Anthropologist spotlights the Bible and Biblical Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Updated with additional statement of PW's conclusion about 40 minutes after original posting.

Dr Philippe Wajdenbaum has written the thesis I would have loved to have written and it perhaps could only have been written at this time by an anthropologist — a field I was once advised to enter. How sometimes our lives could have been so different. Wajdenbaum wrote his thesis in social anthropology. It has nothing to say about the Christ myth so applying his words to this topic is entirely my own doing. The thesis is radical enough, however, since it applies Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural analysis of myths to the Old Testament narratives and shows their indebtedness to classical Hellenistic literature.

My skills as a social anthropologist then reside in my ability to describe the biblical phenomenon as a whole, not only in finding the literary sources of its theological and political project (the political dialogues of Plato) and in describing how these sources were adapted in the Bible itself, at the centre of the analysis, but also in analysing the conditions of its perpetuation. (p. 9)

Specifically, Dr Wajdenbaum’s conclusion is this:

The Bible is a Hebrew narrtive tainted with theological and political philosophy and inspired by the writings of Plato, one that is embellished with Greek myths and adapted to the characters and locations of the Near East. (p. 4)

This is crazy, most would surely say:

I understand fully how the present work may seem a priori simplistic. Every day of the four years that this research has lasted I have encountered reactions of doubt, hostility and resentment, but also (and fortunately) of benevolent curiosity. . . . I wish to express in this introduction how I was personally struck, even mortified by these discoveries, not so much because it damages a belief that I do not have, but because of the simplicity of the solution. The thesis is not childish in its simplicity for it is based on the complexity of the biblical text and its many sources. Still, my astonishment that a complete and neutral comparative study of the Bible with Plato had not been done before never decreased. All of this — reactions of hostility to the thesis and its absence during two millennia are objects of analysis for the anthropologist.

Implications for Christianity, too:

The present work may shatter the most deeply anchored belief in the Western mind, the belief in the Jewish origin of both the Old Testament and of Christianity — which is, according to the New Testament, a heterodox movement founded by Jesus inside Judaism that became an autonomous religion after his death. We will question the reality of this schism between the two religions, rather speaking of a symbiosis than a break. . . .

Doubt, hostility and resentment, sometimes expressed verbally and violently, come possibly from the disappointment of my readers and listeners. They can neither conceive that the solution may be that simple nor that none have been known to say it before. Therefore, according to them, I must be wrong and my methodology must be naïve or insufficient. This resistance, this rejection a priori of the thesis, coming both from believers and non-believers, is a testament to the total success of the biblical project and the deep attachment of Westerners to the sacredness of the text. (p. 9, my emphasis)

The weaker religion’s place the stronger religion’s power may be . . .

The Judeo-Christian religion, still present in modern society, is based on the Bible and even though movements of secularisation and laicisation have diminished its weight it still remains the major moral reference point. As the philosopher Michel Onfray stated, even if the practising of religion is in constant diminution there exists a Judeo-Christian episteme (as Michel Foucault would call it) that actually reinforces itself as religion becomes less visible. As Onfray explains, the very fact that religion becomes more and more abstract and private — detached from ritual and mythology — is what makes it more powerful than ever. The weight of religion is most likely the prime explanation for understanding why biblical scholarship has long been focused on trying to prove the authenticity of the Bible. Indeed, most biblical scholars come into that field guided by faith.

Most faculties dealing with biblical scholarship are theology faculties; therefore they seek a rational version of the divine inspiration of the Bible. (Philippe Wajdenbaum, Argonauts of the desert: structural analysis of the Hebrew Bible, 2011, 28 – my emphasis)

I submit that all of the above is equally valid for the status of the Christ myth hypothesis in New Testament studies.

Further light on how a mainstream faculty could even theoretically be fundamentally wrong-headed is shed by Noam Chomsky. As one whose entire working life has been within the education sector, from junior high school to university, I believe he puts his finger exactly on what also explains the less than rational rejection of Christ mythicism from probably the most ideological of all disciplines, biblical studies:

The universities, for example, are not independent institutions. There may be independent people scattered around in them but that is true of the media as well. And it’s generally true of corporations. It’s true of Fascist states, for that matter. But the institution itself is parasitic. It’s dependent on outside sources of support and those sources of support, such as private wealth, big corporations with grants, and the government (which is so closely interlinked with corporate power you can barely distinguish them), they are essentially what the universities are in the middle of. People within them, who don’t adjust to that structure, who don’t accept it and internalize it (you can’t really work with it unless you internalize it, and believe it); people who don’t do that are likely to be weeded out along the way, starting from kindergarten, all the way up. There are all sorts of filtering devices to get rid of people who are a pain in the neck and think independently. Those of you who have been through college know that the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience; if you don’t do that, you are a troublemaker. So, it is kind of a filtering device which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society. The elite institutions like, say, Harvard and Princeton and the small upscale colleges, for example, are very much geared to socialization. If you go through a place like Harvard, most of what goes on there is teaching manners; how to behave like a member of the upper classes, how to think the right thoughts, and so on.

If you’ve read George Orwell’s Animal Farm which he wrote in the mid-1940s, it was a satire on the Soviet Union, a totalitarian state. It was a big hit. Everybody loved it. Turns out he wrote an introduction to Animal Farm which was suppressed. It only appeared 30 years later. Someone had found it in his papers. The introduction to Animal Farm was about “Literary Censorship in England” and what it says is that obviously this book is ridiculing the Soviet Union and its totalitarian structure. But he said England is not all that different. We don’t have the KGB on our neck, but the end result comes out pretty much the same. People who have independent ideas or who think the wrong kind of thoughts are cut out.

He talks a little, only two sentences, about the institutional structure. He asks, why does this happen? Well, one, because the press is owned by wealthy people who only want certain things to reach the public. The other thing he says is that when you go through the elite education system, when you go through the proper schools in Oxford, you learn that there are certain things it’s not proper to say and there are certain thoughts that are not proper to have. That is the socialization role of elite institutions and if you don’t adapt to that, you’re usually out. Those two sentences more or less tell the story.

When you critique the media and you say, look, here is what Anthony Lewis or somebody else is writing, they get very angry. They say, quite correctly, “nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because I’m never under any pressure.” Which is completely true, but the point is that they wouldn’t be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing. If they had started off at the Metro desk, or something, and had pursued the wrong kind of stories, they never would have made it to the positions where they can now say anything they like. The same is mostly true of university faculty in the more ideological disciplines. They have been through the socialization system.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Anthropologist spotlights the Bible and Biblical Studies”

  1. Jeeps.. as someone who has written theses I would hate anyone who cats nasturtiums on the literary survey..

    Sorry, I need to read the thesis.



  2. Did not Philo and Aristobulus claim that Pythagoras and Plato derived their wisdom from Moses and the Torah, and that Moses, while residing at the court of Pharaoh, received a “Greek” education in science and philosophy? The idea that Moses’ experiences with God might be equated to Plato’s quest for the Good was admittedly put forward as a way of countering criticism that Judaism had no share in philosophy. Nevertheless, it appears that the idea was not altogether false.

    1. Not only did Judaism have no share in philosophy, but it had no share in mathematics and science, astronomy, architecture, engineering and machinery, medicine, political discourse, democracy, fashion, administration, urbanism, roads and aqueducts, sanitary systems, seafaring and transportation, scroll or codex publishing, fiction writing, library stockpiling, drama, comedy, singing, music, art, painting and sculpture, history, warfare and military strategy, sports…all creations of the Greco-Roman world.
      All our modern civilization owes everything to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, down to our alphabet and vocabulary, and nothing to Judaism. We are, in our concrete life, the true children of Athens and Rome, not of Jerusalem. What we owe Judaism are our religious obsessions and nightmares about an enigmatic god, and its two trouble-making offshoots, Christianity and Islam.

  3. It is a mistake to see Judaism and Hellenism as antitheses. Greece was just as much, and in some periods more, a part of the Ancient Near East as a part of the Roman world. The ancient arts of story telling, urbanism, writing, trade, and warfare owe much to Mesopotamia and Iran, The Bible is an Hellenistic project, comparible to the stories of Pandora and the histories of Herodotus.The alphabet and much else were spread by the colonies of the near east – Rome and Carthage.. Monotheism and pacific universal values were usefully (to them) spread first by the empires of Asoka and Cyrus. It is Eurocentric to cosider universal values and Christianity as Western inventions. The Wisdom literatures of the Bible are as deeply philosophical as all but the very best Greek philosophy. Each learnt from all. But the stories and philosophies had to change as societies changed and different groups of people had their needs represented – hence some of the differences

    1. “It is Eurocentric to cosider universal values and Christianity as Western inventions…”

      The desire for human unification and the erasure of differences and hierarchies between human beings is historically linked not with ancient Judaism, but with the Greek desire for unity and univocity. Daniel Boyarin wrote a book about this: “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity” (1994).

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