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.

“Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions” by Catherine Bell

Catherine Bell  (1953-2008). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press: 2009.

Catherine Bells was, until her passing in May of 2008, Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. Previous to her work Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, her seminal work Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992) became key to understanding the dichotomy between action and ritual. Her later publication, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimension, expanded the study to a more comprehensive history of the phenomenon of ritual theory and the vast number of perspectives and approaches to ritual. Now re-published in 2009 with a forward by Reza Aslan, a new generation may take hold of her detailed introduction to the history of ritual theory.

Her work is divided into three parts: theories, rites, and contexts. Part one explores three major schools of thought, clearly demonstrating how the schools dynamically interact with each other. Sense is made of how various theoretical approaches developed. Beyond providing neat arrangement of complex history, Bell opens up the opportunity for student readers to move forward with theories of which they take interest. She does this by demonstrating, at the end of each school of thought, how the range of theories within the schools each interpret, or would interpret, certain ritual. In effect, one is left with an organized account of the major theories within each school of thought.

Part two provides an introduction to the range of ritual rites. Bell is careful to note the dynamic relationship between the various categories so that students do not fall into a rigid system of ritual theory that ultimately overlays ritual interpretation with concepts foreign to the original audience and actor(s). The basic genres provide a healthy framework for understanding the different types of ritual, while characteristics of ritual-like activities demonstrate how ritual is actually expressed within societal contexts. Her depth of knowledge detail regarding the spectrum of ritual and clear presentation indicate her as an authoritative voice for any questions or issues surrounding what denotes “ritual activity”.

Part three approaches ritual within the fabric of life, the reasons for much or little ritual, change, and reification. Most interestingly, she notes that “if, in some fundamental way, we continue to see “modernity” as antithetical to religion and ritual, it may be due in part to how we have been defining religion” (202), a fascinating observation that reflects the mind of scholars and draws out a major difficulty of ritual studies. How does one approach ritual with the right mindset, objective and not presupposing, open minded and not limited in ritual interpretation? Though she doesn’t attempt to answer questions like this, it is a thoughtful element that flows and ebbs through her work. Even though she discusses various elements and logical categories of ritual density, change, and reification, ritual theory is clearly a difficult topic to discuss and not nearly as absolute as some scholars illustrate it to be.

In conclusion, Catherine Bell’s history of ritual perspectives and dimensions provides a study that draws out elements from scholars who developed the foundations of ritual theory. Although there has been development in the field of ritual studies, Bell’s work is rooted in the past. Hence, it will always be a resource for understanding how ritual studies emerged. Furthermore, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions consistently provides analysis of each early perspectives. Rather than merely present the information, Bell clearly demonstrates if certain theories possessed flaws without necessarily arguing for a certain approach. Finally, although her work is not oriented towards biblical scholars, as this blog is, she does provide possible foundations for interpretation of ritual in the Hebrew Bible. At the end of the day her heart for Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions shines through in her concluding statement, demonstrating that she sees ritual not as a bland academic endeavor but as a humanistic endeavor. In her own words, “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” (267).

I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy and the opportunity to review the publication