"Biblical Anthropology: A Summary of the Discipline"


by Judd H. Burton, MA, ABD

           The Bible, as with other great sources of religious literatures, is a direct reflection of the cultures that produced it.  As such, it contains a wealth of cultural data on these societies, and more specifically, data on their interaction with God.   Anthropology can shed a great deal of light on the cultural history of the Bible by using the text as an ethnographic resource.  By utilizing the tools of anthropology, a scholar may glean from the pages of the Bible information that allows—to some degree—the reconstruction of certain socio-cultural elements.

            What, then, is Biblical anthropology, and how does one use it?  These queries are best answered by looking more closely at the application of anthropology’s subdisciplines to Biblical questions.  The field itself is therefore (or should be) an outgrowth of these methodologies.  Anthropology is composed of four specialized fields:  cultural anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and physical anthropology.

            Cultural anthropology, or ethnology, is the study of human culture.  All of the aspects of human social behavior, such as politics, kinship, religion, economy, gender, art, ethnicity, and identity, are all central to the field.  It does not take long to see how valuable such an approach can be to the study of the Biblical world.  Normally, the anthropologist has the luxury of interviewing subjects, but scholars may utilize the text in much the way an anthropologist would a transcript.  Scholars such as Moses Finlay and W. Warde Fowler have already demonstrated to great degree how anthropologically valuable Homeric and Roman literature respectively can be.  The Bible has proven equally substantial in reconstructing culture.  Consider the wealth of data on social laws and taboos contained in the Torah, and what they say about the Hebrews during the Patriarchal Period (c. 2000-1500 BC).

            Linguistics may be paired with the ethnological study of the Bible, and often is.  In fact, some foreknowledge of a Biblical language or languages is often necessary to conduct valid work.  In particular ethnolinguistics and historical linguistics, concerned with identity and change respectively, are of particular use in discerning important cultural artifacts.  Languages which aid the Biblical Anthropologist include Semitic tongues like ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Akkadian, Phoenician, Moabite, Edomite, Egyptian, and related languages.  For the Interbiblical Period, New Testament times, and early Christianity, a familiarity with Greek and Latin are necessary as well.  The rationale for proficiency in languages is that language is the medium of culture, it is the vehicle which carries culture (as culture itself is abstract).  As a secondary consideration of the linguistic study of the Bible, historical analysis and all of its pertinent methodologies is a natural epiphenomenon of linguistic Biblical anthropology, as the scholar is working with texts from and related to the Bible, which are rendered in ancient languages.

            Archaeology is, without doubt, the most popular aspect of Biblical anthropology.  By a host of media, magazines, and scholarly journals, the public keeps tabs on the discoveries of the material remains of the Biblical world.  It certainly has a romanticism all its own, although the realities of fieldwork can (and often are) quite different from stories about adventuring, spade-wielding treasure hunters.  Archaeology and cultural anthropology have the same goals in the end:  the reconstruction of culture histories from relevant data.  Biblical archaeology, of course, is concerned with the recovery of material remains from ancient sites of Biblical significance.  These sites are in Israel and other lands associated with the Biblical narrative such as Mesopotamia (Iraq), Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and other locales in the Mediterranean Basin (particularly in dealing with early Christianity).  Temples, churches, dwellings, palaces, and other features harbor all manner of artifacts, which, when discovered and analyzed by the processes of archaeology, can yield considerable information about ancient behavior and institutions. 

            Finally, physical anthropology is beneficial to the study of the Bible.  Physical anthropology is concerned with the biological history and makeup of humanity.  In the context of Biblical studies, it is often done in conjunction with archaeology, under whose auspices remains are likely to be found.  This subfield can be helpful in determining such things as the health of populations, lifespan, diet, and lifestyle.

            Biblical anthropology is ultimately concerned with humanity’s relationship with God, and how that relationship affected culture.  It is varied, broad and interdisciplinary in its approach, and specific in its orientation.  By looking at the Bible through the lens of anthropology, one can obtain a greater appreciation for its cultures and for the nuances of lifeways.  While I have repeatedly emphasized the need for certain scholastic tools in the anthropological analysis of the Biblical world, I do not by any means wish to dissuade the layperson from his or her study of Biblical anthropology.  Many peripheral texts exist in translation, making it possible to study Biblical cultures.  Furthermore, a myriad study aids, commentaries, and reports exist to supplement your textual studies.  By better understanding the societies of the Biblical world, we have a firmer grasp on the Bible itself.  This, I think, is good for the scholar and the layperson alike.


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