Francesca Stavrakopoulou on “Popular” Religion

I’m reviewing a brand new book on my blog called Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah, and the article by Francesca Stavrakopoulou is particularly engaging. It treats the rather artificial scholarly practice of distinguishing between state and popular religion. Some highlights:

Many scholars have sought to ‘manage’ biblical and archaeological indications of religious diversities in ancient Israel and Judah by assuming a firm distinction between ‘popular’ religion and ‘official’ religion. But this distinction is often drawn relatively uncritically on theological grounds — which risks misrepresenting or distorting the likely religious realities of ancient Israel and Judah.

This biblically based, theological distinction is problematic. It is constructed in part upon a relatively uncritical acceptance of the historical reliability of the biblical texts — a position which has been seriously and persuasively challenged. But it also reflects the related perception that the ‘official’ theological and religious preferences of the biblical writers are intellectually and even morally superior to the forms of religious belief and practice deemed ‘popular.’

Further undermining what may or may not be ‘known’ from biblical texts about the socio-religious realities of the past is the ‘configured’ nature of the Hebrew Bible itself. The self-legitimizing presentation of the biblical texts (particularly Torah) as authoritative religious teaching renders the Hebrew Bible itself a construct of a later type of religion unlike the religions of the social groups that probably comprised the nested social matrix of ancient Israel and Judah.

I’ve always been critical of the statement “the Bible says. . .” because it presupposes a single biblical voice, when in fact the Bible contains numerous, often conflicting, voices. I believe this observation also undermines that claims of many that the non-traditional practices of ancient Israel represent “apostate,” or “non-biblical” aspects of worship. Many of these “apostate” beliefs and cult practices are perceptible within the worldviews of the very writers of the biblical texts. They were institutionalized by the kings, practiced within the Jerusalem temple and are favorably attested in the Patriarchal narratives and in biblical poetry. “Apostate” Israel then becomes an artificial category for “biblical Israel that does not agree with my dogmas.”


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