Anthropology and Hebrew Bible Studies: Modes of Interchange and Interpretation


Interchange between anthropology and biblical scholarship began because of perceived similarities between “simpler” societies and practices appearing in the Hebrew Bible. After some disengagement when anthropologists turned mainly to ethnographic fieldwork, new cross-disciplinary possibilities opened up when structuralism emerged in anthropology. Ritual and mythology were major topics receiving attention, and some biblical scholars partially adopted structuralist methods. In addition, anthropological research extended to complex societies and also had an impact upon historical studies. Modes of interpretation developed that reflected holistic perspectives along with a sensibility to ethnographic detail. This essay illustrates these trends in regard to rituals and to notions of purity in the Hebrew Bible, as well as to the place of literacy in Israelite society and culture. After discussing these themes, three examples of structuralist-inspired analysis are presented which in different ways take into account historical and literacy-based facets of the Bible.

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Harvey E. Goldberg, Ph.D. (1967), Harvard University, is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One example of his combining Anthropology and Jewish Studies is his Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life (University of California Press, 2003).
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