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Anthropology and the Old Testament: From Frazer’s Sympathetic Magic to Douglas’s Concept of Purity

SEUNG IL KANG 1

1한남대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

With the emergence of the so-called historical criticism of the Bible in the 19th century, the theories and methodologies used in social sciences began to be applied to the Old Testament. While biblical studies have collaborated with other disciplines such as semitic linguistics, archaeology, ancient Near Eastern studies, theology, and philosophy, it has rarely engaged with the community of anthropologists. This paper briefly reviews the history of scholarship of anthropological interpretation of the Old Testament from Robertson Smith's Lectures on the Religion of the Semites: First Series, The Fundamental Institutions to some recent series of collections of essays. Then it discusses methodological problems in the use of anthropological data to biblical studies. As a case study, it applies two well-known anthropological theories to the interpretation of some enigmatic rites and anecdotes in the Old Testament: one is the theory of sympathetic magic put forward by James G. Frazer in his magnum opus The Golden Bough, and the other is Mary Douglas's understanding of the concept of purity/holiness. The incident of the bronze serpent made by Moses (Num 21), the scapegoat ritual (Lev 16), and the story of five golden tumors and five golden mice (1 Sam 5-6) are interpreted in light of the theory of sympathetic magic. And the concept of contagious holiness inspired by Mary Douglas's contagious impurity is the key to the interpretation of the story of Uzzah's sudden death(2 Sam 6). The results of this study suggests the followings: (1) some rituals in the Old Testament may have originated from old magical practices; (2) stories in the Bible reflects humankind's general features of social life, symbol systems, and religious concepts; and (3) the study of the Old Testament should not remain within the framework of the ancient Near Eastern context and engage in dialogue with findings from anthropological inquiries.

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