2011-12-23

Argonauts of the Desert: a defence of an anthropologist’s interpretation of the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

In recent posts on Dr Philippe Wajdenbaum’s thesis I shared a few passages from the opening pages of his introductory chapter. One reader responded with a series of points with which I suspect many other readers concur. To sum up the tone and reduce it to its most concentrated essence the criticism appears to be this:

  1. Finding mythological parallels with the Bible a fatuous exercise since the parallelomaniacal human imagination is creative enough to find any parallel or pattern it wants anywhere it looks, and even where similarities are palpable, such as the flood stories,  these can be found around the globe and prove nothing about interdependence;
  2. any work from Europe that cites a Marxist and “invokes” any name connected with postmodernism, and especially a French! name (quick, reach for the Freedom Fries!) that is associated with structuralism (and by extension Jungian archetypes, let’s add) and is an inspiration for a thesis, is by definition, a failed sham of an intellectual enterprise.

I have posted on the works of many scholars in the past, some positively, some negatively and some a mixture of both. But I have begun with a clear positive bias for Philippe Wajdenbaum’s (PW) thesis so I am obligated to defend my initial forays.

Let me explain why I believe the sorts criticisms above are without warrant — at least until after one has heard and patiently assessed the arguments presented.

Name dropping

First, let’s look at some of the names of those related to the acceptance of this thesis as a genuine contribution to knowledge:

PW’s thesis supervisor was, we learn from the Acknowledgments page of the book, Professor Michèle Broze. Do a Google on her and you will very quickly find her to be something of an authority in the Classics and Egyptology. You can even find a link to her Facebook and LinkedIn pages and make email contact with her to double-check and evaluate anything one might read here.

The Acknowledgments pages include Professor Thomas L. Thompson who was one of PW’s thesis examiners. Thompson is said to be the one responsible for encouraging the present publication of PW’s thesis. Professor Niels Peter Lemche is also named as one who has facilitated the publicization of PW’s thesis, and Lemche, it should be recalled, has published on the Bible as a Hellenistic (Greek-influenced) book.

Other names include Philippe Jespers and Professor Yaakov S. Kupitz. Even that theatrical “religious oddball” Professor Jim West is named as making a positive contribution to the book now published. For all of Jim West’s blogging flamboyance (Australians have their own descriptors of what characterizes his stance and they do not really match the semantic meanings known to Americans so I avoid using them here) he does at times have some remarkably astute understanding. (Besides, my wordpress support informs me that Jim West has himself publicized this book.) We also find Professor Baudouin Decharneux (again worth a Google) and others.

But what of this French! Claude Lévi-Strauss? I first “met” him in my first course in sociology and hated him and could not understand a thing. I hated anyone who tried to argue structuralism with me. His name continued to re-emerge in my reading over the years, however, and as I matured I was obliged to acknowledge my former ignorance and inability to grasp where he was coming from. At the same time I hated structuralism I had been interested in Jung’s concept of archetypes. By the time I came to appreciate the value of structuralism in certain applications I was fast losing my interest in Jungian archetypes. There is certainly nothing substantially comparable between Jung’s archetypes and Lévi-Strauss’s structures.

Besides, Lévi-Strauss’s ideas may be old but they are not without respect throughout (at least the western) world’s scholars who are part of the anthropological scene.

On Myths

On myths, Lévi-Strauss quite acknowledged that some of the similarities found around the globe are indeed coincidental. PW makes this clear in his book and discusses an illustrative example in some detail. If myths are indeed operating in our minds at a deeper level than language itself then it is not at all inconceivable that there are some myths that do owe their heritage to generations that should be measured by millennia. Reappearances of common myths shared by disparate peoples after many generations of human migrations is not at all out of the question. But then again, if this sounds a bit stretched, and in some cases it may be — humans do have a common way of thinking and feeling and experiencing aspects of life — why not accept that some ‘great minds think alike’ around the world and do come up with very similar motifs to express certain experiences?

But what do we think if it can be demonstrated that a concentrated cluster of Greek and Jewish myths share a similar structure and even names or sounds of names that are clearly not a part of any other Near Eastern (Egyptian or Mesopotamian or other) culture?

At what point to we bring in theories of diffusion of myths? Where do we begin to contemplate ‘diffusionist’ theories? How do we explain the commonality of myths in nearby cultures that are simply too multiple and multiplex to be accounted for by happy chance? This is actually fundamental to PW’s (and his inspirer Lévi-Strauss’s) thesis and argument.

Next post on this theme I will return to PW’s own words from the book. They will be a more effective defence, I believe, than anything here from a third party.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2011-12-23 23:54:57 GMT+0000 - 23:54 | Permalink

    I read somewhere that the Hebrew word for lord, adoni, is etymologically related to the Greek god Adonis. Do you know if PW goes over that in his thesis, or is that just hearsay?

    • 2011-12-24 10:09:41 GMT+0000 - 10:09 | Permalink

      I cannot say. I have only skimmed a few sections of his chapters addressing the actual parallels. I am still digging somewhat painstakingly into his quite large introductory chapter to be sure I understand correctly the basics of where he is coming from before reading those. (Though I have already read one chapter in detail some months ago and posted on that.)

    • 2011-12-24 11:02:37 GMT+0000 - 11:02 | Permalink

      Ezekiel 8:13 — Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the LORD’S house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.

      Tammuz is the Semitic precursor of Adonis. The mourning over Adonis was an annual ritual for the god who had died and would be resurrected. Other than the title, Adonai, for Yahweh there doesn’t seem to be much that connects the two myths. However, we can see many similarities to the Jesus myth.

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