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The View from the Village: Dyadic Personality

I won’t be talking in Sunday school about dyadic personality until next weekend, but this one needs a head start. First, it may be difficult for us westerners to believe that ancient people really thought of themselves dyadically rather than individualistically. Second, I have a question with how dyadism is sometimes described by proponents of anthropological or sociological readings of the Bible. That question may or may not work its way into what I say next Sunday, but since all three of my faithful readers are intelligent Bible students, I’d love to pick your brains on this one.

What is a “Dyadic Personality”?

In simplest terms, a dyadic personality is the opposite of an individualistic one. For the foreigners we meet in the pages of the Bible, one’s identity is wrapped up not in expressions of individuality but in one’s awareness of the opinions of others.

If you think of the great importance of honor and shame to ancient Mediterranean cultures, this way of looking at one’s self makes all the sense in the world: my status (= “who I am”) depends on the community ratifying the claims I make about myself. Therefore, I need constant input from others in order for me to grasp my own identity.

The expression of Kenyan theologian John Mbiti comes to mind: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” Mbiti’s subversion of Descartes is a memorable commentary on the difference between African and Western cultures. In his context, a person is identified by his or her relationships, and without the community, he or she is lost. We might also think of stories of preindustrial peoples from various regions who, when missionaries implored them to turn to Christ to escape hell, responded that, since (based on what the missionaries had told them) their ancestors were all in hell, that is where they would prefer to be as well! Individual identity and self-expression does not hold the same absolute sacredness in most parts of the world that we ascribe to them in America.

This doesn’t mean that first-century people were not individuals; it does mean, however, that

the honorable man would never expose his distinct individuality, his unique personhood, his inner self with its difficulties, weaknesses, confusions, and inabilities to cope. Rather, he knows how to keep his psychological core hidden and secret. He is a person of careful calculation and discretion, normally disavowing any dependence on others. He is adept at keeping his innermost self concealed with a veil of conventionality and formality, ever alert to anything that might lead to his making an exhibition of himself, to anything that would not tally with the socially expected and defined forms of behavior that have entitled him to respect. (Bruce Malina, The New Testament World [John Knox, 1981] 52)

Because of this, one’s inner psychological motivations are culturally defined to be not terribly important. That is why ancient storytelling is so different from modern fiction or even modern history. Where we westerners are accustomed to delving into the psychological makeup of people, the ancients were content with more or less stereotyped descriptions of why people did things, which often boil down to “because everybody in that category does that.”

Were Ancient People Really That Averse to Uniqueness?

Bruce Malina (quoted above) seems to think so, but I wonder if he hasn’t pressed his case too far. Take this observation, also from The New Testament World:

Have you ever noticed how very few people bother to read any first-century Mediterranean writings apart from the New Testament? For the most part, people who do in fact read and study the New Testament do so because they believe that it is the Word of God, and that therefore it should be read. Yet if the New Testament lacked the theological, religious imprint that it bears, how many persons in our culture would find it enticing, alluring, and interesting reading? Would they be turned on by reading Plutarch, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and other writers of that period? By our standards, first-century Mediterranean writings are generally boring. (53)

Malina contends that this is because of the lack of psychologizing I alluded to above. He continues,

In our culture, we tend to consider a person’s psychological makeup, his or her personality development from infancy on, as well as his or her individuality and uniqueness (personal reasons), as perhaps the most important elements in understanding and explaining human behavior, both our own and others’. Yet if you carefully read the New Testament writings or any other writing from the same period and place, you will find an almost total absence of such information. One obvious reason for this state of affairs is that the people described in the New Testament, as well as those who described them, were not interested in or concerned about psychological or personality description. (54)

Malina is right as a general rule, and please note that he said there was an almost total lack of psychological or developmental information in the New Testament. Certainly there is some. For example, the inner monologues of some of the characters in Jesus’ parables reveal something their motivations. More telling, Jesus’ so-called “antitheses” (Mt 5:21-48) all seem to set up a distinction between one’s outward activity and inner motivations. If Malina and his colleagues are right about dyadic personality, these would have been shocking things for Jesus to say, but surely they were not utterly alien or there would have been no profit in Jesus saying them.

So, here is my question: if first-century Mediterranean literature is generally “boring” because it treats its characters superficially, what of other ancient Mediterranean literature—especially that which came before the first century AD?

Granted, the heroes of earlier Mesopotamian epics are all quite two-dimensional and display little individuality. But is that also true for wily Odysseus and wrathful Achilles from the pages of Homer a thousand or more years later—not to mention Sophocles’ Oedipus centuries after that? These early classics have stood the test of time and are still being read and studied by people who have no illusions about them being “inspired” texts in any but the most secular sense. Why? What is it about these stories that engage us? Might ancient Mediterraneans‚ or at least their poets‚ have had greater interest in the inner workings of the human psyche than the dyadic personality model will admit?

And what of the characters of the Old Testament? When we think we see something of their development and motivations of an Abraham, a David, or an Elijah, are we merely kidding ourselves, or might there actually be something there?

technorati tags: anthropology, bible, dyadic personality, sociology



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