Thursday, November 5, 2015

Why Biblical Anthropology?

Alice C. Linsley

Biblical anthropology seeks to understand antecedents and explores the beliefs of Abraham's cattle-herding Nilo-Saharan ancestors. Until we better understand their beliefs and religious practices we will continue to impose incorrect or inadequate interpretations on the Bible.

David Noel Freedman has 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 clues and data. Very often this has led to wonderful discoveries!

The material in the Bible clearly has been divinely superintended through thousands of years. It contains material older than the first civilizations of the ancient Near East. The king lists of Genesis 4 and 5 are an example. Anthropological analysis of the kinship pattern of these ruler-priest lines has shown them to be authentic. The kinship pattern is unique and does not appear to change throughout the Bible. The evidence of this distinctive marriage and ascendancy could not have been written back into the texts at a later date. It is the thread that weaves through the Bible, like a scarlet cord, from beginning to end. Further, understanding this marriage and ascendancy pattern is essential for a biblical understanding of Jesus, the Son of God, as the fulfillment of Messianic expectation. He is a descendant of the earliest named rulers to whom the Creator made a promise concerning the divine Seed (Gen. 3:15). Jesus referred to Himself as the promised "Seed" when He foretold his death in Jerusalem. He said, "Unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot give life." (John 12:24)

Jesus' ancestors were the "mighty men of old" and great kingdom builders who dispersed widely in the archaic world. They were a ruler caste (clans that practiced endogamy) who spread along the mountain chains (high places) of Southern Europe and the Hindu Kush. They likely controlled commerce through the Pamir Junction. These were aggressive kingdom builders who regarded themselves as divinely appointed to disperse and subdue the earth. Later rulers, such as Alexander the Great and Constantine I, held this idea as well.

A central task of biblical anthropology is to uncover cultural antecedents, such as the origin of messianic expectation. Culture traits, religious practices and beliefs do not spring suddenly into existence. They develop organically over time from traditions observed by the people and received from their 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 will prove helpful to students, pastors and academics.

Biblical anthropology seeks to understand the cultural context of the Bible at the oldest foundations. It is concerned with ancestors and received traditions. What events preceded the events recounted? From what earlier context did certain practices develop? What traces of ancient memory can be uncovered?

The biblical text always speaks of something older, some prior action that solicits a response from later generations. What Jacques Derrida called the "trace" is always there, and unless one moves toward that presence, the nature of it remains unknown. Even where later sources attempt to efface an earlier account, as happens in Genesis, the trace has a voice. The prior remains evident. There is always this "minority opinion" and those who care about the bigger picture read minorities opinions.

Derrida wrote, "The call of the other, having always already preceded the speech to which it has never been present a first time, announces itself as a recall. Such a reference to the other will always have taken place." (Psyche: Inventions of the Other)

Derrida also wrote, “It would be possible to show that all the terms related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence, ... essence, existence, substance, subject, ... transcendentality, consciousness or conscience, god, man, and so forth.” (The Sign, Structure and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences)

Derrida never denies the existence of something (or Someone?) at or as “the center” but for him the center is a function, not a person. This function is immutable and inescapable. It is always prior, always before human discourse. The biblical authors would say that the something older is Someone, the Atik Yomin or Ancient of Days. The biblical text and our discourse on the text self-efface before this Someone.

Biblical anthropology is not Near Eastern studies. To equate these is to wave a red herring. The red herring is the widely-held assumption that Abraham's earliest ancestors lived in Mesopotamia. Such a view ignores the data of Genesis 4-11. It fails to investigate the trace, to follow the trail back to Abraham’s Nilo-Saharan ancestors. Their story does not pertain initially to the ancient Near East, but to Africa and to the vast Afro-Asiatic Dominion that existed before the emergence of the great world religions. Biblical anthropology sets us on that trail.

Anthropological study of Genesis is as important as theological study. Indeed, it may be more important because it permits us to understand how the ancients of Eden understood God; to glimpse their intimate experience of the Creator who never changes. God’s immutability is communicated profoundly in the Genesis narratives and in the ancients’ understanding of divine rule and order.

All biblical narratives are connected to place and time, to environmental conditions, to the rising of rivers, the hewing of local stone, and to the expansion of herds. They speak to us from a particular place and time about the world of our ancestors.

G.K. Chesterton viewed Rudyard Kipling as a man of the world who loved no one place well enough to really know it. Chesterton wrote, “It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the patience of poets.” (Heretics, p. 51, 52)

Anthropological tools applied to the biblical narratives enable us to place the material in the proper cultural context. This resolves many theological controversies and helps to correct erroneous interpretations. We gain greater clarity about how the Creator has moved in time and space. He catch glimpses of His eternal power and immutable nature. We gain deeper insight into the nature of the eternal kingdom delivered to the eternal "sent-away" Son.

Biblical anthropology is in service of good theology. It serves the Church by grounding politics and doctrine, liturgy and prayer in the not-so-big ideas, but in the daily routine of our lives. It reminds us to heed the old ways, to honor our fathers and mothers, and to take courage from the faithfulness and blessing God has shown to our ancestors.


J S Williams said...

Thank you for your service to (dare I say) the world. I think your studies add a tremendous amount of insight into Scripture. And limited minds such as mine are not capable of such scholarly work, so we count on minds like yours.

Dr.D said...

Dear Alice,

Is this study not offered even at the institution where you teach? If that is the case, what a vast oversight and misuse of resources. I assumed (hoped) that you were regularly teaching several different course in this subject, surely enough for a minor if not a major.

Fr. D+

Alice Linsley said...

I am adjunct faculty. (I don't have a doctorate.) I teach Philosophy, Ethics and World Religions, and I manage to work a good deal of the research into those courses. I have found that the students are then able to make connections that the textbooks fail to make.

Alice Linsley said...

JS Williams,

My mind is very limited. It took many years to piece together the pattern of the marriage and ascendancy of Abraham's Horim (Horite ancestors). Mental ability is less important than persistence.

J Eppinga said...

RE: "I am disheartened by the fact that no institution of higher learning in the world offers a single course in Biblical Anthropology."

Having spent time in both the academic and private sectors (not perhaps, enough in the latter but definitely too much in the former), I am constantly impressed at the strangeness of academia in comparison to the world it purports to help young people enter. I know at least two academics who have by that reckoning, "made it," who are similarly skeptical about their sector, probably more so than me.

When my nephew approached me about a business idea, I suggested that he spend some time reading the biographies of entrepreneurs- Try to understand why they succeeded when 8/10 startups fail, -before- trying something novel for the marketplace. I am not sure how that strategy translates into the world of Academics. Perhaps you might identify a useless major (e.g., Gender Studies, or somesuch), and then try to run down the history of the major. If a useless subject can succeed, it stands to reason that a useful subject might achieve success, going down the same paths.

The other matter concerns promulgation. Research needs to be brought to the attention of important folks. Realistically, we might assess blogging to be less respected than say, a peer reviewed journal.

What do your friends in academia think about these matters? How have Hugh Ross, or the guy with three names, or the BioLogos folks gone about carving out their niches?

Alice Linsley said...

Thanks, Jay. You have offered some grist for the mill. :)

Blogs are used a great deal by academics these days because they can be accessed quickly by our students and we can include material that doesn't appear in the textbooks. I use all my blogs for teaching: Just Genesis; Biblical Anthropology, Ethics Forum, and Philosophers' Corner. I also provide current indices at each blog to help students do more detailed research for their final papers.

The men we have discussed who have written on Genesis have doctorates and largely ignore my work. Here is a response from Dick Fischer, who holds basically the same view as Ross and the others at the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA).

Fischer is dismissive. He writes, "Alice, you at least have to recognize the basics before you venture into speculative territory." Yet he never makes the effort to delve into the material. Curious response.

J Eppinga said...

Are you sure, my friend? He seemed engaged for much of the conversation, and there seemed to be more than one synapse-breaking theory that was being discussed. Might have been time for lunch or to run an errand.

Looked like a good conversation. It didn't seem pleasant toward the end, but sometimes that's where the blessing is hiding. :)

Alice Linsley said...

The conversation had some high points, but after his final remark, I emailed him about the bulk of evidence for the dispersal of the archaic Afro-Asiatic rulers and never heard from him again. It appears that he has disengaged.

Maybe I planted a seed of doubt about the Mesopotamian origin of the Abraham's ancestors. I hope that he will re-read Genesis 4-11 with new eyes. This material makes it clear that Abraham's ancestors did not originate in Mesopotamia. It explicitly states that Nimrod of Akkad was the son of Kush. He was Kushite.

Anonymous said...

Alice, do you you think that Dick Fisher totally refuses to admit that the dispersal of Afro-Archaic rulers is due to his own failure to recognize the African origins that you present in your work? I think such an admittance would have racial and historical implications. The fact that you are asked often about the color of Abraham's skin is of great significance and speaks to a deeper issue-- a much deeper issue. I am still trying to sort through your work. Your work is indeed very interesting.

Alice Linsley said...

If you are asking about racism in American academic circles, my answer is yes, it exists. I've encountered it often. However, I do not perceive that to be at the heart of Dick Fischer's concerns about this research. He has glossed over or ignored the anthropologically significant data in Genesis 4-11 that points to Abraham's Nilotic and Proto-Saharan ancestors.

In time, everything that I have written about will be generally accepted because it is factual. At this moment in history ignorance reigns about prehistoric Africa and the archaic rulers, especially in North America.