Thursday, June 26, 2014

Modern Counters to Bruce Malina

As was recently pointed out to me, even the updated version (3rd edition from 2002) of Bruce Malina's work has its issues and counter-arguments. Specifically, U. Bockmuehl of Cambrdige wrote in a review (in 2002):
Nonetheless, after more than two decades of remarkable popularity, the book's re-release does invite a number of critical reflections. First, for a third edition this book remains surprisingly unpolished in some respects. Typos old and new continue; so does a prose style that borders at times on the trite and repetitive -- even when allowing for undergraduate attention spans. There still is no comprehensive bibliography and no index of modern authors, so that specific references remain difficult to find. Although updated, the chapter bibliographies still suggest inadequate interaction with anthropological approaches critical of the author's own. While this may be understandable in a pioneering work that first brought the insights of cultural anthropology to the table of New Testament studies, in a third edition one might like to see a more nuanced picture. A good deal of recent classical scholarship on honour and shame, some of it rather critical of J.G. Peristiany's and J. Pitt-Rivers' old view that these 'pivotal values' governed every social transaction in the 'Mediterranean' world, is simply not cited here (e.g. B. Williams, Shame and Necessity (1993); D.L. Cairns, Aidos (1993); M. Herzfeld and M.A. Marcus in D.D. Gilmmore (ed.), Honor and Shame (1987)). It is instructive to look up the recent edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary under the relevant headings. 
As a result, astounding generalizations proliferate, seemingly unsupported by evidence and reminiscent of grand anthropological theories of a bygone day, when Polynesian cargo cults could be thought to shed the same inexhaustible light on the social realities of Steeple Bumpstead as of ancient Xanadu. We hear about what is characteristically, and it appears timelessly, 'Mediterranean' behaviour. But for every valid or at least plausible insight one stumbles over others burdened with rather too many unmentioned exceptions, be they ancient or modern or both. All the while, the cultural stereotypes merrily accumulate to an extent that would be unthinkable if the object were contemporary 'African' or 'native American' people groups. The Index of Ancient Authors is remarkably underpopulated for a book of such tall claims; and readers who, like the present author, come to the study of the New Testament from that of the classical world may well scratch their heads to find all ancient (and modern?) inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin thrown into the one cultural melting pot, as if Parthians, Carthaginians and Iberians all subscribed to exactly the same social dynamics and assumptions. A reader of Tacitus or Juvenal would find that Romans easily recognized major anthropological differences between themselves, the Greeks and the diverse barbarians and Scythians who inhabited the wider orbit of mare nostrum. What is more, they had a particular revulsion for Oriental cultures and customs -- especially Jewish ones. 
And it is Jews, after all, whose role in the 'New Testament world' arguably matters more than most. Both in their own eyes and in those of their pagan critics, they were culturally unique. Little of that distinctness, however, comes into the fore in this book. Malina refers to ancient Jews and their literature in curiously arm-waving and unspecific terms ('Semites', 'Semitic subculture', 'Ben Zakaiists', 'late Israelites'), citing the Mishnah only twice and the Dead Sea Scrolls not at all, and virtually ignoring the first-century role of the Pharisees, who (rather than the priests) were in Josephus's view the real 'bearers of the Great Tradition'. A good many of Malina's cultural generalizations are plainly untrue for the followers of Jesus and for some or indeed most other religious Jews. For example, individual decision rather than family ties did matter for Jesus and at Qumran; Jews did not believe that 'stars were living beings, intelligent and powerful'; they did not wear tassels on their garments primarily to ward off the evil eye; at least the Dead Sea sect did prohibit marriage with nieces and cousins; 'Ben Zakaiists' (i.e. rabbis) did not develop 'a viable Israelite domestic religion... largely through interaction with post-Jesus groups' (i.e. Christians). And so forth. Exaggerated claims for a homogeneous and apparently timeless Mediterranean culture seriously compromise the anthropological and historical applicability of Malina's model to the highly specific and unusual context of religious first-century Palestinian Judaism. The contention that public honour and status mattered supremely to the elites of places like Corinth or Ephesus is at least plausible. The Palestinian Jewish 'New Testament world', however, was in fact a culture in which many, not least in the Jesus movement, prized humility more highly than secular conventions of honour, and saw social status and influence in a frame of reference that prioritised divine revelation and the judgment of the world to come.
Some of the criticism is not specific to Malina, but to his larger camp of co-researchers, the CONTEXT group that he belongs to. Zeba A. Crook of Carleton University, in her review of TODD D. STILL and DAVID G. HORRELL (eds.), After the First Urban Christians: The Social-Scientific Study of Pauline Christianity Twenty-Five Years Later (London/New York: Clark, 2009), points out that the Horrell especially, in the introductory methodological essay, criticizes Malina's hard distinction: 
Arguing against Bruce Malina’s strongly articulated distinction (The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology [Atlanta: John Knox, 1981]), and taking his cue from two recent social-science works—one by a sociologist, Grace Davie (Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000]), the other [p. 441] by an anthropologist, David E. Sutton (Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory [Oxford: Berg, 2001])—H. claims that the distinction between social description and social-scientific criticism is no longer sustainable and is not actually reflected in current work.
Crook disagrees with the assessment, but agrees that a revamping of Malina using newer literature is in order.

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