Of Noah and Culture

Does the particular anthropological differences between our individualistic/wealth driven culture and the Honor/Shame agricultural culture of the Middle East have in reading, for example, the story of Noah and the flood? This question was asked when last I discussed the flood in another context some weeks back.

Geneticists inform us that the genes which govern the particular patterns which direct the construction of our cornea show very little variation from individual to individual. Other features, even in the eye, which are not tightly constrained in the same way vary far much more from generation to generation and in fact show mutation and changes introduced much more freely between generations. The cornea and the eye are tricky enough that any structural mistake or change will likely lead to complete failure of the organ for its intended purpose, i.e., sight. Our genetic material pays attention to those things which it has found important.

Likewise when we pass events and messages on to others in narratives those features of the story which we find important … remain less prone to transcription error than those features which we do not find important. If one take a narrative, say our founder George Washington and his chopping of the cherry tree as a youth. If we wish to tell this story in a way that also takes on moral and metaphoric meaning as well, one might take the story and alter it in unessential ways that aid in highlighting the message and the particular other meanings which we wish to take. Yet what is for this story unessential is only unessential in a cultural/anthropological context. Therefore understanding what pieces of a story are important to the culture in which a story is told is essential because it is the important and essential details which will be less likely to be warped to the particular purposes of the narrator. Consider yourself and how your memory holds on to details of events in the past which you find important and tends to forget or even alter those feature which we do not.

Additionally, as Mr Doyle’s protagonist Holmes remarks that it was the peculiar detail of the dog barking in the night. There are aspects of stories which we find in texts from other cultures which highlight there differences with our culture by what they do not mention. For example, during Lent our church had discussions on Friday nights over this book, which begins asking the question “what did Jesus look like.” This seemed to be an important question to the author and to many people in discussions, by which one can infer that personal appearance which highlights our individual nature and implicitly our economic status or position is important to us. That sort of description is lacking in the Gospels is akin to the peculiar dogs barking, that is its absence is a significant datum about the people of that time. One obvious conclusion is that while appearance and individual features are important to us in our culture today … it was not an important detail to the authors of the Gospels or to the people in the early Church.

The point is that anthropological methods are salient when one examines narrative. Whether this is political narratives of parties struggling in power, literature from past eras, or Scripture these methods should not be set aside. Returning to the story of Noah. There are aspects to the story, the numbers of species, the counts of days in flood, the extent of the flooding, particulars of how the boat was built. Other aspects include the relational intercourse and attitudes and expressions which pass between Noah, God, his family and others. And H/S culture would be less likely to find the first list of details important and would find the second set of feature essential. In a discussion of the accuracy and the type of narrative which the flood fragment might be, a remaining aware of what are the necessary and the superficial elements of the story is relevant.

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14 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    Interesting but unlike the cornea, the story may end up being used for different purposes, different lessons. One culture may pass on the flood story because they find it emphasizes family solidarity. Another may pick it up and pass it on because they find it emphasizes the heavy price of sin. With the cornea, it remains untouched because it is essential for sight.

    That sort of description is lacking in the Gospels is akin to the peculiar dogs barking, that is its absence is a significant datum about the people of that time. One obvious conclusion is that while appearance and individual features are important to us in our culture today … it was not an important detail to the authors of the Gospels or to the people in the early Church.

    Or could it simply be that since they were composed decades, even a century after Christ’s births the authors simply lacked first hand knowledge of his looks so couldn’t describe him without making it up? I understand that the Koran does contain a brief physical description of the Prophet. Even if we assume the gospels began as oral traditions from the actual apostles, a physical description was simply left out because it would come up in the ‘Q&A’ sessions after their talks. Or perhaps a physical description was part of other works that the authors, at the time, assumed would remain available as part of the cannon but since become lost. Let’s just imagine, for example, if 1000 years from now all of the Star Wars movies remain except “The Attack of the Clones”. Future students of the work might start ascribing lots of importance to the fact that the story starts with Vadar as a boy and then skips immediately to the clone war without explaining where the clones came from or how the war started. But they would be wrong, it would just be that of the 6 movies that one failed to survive.

  2. While our culture is probably more “wealth-driven” (Abraham seemed pretty wealth-driven to me) and is certainly more individualistic than those cultures, I’m not sure that’s the relevant distinction. The important difference is that we are a scientific/historical culture and they were mythological cultures.

    If we were recording a flood, we would record the average wave height, the time it started, the time it stopped, e.g. For them, “40 days and 40 nights” has a nice ring to it. (See also 40 days on Sinai, 40 years in the desert, etc.)

    The only curious part is what’s up with all the cubits? Why would they go to all that trouble to describe how many cubits the thing was? 300x50x30 don’t seem like magic numbers lik 7, 12, 13, 40, etc. I get it for the tabernacle and temple, as those were to be built and maintained, but were people replicating the ark? I don’t know why that’s there, except maybe just as a detail to make it feel more real.

  3. Boonton says:

    Or perhaps it is something as simple as one of the bards being a bit of an engineer and wanting to add technical flair to the story? Some reason why B&N has whole sections of books of ‘blueprints’ for the ships of Star Wars and Star Trek.

  4. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Or could it simply be that since they were composed decades, even a century after Christ’s births the authors simply lacked first hand knowledge of his looks so couldn’t describe him without making it up?

    No. The first gospels were composed when those who were his disciples were still alive. And even for those that weren’t … Christianity grew very quickly in the first decades. Some people date the Didache to the year 50 or 60. The data for which people found essential was passed on. That data did not happen to include a personal physical description … because for the 1st and 2nd century Christians it was not an important datum.

    Besides the Gospels there are other independent writings. Non-cannonical works and historical works, e.g., Josephus.

    On your last note, with B&N and its books of fictional blueprints … that is noting a particular social anthropological aspect to a sub-culture (the techno/geek/engineer) in our culture. It is an essential or important thing for them. We can identify them, i.e., the market. I’m pretty sure the equivalent “market” did not exist then.

    JA,

    The important difference is that we are a scientific/historical culture and they were mythological cultures.

    Are you just puling that out of your butt or do you have actual reasons for saying that? You don’t think that there is an emphasis tying value to wealth in our culture? This, Mr Molina tells us was lacking in the H/S cultures of the Mediterranean. Patron/client … honor challenge and so on are features foreign to us in the West. Today’s H/S cultures are less interested in dry (largely irrelevant) factual data after an event than ours. After every disaster in our country along with flood level values is reported a wild-ass guess at the dollar value of the damages from the disaster. If we were recording a flood the impact on the insurance market and industry would just as prominent as the height of the flood waters. And furthermore the “date” of the flood in the context of the story is given implicitly in the genealogical accounts that accompany the story. Name. People and family. These are the essential elements for an H/S culture and they are present in this one.

  5. Boonton says:

    Besides the Gospels there are other independent writings. Non-cannonical works and historical works, e.g., Josephus.

    Let’s think about that, say looks were important to Josephus. How would he have responded? The fact is Josephus would not have had any easy way to learn anything about Jesus’s looks, and even if he did he would have to worry about his ability to convey a mental image into words since pictures were not easily reproduceable in scrolls. Since Jesus was only a side mention in his history, he probably wouldn’t have bothered with looks.

    No. The first gospels were composed when those who were his disciples were still alive. And even for those that weren’t … Christianity grew very quickly in the first decades. Some people date the Didache to the year 50 or 60.

    This, though, works if the first gospels were either written directly by those who physical witnessed Jesus or directly dictated by them. Your observation of Christianity growing quickly is a problem here. It means its quite possible that the gospels were written by those who learned of Jesus second or third hand. Since they didn’t have physical witnesses they could interrogate they had less opportunity to include a physical description whether they would have preferred it or not. And of course the medium remains an issue. Even with a physical witness one still has to worry about one’s ability to transform a physical description into words.

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    The tradition passed down in the Church was that the first Gospel, by Mark who then went on to evangelise and bring Christianity to the Copts (Egypt), was prior to writing his Gospel Peter’s Scribe and that his mother owned the house where the Apostles stayed when in Jerusalem (where the last supper and the meetings after the resurrection of Jesus occurred). Polycarp who was martyred in the beginning of the second century was significant for the Church because his death represented the passing of last person who directly knew and was taught by one of the apostles. It marked a change in the churches contact with Jesus.

    Why do you resist the idea that there is no physical description or rough portrait when we have no evidence that portraits or physical descriptions where common in the era … and that this was not a technological problem but a facet of a cultural difference between them and us, i.e., that we find personal individual appearance more important than they.

  7. The first gospels were composed when those who were his disciples were still alive.

    Wikipedia:

    While many scholars argue for a traditional dating of the gospels (between the 40s and 60s AD), a majority date the Synoptic Gospels as having been written after the epistles of Paul and before the Gospel of John. (ie between years 60 and 115). [27]

  8. Mark says:

    JA,
    How is that inconsistent with the the Gospel of Mark, which many scholars think was the first written, being written by someone who was a teen in year 33-35.

  9. Mark,

    Oops, you’re right. It is consistent.

  10. Boonton says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_mark seems to assert that Mark wrote what he heard Peter speak in Rome. While some traditions put him in or near face to face contact with Jesus (at the marriage of cana, bringing water to the house where the Last Supper took place, but Papias asserted that Mark never meet Jesus in person.

    I’m not resistent to the idea that it wasn’t considered important to record a description of what Jesus looked like, I simply think that it is equally as likely that early Christians waited so long to start writing the stuff down a reliable description just wasn’t available.

  11. Boonton says:

    Now a slightly different theory. By waiting so long to write down Jesus’s story from actual witnesses and combined with Christianity’s rapid growth, numerous versions of ‘what did Jesus look like’ cropped up, many of them contradictory. As an effort was made to start writing down authoritative history, scribes found themselves with contradictory descriptions and therefore included none as they could deem none reliable. This would be consistent with a culture that did want to know what Jesus looked like but nonetheless did not produce any description in the texts we have today.

  12. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    You seem resistant to let go of the “they wouldn’t care” what he looked like proposal. Do you have evidence from other writings that in narrative and other accounts that people whose appearance is not unusual (very large, disfiguring marks) is noted?

    We have a lot of first and second century texts and letters from Christian sources. But … I don’t recall descriptions of people making an appearance. I’ll check Makkabees books, which was written a century and a half before Jesus and look specifically for physical descriptions.

    Consider cultures on an axis of how much emphasis is placed on the individual and that we are on one end of the spectrum (individual important) and H/S cultures are to the other (group more important). It seems to me a likely hypothesis that individual persons specific descriptions and characteristics more important to those cultures like ours and less in theirs. Thus the notion that these people did not record Jesus description because it wasn’t important to them.

  13. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    See this regarding St. Mark.

  14. Boonton says:

    Mark

    Other descriptions, well as I said there are physical descriptions of Muhammad in Islam (see http://ca.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080217162822AA8vgJe). We know the Greeks and Roman’s made images of their kings and queens on coin (and since we can see Cleopatra’s coin is not especially attractive, we can guess that some value was placed on capturing a true likeness rather than just a flattering idealization). Considering that Christians were quick to adopt royal language in describing Christ (Lord of Lords, King of the Jews, King of Kings etc), what do you think would have happened in a slightly alternative universe where the Roman Empire converted more quickly to Christianity, quick enough so that persecution of Christians was much briefer than it was and when the Emperor finally converted there were still living eyewitnesses to Jesus? Might they not have been paired with the Empires master artists to strike statues and coins?

    In terms of other sources like Makkabees, the same question comes up. When these authors were describing famous people were they describing people they meet or even had first hand conversations with people who meet them in person? If not then even though they might have liked to have known what they looked like, they would not have been able to write about it. (Also for long lived famous persons, it isn’t just what they looked like but what they looked like as a young, middle aged and old man).

    As the Chinese said, a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s not easy to paint a good picture of someone with just words. The desire might have been there but the technology might have simply been lacking. The first Christians, dodging persecution, simply didn’t have the time or resources to pair up a talented sculpter with some of the remaining eye witnesses to Christ to make an accurate depiction (or who knows, maybe they did and the work is simply lost like many others?). An analogy might be color film. It’s not that people in the 20’s and 30’s didn’t want color movies, its just that the technology was too clumsy and expensive to deploy on most movies so most filmmakers tried to perfect the black and white film.

    You seem resistant to let go of the “they wouldn’t care” what he looked like proposal.

    I think you mean to say I’m resistant to accept the ‘they didn’t care’ proposal. I accept it is a possible explanation but I also accept as a possible explanation that they did care but simply lacked the information and resources (artists were quite expensive in those days) to explore the topic accurately. Note that once Christianity became the norm, local artists produced thousands of variations of Jesus which seems to imply Christians did want some type of visual depiction of Jesus.

    See this regarding St. Mark.

    From trolling around wikipedia there seems to be several theories as to which Gospel was written first. It’s interesting to note that the early Church seems to have considered Matthew to be first. What is important here, though, is not what was written first but what was written either by direct witnesses or by those in direct contact with direct witnesses. I would lean towards suspecting that if any of the Gospels were directly written by witnesses, they would be much more autobiographical. IMO, its human nature to want to insert yourself into a great story and if you happened to actually be in a great story then that’s all the more reason to begin with something like “I was hauling in the day’s catch when this man came up to me and said….” Instead they are all written as if they are either removed from the actual action and pulling the reports into a coherent story.

    As I said there seems to be two versions of Mark. One has him as a scribe after the fact pulling together what others who say Jesus said he said. The other has him inside the time and place at some important event (like the Last Supper, the Wedding, etc.). Whatever the case he doesn’t tell us directly who he is so we can’t say if had personally seen what Jesus looked like or not.