Figures of history

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Courtney Handman. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.015


Figures of history

Interpreting Jewish pasts in Christian Papua New Guinea

Courtney HANDMAN, University of Texas at Austin

This article examines two competing historical formations that expatriate missionaries and Papua New Guineans respectively have used to create connections between local ethnic groups and “the ancient Jews” of the Bible. In part through 1970s publications analyzed here, missionaries introduced redemptive and repetitive historicist models that established Melanesian ethnic groups as generically and iconically Jewish. The article then examines the ways in which Guhu-Samane Christians in rural Papua New Guinea take up these missionary narratives in order to produce indexical, genealogical connections to biblical Jews. Ancient Jews have become “figures” of Guhu-Samane history through interpretive discourses in which local people discover the prophetic revelations of their Jewishness that anticipate a future Christianity. Guhu-Samane Christians thus particularize their relationship to Christianity by taking up the history of another group, a Christian historical imagination that runs counter to secular forms of history that orient around issues of autonomous identity.

Keywords: historical imagination, Christianity, Judaism, missionaries, Papua New Guinea

In one sense, it is perfectly true to say that almost all Guhu-Samane speakers are Christians. By this I mean that almost all Guhu-Samane speakers, who mostly live along the Waria River Valley in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, attend and give tithes to their churches regularly. They identify themselves as Christians to one another. They pray as a regular part of the accomplishment of various social tasks: gardening, organizing an event, or even just engaging in the project of continuous living rather than dying. After more than a century of evangelization that began with German Lutheran missionaries and included a 1970s shift toward revivalist Pentecostalism, nobody self-identifies as non-Christian. At best the less committed [238]call themselves Lutherans, hoping that what they lack in enthusiasm they make up for in historical connection.

In another sense, it is also perfectly true to say that almost no Guhu-Samane speakers are sure that they are Christian. On more occasions than I could count, interlocutors expressed doubt that they could be proper Christians. Whether this was because they thought that real Christians are white, or that real Christians live in industrialized nations, or that real Christians lack Guhu-Samane-esque cultural traditions that seem to them so at odds with Christian ones, these church-goers could never totally shake the sense that they were failing at being Christian. “Mipela stap olsem pik na dog.” In Tok Pisin,1 “We live like pigs and dogs,” a complaint that pointed to what people thought of as the insuperable differences between themselves and “modern Christians.” These doubts about their Christian status work at a number of levels, from the most individual concerns about the state of one’s own soul to the most universalizing concerns about the Devil and his capacity to lead humans into temptations. These doubts also work at diverse levels of social groups—ethnic, national, racial—in ways that will be important to the argument below.

The most overt critique of Christianity that I encountered while in the Waria Valley—in fact, the only comment that I heard that could really be labeled anti-Christian—came from an older man who lived in Garaina village, adjacent to the most intrusive colonial projects in the area: the Garaina Tea Plantation, which opened just after World War II, and the Garaina sub-district government headquarters, which has been part of both the colonial New Guinea administration and the independent government of Papua New Guinea. The moment came at the end of a long session with some of the male leaders of this area about the myth heroes whose exploits provide the valley with its geographic and political features. Just as we were wrapping up, one old man turned to me with this critique of the histories enshrined in the Bible:

I’ve searched and studied the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament and going forward. I read the—what’s it called—story of Israel. Jesus and the—you know—Father and Son and Holy Spirit. That’s the missionaries’ thing. I studied it and I can’t find the origin of us black people. No [not at all]. I studied the Bible and no, it’s not there.

The criticism here is a historiographical one: the universality of Christianity is up for grabs if the histories of different people of the world are not present in the Bible. The history of “us black people” does not appear in the Bible, which contains just the histories and the gods that belong to the missionaries. Although it is left unstated, the assumption here seems to be that if the Guhu-Samane are not accounted for [239]in the histories of the Bible, then the Guhu-Samane are not Christian and maybe should not be.

This statement reads as a compelling counterclaim to the dominant Christian narratives in the valley and in the country more generally that Papua New Guinea is a Christian nation. However, it is also true that the most central and vocal Christians think through the project of salvation—and their deep doubts about their place in it—in similarly historiographical terms. Figuring out who Guhu-Samane speakers were in the past is part of the project of resolving the question of where Guhu-Samane people will be at the end of days. As it turns out, many Guhu-Samane are asking where they are in the Bible, and, unlike the old man at Garaina, they are finding positive signs of their historical presence there.

As I have discussed elsewhere (Handman 2014), many Guhu-Samane suggest that they are descendants of ancient, biblical Jews. Nor is this something unique to Guhu-Samane speakers. People from several different areas of Melanesia have worked with this hypothesis.2 In the United States, African American Black Israelites have established communities in Israel to geographically sediment this genealogical connection (see Dorman 2013; Jackson 2013). Even Queen Elizabeth’s genealogy was drawn to connect her to King David during the heyday of the British Israelite movement.3

To claim Jewish origins, as many Guhu-Samane Christians do, they work with a series of icons—or similarities—that they transform into indexes of historical connection. But these icons are not meaningful “signs of history” on their own (Parmentier 1987). In order for similarities to become historically significant, they need to be encountered within a larger semiotic framework, a way for discrete icons to be organized as indexical chains of causality or contiguity in time. Some of the many evangelical missionaries who have worked in Papua New Guinea and who believe that the Old Testament is the best guide to understanding cultural others (Handman 2007) have provided the basis for this semiotic framework: the icons of similarity that Guhu-Samane speakers order into an indexical, historical connection.

In the discussion below, I provide a detailed analysis of several pamphlets about Jewish–“tribal” connections from the Summer Institute of Linguistics that circulated widely in 1970s Papua and New Guinea. According to many missionaries over the past centuries, ancient Jews have strange taboos, wear unusual ritual clothing, and have a distinct material culture—a set of features that have been useful for conceptualizing European colonial others for quite some time (Eilberg-Schwartz 1990). Jewishness is here inscribed into tribal cultures as possible hinges on which to pivot toward Christianity. In these missionary frameworks, icons of Jewishness signal the capacity to replicate Jewish history: tribal peoples’ similarity to the [240]“ancient Jews” establishes them as pre-Christians, much as the Old Testament is the precursor of the New Testament, Judaism the precondition for Christianity, the ancient Jews the original targets of Christian conversion. It is this semiotic framework about how historical connections are made in and across space and time between “ancient Jews” and contemporary convert cultures like the Guhu-Samane that is the primary topic of this article.

Like many others in Papua New Guinea, Guhu-Samane Christians have taken up aspects of this ethnoreligious story. But more than just being like the ancient Jews, Guhu-Samane Christians suggest that they are descendants of the ancient Jews. Yet, the point of recontextualizing themselves as ancient Jews is not to produce more Jews. It is rather to participate in the transformation of Jews into Christians. The assertion of an ethnolinguistic identity with ancient Jews is the assertion of a religious world organized around the possibility of radical transformations enabled by the workings of the Holy Spirit. Within this historical framework, similarities with an ancient and distant people figure, or open up the future to, new possibilities.

The Bakhtinian concept of the chronotope is a useful model for imagining the varied formations of historical narrative (Palmié and Stewart, this collection; Wirtz, this collection). For Bakhtin (1981), narrative genres are in part defined through the characteristic ways in which people and things move through space and time. I argue here that two chronotopes guide missionary and Guhu-Samane discourses of the iconic and indexical links to Jews. First, the missionary chronotope exemplified in the pamphlets I discuss below is both redemptive and historicist (Chakrabarty 2000), using the ancient Jews as the model for how many different “tribal” peoples around the world can transform themselves into (saved) Christians, just as Jews did before them. Second, the Guhu-Samane chronotope is figurative (Auerbach [1944] 1984), turning Guhu-Samane myth-history into the prophetic foreshadowing of a promised Christian future by making Guhu-Samane history Jewish.

Although I will discuss Erich Auerbach in more detail later in the article, I want to briefly introduce his concept of the figure here. In an important essay, Auerbach traces out the transformations of the term “figura,” focusing especially on the Christian definition of the figure as a form of historic prefiguration in which an actual historical event is paired with a later fulfillment of it (ibid.: 47). For example, Moses can be seen both as an actually existing person who promulgated the Law and as a figure of Christ. Likewise, Christ can be seen as the fulfillment of Moses qua figure and also a figurative promise of the fuller revelation to come at the end of the world (ibid.: 41). The key feature of the figure for my purposes is that the figured person, group, or event is imagined in its historical fullness, even as it is seen in terms of a larger narrative of reduplicating fulfillment (ibid.: 52–53). It contrasts with allegory or symbol because of this assumption of historical specificity and actuality. And it is in this seemingly contradictory interpretive space—in which the Old Testament depicts events and peoples as historically real and singular but which nevertheless can be read as revelatory promises of later history yet to be written—that Guhu-Samane claims to Jewish origins need to be understood. Imagining themselves in a figurative relation with the ancient Jews means that Guhu-Samane Christians both reclaim and abandon the singularity of their culture. That is, missionary discourses make the Guhu-Samane a tribe like so many other tribes. [241]The figurative reading particularizes Guhu-Samane history again, and yet it also turns it into the unfinished story of Jewish transformation.

The role of figuration as a historical trope that recurs in diverse Christian settings poses something of a challenge to a prominent chronotope of anthropological writing. In a programmatic statement, Johannes Fabian (1983) provoked anthropologists into rethinking the notion of time that had anchored anthropological others in a world of yesterday: a notion of time that at once assumed colonialist ideologies yet also ignored colonial conditions. Fabian’s call to recognize and represent the coevalness of “the Other” was pitted against European claims of the temporal distance of those Others (from God, modernity, or the West). In contrast to a religious or evolutionary distribution of societies across temporal strata or a culturalist distribution of ahistorical societies across spatial regions, coevalness locates all in a common here and now (ibid.: 35). Fabian’s was an emancipatory call to recognize that everyone had the same share of history; there were no Stone Age people among us, no “people without history.”

As we will see, Guhu-Samane claims of Jewish origin involve a Christian model of history that is fundamentally noncoeval: a model of time in which the Guhu-Samane future is dependent upon ancient Israelite pasts. That is, they move through historical time only to the extent that they connect themselves to others. As I discuss more in the conclusion, this means that in order to conceptualize diverse approaches to history, anthropologists have to include historical frameworks that are the antitheses against which secular social science have been organized.

Biblical precedents in New Guinea

One of the most important purveyors of biblical Jewish stories in Papua New Guinea has been SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) and its local branch, SIL Papua New Guinea (SIL PNG). SIL is a linguistics and literacy NGO that works with host governments around the world to provide literature in local, subnational languages. In its own words, SIL aims to help provide speakers of subnational languages with a sense of linguistic identity and pride.4 Predicated on a sense of one’s mother tongue—or what was once called “heart language”—as an inalienable component of the self, linguistic pride is considered a crucial affective feature of healthy, thriving speech communities. However, the literature that SIL translates most commonly is biblical, and the translator-linguists of SIL usually focus most of their attention on translations of the New Testament.[242] Recent statistics from SIL say that they have 5500 members worldwide who are actively participating in 2590 language projects. A vast majority, but not all, of these language projects will include scripture translation.5

Although SIL’s stated project of instilling autonomous linguistic pride would seem to run counter to projects of Christian evangelism, there is a way in which one can read its missiology—its theologically based methods of evangelism—as complementary to this task. That is, from the perspective of SIL members themselves, providing the New Testament in a vernacular language is a way of allowing local people to become what they were always meant to be in a world organized around Jesus as redeemer. And yet, as I hope to show in detail below, the contradiction between the desire for continuity of language alongside a transformation of religion produces a novel form of historical and cultural consciousness.

The SIL PNG branch is an exceptionally large one, with about eight hundred members who are trying to translate the New Testament into Papua New Guinea’s roughly eight hundred languages.6 When SIL first started work in colonial Papua and New Guinea in the 1950s, the two-person translation teams tended to focus almost exclusively on orthography production, adult literacy courses, and scripture translation. Teams later started to produce supplementary literature about Christianity, living a Christian life, or even about more secular concerns like health.

In 1970 and 1972, SIL New Guinea published two texts about the people of the Bible in order to provide New Guinean readers with a better understanding of what translators call “Bible background.” These texts were written in either the lingua franca Tok Pisin or in English–Tok Pisin diglot formats. These booklets were developed as templates for SIL workers and other missionaries, who could take out the English or Tok Pisin text and easily drop in local-language translations of this material in that space. SIL members translated these two template texts into about fifty different local New Guinea languages, as far as I can tell. The two texts are very different, though, in how they envision the task of “translating” narratives concerning Jews before and at the time of Jesus’ life for people living in contemporary New Guinean communities. The first text explains particular Jewish traditions that are mentioned in the Bible in an effort to make these unfamiliar customs comprehensible to New Guinea readers. The second text, in contrast, presents Jewish customs as equivalents or near equivalents of customs that would be immediately familiar to many, if not most, New Guinea readers. If, in the first booklet, Jews are foreign others, in the second they are familiar, even the same.

The first text, Pasin bilong ol Juda/How the Jews lived (Gwyther-Jones 1970), presents basic facts of Israelite material culture, agricultural practices, and religion. All are keyed to biblical passages, and most can be read as helping New Guinean Bible readers to understand the objects used in important passages like Jesus’ [243]parables. There are forty topics covered in total, including topics on wheat, bread, vineyards, wine, fishing, the sea, Jewish rituals like burial, assorted bits of material culture, and even the Roman occupation of Judea.

Each one of the forty topics appears with a line drawing illustrating Jews engaged in some form of work or illustrations of the Levantine landscape or built environment. Based on an article in SIL’s literacy journal READ (Heaslip and Olson 1970), these illustrations were meant for more advanced readers, in this case meaning people who have moved beyond literacy primers. That is, in the hierarchy of illustrations from unshaded line drawings to photorealistic images that was correlated with reading level, the intended audience was assumed to be people on the more sophisticated end of the New Guinea literacy spectrum.7

To focus on a specific example from How the Jews lived, we can look at the page introducing New Guinea readers to mustard plants and mustard seeds, which is keyed to the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31–32, Mark 4:30–32). The text in the figure reads as follows:[244]

Dispela diwai long piksa em i diwai mastet. Ol Juda i save kaikai lip bilong diwai. Ol pikinini bilong mastet ol i liklik tru. Ol meri bilong Juda ol i save brukim pikinini mastet na putim antap long kaikai bilong ol. Ol i abusim kaikai olsem.

Planti Juda ol i save planim mastet long gaden bilong ol. Mastet i save kamap kwik na i kamap bikpela na i winim olgeta kain kaikai long gaden. Matyu 13:31–32 Mak 4:30–32

The tree in this picture is a mustard tree. The Jews ate the leaves of mustard trees. Mustard tree seeds are very little. Jewish women crushed mustard seeds and sprinkled them on their food.

The Jews planted mustard seed in their gardens. They grew quickly and were larger than other plants in the garden.

Matthew 13:31–32; Mark 4:30–32

In this example, the Tok Pisin text appears above the English version. In the sample text in Figure 1 and on most other pages of How the Jews lived, the Tok Pisin text introduces and defines a term that is borrowed directly from English and that refers to something rare or nonexistent in Papua New Guinea. In that sense, the book is an illustrated glossary introducing terms into a specialized Christian speech register. For example, in Figure 1, the first line reads “Dispela diwai long piksa em i diwai mastet” (emphasis added, “This tree in the picture is a mustard tree”). Here, English “mustard” becomes Tok Pisin “mastet,” a spelling that follows the standard Tok Pisin orthography and Tok Pisin pronunciation but remains a foreign borrowing nonetheless.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Illustration and discussion of biblical Jewish uses of mustard plants for New Guinea readers from Pasin bilong ol Juda/How the Jews lived (Gwyther-Jones 1970: 32–33).

The implicit point of How the Jews lived as a whole is contrastive: the elements of Jewish culture and environment highlighted in the text are things that colonial New Guinea readers would be unfamiliar with from their own experiences. In Papua New Guinea, there is no indigenous tradition of grain cultivation, whether wheat or rice. There are no dates, figs, grapes, or mustard seeds. Houses are made not of stone, but of perishable forest materials. A few coastal communities have experience with fishing, and a few highlands communities sometimes placed dead bodies (or bones) of important men in caves. But by and large, the point of How the Jews lived is that the Jews lived very differently from New Guineans; that the Jews were a foreign community that needed to be contextualized in specific ways to be comprehensible to New Guineans.

Supplementary texts like this one have to be understood in terms of the main translation philosophy used by most SIL Bible translators at this time, even though at first it may seem that this translation philosophy runs counter to the organization of the pamphlets as I have been discussing them so far. Missionary-anthropologist-linguist Eugene Nida’s model of dynamic equivalence translation (see Nida 1947, 1964) encouraged a process of domesticating foreign concepts (see Venuti 1995). Not only should scriptures be in a receptor language, but they should, in the broadest sense, be phrased linguistically and culturally in local terms. To use one of Nida’s examples, if one is translating into a language spoken in a tropical climate, then the phrase “white as snow” will be relatively useless as an explanation of degree of whiteness. In a dynamically equivalent translation, the phrase can be translated as “white as egret feathers” if that is a better local referent for whiteness (Nida 1964: 158).

Dynamic equivalence translation is a populist translation theory, insisting that the translator, not the receptor-language reader, engage in the process of textual [245]translation and interpretation. The translator brings the text to the readers, rather than asking the readers to learn about the original context in order to bring themselves to the text. The dynamic equivalence translator hopes to create in receptor readers of the Bible the same response that the message had for its original readers/hearers in the original Koiné Greek. In this particularly Protestant formulation of the issue, which focuses on the power of the book alone, that would ideally mean something like an openness to or embrace of conversion through the Word of God.

However, Nida always recognized a limit to the dynamic equivalence model, and assumed that any Bible translation would need some amount of instructive material, whether that would be in footnotes, explanatory introductions, maps, or, as here, separate supplemental materials. Even after a dynamic equivalence translation, some things simply had to be made comprehensible through acts of ostensive reference: here are the mustard seeds and the wineskins that are mentioned in the New Testament. How the Jews lived gathers together a set of these referents that escape translational domestication, that remain foreign. The ancient Jews of the Bible are here presented in all their particularity, a unique people living within a unique geographic context.

Interest in biblical context was deemed high enough that a second pamphlet was developed and published in 1972, Ol man bilong Baibel: Pasin bilong ol (Graham 1972; in English, The people of the Bible: Their customs). On the front cover is the secondary title How the Jews lived, Vol. 2. I have only found ten translations of this pamphlet produced by SIL translation teams in New Guinea, as opposed to the roughly fifty translations of How the Jews Lived (1970). Nevertheless, this second pamphlet is important, for two reasons. First, it suggests that there was a growing genre of “biblical customs” supplementary reading. Second, the different approach taken in this later pamphlet suggests that ancient Jews could be domesticated as the translational equivalents of New Guinea communities.

Where the first How the Jews Lived is essentially a compendium of the material culture and environment of biblical Jews, How the Jews Lived, Vol. 2 presents a set of cultural traits or features of social organization. These are largely phrased at a level of generality intended to make comparison with New Guinea cultures relatively easy. The best example of this might be the explanation of a married Jewish woman’s duties.

Bihain long marit, meri i mas holim wok olsem wanpela mama tru. Em i mas hatwok long lukautim ol gaden, na long kukim kaikai, na long wokim laplap, na long givim kaikai long ol animal bilong ol. Bihain em i karim pikinini na em i mas lukautim ol gut. Dispela meri i mas bihainim toktok bilong man bilong en yet. Tasol man bilong en i mas sori oltaim long meri na i mas lukautim gut meri bilong en na tupela i mas wok wantaim. Olgeta pikinini i mas bihainim toktok bilong mama olsem ol i mas bihainim tok bilong papa. I gat wanwan man tasol i save maritim tupela o tripela meri.

Jenesis 18:12, Diuteronomi 21:18–27; Provep 31:10–31.

After marriage, the wife had to act like a true mother/woman. She had to work hard to care for her gardens, to cook food, to make clothes, and to feed her animals. Later, she had to have children and take care of them well. This woman had to obey her husband’s commands. But also her husband had to always honor [lit. be compassionate toward] his wife and [246]take care of her, and they had to work together. All of the children had to obey both their mother and father. Only a few men had two or three wives. Genesis 18:12; Deuteronomy 21:18–27; Proverbs 31:10–31.

(Graham 1972: 17)

Formally speaking, the Tok Pisin used here would be familiar to 1970s New Guinea readers. While the first How the Jews lived was essentially an illustrated glossary of foreign items (as in the mustard example), How the Jews lived, Vol. 2 avoids terms that have to be introduced and defined. The description of women’s duties above, for example, uses only terms that were commonly used in the Tok Pisin of the time. This linguistic familiarity can also be seen in grammatical, not just lexical, features. Because Tok Pisin was at that point a pidgin language, with relatively reduced marking for tense and aspect, the tense of this passage is somewhat ambiguous. The textual framework is set in the past of the biblical Jews, and yet the wording in this and other pages could be read as a kind of historical present. What I translate here as “had to” is, in Tok Pisin, i mas, which could be read as either “had to” or “has to,” an ambiguity that I argue is built into the very framework of this text.

In addition to these formal considerations of linguistic familiarity, the content of this text would have been very familiar to readers. This quote tracks remarkably well with the main duties of women in rural Papua New Guinea, both in the 1970s and to a certain extent today. Although men fell trees to clear garden land and construct fences for them, women do most of the day-to-day management of gardens. Women are usually the primary cooks, and are the primary caregivers for children. Indeed, at this level of generality, many married women throughout the global South, if not the world, would likely be able to see some reflection of their own lives in this list. In contrast to the earlier volume on the foreign features of Jewish lives, the point here seems to be that biblical Jews are familiar.

The text of How the Jews lived, Vol. 2 covers a number of biblical Jewish traditions that are especially apt for New Guinea and other “tribal” readers: brideprice, social organization through lineality, lineages as landholding entities, socialization of children at home rather than in schools, and so on. Figure 2 shows the discussion and illustration of lineality and social organization.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Discussion of biblical Jewish forms of lineality and accompanying illustration for New Guinea readers from Ol man bilong Baibel: Pasin bilong ol (Graham 1972: 20–21).

The Tok Pisin text in translation reads:

Every family was part of a bigger family or lineage [lain in Tok Pisin]. Each lineage had its own land. Everyone from the same place was part of the same lineage. The lineage would gather together for religious feasts.

Each lineage did a different kind of work. In some places everyone was a carpenter. In other places everyone was a potter. In other places they did other things. Sometimes two or three lineages would live together in a larger settlement.

In every area, there were leaders who governed their lineages. These leaders would meet at city gates. They sat there to hear complaints and solve people’s worries and troubles.

Genesis 23:10, 18; Luke 7:38

(Graham 1972: 20–21)

The basic description of biblical Jews as organized into lineages with corporate rights to land and solidarity produced through commensality strongly echoes an earlier structural-functionalist anthropology that dominated ethnographic accounts of New Guinea societies at this time.9 The rigid kin-based division of labor described here is not reflected in any New Guinea group that I know of, and yet the idea that lineages might be known for or have mythic histories of engagement in particular forms of work is common enough.

Banal as these discussions of biblical Jewish lives are, they are nevertheless presented in such a way that New Guinea readers are invited to find commonalities between themselves and the long-ago “tribes” of the Bible. It is a presentation that contrasts strongly with the first How the Jews lived, in which the top-line point of most topics was pointing to and illustrating an object, plant, or activity rare or [248]unknown in New Guinea. In contrast, the main point of the topics in How the Jews lived, Vol. 2 is the introduction of a practice or custom that is at the most general level extremely well known within many parts of New Guinea (things like brideprice or lineages as landholding entities). In the first text, biblical Jews constitute a particular tribe; in the second, biblical Jews are the equivalents of many tribes around the world.

The comparative project of How the Jews lived, Vol. 2 is a fuller elaboration of the dynamic equivalence translation method that attempts to domesticate the foreign, as Lawrence Venuti (1995) puts it. In this case, it does this work of domestication by turning foreign others like the biblical Jews into another (highly special) tribe, just like tribes in New Guinea or other regions in which SIL works. The biblical Jews might have different plants and animals, but in the end, the pamphlets suggest, they are very similar to New Guineans.

The emphasis on Jewish similarities was a strategy largely used for what SIL would call the “tribal peoples” of the world. Of course, SIL was not alone in making a division within the world between “tribal” peoples and nontribal peoples that resulted in a set of bland generalizations. Many practitioners of mainstream mid-twentieth-century anthropology shared this approach. Clifford Geertz’s 1973 article “The impact of the concept of culture on the concept of man” was an important intervention against just this kind of anthropology that ultimately, for him, devalued culture as an important element of human social life. In restricting its search to for those things that were common to “mankind,” this kind of anthropology was only able to develop what Geertz called lowest common denominator “bloodless universals.” Although pitched as descriptions of biblical Jews, the generality of the discussions of Jewish traditions produced just such a result.

Even more comparable to the SIL division of the world—into tribal peoples whom they wanted to work with and other peoples whom they did not prioritize as highly—were the many social science analyses working within great divide models that searched for the elusive key to transformations into modernity. In such studies, all groups without literacy, for example, could be considered comparable for their lack of writing and thus lack of modernity (e.g., Goody 1977). From a missionary perspective, the greatest great divide would then be the one between the Old Testament and the New as a variation of the larger un-Christian/Christian split.

Like secular great divide models, the missionary emphasis on tribal peoples as similar to biblical Jews situates many of the people of the global South within a historicist framework—kept in “the waiting room of history,” as Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000: 8) has said. In a secular historicist framework, people of the global South must simply wait to recapitulate the historical transformations that have already taken place in Euro-American worlds. Missionary discourses that posit similarities between biblical Jews and “tribal” peoples do the same thing, albeit with cosmic narratives of redemption rather than Marxist narratives of the expansion of capitalism (to focus on Chakrabarty’s main target). The iconic resemblances between Jewish and New Guinea social organization or marriage duties developed through publications like How the Jews lived, Vol. 2 create a template for transformation, a history of possibilities that simply has to be instantiated in any particular “tribal” context.[249]

Although the pamphlets discussed here do have a few topics devoted to earlier moments of Jewish history, they largely describe the lives of Jews at the time of, or just after, Jesus’ ministry. That is, these pamphlets describe the lives of the people who converted to Christianity (or, less anachronistically, who became followers of Jesus). As Nida describes his translation theory, dynamic equivalence is about reproducing in contemporary readers the same kinds of reactions that original readers had. The biblical Jews are important models for New Guinea readers because they were the people who first “converted.” In a redemptive world history, New Guineans are equated with the ancient Jews, which provides a model not only for understanding tribal peoples, but also for transforming them into Christians: through hearing the Word of God in their own languages, tribal peoples, like the ancient Jews before them, are capable of religious transformation. In the Christian historicist framework that informed much evangelism in Papua New Guinea, iconic similarities drawn between contemporary tribal peoples and ancient Jews render tribal peoples capable of repeating the same historical process—the decision that (some) Jews made to follow Jesus.

As I discuss more below, Guhu-Samane Christians have started to think through this invitation to repeat Jewish history, albeit with innovations of their own. In particular, I argue that they are not just engaging in translation-inspired historicism, but that they are transforming their readings of the Old Testament in figural, revelatory readings of their own histories.

Borrowing Christianity in the Waria Valley

Guhu-Samane communities are spread out along the Waria River Valley in a rural corner of Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. The roughly twelve thousand speakers of this language are primarily subsistence farmers with relatively few local opportunities for engagement with the cash economy but with dense networks of kin ties that bring in remittances from urban centers. Local people have long been promised a road into their valley, but with imposing mountain ranges perched between the valley and both Port Moresby and Lae, no road has materialized. Opportunities have often seemed to be elsewhere and outside.

Even their initial introduction to Christianity seemed to suggest that spiritual maturity could only be found in movement away from the area. For Lutheran missionaries who first evangelized in the area, true Christian unity would only be enacted when ethnic divisions were overcome and people from many different groups communed or worked together, doing so in the church-promulgated lingua franca known as Kâte (see Handman 2015). At the same time, the bureaucratic and sacred centers of Lutheranism were all far outside the valley, whether figured in terms of the mission headquarters in Lae or the home countries of the missionaries, Germany, Australia, and the United States.

When an SIL translation team entered the Waria Valley to work with local people in 1956, they brought with them a novel interest in the local language and culture. In contrast to mission and colonial administrative efforts, which largely took people out of the valley for different kinds of manual or spiritual labor, the SIL translation team worked with people in situ and tried to develop a form of [250]Christianity in terms of local issues and the local language. This does not mean that the local language and culture were positively valued. Ernie Richert, the primary SIL translator for the Guhu-Samane, focused extensively on the men’s house system as an inferior rival to the emerging church as a central moral and institutional force.10 Nevertheless, locality was a primary emphasis, as when Richert used the term for the men’s house (guhu) as a translation for “church” (Richert 1965). The church was figured as a replacement for the men’s house, but in a way that kept the comparison with the men’s house front and center. The history of missionization, then, moved between a relative denial of locality and an intense emphasis on it.

Richert’s attempts to create an ethnolinguistic identity among Guhu-Samane speakers fit into local historical traditions only with some effort, however. Guhu-Samane speakers seem to have a long history of borrowing cultural traits and practices from neighboring or even distant groups. Originally located at the coast near Morobe Station not far from the mouth of the Waria River, most Guhu-Samane were forced inland following raids on their land from nearby Suena speakers in the middle or late nineteenth century. In their clan-based histories of travel into the valley (i.e., following the Waria River further and further upstream), these wandering groups picked up traditions from their new neighbors.

More recent accounts of travel similarly show a propensity to borrow cultural practices from others. In the first half of the twentieth century, many young men were recruited (sometimes by force) for labor in coastal towns or on coastal plantations. Some of the most important things these young men returned with were dances that they bought from coastal peoples with whom they interacted while laboring. In fact, most of the dances that are performed in the Waria Valley today are coastal imports, and histories of payment and ownership are carefully recounted before preparations for any contemporary performance.

In that sense, Guhu-Samane speakers look like a classic “Melanesian borrowing culture,” as described by Simon Harrison (1993). Cultural practices and knowledge are valued not necessarily because they are autochthonous or local, but because they are foreign and rare, revealed to particular persons because of their unique social relations (see also Rutherford 2003). Knowledge circulates within an economy of scarcity. Even within clans, knowledge must be paid for. If a young man wants to become a clan leader, he must cultivate a relationship with a powerful elder (prototypically for this matrilineal group, a mother’s brother). The elder will slowly parcel out clan stories only after receiving numerous gifts from his sister’s son. The most common gifts these days include game meat, trade store goods, or sometimes small amounts of cash.

In that sense, Richert’s SIL-based inclination to place authority and authenticity in the local language and culture was something of a novelty. SIL models of one’s first language as a “heart language”—that is, the language at the core of the self—sit uneasily with a group so willing to adopt traditions (including words) from others. But in the years following the 1975 publication of the Guhu-Samane New Testament, young devotees of Richert’s worked to sacralize the language as a unique [251]route to the divine. In 1977, Guhu-Samane Christians started to experience a Holy Spirit revival focused on the ways in which the translation made people audible to God and made God audible to them. For the revivalists, this outpouring of the spirit was directly tied to Richert’s work. Rather than imagining the now sacred language as inalienably “theirs,” however, Guhu-Samane Christians talk about the language as organized and revealed to them by God via Richert (Handman 2015). That is, the ethnolinguistic unity was itself a product of a history of borrowing—a point I elaborate on more in the next section.

Figures of Jewish ancestry

Neither volume of How the Jews lived was translated into Guhu-Samane, and yet the discourses of comparison between Papua New Guineans and biblical Jews are very much in circulation in the Waria Valley, as they are in several places in Papua New Guinea more broadly. This is partly due to a much wider circulation of tribal-to-biblical-Jewish comparisons within missionary circles (e.g., Kraft 1979; see also Eilberg-Schwartz 1990; Parfitt 2002). For the Guhu-Samane speakers who are now creating an Old Testament translation through SIL’s sister organization, the Papua New Guinea Bible Translation Association, there are many curricular materials that also lay out comparisons between Papua New Guineans and biblical Jews (see Barnwell 1986; Martin 1995). Even if Richert did not translate How the Jews lived, the particular logic of its redemptive recapitulation of history is familiar to Guhu-Samane speakers today.

And yet, Guhu-Samane speakers have adapted the logic of this historical framework in particular ways that move beyond simply the equation of “tribal” peoples across time and space. Guhu-Samane and other Christians in Papua New Guinea specifically suggest that their groups may be genealogically related to the biblical Jews. That is, they move from finding iconic resemblances into developing indexical narratives of historical connection. The relationship between an icon and an object (an example in this case would be the name “Pita” seen as iconically similar to the object-name “Peter) does not make any claims for why those two might be related. It is only when icons are read as indexes—signs that specifically imply causal or spatiotemporal connection—that narratives of the development of iconic resemblances or potentialities emerge (for more on these signs of Israelite connection, see Handman 2014).

One of the main features of Guhu-Samane hypotheses about their potential Jewish status is the sense that what they have up until recently thought of as their local history is not in any proper sense their own. Culture heroes were not acting as makers of Guhu-Samane political and religious precedent so much as continuing in novel territory actions whose origins are found in the Old Testament. Even a mythic eagle can be thought of as Jewish, for his talon scratchings produced not just “marks” on a stone, as had long been believed, but specifically Hebrew language marks.

Stories like these are often shared outside of church services, an unofficial discourse of revelations that recast the meaning of well-known myth-histories. To this circulating collection of genealogical connections can be added stories of [252]precolonial forms of divine intervention that prefigure the coming missionary presence in the Waria Valley. An older man, Tsaina, told me the story of a prophetic dream that a male relative of his had. Prior to any missionary setting foot in the valley (which would mean before 1910 or so), the relative was sleeping in the men’s house when he was awoken by a stranger. The stranger called himself Noah and brought him up to heaven, where Tsaina’s relative was shown permanent-materials houses and other Western conveniences. Noah gave the man three stalks of taro root and promised him that others would be coming soon to reveal more to the people of the Waria Valley. The man fell back down to earth, waking up in a wet, muddy taro patch with the three stalks still in his hand.

Although this story was unique to Tsaina, other stories of miraculous prophecies of the coming missionaries circulated more widely. The most important story in this vein tells of a precolonial effort at a valley-wide peace that was administered by a major big man from the Muniwa part of the valley. The primary event at the peace making was a ceremonial distribution of raw foods in piles called khamos. In this case, however, each khamo was topped with a copy of the Bible, even though no missionary had then set foot in the region and no personally owned Bibles were to appear until several decades after the Christianization efforts began. But the miraculous appearance and dissemination of these Bibles (no longer extant) is today read as a prophetic announcement of the greater peace that Guhu-Samane Christians hope to achieve.

The practice of revelation is not particularly new to Guhu-Samane speakers. As noted above, the trade in stories that characterizes the flow of matri-clan knowledge is itself a revelatory practice. Epistemological uncertainty stemming from the practice of revelation has long been identified as a characteristic of Melanesian groups (see Barth 1975; M. Strathern 1988 for two important discussions). Revelation can be a mode of political, as well as religious, discourse (Slotta 2014). Eric Hirsch (2007) argues more broadly that Melanesian historicity is concerned with revelations of the past in the present (see also Lambek, this collection). Christian interpretive models have funneled these revelatory discursive strategies into a relationship with biblical texts. The old man in Garaina whom I discussed at the start of this article was in a sense commenting on exactly this tendency to now orient all revelations in terms of the Bible. People’s hermeneutic attention is now focused on biblical revelations organized around the connections that Guhu-Samane have to the peoples described in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the capacity Guhu-Samane might have to move from the one to the other, so to speak.

Erich Auerbach ([1944] 1984) would identify these stories as figural, in the specific early Christian sense of the term that he traces out in his exhaustive review of the Latin word figura. That is, these are stories that both depict events as actually having occurred and depict events as promissory figures of later events to come. Figures differ from symbols or allegories because the latter never represent “a definite event in its full historicity” (ibid.: 54). But that “full historicity” does not give an event autonomy or singularity, as contemporary historians might suggest. “Whereas in the modern view the event is always self-sufficient and secure, while the interpretation is fundamentally incomplete, in the figural interpretation the fact is subordinated to an interpretation which is fully secured to begin with: the event is enacted according to an ideal model which is a prototype situated in the [253]future and thus far only promised” (ibid.: 59). Auerbach returns several times in his essay to this seeming paradox of historical actuality coupled with incompleteness, the proposition that an event has both happened but has not happened fully. This historical consciousness is principally based on the structure of revelation: “The figural structure preserves the historical event while interpreting it as revelation; and must preserve it in order to interpret it” (ibid.: 68). A similar interpretive scheme in Christianity is called “type/anti-type” readings (see Crapanzano 2000). Auerbach’s discussion of the figure emphasizes the interdependence between the promise and the fulfillment, which tracks better with the ways in which Guhu-Samane speakers discuss the potential relationships they have been uncovering between biblical events and events from their own history.

For Auerbach, though, figural representations are not conducive to maintaining the narrative structure of the events in their sequence, their capacity to tell a story other than a figural one. In early church history, Auerbach argues, figural readings bleached the content of the Old Testament of anything other than prophetic meaning, particularly in missionary contexts.

The figural interpretation changed the Old Testament from a book of laws and a history of the people of Israel into a series of figures of Christ and the Redemption. . . . In this form and in this context, from which Jewish history and national character had vanished, the Celtic and German peoples, for example, could accept the Old Testament; it was a part of the universal religion of salvation and a necessary component of the equally magnificent and universal vision of history that was conveyed to them along with this religion. (Auerbach [1944] 1984: 52)

It is not until the Reformation, according to Auerbach, “that Europeans began to regard the Old Testament as Jewish history and Jewish law” (ibid.: 53).

The SIL pamphlets and the Guhu-Samane Jewish discourses bring together the two interpretations of the Old Testament that Auerbach separates. On the one hand, the Protestant adherence to sola scriptura that develops into twentieth-century literalism is taken up in evangelical translation circles as a rigorous attention to the words and expressions contained in the Old Testament, as seen in How the Jews lived, Vol. 1 and also in Guhu-Samane Christians’ rigorous attention to detail in tracing as many cultural connections between Guhu-Samane and Jews as they can. Jews, like the New Guinea groups reading about them, were ensconced in specific historical and geographic contexts that require detailed understanding. On the other hand, Guhu-Samane Jewish discourses use the revelatory framework of figural readings to discover a hidden salvational history that would be able to promise the kinds of Christian transformations that have been somewhat elusive to date. The historical actuality of the Old Testament is important to being able to reveal those particularizing links between Jews and Guhu-Samane as promised Christians. In other words, Guhu-Samane speakers work to make the links between themselves and ancient Jews particular, as uniquely capable of repeating the Jewish turn toward Christianity.

There is an important difference between the historicist interpretation of potential iconic similarity that missionary publications used and the figural interpretation of historical connection that I argue Guhu-Samane are using. As Chakrabarty [254](2000) has said, historicist frameworks assume that the future of the periphery, if it is to have one, is simply the repetition of the metropole’s past. Particularities of space and time are glossed over in service of a universal history. From the missionary perspective encapsulated in the publications emphasizing tribal peoples’ similarities to ancient Jews, Guhu-Samane are just one of a long line of such people found in the spiritual and cultural past and needing to move forward. If Guhu-Samane speakers are in the past, they are generically so—one more tribal community needing to make the move from Old Testament to New.

In contrast, Auerbach’s model of the figure makes the connections to a Jewish past determinate and particular. For Guhu-Samane, as opposed to the missionaries, the important issue is that they are Jews, the Chosen People, and so not only capable of conversion as part of some universal history, but also prefigured for salvation as a particular people. In this view, events and people are part of a divinely orchestrated history organized around revelatory promise and fulfillment, in which events are linked together as part of God’s plan. Both the original figural event and its later fulfillment have to be interpreted together (Auerbach [1944] 1984: 68). Guhu-Samane Christians, looking back over their history, discover that they are part of this plan, and that changes their view of what is possible in the present and future. They construct their relationship to ancient Jews as a way of figuring the transformation to Christianity, and thus make themselves figures of Christianity. They engage in interpretive acts of revelation that indexically, and necessarily, link them to ancient Jews so as to bring on a future of salvation that currently seems so deeply in doubt. As Michael Lambek notes (this collection), the past irrupts into the present through these indexical connections.

The Guhu-Samane/Jewish icons that I mentioned above—names that sound like Hebrew names, marks that look like Hebrew writing—are recontextualized in new terms. Whereas, before, the name Pita was seen as an indexical icon linking its present incumbent with a matri-clan-based past, now the name can open up vistas leading to Jesus’ first apostle. Whereas, before, marks on nearby rocks had been seen as artifacts of an important culture hero whose travels through the valley constitute the region as a political and religious network, now these same marks can be read as a form of knowledge linguistically linking the Waria Valley as a space to Israel. Most radically of all, these formerly discrete elements from formerly discrete stories can now be read as themselves linked together, telling a singular story of Hebrew origins that only unfolds through local efforts at salvation. The revelations of Guhu-Samane history as Jewish are only revealed as people work to become Christian—promise and fulfillment hermeneutically conjoined.

This is not a simple project of taking up ethnolinguistic identity that would be comparable to the valorizations of kastom (custom) that have swept through Melanesia at other points (see Linnekin and Poyer 1990; Jolly and Thomas 1992; Scott 2012). Guhu-Samane only come to their valorizations of their past diagonally, by linking themselves not only to the Jews of the Old Testament, but also to the Jews as prophetic figures of the salvation to come from Christianity. Guhu-Samane Christians do not imagine their history as uniquely theirs, since the goal is to read their history as indexically linked to a Jewish past and thus a figure of a Christian future. It is a history of salvation that is still being revealed in the stories of Hebrew [255]writing, in the recitations of long-ago dreams, and even in the contestations of an old man who insists that such traces cannot be found.


Many scholars have recently noted that social science models of time are forms of secular, homogeneous, empty time, plotted by clocks and calendars and inhabited by rational and laboring subjects as abstractly regulated as the timeline itself (Chakrabarty 200; Robbins 2007; see also Handler, this collection; Hamann, this collection). But in order to tell histories that take seriously the religious projects of local people, such homogeneous, empty time is not sufficient. Religious histories include the agency of God or the Holy Spirit—a history in which, as Robbins puts it, things not only happen in time, they happen to time (2007: 12). As Nancy Munn has said, “Sociocultural action systems . . . do not simply go on in or through time and space, but . . . they form (structure) and constitute (create) the spacetime manifold in which they ‘go on’” (1983: 280, emphasis in original). What is happening to time in the Guhu-Samane case is not simply the fact that revelation and radical change are possible, but also the fact that the “sociocultural action system” now includes the Christian God and an angel of history who can reveal the figural connections that link Guhu-Samane speakers, ancient Jews, and potential Christians.

Inalienable forms of history might be most easily recognized as part of ethnonationalist movements—the kinds of historical narratives that license a sense of unique identity and underwrite claims to political independence. The nationalist history declares, “We are a people, we deserve a voice, because we have always been us.” Some anthropological models of history share certain features of this ethnonationalist model, by taking on a similar sense of cultural stability and particularism (e.g., Sahlins 1984). Other anthropological models might critique such a history of stability, but they do so by taking on a secularist framing that limits historical agency to human actors (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1991). In either case, anthropologists usually plot their subjects on the same timeline as the West, not only by describing a history of colonial interactions, but also by developing a model in which people change in more or less the same kinds of human ways.

The Guhu-Samane search for icons of Israelite pasts in their language and landscape suggests a different model in two ways. On the one hand, Guhu-Samane Israelite history suggests that history is not an inalienable property of a unique group, but something that can be revealed as other and still be taken on. The old man at Garaina was angry not because he was being enfolded into missionary narratives, but because the Bible as sacred text did not immediately reveal the connections Guhu-Samane as black Christians have to the Jews. On the other hand, Guhu-Samane Israelite history suggests that history is not limited to secular humans, since it allows for divine revelations, in which what was once Guhu-Samane-specific is later revealed by the Bible translation and the Holy Spirit to be Jewish. Revelation has the potential to interrupt the present with radically nonautochthonous, noncoeveal histories that bear on the present and open up new horizons of future transformations. It may deny coevalness to recognize this deviation from a secular, [256]universal timeline, but this seems to be the very point Guhu-Samane Christians are trying to emphasize.

Ruth Marshall (2009) has recently called for anthropologists of Africa to take seriously the projects of African Christians as both political and spiritual at the same time. This does not mean reading Christianity as a kind of making-do, the poor man’s political consciousness. It means instead seeing how Christian theologies create different political possibilities and projects. A South African Zionist is quoted by Marshall (ibid.: 7) as saying that outside anthropologists have continuously failed to tell the story Zionists want to hear: history told from the perspective of the Holy Spirit. Marshall uses this as a launching-off point for describing a Foucauldian politics of self-making among Born Again Nigerians. She argues that this project is necessarily one that focuses on the self rather than on the kinds of ethnic, class, or regional categories that anthropologists use more often in discussing politics. I would suggest instead that history from the perspective of the Holy Spirit can involve such communities, but these communities might not have the ethnolinguistic, identity-based properties that we expect them to have. That is, we have to be able to imagine not just coeval histories of the cultural Other (as Fabian asked) but also histories in which people organized in ethnolinguistic groups can become temporally and culturally other to themselves and yet still remain a group. The Guhu-Samane Israelite history is one such case.


I would like to thank Stephan Palmié and Charles Stewart for inviting me to be a part of the initial session at the American Anthropological Association meetings out of which this special section of HAU came. I would also like to thank Giovanni da Col and the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments. I presented a version of this article in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. I thank Elizabeth Keating, Ward Keeler, Pauline Strong, and Anthony Webster for their insightful comments. I particularly thank James Slotta. I have a special debt to the members of the Guhu-Samane community with whom I worked. Funding for the research on which this article is based came from a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, and Summer Scholarship Funds from Reed College.


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Des figures historiques: Interpréter les passés juifs en Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée chrétienne

Résumé : Cet article examine deux formations historiques contradictoires que les missionnaires expatriés et les habitants de Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée ont utilisés respectivement pour créer des connections entre groupes ethniques locaux et les “anciens Juifs” de la Bible. En partie à l’aide des publications des années 1970 étudiées ici, les missionnaires introduisirent des modèles répétitifs et historicistes qui établissaient que les groupes ethniques de Mélanésie étaient génériquement et iconiquement Juifs. Cet article s’intéresse à la manière dont les chrétiens Guhu-Samane de Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée rurale ont repris ces récits, afin de produire des connections généalogiques et indexicales aux Juifs de la Bible. Les anciens Juifs sont devenus des “figures” de l’histoire Guhu-Samane: des discours interprétatifs furent produits, révélant, de manière prophétique, une judéité locale qui anticipe la future chrétienté des Papouasiens. Les chrétiens Guhu-Samane particularisent donc leur relation à la chrétienté en reprenant l’histoire d’un autre groupe, une imagination historique chrétienne qui va à contre-courant des formes d’histoires séculières, qui elles s’orientent autour de problèmes d’identité autonome.

Courtney HANDMAN is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. She has conducted field and archival research in Papua New Guinea since 2002, both with Guhu-Samane communities in Morobe Province and with members of the Bible translation organization SIL International. Her work focuses on the religious publics produced through missionary discourses and ambivalences about institutions in Protestant practice. Her book Critical Christianity: Translation and denominational conflict in Papua New Guinea was published by the University of California Press in 2015.

Courtney Handman
Department of Anthropology
University of Texas at Austin
2201 Speedway, Stop C3200
Austin, TX 78712


1. Tok Pisin is the English-lexifier creole language that is now the primary lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. Originally a pidgin language that emerged out of a trans-Pacific trade jargon, Tok Pisin is often the dominant language in major Western-based institutions, like education, government, or the church. In the Waria Valley, most adults younger than seventy years old are competent speakers of both Tok Pisin and Guhu-Samane. Children gain greater competency with Tok Pisin when they begin school, often around seven or eight years old.

2. Lost Tribes discourses have had a particularly strong impact in Gogodala areas (Dundon 2011, 2015), but are also present in West Papua (Rutherford 2006), Fiji (Kaplan 1990; Jones 2015; Newland 2015), Solomon Islands (Scott 2012; Brown 2015; Maggio 2015; Timmer 2015), and other parts of Papua New Guinea (Jacka 2005; Cox 2015). See Newland and Brown (2015) for a more general discussion.

3. For examples of such genealogies, see http://asis.com/users/stag/royalty.html (accessed June 23, 2016). On Anglo-Israelism, see Ben-Dor Benite (2009).

4. “SIL PNG is dedicated to vernacular language development and translation of materials within the country of Papua New Guinea. We analyze and publish academic studies in hundreds of languages and promote literacy activities including the development of orthographies for unwritten languages. We believe that indigenous cultures are well preserved through writing systems, once local knowledge is written and preserved for future generations in a language the people understand. Vernacular language development also prepares indigenous cultures to meet the demands of a greater world outside their normal geographic boundaries” (http://www-01.sil.org/pacific/png/sil.asp, accessed June 16, 2016)

5. These statistics are from SIL International’s information sheet: http://www.sil.org/sites/default/files/sil-intl-info-english-letter.pdf (accessed June 16, 2016).

6. SIL PNG members are predominantly from the United States, Western Europe, and South Korea. Although members’ denominational identities vary considerably, many are broadly evangelical, with smaller minorities from Pentecostal churches or mainline churches.

7. All things being equal, Heaslip and Olson (1970: 7) assume that verbal literacy and visual literacy generally advance at the same time and at the same rate. Visual literacy specialists argue that this is both a common and an unfounded assumption (see Williams 2001 and references there).

8. The citations of Genesis and Luke only address the final point on this page about local leaders gathering at city gates to hear complaints or trials. No other biblical citations are given for the other points about lineages, landholding, or a lineage-based division of labor.

9. The relationship between missionaries and anthropologists in Papua New Guinea is an important issue that I cannot address here fully. Suffice it to say, SIL translators have always had some engagement with and training in anthropology. Even if the models of African political systems that were initially used in Melanesia had been put in question by the time these pamphlets were published (for an early argument against using segmentary lineage models in the New Guinea highlands, see Barnes 1962), the major critiques of Nuer-like models did not appear until later (e.g. A. J. Strathern 1973; Wagner 1974; M. Strathern 1988).

10. As in many Papua New Guinean communities, the men’s house was both literally and figuratively the center of the village. Leaders in the men’s house organized work, male initiations, feasting, and many other events of politico-religious importance.