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>  News Releases >   2003 >   February

Seeking clues to ancient religious traditions

Posted 02/14/03, by Tamara Steinert


Ackerman '80 digs deep into religious texts for social clues

Susan Ackerman '80 has made a career of reading between the lines of the Bible, seeking clues to ancient religious traditions that didn't make it into modern Jewish or Christian practice.

"I am generally interested in the ancient Israelite traditions that the biblical authors did not like," says Ackerman. The associate professor of religion writes on topics ranging from child sacrifice to ancestor worship. Since such practices were condemned by biblical writers, they have been little studied within Jewish and Christian biblical scholarship. However, Ackerman suggests these topics are in some ways made accessible by the polemics against them. For example, in a recent paper, she looked at worship of Asherah, a mother goddess mentioned in the Bible 40 times.

"The biblical authors are negative and polemic about Asherah. But the fact that they rant against worshipping her suggests there were plenty of people around who did. Archaeological finds in the 1970s uncovered texts that refer to Yahweh and his Asherah. The biblical texts also tell us that Asherah worship took place in the temple, which tells us the worshippers must have had the priests' permission. This suggests there was a deep disagreement or theological split at the time, but before these archaeological finds, we only had looked at one side of the story," she says.

Although she wasn't raised in a religious household, Ackerman's childhood in the Bible Belt South exposed her only to evangelical Christian tradition. Her interest in looking at alternative interpretations of the Bible sprang from her exposure to feminist theory as an undergraduate at Dartmouth.

Religion attracted her as a discipline because it encompassed so many different fields. "Studying religion is a quintessential liberal arts curriculum in itself. You have to know languages, history, anthropology, archaeology, and art," she says.

Ackerman believes economic concerns have made students and parents more hesitant about the practicality of a religion major. However, she notes a survey of religion department alumni suggests these fears are unfounded. The largest percentage of alumni—29 percent—entered medicine after leaving Dartmouth, with the second largest group—19 percent—taking jobs in education, and approximately 11 percent going to law school.

"Religion students...learn to analyze and present arguments and to make very complex ideas understandable," she says. "These skills transcend the study of religion and can help out in a lot of different career paths."

- Tamara Steinert

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