Saturday, January 20, 2007 

"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.

Thursday, January 18, 2007 

"The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology": Introduction

I have to confess that in the past I have been reluctant to read anything by the aptly named "context-group" of scholars. I think this has been partly due to my bad experience with Crossan's The Historical Jesus in which he utilizes the cultural anthropological features of the 1st century Mediterranean environment as his controlling paradigm for his reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Admittedly, Crossan's abuse of sociological and anthropological models for his historical Jesus investigation left a bitter taste in my mouth for such "context" approaches.

However, since entering the biblioblogosphere, I have softened my stance significantly on context writings. The blogs of Loren Rosson and James Crossley in particular have been most helpful in this development. I must say that I have benefited greatly from the sociological and anthropological insights of both men. Additionally, Loren has repeatedly alerted his readers to the works of such erudite context scholars as Philip Esler and Crossley has written a book on Christian Origins from a socio-contextual perspective of which he has been summarizing on his blog (first post here and book available here). But I still needed a further impetus to get me to read some actual context works. This final impetus had its origin in a strange place, namely, The Travel Channel. The Travel Channel has a new show that premiered last Sunday called "Living with the Kombai" which basically is about two Westerns who attempt to live among an isolated group of people known as the Kombai from West Paupa. For some reason, witnessing the vast cultural gap between these men and the Kombai prompted the desire in me to finally begin reading more "context" works.

And so I am beginning by reading a book that has been sitting on my shelf awhile entitled The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce J. Malina. It is as a good place to start as any since it is written principally as introductory material. In the coming posts I hope to provide an adequate review of the work plus any additional reflections and/or insights that I may acquire on my way to completion of this book.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007 

LXX Scholars of Old

One of the books that I have been reading lately is Invitation to the Septuagint by scholars Karen Jobes and Moises Silva. It has been on the whole an enjoyable read. The first half of the book caters towards readers who have little or no knowledge of the LXX while the latter half is intended for students (and scholars) more familiar with Septuagintal studies and who possess at least an intermediate reading level of Greek and Hebrew. (For my own part I could not completely finish the chapter entitled "Interpreting the Septuagint" because my reading knowledge of Hebrew and Greek was not on par with this section.)

However, I do not wish here to engage in a book review principally because my language skills are not such that I feel qualified to do so. But I do want to say a word about the chapter entitled "Our Predecessors: Septuagint Scholars of a Previous Generation". As the title indicates this chapter is devoted to briefly examining the important contributions of various scholars of old to LXX studies. In fact, the current state of LXX work would not exist had it not been for the intellectual efforts of these men as the authors note:

"this chapter introduces some of the prominent scholars who have set the agenda for LXX studies and on whose work the discipline still stands" (239).

The scholars discussed include Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf:known especially for his important collection (and collation) of manuscripts, especially one of the most important for NT textual criticism, namely, Codex Sinaiticus; Edwin Hatch: produced (along with Henry Redpath) a still widely used concordance for the LXX; Paul A. de Largarde: considered by many to be the father of modern LXX textual criticism principally due to his invaluable work on the Greek text of Proverbs and Genesis; Alfred Rahlfs: a student of Lagarde who took up the mantle of finishing the work his mentor left incomplete by reconstructing a LXX text based on the unicals B, S, and A; Max Leopold Margolis: a Jewish scholar who devoted his entire scholarly life to a reconstruction of the orginal Greek text for the Book of Joshua.

The thing that is most impressive about these scholars is their philological skills. For instance, Lagarde in his lifetime published works in Latin, Syrian, Babylonian, Arabic, Coptic, Persian, and Armenian while Margolis wrote his entire dissertation in Latin on the textual criticism of the Jewish Talmud! At the least, most of these scholars had an excellent reading knowledge of four or five ancient languages. To be sure, many of them already had acquired a working knowledge of Greek and Latin from secondary school, something the school systems here obviously lack. Nonetheless, these scholars knowledge of ancient languages would readily put many of us to shame. I must admit that upon reading this chapter I became a bit depressed. It forced me to realize just how little philological skills I possess in comparison with these erudite scholars of old.


Hit Counter
Free Web Counter />