Do  anthropological differences between our individualistic/wealth driven culture and the honor/shame  culture of the Middle East (throughout the ages) matter when reading text? Take for example the story of Noah and the flood. This question was asked when last I discussed the flood in another context some weeks back.

Geneticists inform us that the genes which govern the particular patterns which direct the construction of our cornea show very little variation from individual to individual. Other features, even in the eye, which are not tightly constrained in the same way vary far much more from generation to generation and in fact show mutation and changes introduced much more freely between generations. The cornea and the eye are tricky enough that any structural mistake or change will likely lead to complete failure of the organ for its intended purpose, i.e., sight. How our genetic material varies from generation to generation pays attention to those things which it has found important to sustain life.


Likewise when we pass events and messages on to others in narratives those features of the story which we find important ... remain less prone to transcription error than those features which we do not find important. If one take a narrative, say our founder George Washington and his chopping of the cherry tree as a youth. If we wish to tell this story in a way that also takes on moral and metaphoric meaning as well, one might take the story and alter it in unessential ways that aid in highlighting the message and the particular other meanings which we wish to take. Yet what is for this story unessential is only unessential in a cultural/anthropological context. Therefore understanding what pieces of a story are important to the culture in which a story is told is essential because it is the important and essential details which will be less likely to be warped to the particular purposes of the narrator. Consider yourself and how your memory holds on to details of events in the past which you find important and tends to forget or even alter those feature which we do not.

Additionally, as Mr Doyle’s protagonist Holmes remarks that it was the peculiar detail of the dog barking in the night. There are aspects of stories which we find in texts from other cultures which highlight there differences with our culture by what they do not mention. For example, during Lent our church had discussions on Friday nights over this book, which begins asking the question “what did Jesus look like.” This seemed to be an important question to the author and to many people in discussions, by which one can infer that personal appearance which highlights our individual nature and implicitly our economic status or position is important to us. That sort of description is lacking in the Gospels is akin to the peculiar dogs barking, that is its absence is a significant datum about the people of that time. One obvious conclusion is that while appearance and individual features are important to us in our culture today ... it was not an important detail to the authors of the Gospels or to the people in the early Church.

The point is that anthropological methods are salient when one examines narrative. Whether this is political narratives of parties struggling in power, literature from past eras, or Scripture these methods should not be set aside. Returning to the story of Noah. There are aspects to the story, the numbers of species, the counts of days in flood, the extent of the flooding, particulars of how the boat was built. Other aspects include the relational intercourse and attitudes and expressions which pass between Noah, God, his family and others. And H/S culture would be less likely to find the first list of details important and would find the second set of feature essential. In a discussion of the accuracy and the type of narrative which the flood fragment might be, a remaining aware of what are the necessary and the superficial elements of the story is relevant.

More on: Biblical Studies

Articles by Mark Olson

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