"The idea behind the course is that by focusing on religious beliefs, practices, and rituals, students
can learn something not simply about religion, but about the larger cultural patterns of people as
well," explains E. Theodore Mullen Jr., a professor of
religious studies and chairperson of the department. Mullen, a graduate of Davidson College
whose Ph.D. is from Harvard University, characterizes himself as "an old-timey book scholar."
His specialty is the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. He's also somewhat of a
maverick. He is, in his own characterization, "working on the edges" of modern biblical
scholarship. His newest book, Ethnic Myths and Pentateuchal Foundations: A New Approach to
the Formation of the Pentateuch (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1997), is part of a series
dedicated to new, experimental approaches to biblical scholarship. It is an extension and
reapplication of an argument begun in his 1993 book, Narrative History and Ethnic Boundaries:
The Deuteronomistic Historian and the Creation of Israelite National Identity (Scholars Press).
He looks to author and audience and to social and religious functions of community to tease
apart the identity of an ancient culture with the fine-tooth comb of the anthropologist and the
sociologist. He perceives the concept of Torah as something that evolved over time.
Sacrifices of Elijah and the Prophets of Bal after Mathurin, Nicholas LeSuere (1691-1764), n.d., Paris, France, Chiaroscuro Woodcut --credit
Texts that covered a diverse range had a better chance of becoming scriptural than texts with a
monolithic perspective. "The concept of a story being told--especially when the hearers are being
told that this is their story, their ancestors, the explanation of who they are and why they are like
they are--is one of the most powerful tools that any culture possesses," Mullen notes.
One of his favorite books of the Old Testament is Leviticus, an affection that makes "many of my students roll their eyes," Mullen says. "But I love portions of Leviticus, especially the portions on sacrifice. Sacrifice is often seen as this very strange, barbaric practice, somehow related to feeding the gods. What fascinates me about sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible is its social purpose. These elaborate sacrificial laws seem to have as their basic function the ability to reintegrate a person who, for some reason, has become 'unclean' and apart from the community. The appropriate sacrifice and the appropriate ritual provide a way of reintegrating that person fully back into the community. I find it fascinating that a people would develop this elaborate ritual that serves such an incredibly significant function. Literary critics often look at scripture as whole literary units, assessing the structures and nuances of the work fully wrought," Mullen says. In so doing, however, they tend to ignore the essential nature of the scripture, which is something to be used in small bits and pieces, and to be heard. It is very possible that much of the marvelous literary structure of the Bible is both "accidental and incidental."
"But I would be remiss as a student of religion if I were not to recognize that for some people,
scripture is a mode by which the divine communicates with the human realm. That is an
important social and cultural comment."--
Return to the Table of Contents