Monday, June 22, 2020

Understanding the Science of Biblical Anthropology

Standing stones at the Gezer "high place" in Israel.
(Photo: Dennis Cole)

Alice C. Linsley

The science of Biblical Anthropology is relatively new. It has been developing over the past 40 years and is now producing mature fruit in the form of academic papers, documented blog posts, and group conversations.

Biblical Anthropology is an empirical approach to the biblical texts. Reading Scripture through the lens of cultural anthropology is rigorous because no assumption can stand untested, and no assertion can be made without data.

The 66 canonical books of the Bible are the primary resource for Biblical anthropologists. Biblical archaeologists dig artifacts to better understand the material culture of peoples who lived in the Holy Land. Likewise, Biblical Anthropologists dig anthropologically significant data out of the pages of the Bible to better understand the many biblical populations.

Anthropologists are interested in material culture. We want to know what people made and what materials they used in daily life and in ceremonies. What tools did they use? We explore their beliefs about life after death by investigating burial practices. We want to understand what the different peoples believed about the creation of the world so we examine their creation and origin stories. We want to know how they organized for war, and where the rulers derived their authority. What was the social structure of the biblical Hebrew?

Biblical anthropology also traces the antecedents of practices and beliefs to shed light on why things were done, not simply how they were done. Uncovering antecedents is a central task of Biblical Anthropology. Where did the idea originate that humans were created from the soil? What is the origin of Messianic expectation? Where is the oldest known site of Hebrew worship? What is the significance of the prevalent solar symbolism among biblical populations?

Culture traits, ceremonies, rituals, and religious beliefs do not spring suddenly into existence. They develop organically over time from traditions received from the ancestors. Biblical anthropology provides tested methods and tools to push back the veil of time, to uncover anthropologically significant data that clarifies precedents, etiology, and context.

The discoveries made in Biblical Anthropology prove helpful to anthropology students, academics, clergy, historians, and ethnographers. They dispel false and racist notions. Kinship analysis of the king lists in Genesis 4 and 5 make it clear that these rulers are not the first people living on Earth. Bishop Ussher's timeline is not a reliable way to calculate Earth's age. All the peoples of the Earth did not come from Noah’s three sons. Ham, Shem and Japheth do not represent three races. Skin color and linguistic diversity are not the result of God’s judgment at the Tower of Babel.

After 40 years of pioneering this field, I am sad to say that Biblical Anthropology still is not recognized as a legitimate science, and there are few who are able to contribute to the research. In the hope that more would engage in this work, I set forth the most basic principles of Biblical Anthropology.

Guiding Principles of Biblical Anthropology

These six principles shape the work of Biblical Anthropology.

1. Immersion in the context: Understanding traits of a given culture by viewing them in their own context. For biblical anthropologists this involves immersion in the biblical texts to understand the culture traits of biblical populations. Every person aspiring to do this work should begin by reading the 66 books of the Bible at least 3 times, using different translations. Translations based on the Septuagint (LXX), the Masoretic Text (MT), and the Vulgate do not agree in every detail. The differences are significant.

Biblical narratives are connected to place and time, to environmental conditions, to the rising of rivers, the hewing of local stone, to the expansion of herds, and the threshing of wheat. The narratives speak to us from behind the veil of antiquity, revealing the world of our ancestors.

A good knowledge of the canonical books is necessary to see recurring themes and patterns such as the prevalence of solar symbolism and the consistent marriage and ascendancy pattern of the Hebrew rulers.

2. Impartial observation: Viewing another culture on its own terms as much as possible. Science requires objectivity. In this work, personal preferences and moral judgments are withheld. It is important to know that the Hebrew ruler-priests had two wives. We neither condone nor condemn polygyny.

We do not impose denominational interpretations on the text. The Bible is not used to attack an opponent. Proof texting is forbidden. We do not impose the "Five Solas" of the Reformation on the Bible. We do not view the Bible through the lens of Dispensationalism. We do not use the Bible to support an agenda.

We recognize and accept contextual incongruities as evidence that the biblical texts represent different sources and different times in history.

3. Cross-cultural perspective: Investigating how cultures are interconnected globally. For Biblical Anthropology this requires investigation of the ways in which biblical populations were related, how they influenced one another, and how they dispersed globally.

We correlate the biblical data with DNA studies, linguistics, migration and climate studies, historical records, ancient texts, and archaeology.

4. Holism: Looking at how the parts of a cultural system interrelate. Cultures are like woven fabric. There are many threads and the patterns are often complex. Investigation of the individual threads is necessary if we want to see the whole fabric. Studying particulars comes before conclusions about universals. This method makes it possible to state facts and avoid opinions.

In Biblical Anthropology the most basic threads are those that pertain to family and clan. That is why kinship analysis is the first tool of Biblical Anthropology. Kinship analysis clarifies the historicity of Adam and the rulers of Genesis 4, 5, 10, 11, 25 and 36. It dispels notions of incest that are contrary to the marriage laws of the ancient Hebrew. It clarifies familial and clan relationships. Analysis of the marriage and ascendancy of the biblical Hebrew reveals the continuity of tradition from Adam to Moses and from Moses to Jesus' family.

5. Meticulous dating: To avoid anachronisms and conflation of data, biblical anthropologists must develop a rigorously accurate timeline. For example, we must not confuse the religion of Judaism with the religion of the ancient Hebrews. Even Jews recognize that what Abraham believed and what is believed by Jews today are not the same.

Rabbi Stephen F. Wise, former Chief Rabbi of the United States, explains: "The return from Babylon and the introduction of the Babylonian Talmud mark the end of Hebrewism and the beginning of Judaism.” The Talmud is the primary authority for Jews because it shapes their ethnic identity.

4400 year texts speak of the Hebrew ruler-priest caste. In ancient Akkadian the caste was called "Abrutu" from the word abru, meaning priest. The Hebrew were established in Africa, Southern Europe, the Levant, and Mesopotamia 1800+ years before Judaism.

6. Assessing antiquity: In general, it is true that the more geographically widespread a culture trait the older it is. The 100,000-year custom of red ocher burial is an example. It indicates that the hope of life after death among archaic humans was associated with a symbolic blood covering.

Related reading: Abraham's Faith Lives in Christianity; Biblical Anthropology is the Work of Christians; Pursuing Truth as Persons of FaithINDEX of Topics 


  1. This is an interesting and excellent description of Biblical Anthropology and makes me want to learn more of the skills necessary to study the field properly and accurately.

  2. Fred, the key discipline is kinship analysis. Anyone can learn to diagram and analyze the kinship data in Genesis to discover the marriage and ascendancy pattern of the early Hebrew ruler-priests. The positive aspect of this is that the results of the analysis are always the same if the diagrams are done properly. Given a little direction, anyone can do the diagrams and discover the same information. In science, repeatable results are the only way to verify the truth.


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