Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative

The New Testament World - Insights from Cultural Anthropology: Preface

This book was written with the beginning student of the New Testament in mind. Its purpose is to present, from the area of cultural anthropology, some useful models that might aid in fathoming the social-system context of the behavior of the people presented in the New Testament. Most New Testament study takes place in terms of verbal and literary analysis, historical description of persons and events, as well as some geographical and archeological information, all of which serve to clarify some features of these documents. Such information is certainly of great value for making the New Testament intelligible. However, most of the time Bible students take all such information and conceive it as operating in much the same way as it would operate in our own society. Such unconscious shuffling of cultural contexts might make the Bible immediately relevant to the student, but at what cost to the meaning intended by the original authors, the meaning most Christians would hold to be intended by God?

The purpose for using anthropological models in New Testament study is precisely to hear the meaning of the documents in terms of the social systems in which they were originally proclaimed. The models chosen for this book are mid-range models in the sense that they serve to explain segments of behavior rather than the whole cultural picture of the Eastern Mediterranean in the first century A.D. Choosing models is based on presuppositions, and in the Introduction I set out the presuppositions behind model building in general and in cultural anthropology in particular. Models from cultural anthropology do not offer an alternative explanation of the Bible, nor do they do away with literary critical, historical, and theological study. Rather, they add a dimension not available from other approaches, along with a way to check on the hunches of interpreters when it comes to questions of what any given author said and meant to say.

The choice of models presented in this book derives from a judgment of usefulness for students of the Bible as they come to grips with the data presented in introductory level New Testament courses. Chapter 1 deals with honor and shame, the pivotal values of Mediterranean culture in antiquity and in the present. Chapter 2 looks to the social psychology of the persons described in the documents; chapter 3 to their implicit perception of all goods as limited; chapter 4 to their pervading concerns about envy and the evil eye; chapter 5 to what they meant by kinship and marriage; and chapter 6 to their purity rules. The final chapter, chapter 7, presents a model of small group development to help interpreters understand how the story of Jesus unfolded as well as to illustrate how this story was appropriated by post-Jesus groups. Throughout the book I have attempted to point out U.S. implicit cultural assumptions in the area under consideration, thus allowing for a comparative perspective.

The work is premised, then, on the presumption that to understand what people say and mean to say one must know their social system. And the social system undergirding the New Testament is that of the Eastern Mediterranean of the first century A.D. The models presented in this book derive for the most part from contemporary Mediterranean anthropologists. Is there any continuity beween the Mediterranean world of today and that of the first century A.D.? The anthropologist Frances L. K. Hsu who has done much to demonstrate the validity of cultural continuity, notes,

Cultures borrow much from each other in role matters such as foods, artifacts, etiquette, theories of nature, and tools for control of human beings and things. But there is little evidence that people change in any fundamental way, and as a whole, their patterns of feeling about themselves, about each other, and about the rest of the world. (Rugged Individualism: Essays in Psychological Anthropology. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983, 174)

In order for the models to generate the understanding they were designed to, the student must read the New Testament, for the way this book is written, it makes little sense apart from constant recourse to the New Testament writing themselves. Specifically, the reader must go through the passages listed at the end of the book, where we deal with testing the models for each chapter. The reader must also look up the biblical passages cited in the course of the chapter. Beginning Bible students should note that, as a rule, sentences in the New Testament that are in the passive voice imply that God is the doer of the action. Passive voice means that the grammatical subject of the sentence is acted upon. For example, "John kicks the horse" is active voice because John, the grammatical subject, does the acting. In "John is kicked," the subject of the sentence, John, is acted on, and we are not told who is doing the acting. This is passive voice. Passive voice sentences in the New Testament mean God is the actor or doer. So, for example, "many are called, few are chosen" means that God calls many (in Israel), but does not choose all; "to whom much is given" means to whom God gives much; "all power in heaven and on earth has been given to me" means God has given me all power everywhere; and "your sins are forgiven" means God forgives you of your sins.

The first edition of this revised and expanded work was written in the summer of 1979. At that time there was little to suggest by way of preparatory or supportive reading. Now, as the chapter bibliographies indicate, there is quite a bit of information available. For some who are launching on the task of a scholarly interpretation of the New Testament, this book may seem too perplexing. Should this be the case, especially for the student doing a New Testament introduction in a self-study way, I would strongly recommend the work I have prepared for just such a situation: Windows on the World of Jesus (Louisville, KY.: Westminster / John Know Press, 1993).

Finally, for those who might find it difficult to imagine exactly what a book like this is intended to do, I might suggest that the easiest way to empathize with its purpose is to view some films. Basic to the task is the film Kypseli: Women and Men Apart - A Divided Reality, by Susannh M. Hoffman, Richard Cowan, and Paul Aratow, available from the Lifelong Learning Center, University of California Extension Media Center, Berkeley, California 94720. Kypseli, the villiage presented in the film, is a contemporary Greek community in which Jesus, Paul, and the first several generations of Jesus followers would be readily at home, apart from recent technology.

There are moreover, a number of feature films that can only be understood with the perspectives presented in this book. First of all, for example, is the popular Godfather series, which, like Prizzi's Honor, illustrates many of the basic themes of Mediterranean life, even if in U.S. garb. Less popular but quite appropriate are Eleni, the true story of the plight of a Greek woman and her family during the Greek Communist uprising of the 1950s; Wedding in Galilee, describing a Palestinian family's attempt to lead a normal (Mediterranean) life in face of continued Israeli (Central European) oppression (rated R); and the recent Spanish film (with subtitles) of great poignancy and visual beauty The Grandfather, premised on the themes of kinship, kinship status, honor and shame, and patron client. Finally, the film Lawrence of Arabia offers a number of scenes highlighting honor and shame, challenge and response, and especially, in-group and out-group interactions.

Good models are meant to explain, guide, reveal, and aid discovery. The New Testament passages listed in the exercises as well as in the text are by no means exhaustive examples. And not all the suggestions generated by the models have been followed through in the text. The attentive student will find much to add to what is stated in the book and much to uncover that has not been explicitly pointed to at all. Good models at the introductory level are meant to bring creative insights to the beginner. Perhaps the models presented here will continue to serve that end as they have for growing numbers of Creighton University undergraduates who found this material stimulating and useful in their introduction to New Testament studies. I am grateful to them for their shared insights.

Bruce J. Malina

Creighton University

Taken from "The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology" by Bruce J. Malina. ©2001 by Westminster John Knox Press. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press, 100 Witherspoon Street, Louisville, KY 40202-1396. (

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