Thursday, April 28, 2005

Models in Biblical Studies

I've been thinking recently about the models we use in Biblical Studies.

The twentieth century opened with Hermann Gunkel's use of an oral-poetic model, influenced by the brilliant studies of folklore that his philological and Romantic predecessors such as the brothers Grimm and Herder had pioneered. The most interesting study of this work, and its legacy for the study of difference and modernity itself, is Charles Briggs and Richard Bauman's Voices of Modernity, which despite a bit of Latour damage, I cannot recommend highly enough.

But we stuck with the folk model throughout the whole 20th century, even when we knew better. From Albright to Cross to Niditch, studies of Israelite orality have continued to posit relatively pristine societies that lived by the magical spoken word and mystified writing as well.

In addition to stuff that's closer geographically (Moab, Carchemish, Assyria), I am looking for material that provokes me to think more useful thoughts. And one of the main places I turn is Medieval and early Modern India. Unlike the pristine folk cultures imagined by Gunkel, South Asia represents a radically polyglot milieu which had had multiple high languages and writing systems (think Babylonian, Egyptian and Assyrian dominance) as well as a variety of vernaculars (think of the spectrum of Aramean, Edomite, Greek, Phoenician, Philistine, Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian, as well as the Judean/Israelite splits, which fracture culture in Israel). So when Sumit Guha suggests historical studies charting "the co-evolution of language and identity," I'm right there with him.

The point is most emphatically not that India under the Raj was somehow "more like" Israel under Assyria than a group of German peasants in the Schwarzwald (or, more to the point, Francophone housekeepers), though that may be true--the point is that, among many productive ways of seeing the interplay of tradition, difference and change in history, South Asian studies has access to a number of privileged examples and is using them in ways that might help all of us think.

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