Ethnography, Sociology, and Anthropology
As explorers and archaeologists began to make the ancient Near East known, they also observed those living there in the present. While many of the descriptions published were little more than naïve catalogues of perceived parallels between Arab customs and details of life in biblical times, there were serious works of scholarship, including W. Robertson Smith's Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889) and Gustaf Dalman's extensive survey of Palestinian social life and customs (Arbeit [work] und Sitte [customs] in Palestina, 1928–1939). At the same time, the disciplines of sociology and anthropology were becoming more sophisticated. An early sociological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible was Max Weber's Ancient Judaism (1917–1919), and there were sporadic applications of sociological method to early Christianity as well. Not until the later twentieth century, however, would it become important in biblical interpretation.
Anthropological research had a more immediate impact. Typical of early efforts was the encyclopedic work of James G. Frazer. In The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890; revised and abridged by Theodor Gaster in 1959) and subsequent works such as Folk‐lore in the Old Testament (1919), Frazer organized a staggering amount of data in support of his understanding of the evolution of society from primitive beginnings to civilization. His principal focus was on myth and rituals, especially the essential role of the king in the welfare of the larger society, and he included both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his analysis.
While Frazer's work was subsequently criticized for its failure to pay sufficient attention to specific cultural contexts and for his cavalier treatment of the data to fit his theories, his influence was considerable. In particular, both in Britain and in Scandinavia many scholars developed and refined his approach, developing what has been characterized as a “myth and ritual” school. The work of Sigmund Mowinckel of Norway is representative. Using form criticism as a method (he had been a student of Gunkel) and the function of the king as an organizing principle, and drawing heavily on Babylonian sources, his study of the Psalms (1921–1924) focused on their use in what he suggested was an annual enthronement festival of Yahweh, like the Babylonian New Year festival. He also identified the individual speaker in many of the psalms as the king himself, and found evidence for prophets giving oracular messages to the king or to the community as part of the New Year ceremony. In He That Cometh (1951), Mowinckel examined the reuse of these royal ritual traditions in postexilic Judaism and in the New Testament.