The Privileged Tradition: An Approach to Comparative Studies

Emerging from an academic environment in which the Hebrew Bible was extremely privileged and West Semitic culture “Canaanized” (Ballentine 2015, 17), much 20th and 21st century biblical scholarship has sought an equilibrium to allow for comparative studies without presupposed significance of one text over the other. By “Canaanized”, I mean the gross misrepresentation of West Semitic cultures primarily via the polemical lens of the Hebrew Bible and cherry picked texts. More recently, from an evangelical perspective, John Walton has championed the importance of comparative studies for the Hebrew Bible, drawing emphasis to the challenges of comparative studies for confessional scholars in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Walton 2006, 29-40). Debra Ballentine succinctly notes in her discussion of “the comparative enterprise” that “Israelite and Judean traditions should be included among Canaanite traditions, not portrayed as being opposed to, completely other than, or superior to Canaanite traditions” (2015, 16).

But how does one avoid privileging the Israelite Judean traditions without abandoning recognition of the role of the Hebrew Bible in the daily lives of the religious? I believe the answer to this question does not rest upon increasing ones faith in the Bible, for doing so would move back towards the “Canaanization” of West Semitic culture and myth. Nor does it require movement towards complete agreement on the authoritative nature of ancient literature. Positive development of supporting the authoritative status for the religious, and avoidance of diminishment of it to one insignificant piece of literature among many, may be found by moving toward questions of the universality of story, myth, and ritual. As Catherine Bell (1952-2008) notes at the end of her introduction to ritual, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, “the form and scope of interpretation differ, and that should not be lightly dismissed, but it cannot be amiss to see in all of these instances practices that illuminate our shared humanity” (1997, 267). In other words, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, the ritual nature of life itself should be drawn out to find common humanity.

By elevating the status of other ancient literature to demonstrate the commonalities of humanity, comparative study may more successfully flourish amongst those who do privilege the Hebrew Bible. The notion of privilege then becomes an issue of praxis rather than glorified literature. So even if one firmly believes in the importance of the Hebrew Bible over other ancient literature, the common ritual, and hence uniting humanity, permits a more balanced equilibrium. Furthermore, this approach would allow confessional and non-confessional scholars alike to be heard better by those outside of the academy. Instead of hearing a person say that the Hebrew Bible is not significant, drawing out the common human elements of other literature allows people to hold to their beliefs while still recognizing the intrinsic value of other ancient literature.

Such an approach accomplishes two important missions for all people. First, this approach unites people in finding common humanity. No evidence need be shown to reveal the disconnected and opposing behavior of many people due to the sense of one’s traditions over another. But by elevating the intrinsic value of ancient literature for human commonalities, an environment is cultured in which conducive discussion may occur and unite, rather than splinter people. Secondly, people are permitted to believe freely in what they understand to be Truth, or truth. Culture of scholarship would permit confessional and non-confessional alike to unite and hold to their own tenants. Hence the validity of scholars are upheld and the community becomes more inclusive, accepting the full spectrum of traditions and scholastic approaches.

Finding the intrinsic value of ancient literature has the potential to improve the quality of biblical scholarship. How do certain texts discuss the nature of humanity? Does the text do so in a ritual manner that compares equally to the Hebrew Bible? Too what extent does ritual illustrate the common humanity between ancient Israel and Canaan? These are the sort of questions that may be explored more thoroughly only when one is willing to note the intrinsic value of all ancient literature for demonstrating common humanity.


Cited Works

Ballentine, Debra Scoggins. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

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4 thoughts on “The Privileged Tradition: An Approach to Comparative Studies

  1. I feel like I might be in over my head here, but these are some penetrating insights. The Hebrew Scriptures have been privileged for millennia because they provide a framework for moral living in a society. This message is put in such a way that it can be understood by persons from a variety of different backgrounds. However, this has led, IMO, to serious distortions of the value of the writing in cultural and historical studies that are not “religious” in nature. There are still too many scholars who approach the HS (and the NT) as a settled matter, when in fact it’s anything but.

    Thanks for the follow. I’m going to do some reading here to get my bearings on your overall approach and interpretation.

  2. Having looked at this again, it seems like the word you and I are dancing around is “sacred”. I think that is the root meaning of your term “privileged”. And I know that the attitude that this text is “sacred” has been a huge hindrance to historical cultural analysis. And those who are determined to disprove the HS/NT are just as bad as those who treat it as written by the Finger of God. Neither camp comes at the text with anything like an open mind. As a result, the lion’s share of “analysis” becomes apologetics or polemics.

    Apologies if I’ve misread or mis-characterized.

    • I think you may be correct. I guess, the way I was seeing it, the “privileged” text is “privileged” because it is considered sacred.

      And, yes, I do agree with you about how both camps aren’t too great. I am reading through “The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition” by Debra Ballentine and she explores the innovations of the biblical conflict traditions, especially noting that they are similar to Canaan myth but not necessarily dependent upon.

      Thanks for the comments! They truly do help me to sharpen how I think/work.

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