Reading with Anthropology: Exhibiting Aspects of New Testament Religion

By Russell, A. Sue | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Reading with Anthropology: Exhibiting Aspects of New Testament Religion


Russell, A. Sue, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Reading with Anthropology: Exhibiting Aspects of New Testament Religion. By Louise J. Lawrence. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005, xix + 212 pp., $22.99 paper.

Biblical scholars have increasingly used models, theories, and methodologies from anthropology to provide new perspectives on the biblical text. In many cases, biblical scholars select anthropological models to gain new lenses through which to examine the biblical data. They then read the biblical text through the new lenses that these anthropological models provide. Reading with Anthropology takes a different approach. Rather than reading the biblical text through generalized models, Lawrence provides cross-cultural ethnographic data that she then reads alongside the biblical data. This approach gives the reader a transparent cross-cultural comparison that not only provides new understanding of the dynamics of the biblical text but also allows the reader to examine the ethnographic data themselves to evaluate if the comparison is appropriate for the biblical data.

Lawrence begins her book with two chapters on background for reading with anthropology. In chapter 1 she provides readers who are not familiar with social-scientific criticism the history and development of the use of anthropological and sociological models in biblical studies. In chapter 2, she seeks to address the question some might raise about the validity of using social science models in biblical studies. She notes that social science has in the past been reductive, explaining religious actions in terms of social realities rather than in terms of transcendent reality. She notes that socialscientific criticism "arose to redress an imbalance in another direction, namely an inordinate importance being put on thought and belief to the neglect of physicality and society" (p. 20). She finds the integration of transcendent and social reality in two concepts from recent anthropological studies. The first is the concept of embodiment, in which the body "literally 'embodies' belief, cultures and values" (p. 27). The second is the concept of humans as ceremonial animals in which they "embody beliefs and practices in their day to day lives" (p. 29). This integration of the social with the transcendent provides the heuristic framework for her cross-cultural comparisons.

In the next seven chapters of her work, Lawrence offers what she refers to as museum exhibits, in which she is the curator who selects the ethnographic exhibits on display. She models her presentation after the Pitt Rivers Museum in which objects are exhibited by themes rather than cultural and geographic boundaries. Her book provides selected themes in which she places ethnographic data from various cultures alongside scriptural data. Rather than focusing on ethnographic data from Greco-Roman, Mediterranean, and peasant cultures, she compares ethnographic data from various regions of the world that all have the trait on exhibit. Her selections are, as she notes, eclectic and reflect current interests in both anthropology and biblical scholarship. However, by selecting a broader range of ethnographic data, Lawrence provides fresh cross-cultural perspectives on the biblical data.

Her first exhibits are based on the current interest in biblical scholarship on the identity of Jesus as a religious practitioner. In chapter 3 she compares Mark's presentation of Jesus with shamans and Luke's presentation of Jesus with the collectively based shaman healer. In chapter 4, she addresses the identity of Jesus using concepts from the study of folklore and mythology and how these "inform the practice, behavior and self-identity of the groups addressed by them" (p. xv). In this chapter, she compares John's narrative of Jesus with one type of folklore, the trickster narrative. The trickster is an anthropological construct of individuals in narratives who are often the mediators between human beings and the gods, often "occupying the space between social boundaries" (p. …

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