Cultural Anthropology and the Old Testament

By Carroll, M. Daniel | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Cultural Anthropology and the Old Testament


Carroll, M. Daniel, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Cultural Anthropology and the Old Testament. By Thomas W. Overholt. Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, ix + 116 pp., $13.00 paper.

Although anthropological approaches to OT studies are not new (e.g. note the survey and critique in J. W. Rogerson, Anthropology and the Old Testament [JSOT, 1984]), they have acquired particular prominence over the last two decades. One of those most responsible for the growing interest in this sort of interdisciplinary study is Thomas Overholt, whose work has centered on comparing the accounts about prophets in the Bible against the background of more contemporary indigenous prophetism. The reader, therefore, has a first-rate guide into the discussion of the possible contributions of cultural anthropology to OT studies and can interact with multiple examples offered by a seasoned practitioner.

The book is divided into three chapters, The first begins by presenting Overholt's understanding of the nature of culture. He follows Geertz' well-known dictum that culture is a web of significances" by which humans represent and order their world. From this perspective on culture, it naturally follows that what the scholar using anthropology in Biblical studies also should look for are patterns of thought and behavior that are inscribed in the text. Because modern interpreters obviously cannot be direct participant observers of ancient Israel in the same manner that anthropologists can be of actual societies, scholars need to utilize anthropological theories and field studies to analyze what is available to them: the textual data. The patterns of culture held by the Biblical writers, he believes, are accessible through their descriptions of life and in the portrayals of their characters. In other words, what Overholt is arguing for is a comparative approach in which anthropology can illumine the social realities and worldviews of ancient Israel. He also makes a long distinction between the broader contextual backdrop that he believes this approach can offer and debates over the historicity and the accuracy of the Biblical accounts; the former can be gleaned from the text, the latter would require other kinds of evaluative tools.

Chapter 2 is an extended comparison of the Elijah and Elisha narratives with studies of shamanism from around the globe. Overholt underlines a series of elements that these accounts and shamanism have in common, especially the resuscitation of the dead. He suggests that this shamanistic worldview is in tension with the predominant theology of the Deuteronomistic history. This tension within the narratives would reflect the reality of such a conceptual conflict in Israel where different forms of Yahwism coexisted.

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