»What is Human?« Theological Encounters with Anthropology

The present volume is the result of an interdisciplinary project within the Department of Theology at Aarhus University. The project was related to the research programme: “Christianity and Theology in Culture and Society: Formation – Reformation – Transformation”, running from 2012–2016 at the Institute of Culture and Society, Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University. The idea was to bring together scholars from all disciplines of Theology at Aarhus University in order to stimulate and coordinate disciplinary and interdisciplinary research cooperation. One substantial fruit of this endeavor can be found in the form of the present volume.

The front matter can be read here.  With thanks to V&R for the review copy.

One of the first things that comes to this reader’s attention is the great diversity of the topics covered in this collection.  It is as wide ranging and multifaceted as humanly imaginable.  Essays are so very diverse, in fact, that nearly all of them led me to aspects of theological enquiry I had neither imagined nor encountered before.

To be completely honest, only the first six essays touched on themes with which I was previously familiar.  Once the collection moved outside of the biblical arena and completely bypassed the Reformed theological tradition I was swimming in decidedly new waters.    And I’m very glad for it, for the field of theological anthropology has been broadened and widened and opened up in new ways for me.  And for that I am exceedingly grateful.

The essayists do a very good job in explaining their viewpoints with great clarity and sensibility.  But, given the fact that my own expertise is restricted to Biblical interpretation and Reformation theology and history, I simply would not hazard a critique of the majority of the essays in this book.  It simply wouldn’t be fair.  So, though I enjoyed Peter Lodberg’s “The Neo-Liberal Human Being in the Competitive State –A Sociotheological Perspective”, I am not a sociologist nor the son of a sociologist and anything I might say about the essay would be mere feelings. The same is true of the really amazingly interesting essay by Benedicte Hammer Præstholm titled “Human in the Flesh: Gendered Anthropology between Theology and Culture” because ‘gender studies’ is as far outside my purview as Hebrew and Greek are to Joel Osteen and Rick Warren.

Therefore, instead of analyzing essays which I enjoyed but cannot critique from an interior perspective, I’ll highlight one essay whose theme is very familiar to me: Bernhard Lang’s “New Light on the Levites: The Biblical Group that Invented Belief in Life after Death in Heaven”.

Lang is a wonderful writer and this essay is classic Lang. He writes, in his analysis of Psalm 16

The translation of verses 1–4a offered by the New American Standard Bible
reflects how the Hebrew text is traditionally understood, though it does not make much sense in the context of the psalm. However, once we realise that ʾeres (v. 3a) should be rendered “netherworld”, and that ʾassebet (v. 4a) is a term for “idol”, we begin to see what the passage is about – the rejection of the worship of ancestors. These, represented by idols, are believed to be in the netherworld. I take the words of the psalmist to be those that a young man had to recite when he was received into the community of the Levites.

That, dear reader, is an insight into an ancient text which only provokes a ‘why didn’t I see that before, it’s so simple’ sort of reaction. The present essay is full of such moments.

Further on, Lang observes (concerning Judg 19-20):

According to the terminology used in the Old Testament, a man of high social rank may have, in addition to one or more primary wives, one or more secondary wives called “concubines”. The Levite, however, does not seem to have been a man of high rank. Accordingly, we venture to suggest a different explanation: the “concubine” was none other than his only wife; she is called a “concubine” to denote her particular legal status. Levites, it seems, did not have wives like the settled, land-owning men had. Wives bore sons who would eventually inherit plots of cultivated land. Concubines, by contrast, bore sons who, though legitimate offspring, could not inherit land. This is most likely true of all concubines – of those in harems of wealthy men and those married to Levites. The ties between aman and his pillegesˇ were apparently weaker than those between a man and his normal “wife”. So we may learn from this episode that Levites conducted a special type of marriage that the term pillegesˇ describes – one with a weaker marital bond; perhaps one without a formal contract.

And then

Unlike the other Israelites, who expected to spend life after death in Sheol, a vast underground realm inaccessible to the living but inhabited by their ancestors, the Levites entertained the presumably secret, esoteric notion of an afterlife with God in heaven. A heavenly afterlife would be the exclusive privilege of the landless Levites, granted to none of the landowners. This doctrine appears in the book of Psalms. The relevant passages can be found in Psalms 49 and 73, presumably dating from the fourth or third century BCE.

And

In the past, biblical scholarship has tended to argue that there is no evidence for Israelite belief in a “soul” that survives death; but recent research has contradicted this assumption, pointing out that nepesˇ must mean “ghost” or “soul (of a dead person)” in Psalm 16:10.

Hopefully these few excerpts will whet your appetite for more. Not only of this particular essay by Lang, but for the volume as a whole. For if you are interested in the subject of Anthropology from the perspective of the Bible and modern theological methodologies, you owe it to yourself to read this voluem. It’s an eye opener.

About Jim

I am a Pastor, and Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.
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