"The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology": Part 1
Introduction: Bible Study and Cultural Anthropology
Malina's introductory chapter is divided into three sections. For the first section, Malina's concern is to emphasize to the recent student of biblical studies the nature of the cultural gap between us and the 1st century Mediterranean world. Malina makes many observations towards achieving this goal but perhaps one of his more important statements in this regard is the following:
"Perhaps the first and largest step that a contemporary American can take toward understanding the Bible is to realize that in reading the Bible in English (or even Greek), we are in fact listening to the words of a transplanted group of foreigners. It takes only the ability to read to find out what these foreigners are saying, but it takes far more to find out what they mean." (NTW, 2)
The notion of the interpreter's role as akin to eavesdropping on a group of foreigners is consistently used by Malina throughout the book. It is, I think, a useful metaphor which highlights the cultural gap between interpreter(s) and ancient text. But Malina's point here is a fairly simple one. In order for one to completely understand a text one must ascertain what it means. In other words, knowing what a text says and what a text means can be two different things. One can know what a text says but still not fully grasp its meaning. To highlight this feature, one of the examples Malina provides is Mt 19: 12 which says:
"For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by other people, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."
Malina notes concerning this passage that,
" the author of Matthew's Gospel speaks of eunuchs, for example, can be easily verified. That the word "eunuch" refers to a castrated male can also be easily verified. But why the reference to a castrated male? What does being called a eunuch mean to a first-century Palestinian man? What does it mean in terms of male social roles and values? How can a person in contemporary America find out such information relative to the first-century Mediterranean world?" (2)
It is the answer to the last question that indicates the essential purpose of the book which is "to explain how we might retrieve such information" (2). Malina then spends the next several pages elucidating this purpose further. Malina's concluding point(s) in this section concerns how modern biblical commentators tend to focus on literary analysis of texts which include the what, when, where, and historical how questions but exclude the why question (6). And it is precisely this why question which socio-cultural approaches seek to answer. The conclusion then is that the type of "context" approach which Malina is advocating is requisite for the bible student if he is to properly understand an ancient text or people.
The next section looks at some of the essential presuppositions behind the book. The first presupposition Malina tackles is epistemological in nature. Malina observes that knowledge about others, as well as ourselves, can be divided into three distinct types:
1. awareness knowledge or "that" knowledge-this primarily involves information about something or someone.
2. usable knowledge or "how to" knowledge-chiefly concerns the kind of information that is necessary in order to properly engage with something or someone.
3. principle knowledge or "why" knowledge- this is "information about cultural scripts and cues, about the cultural models behind the applicable facts" (7). In other words, it concerns the overall or big picture; the totality of cultural experiences.
The second major presupposition which Malina discusses is perhaps the most important one. This presupposition can be summarized as follows: "All human beings are entirely the same, entirely different, and somewhat the same and somewhat different at the same time" (7). The first part of this presupposition focuses on the similarities possessed by all cultures and correlates to what we call "nature" which Malina suggests is "all that exists apart from purposeful, willful human influence" (8). This would include regular patterns of similarity in nature (e.g., laws) that human beings cannot change. The second part of the presupposition focuses one's direction on the uniqueness of individuals. That is to say, no two people are alike and each individual "lives out their stories in unique fashion" (8). Furthermore, this second aspect of the presupposition corresponds to what we would call "person". Now, the third part of the presupposition examines the relatedness or "interplay of similarities and differences within human communities" (8). Not surprisingly then, this part of the presupposition corresponds to "culture". And by culture, Malina means:
"an organized system of symbols by which persons, things, and events are endowed with rather specific and socially shared meanings, feelings, and values." (9)
Recognizing and appropriating these presuppositions into one's studies of ancient texts and cultures is vital according to Malina in order to insure that one does not engage in misinterpretation which occurs when the interpreter makes his or her own cultural story normative for all of human nature. Therefore, these presuppositions are essential in that they force the interpreter to acknowledge the cultural gap between them and the text or culture they are studying.
The last section of this introductory chapter is rather long and chiefly involves attempting to define "culture" more precisely (pp 11-17). Once Malina has established more clearly what he intends by the word "culture" he then proceeds to discuss the three different kinds of models that are often employed in cultural studies. They are as follows:
1. Structural functionalism- this model "pictures social systems as the result of consensual obligation, with people freely choosing to oblige themselves in a certain way." (20) In this model there is a sense of cooperation by the members of societies in the development and maintenance of their respective cultures. Also, this model emphasizes the stability and "well-integrated structure" of societal reality.
2. Conflict theory- this model is the opposite of the above model because it indicates that societal systems are chiefly set up my means of "coercive tactics" in order to protect "the distinctive interests of its members." (20) In other words, it is not consensual obligation that holds a system together but coercion or force. Furthermore, because of this factor this type of model tends to understand two particular aspects of society as that of conflict and change.
3. Symbolic-this model examines the nature of how symbols function in society in the assigning of meaning and value to a culture. Malina insists further that the symbols of a society are not limited to concrete objects alone but include "the self, others, nature, time, space, and the All (God)" )(22). Thus, one can learn much about how a culture functions by examining its use of symbolic appropriations and how these operate in investing meaning into a society's world.
Malina then concludes this section by emphasizing that the best approach is to utilize all three models while acknowledging that they are models which means they are at best abstract generalizations that can never give us the entire story of a culture. Nevertheless, it is the preferred approach to take and Malina concludes the introductory chapter by stating that the rest of the book will follow these three models which have as their foundation the very important axiom that "all human beings are entirely the same, entirely different, and somewhat the same and somewhat different at the same time." (24)
Next time we will look at chapters 1 and 2.