HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article in French about three anthropologists (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, Mary Douglas) and the anthropology of the Bible.
Adler, Alfred, 2021. “L’anthropologie structurale et l’interprétation de textes bibliques” [Transl. “Structural Anthropology and the Interpretation of Biblical Texts”], in BEROSE – International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.
The structural analysis of myths as theorized and practiced by Lévi-Strauss has proved its worth, as is shown by the imposing sum constituted by his Mythologiques. It was the philosopher Paul Ricoeur who pointed out the limits of this method by asking why it should only be applied to the myths of non-literate societies and why it is inappropriate for texts such as the Bible. Two eminent British anthropologists, Edmund Leach and Mary Douglas, and indeed Lévi-Strauss himself, overrode this ‘taboo’ as if to challenge not the limits of structural analysis itself, but the status of the Bible as ‘holy scripture,’ which is nonetheless amenable to a strictly scientific approach.
Leach in his essay “The Legitimacy of Solomon” sought to shed light on what he called the ideology of kingship in ancient Israel by analyzing the contradictions between settlement in a promised land populated by idolatrous tribes and the religious ideal of purity involving endogamy. As a result, his object is not myth per se but a hybrid material, “myth-history,” which cannot be the subject of a structural analysis. Mary Douglas, in Purity and Danger, dealt with the theme of the “abominations of Leviticus,” which were part of the priestly code. In this erudite article, Adler considers that this is undoubtedly a well-conducted structural analysis, but that it stumbles over the notion of holiness, a divine attribute that does not fit into the framework of oppositions between pure and impure or sacred and profane, familiar in religious anthropology. Finally, Lévi-Strauss, in the brief article “Exodus on Exodus,” a challenge and also a playful exercise, made a piquant but hazardous comparison between circumcision, the initiation ritual among the ancient Hebrews, and the removal of the penile sheath in initiation among the Bororo of Brazil. Lévi-Strauss shed little light on the three very mysterious biblical verses that recount the circumcision of Moses, who was first threatened with death by a demon god who descended upon him in the desert, only to let him accomplish his mission with the Pharaoh: to bring the people of Israel out of slavery. Why are these three essays disappointing, why do they add little to the discipline of Biblical criticism? This is what French Africanist anthropologist Alfred Adler attempts to answer in a thorough and sophisticated analysis.