar per month or buying recommended books through their Amazon links.

While rummaging Five Books yesterday, I found this interview with Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western. It’s a fascinating discussion of bibles in all their varieties, some of which were new to me. After recounting the basic textual and interpretative issues that have always surrounded (and problematized) biblical writings, he discusses The Woman’s Bible:

This was an historic breakthrough in biblical scholarship. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the great women’s rights activist, was the main editor. It’s a commentary on the Bible from a feminist perspective, published over a century ago and produced by women biblical scholars of the time. Its contributors were a small voice in the academic world and this brought their voices together. More than any other text on the oppression of women, this work had a profound influence.

The contributors re-read the biblical texts in ways that detach them from sexist and patriarchal interpretation. For example, Eve is seen as the mother of wisdom. She’s the first to be curious because, as the text says, she saw that the apple was good to eat and would make her wise. Adam, of course, just takes and eats: he doesn’t need a reason.

I discovered this Bible while working on the book of Esther. The way these women read that text, especially the character of Vashti, is quite profound. Vashti is the queen who Esther replaces. She’s essentially described as the first feminist, refusing to be ogled by the king and his friends at their big drinking party. She exposes their patriarchal insecurities.

The Woman’s Bible tackles many other passages, such as the one that says women should be silent in church, and undermines their use. In the New Testament, Paul interacts with Junia, an apostle in the church, and a couple, Priscilla and Aquila, who were Christian missionaries. The Bible acknowledges that authoritative leaders of the early church included women. A hundred years on, it’s still well worth reading.

For those (like me) who don’t have any stake in biblical or theological debates, this sounds stimulating. Over the past year, I’ve been playing with a roughly similar idea as a book project.

As I envision the project, I would read the biblical writings in serial order and then respond to, analyze, or frame them using four-field anthropological knowledge and techniques. Though I have read the bible several times in the past, I’ve not gone back to it since being trained in anthropology. I can see my reactions to it now being much different than they were in the past.

After reading each book, I would decide on an approach (i.e., evolutionary, archaeological, linguistic, biological, structural, comparative, etc.) that sheds new or unusual light on something and then write it. The resulting series of essays would be eclectic and hopefully stimulating in a way that demonstrates the analytical power and richness of four-field anthropology. This idea came to me last year while reading John Flight’s classic 1923 article “The Nomadic Idea and Ideal in the Old Testament” (it is behind a paywall but if you send an email, I’ll be happy to share).

We can’t leave this fallow field to people like the author of The Bible, Anthropology, and the Ancient Caveman: A Plausible Theory for Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, who summarizes her study as follows:

Matthew 24:37 reads as follows: “But as the days of Noe were, so shall the coming of the Son of man be” One of the biggest hoaxes in history is the theory of evolution! God created man in His image, so why are there bones that show evidence of manlike beasts? Is there any plausible explanation for caveman? The answer is yes! There is a powerful link between the ancient Antediluvian scientists and the scientists of today. The Bible tells us that the last days will be like the days of Noah. Were cavemen real? If they were real, did God create them? Can an animal pass along human DNA? Is there any link between racism, biological classification, and evolution? Through a variety of brain-based activities, this guide will break down the biblical principles and the related scientific concepts. Both students and adults will garner a deeper understanding of science as it relates to the Bible.


These questions aside, it’s interesting to note that Professor Beal was “raised as an evangelical Christian.” His compatriot in critical-biblical or philological crime, Professor Bart Ehrman, was also raised an evangelical Christian. So was I.

There must be something about evangelical upbringings that leads to apostatism and academics. I’m not sure what.


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2 thoughts on “Anthropologizing the Bible

  1. Ernest Valdemar (@ErnestValdemar)

    I would welcome the project you’re considering. Would this be blogging project or something you plan to publish traditionally?

    One tantalizing question I have about the Bible: The ancient Hebrews were surrounded by people who could be described as almost-but-not-quite-Jews. That is, there were people who worshiped Yahweh as one of many gods, there were people who acknowledged Yahweh only as a demiurge, and instead had beliefs based around angels, there were people who acknowledged the monotheistic God of Abraham, but rejected the kingship of Jerusalem and temple worship, etc. And all these western Mediterranean people existed as part of larger sacrificial religious continuum that stretched across North Africa, Western Asia, Southern Europe, and beyond.

    I find that a lot of the Old Testament, especially the contradictory or nonsensical stuff, makes the most sense when viewed as an attempt by the ancient Jews to establish a political identity that sets them apart from their nearest neighbors. OTOH, the historical and archeological record we have of Semitic Paganism is sketchy at best, so I’m not sure how thoroughly this kind of contextualization could be done.

  2. Maureen Lycaon

    I think that’s a promising idea for a book project. Sorry I don’t have anything more clever to say in response.

    Would you be making any reference to Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? It’s fairly high on my massive list of future reading.

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