BMCR 2002.04.19

The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Third Edition, Revised and Expanded)

, The New Testament world : insights from cultural anthropology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. xv, 256 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0664222951

For its new third edition, this celebrated twenty-year-old textbook classic has been spruced up with a new preface and cover, two new chapters, updated bibliographies and 20 pages of study questions at the end, perforated so as to be easily detachable. (For some reason the index pages, which follow the questions, received the same efficient treatment and thus began to take leave of their binding before I finished reading.)

The basic thrust remains familiar: drawing on a combination of socio-cultural and historical study, Malina develops several ‘models’ of Mediterranean anthropology, partly illustrated from Hellenistic and New Testament sources. The key categories are honour and shame as the ‘pivotal values of the first-century Mediterranean world’; individuals as characterized by a group-oriented personality; kinship literal and fictive, marriage strategies and group formation; boundaries of holiness and purity; social status as worked out in rural and urban contexts that presuppose a world of strictly limited social and economic goods. Two new chapters explore the extent to which status maintenance is constantly under threat from envy and the evil eye, and the evolution of Jesus groups under the somewhat cringe-making typology of ‘forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning’. A brief ‘theological conclusion’ asserts that to reject such socio-cultural study is to deny the Incarnation. Several of the chapter conclusions now feature tables that compare and contrast ‘Mediterranean’ preferences and presuppositions in the given area with equivalent contemporary American views.

In these and other ways this standard work has been further enhanced. Over the years Malina has done a very great deal to awaken and stimulate student interest in the ‘New Testament world’, as a place that is not just historically and perhaps linguistically distant from us, but whose people inhabited a social and cultural fabric of assumptions that would strike the average English-speaking eighteen-year-old as alarmingly alien. At a time when the hard work of such historical engagement of the ‘other’ has been under threat from all manner of purely reader-generated interpretations, it is hard to overestimate the benefit of Malina’s contribution. He has managed to make accessible the status implications of concepts like impurity, poverty and disease for students who may find them no part of their daily experience.

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.

But this cannot be the place for a full-scale interaction with Malina’s approach. My insistence on a more culture- specific application of cultural anthropology is in no way meant to detract from his achievement in securing for this field of study a valid place at the table of New Testament scholarship, or indeed from this book’s years of service among undergraduates in North America and beyond. Future scholarship in the cultural anthropology of early Christianity will inevitably benefit from the initiative represented by works like this.