Sunday, January 7, 2024

Think like a biblical anthropologist!


Painted burial linen from a grave in Gebelein, Naqada IIa-b (c. 3600 BC). 
Museo Egizio, Turin.

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Readers of this blog are encouraged to become familiar with the data seeking, empirical approach of Biblical Anthropology. Here we dig data out of the 66 canonical books. We read these texts through the lens of anthropology which means we want to know about kinship patterns, social hierarchies, castes, burial practices, sacred symbols, artifacts of biblical populations, and religious beliefs.

Biblical anthropologists consider extra-biblical texts such as the deuterocanonical books and rabbinic interpretations. These texts do contain valuable anthropological and historical information. However, these are not our primary sources.

This discipline is not about promoting private or denominational positions. We do not cherry pick favorite verses and use them to proof-text an argument or theological position. Theology is not the first concern of Biblical Anthropology.

To those steeped in the mindset of "the plain meaning of Scripture" it might sound as if we were promoting strange teachings. There is nothing "plain" about the canonical Scriptures. They are dense, multi-layered, tightly woven, and provocative. They require intense study and close reading with great attention to details. This should be especially true for those who claim Scripture as their first authority (prima scriptura). 

We are heirs to the empiricism of the twentieth century and we can legitimately draw on that heritage when investigating the Scriptures as objectively as possible. We may approach the Bible less polemically than past generations. We can understand difficult passages because of the work of learned Bible scholars, textual criticism, biblical archaeology, biblical anthropology, and the study of biblical languages and biblical populations. Today the available “ordinary means” of understanding the Bible are vastly greater and more diverse than in the past.

Archaeology in the Bible lands is "Biblical Archaeology" and the science of anthropology pertaining to the widely dispersed Biblical populations is "Biblical Anthropology". Biblical anthropology should not be confused with theological anthropology.

Anthropologists are interested in material culture. We want to know what people made, what materials were used, and how they made and used tools. We are curious about the objects they used in daily life. How did they bury their dead? Who were the heroes of the target population? Where did the rulers derive their authority? What culture traits made their population distinctive? How did they organize for war? What did they believe about the creation of the world?

A central task of Biblical Anthropology is to uncover antecedents. 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 draw back the veil of time, to uncover anthropologically significant data that clarifies precedents, etiology, and earlier contexts. There always is something coming before what is described that helps to explain the events recounted. The deeper we dig, the farther back in time we go. A custom such as burial in red ocher, with a duration of at least 100,000 years, is of particular interest to biblical anthropologists.

David Noel Freedman said: “The Hebrew Bible is the one artifact from antiquity that not only maintained its integrity but continues to have a vital, powerful effect thousands of years later.” 

Both anthropologists and archaeologists turn to the Bible for data and clues. This often has led to wonderful discoveries! Your help is needed to advance the science of Biblical Anthropology. You don't need a degree. You need to think about the Bible as containing "all things necessary for salvation", guidance for gaining wisdom, and the data necessary for understanding the people of faith from whom we received these texts.

Finally, comments at this blog are always welcome and most are approved. Especially welcome are well-considered, well-informed comments that are backed up by data (not opinions) from the Bible.

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