Theories of Space and Construction of the Ancient World

Jon L. Berquist


AAR/SBL Annual Meeting

Constructs of the Social and Cultural Worlds of Antiquity Group

November 20, 1999



By widely held custom, academic papers on theoretical topics should begin with a history of the terms to be discussed. The pervasiveness of this custom tempts me to start this paper in that time-honored tradition, but I have found myself resistant, for two reasons.

First, space is an odd term about which to write a history. Throughout most of the history of western thought, few persons have recognized that space is historical; that is, space has generally been understood as a given, not as a category about which there could be variation. History existed within space (and time); there was no possible history of space, because history required variation and space was neutral and beyond change. Tracing the transformation of this static view of space can proceed only with difficulty, but one might profitably point first to the Einsteinian notions that understand space, time, mass, and energy as functions of each other. The interrelationship between such realities requires us to rethink all of them and to change at fundamental levels our approach to space. But the ramifications of such notions have been slow at best. Only in the 1960s can one readily perceive further changes, or at least easily trace the movement of such ideas outside of physics. In the last thirty-five years, culture as a whole and philosophy in particular have granted increasing attention to space. Current literature on space routinely nods to Michel Foucault’s 1967 lecture, "Of Other Spaces," as the first time that space began to have a history, or at least a possibility for a history, as it connected with the genealogical projects of Foucault’s critical historical work (Foucault 1986). Yet the notions of space and its history remained sparsely developed within the Foucauldian corpus.

Thus, the first difficulty in sketching a history of space is that the history would have to begin with a defense of itself as an acceptable activity. Next, the spatial historian would need to interrogate sources from the ancient and modern worlds, even though those sources were convinced that space had no potential history. Then we would need to examine the changes in our academic work as a result of space’s history. Such a prerequisite does not remove either the need for the task of writing the history of space nor the possibility for doing so, but it certainly problematizes the project, well past the point where an academic paper’s introductory gesture can easily bear the weight of a reference to it. Nevertheless, for the last three and a half decades, more or less, philosophers and other academics have gained in the sense that space is a vital and necessary category of discourse, even a historical discourse (Clark 1992; Casey 1997). In fact, we need to treat seriously Gill’s claim that the shift from theology to territory as the controlling aspect of academic study is precisely the move that created the academic study of religion (Gill 1998: 301). Space has a genealogy and a history; it exists as a constructed category within the framework of human history. Space is something we make, create, produce, shape, reshape, form, inform, disform, and transform. All these human activities are operations upon space, leaving traces that mark its history. To discuss the history is to participate in the social and historical shaping of space.

But my second difficulty in discussing a history of space is that I wish to change our perceptions about space, to bring space into our focus, to direct our gaze upon space. This proves exceedingly problematic, because of this long history of not seeing space. In fact, space—in continuing common consciousness as well as in the history of academic thought about it—is invisible emptiness; it is the absence of things, and it lies (by definition) in between things. This is the space of outer space, for instance; the pure emptiness between the stars (in an age before the dominance of dark matter in astrophysics). Perhaps space is even beyond emptiness; space has been conceived as the framework of existence in which other things exist. Such definitions and notions push space almost outside the realm of existence, certainly past the realm of perception, and almost outside the possibility of investigation and analysis. This space is mathematical, theoretical, and imperceptible. One may analyze this space, but one cannot impact such space, for space is the very fabric of reality. Mathematicians can categorize space (as rectilinear or Euclidean, or as curved, or as imaginary, or any of an increasing number of kinds of space), but space can never be experienced and no one can act upon space. Einstein’s theoretical work proved exceptions to this, but those exceptions were outside the human scale; a singularity or even a smaller gravity well can curve space, but human-sized objects affect space only in imperceptible ways, and perceptible effects upon space time remain the result only of non-human-proportioned objects, such as stellar masses.

These definitions all render space nearly invisible. I would suggest that this has created a problem for scholarship on space, and this second problem makes a history of space difficult. A nearly invisible space cannot be the subject of an adequate history because of history’s ties with time, and the difficulty of perceiving space when time is nearby. Any history of space immediately falls into the chrono–logical. Despite our perception that time is one of the four dimensions, it has received nearly all of the attention from the guilds of biblical studies and religious studies. For a century and longer, the historical-critical method has mesmerized the majority of scholarship, and even now I would assert that the majority of scholars have not begun to question the historical-critical assumptions that contemporary intellectual movements have eroded. Even scholars who strive to move toward different assumptions feel the temptation to explain processes in traditional, historical, time-based terms. Thus, a history of space may well become a progressivist interpretation, assuming that discourses on space in the past have been superseded by one person after another, building on each other’s theories with increasing insight. Although I do not support the neglect of time or the abandonment of history, I would rather that we start without sorting theories into a temporal order—even though that is inevitable. Until we have reached a better understanding of space, we will be at risk of losing our concentration on it, or letting space disappear into time once more.

If a paper does not start with a history of relevant scholarship, other conventions call for definitions of key terms. A definition of space must remain approximate, because the field of study has not yet built for itself rigid boundaries. However, I intend to use the terms space and spatiality to refer to aspects of reality that involve concepts of distance, height, width, breadth, orientation, and direction, and also human perceptions, constructions, and uses of these aspects. Moreover, my focus is on critical spatiality, those theories that self-consciously attempt to move beyond modernist, mechanistic, essentialist understandings of space. Critical spatiality understands all aspects of space to be human constructions that are socially contested. This study of space finds natural allegiances and shared language with a diverse range of fields, such as critical human geography, geology and geography of specific areas under study, psychological analyses of sensory perception, physics, sociology, and postmodern philosophy.


Theoretical Positions regarding Space

Within recent years, a number of theoreticians have developed positions related to space. I wish to sketch some of these positions as multiple points of entry into a discussion of space.


Although an overview of twentieth-century physics is beyond the scope of this paper and the ability of this author, several points are helpful orientations for any discussion of space.

As mentioned above, Albert Einstein’s contribution deals with the interrelatedness of space, time, matter, and energy. All of them become variables; none of them are fixed amounts. Space itself curves around gravitational wells. A multitude of seeming anomalies stem from the relativity of space. With Einstein, physics moved further in its assertion that there is no absolute framework for perception. Space is not an absolute. Space is relative to the speed and motion of the observer. In a strange sense, Einstein’s work restores the observer and the human to the arena of cosmological physics.

Werner Heisenberg’s work both increases and problematizes the role of the observer. Observers face serious limits in what they can observe, because no one can perceive simultaneously both location and direction of some objects. Likewise, many situations require an observer that affects the observed. The binary opposition of observer and observed resolves into an interrelationship of participants. Heisenberg leaves us with little opportunity to talk of space, but only of spatial relationships that might have been very different had we not perceived them as we have. Such is quantum reality; the indeterminacy of reality itself shifts into particular observed states by the act of observation, even though that observation never proceeds beyond the partial. This pertains especially to the aspects of reality that make up space.

In mathematics, fractal geometry has pushed notions of space and dimension. Traditional geometries are constructs of straight lines or fixed simple curves. These geometries have provided the basis for almost all of our thinking about particular spaces and especially about maps. Thus, almost all of our maps—and most of the understandings that we base on those mental maps—reflect either rectilinear or spherical geometries. But fractals operate differently, dealing with complex curves that replicate themselves at many scales or even at an infinite number of scales. One of the best examples is to ask how one measures a coastline. One can draw a straight line from one point of coast to another (perhaps from one state border to the next) and measure the straight line. Such a measurement greatly underestimates the distance that it takes to drive along a coastal road with its many curves. A still longer path would be that of the beach walker, and if it is a rocky coast with many rocks, one has to decide whether to step over the rock or to trace its contours. That decision replicates itself with every grain of sand. The sand appears small on one scale, but if one wants a finer measurement, then the difference between the sand particle’s diameter and its circumference becomes highly significant. Such is a principle akin to fractals; within each measurement, there reside other things to measure. There is not a homogeneity within space; inside each unit (which itself is a problematic term) there is great variety, perhaps as great a variety as exists within the larger picture.

Fractals problematize the notion of scale in space. Most of our previously-held notions of space rest upon the assumption that there is scale, which is an absolute sense that large objects contain smaller objects of less complexity, and within space there are units that are exactly measurable and uniform in quality. Fractal space is considerably more textured and much messier. Scale becomes meaningless. At any size under consideration, there are an infinite number of complex pieces into which the object can be divided, and an infinite number of larger patterns into which the object can be meaningfully integrated. There is no "smallest" or "largest" scale.

Related to fractals are complex systems and chaos theory. Television has even popularized one of the early examples of this, the so-called butterfly effect. A butterfly that flaps its wings in one part of the world may cause a thunderstorm elsewhere. In other words, there is no scale of small causes related to small effects vs. large causes related to large effects. Space exists as constructed and interrelated, but without scale, without absolute framework, without discrete causality, and without determinacy.


On a social scale, the realities of globalization produce new understandings of space. In part, this is cultural, because persons from different cultures understand space differently. At the same time, the interactions produce new notions of space. This has been true at least as long as Disney’s animatrons have been singing "It’s a Small World," but globalized communications technologies have furthered the public awareness of social interconnectedness. Note that the singers do not claim that time is relative, or that speed is greater, but that space has shifted!

Here the strong contributions of postcolonialism begin their effect on and in the academy. The resistance to western hegemony within academic thought and discourse has created new ways of thinking about almost every academic topic, including space. Cultural variations make the world (the very world that has been described as a suddenly "small world") seem much larger and more diverse than ever before (cp. Tuan 1996). New cultural resources will enrich notions of space and will shift attention away from the classical and traditional western concepts. But postcolonialism is much more than the result of communication across diverse cultures—even though travel, exile, and displacement are major themes (Tuan 1996; Suleiman 1998; McDowell 1999; Mohanram 1999). Postcolonialist studies show the relativity of different concepts, the constructed nature of all the notions that the dominant culture has taken as givens, and the social and ideological power that holds together the constructedness of these assumptions about reality, along with the resistances against those powers, including the resistance against their notions of geography. The neutrality of models of social construction gives way to the evaluative ideas of an ideological criticism. As a result, new ways of knowing develop from other spaces and within old spaces. Space itself is much more convoluted. The ways that power has attempted to create a monolithic western space begin to shatter, with the result that spaces multiply with great potential.

Yi-Fu Tuan

Yi-Fu Tuan presented one of the key works in critical spatiality with Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Tuan 1977). As the subtitle indicates, Tuan’s interests are in the ways that people experience space. In this sense, his work mirrors the move in physics to restore the observer. Tuan begins with an exploration of what experience means (Tuan 1977: 8-33); this psychological and phenomenological orientation pervades his work. This assumption means that he is able to engage in helpful comparative work, because he is not assuming a standard or normative construction of space, but rather exploring the actual ways that specific peoples experience space and construct a sense of place, including attachment. This happens at many different scales (Tuan 1977: 149; Tuan 1996; Taylor 1999).

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault set a different agenda for space throughout his work. Although his article "Of Other Spaces" (Foucault 1986) has drawn the most attention, his work in the archaeology of knowledge exercises a vast influence as well (Foucault 1972). Foucauldian thought resists summary, and his diffuse thoughts on space all the more so. He moved social constructionism to stronger prominence and made connections between knowledge and power, which is the social and ideological force needed to maintain the knowledge as knowledge. By holding all knowledge as constructions of force, Foucault set the stage for an analysis of space as a construction.

Foucault’s introduction of the concept of other spaces, heterotopias, began in rather simple fashion. His examples included the cemetery—a place outside the normal movements of life, perhaps a place by which people pass without ever seeing. In a sense, heterotopias violate the unity of space, much in the same way that fractal geometries provide a texture. Society may define space as for the living, but in between the lived spaces exist their opposite, such as the cemetery. For Foucault, heterotopias are not imagined places but real places that almost delete themselves from public consciousness. They are null sites in awareness, yet inevitable and vital to the construction of space. One might also think of the spaces inhabited by the homeless in major American cities. The perceptions of space are always non-perceptions of adjacent spaces, but these nearby heterotopias are necessary for the construction of space and for the understanding of space.

Henri Lefebvre

The Production of Space by Henri Lefebvre appeared in French in 1974 and in English in 1991. This may well be the most important single book in the current development of critical spatiality. Lefebvre approaches the search for a science of space as a Marxist philosopher and sociologist. Thus, his work concentrates on the ways that particular ideas of space are creations of political practice, social system, division of labor, and mode of production. Furthermore, Lefebvre demonstrates the ideology of space, that is, how the constructions of space perpetrated by capitalist uses of knowledge simultaneously function to hide their own constructedness. In other words, any notion of space serves to support certain political interests while at the same time masquerading in a neutrality and an objectivity. But Lefebvre argues that space is not objective or passive, but an active force that is knowledge and action. The study of space that Lefebvre both desires and implements has three fields—the physical, the mental, and the social (Lefebvre 1991: 11). Thus, any discussion of space must include what physicists call space, what people think about space, and the social relations that produce such ideologies and thoughts about space. Space itself, as Lefebvre uses the term, integrates all three of these fields and discusses them all simultaneously without privileging one over another or considering them at all separable. Each field is interrelated to the others and participates with the others in the construction and use of space.

Lefebvre’s book traces a movement among these fields. Based in production, he begins with social space (Lefebvre1991: 68-168) and its effects as it produces and reproduces itself throughout the constructed world (169-228), from which he can move to the mental superstructures of space (229-351) as a basis for forming ideologies of resistance to the capital-produced space (352-400). Overall, he sees space not only as a construction but as a project, and thus he proposes a different project, in which other social relations produce space. These counter-projects would displace capitalist space in a world no longer split along the lines of the class struggle (416-423).

Lefebvre integrates the classic Marxist sociology with concerns of space, and deals directly with the issues of the observer’s effects on the observed. In that sense, his work is not only a treatise on space but a call to radical action through the creation of a different space.

Edward Soja

Edward W. Soja has taken Lefebvre’s work into an explicitly American context (Soja 1996). This is true in some of Soja’s particular studies, such as his focus on Los Angeles. But Soja has also modified and re-expressed Lefebvre’s theoretical base in relevant and helpful ways. Although Lefebvre had discussed the difference between represented, conceived, and lived space (Lefebvre 1991: 362), Soja transforms this theoretical move from a logical effect of the mode of productions (as it is for Lefebvre) into the center of a critical spatiality. In so doing, Soja shifts the grounding from Lefebvre’s explicit Marxist concentration on modes of production (including material, social, and ideological effects) into a more postmodern intellectual context. The reader thus should not feel surprise that Soja references Foucault, Lefebvre, and bell hooks with equal ease. As a result, Soja’s presentation is much more suitable to analysis of odd spaces such as theme parks and the virtuality of cyberspace than Lefebvre would be. As modes of information join and compete with modes of production, the resultant new virtual spaces are closer to Soja’s understanding than to Lefebvre’s (Flanagan 1999; Poster 1990).

Soja writes of three spaces: Firstspace (geophysical realities as perceived), Secondspace (mapped realities as represented), and Thirdspace (lived realities as practiced). Soja intends critical spatiality to study these as one thing; space is ineluctably all three at once. The study of space sees the connections. Within the book Thirdspace and in subsequent development, Soja concentrates on the praxis of space with a special interest in the use of space to resist. The praxis of the margins to destabilize the constructed space is an act of Thirdspace. Soja refers to this as Thirdspace-as-Othering, which he also understands as space without scale (Soja 1996: 86; cp. Ó Tuathail 1996).

I do not wish to conclude this section with the implication that Soja’s work was displaced other perspectives on spatiality. However, Soja’s perspectives have gained a widespread currency among both geographers and philosophers. This is most notable in the work of the human geographer Robert David Sack, whose most recent writings (Sack 1997) move beyond his earlier concentration on place and home (Sack 1986; 1993) to a new interest in moral action with a clear debt to Soja (1989), especially in the use of triads. Yet there are also those such as Derek Gregory (1994), who critique Lefebvre and Soja in the context of social theory and the postmodern shift. Also, Soja’s Thirdspace-as-Othering is similar to the philosopher Nancy’s sense of the world (Nancy 1997), and participates in the postmodern obsession with margins (Latour 1993: 122); continuing these conversations between Soja and other theorists will be a necessary preoccupation. We should not exempt Soja’s theories from critique and we must devote great attention and effort to moving the theoretical discussion forward, but at the same time I would affirm that Soja’s work provides the best starting point for the discussion of critical spatiality in the ancient world.

The Present Practice of Space

With these orientations and theoretical perspectives in mind, attention can now turn to the present practices of space within the guilds of biblical studies and religious studies. The study of space has been almost non-existent, but of course the use of space has been prevalent. Let me sketch a few places where this uninformed and atheoretical discourse of space has presented particular difficulties in our work.

Space and Meaning

This present difficulty in speaking about space within the academy points to the need for greater disciplinary rigor. In short, we need to rethink what we mean by "where." The question of where is not answered on a map. We cannot say that something comes "from Israel." We need more particularity than that. A fractal space means that "in Israel" means an infinity of spaces. The spatial tropes within our academic discourse are quite often spatially inaccurate as well as disingenuous defacings of the human. To identify the location of a practice or the origin of an object as "Israel" (or a given city, or region) is to use space to obscure and to displace the people who are actors (subjects of the practice and creators of the objects). With inattention to class, gender, age, agency, individuality, economics, and a range of other factors, the gesture to geography hypnotizes scholarship into forgetting the people involved as well as the social relations and modes of production. If something is "in Israel," where is its location in terms of society?

The question of "where" always requires the question "according to whom." Space is not neutral or objective; there is no magical space to stand from which one can observe space without perspective. There is no terminology that one can use to speak of space neutrally. Thus, any talk of space is talk of meaning—the meaning that interpreters attach to space. Social labeling theory offers a fruitful alliance here.

Examples are plentiful. One set of examples concerns how we label the units that we imagine, and these labelings of the imagination are hotly contested political decisions. Do we call the area Israelite, Canaanite, or Palestinian? A second set of examples would deal with the way terms affect what we include as the range of meaningful comparisons, such as occurs when we use the terms circum-Mediterranean or Southwest Asian. But really all of the examples mix the political and the cognitive, or (in Lefebvre’s terms) the social and the mental. To some extent, this was already recognized by one of the precursors to current critical spatiality, Gaston Bachelard (1994).

Space and Relationality

Space is inherently relational, not static. One of the tendencies increasingly perpetrated by scholars in this era of GPS-space is the digital construal of space. With a digital perception, one can give a number to a place (equivalent to its number on a map) and thus identify it. But this makes one think of points, not of space. Space is location and context simultaneously; in fact, one might say that space is the interrelatedness between a point and its context.

One can think of this interrelatedness in terms of symbols. For instance, Jerusalem is a not just a symbol; it is an interrelated set of an infinite number of symbols, held by the minds of those who perceive it, each from a different perspective in space/time.

But my interest is not so much in the symbology but in the sociology of space. Our concentration on space enables and requires a focus on the patterns of interaction in and across space. These sociological variables of spatial relationality include differentials in and movements of populace, labor, common goods, and luxury goods (a special case, since a luxury good is always constituted by its distance, its spatial interrelationship constituted as lack), not to mention language, custom, architecture, and many other aspects. In its analysis of multileveled cultural interactions across space, we could benefit greatly from the insights of world-systems theory (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997).

The relationality of space points us to the practices of mapping. One must see the interactions, but one must know that they are not two-dimensional nor chronically static. The interaction may be reduced to a single factor at a single time (such as, distribution of languages in a given year, or spread of a given pottery design) and then mapped—but this says almost nothing real.

At this point, it is worth noting that the combination of interactions may well correspond to identity—but these interactions are virtually unmappable because they are so embedded in space. To a certain extent, identity is perspective, and thus the base for perception and recognition, whereas maps are the result of the processes of perceiving space. Soja phrases this in terms of three spaces; the philosopher Nancy points to much the same need in terms of the abandonment of representation (re-presence) and the birth to presence (Nancy 1993), and Baudrillard also obsesses over simulations and their effect on identity (Baudrillard 1983).

The Problem of Mapping

Spatial relationality must dispense with the notion of mapped homogeneity. This, to me, is the most significant problem with maps; maps represent an area as if all within the lines on the map are a single entity. Think again of those simple tinted line drawing maps of Israel and its tribes, which we all learned about in our introductory courses. Each tribe had its own color and if Judah was orange, it was orange through and through. Real space does not operate that way. A corollary is that there is real difference along the map lines; in fact, all the difference between one area and another exists along or within those lines. On my map, Boston is a unity, a cultural whole. But this is simply mythic. As a city, it is a seething chaos of complex interrelationships in a fractal dimension, with patterns of difference and processes of differentiation at every conceivable level.

This is what makes the notion of "in Israel" irrelevant and even dangerous. Those lines on the map, the ones that separate Israel from its neighbors and construct the image of a homogenous Israel, obscure the social differences within. If one asks whether an artifact was used in Israel, the answer must be that it was used in some places and not in others. I cannot think of any statement that is true in all Israel, except the most banal. Anything interesting is fragmented within, true in some places and not in others.

For another example, consider language. Was Hebrew spoken in Israel (say, in 450 B.C.E.)? Yes. Was Aramaic? Yes. Was Greek? Yes. All of those were spoken, and many others. But what does that tell the interpreter? Nothing. Our attention must go the specificity of where each was spoken and was not spoken, at the practices of differentiation along edges between a language’s presence and its absence, and at the overlaps between where one is spoken (or not) and where another is spoken (or not). Again, a fractal space insists that we change our conceptions and our constructions of the ancient world.

This problematizes many statements, even such uncontroversial ones such as, "During 538-333 B.C.E., Yehud was a part of the Persian Empire." It may be true on a map, but it is not true in space. Yehud was a complex space with a range of interactions with other spaces. Some within Yehud interacted with the Persian Empire as allies. Others resisted the empire. Others allied with Greece or Egypt or other non-imperial spaces. Imperial influence surely meant something different to urban areas than it did to rural areas (were we able to use concepts such as "urban area" vs. "rural area"). People within different social classes traded in different directions and used goods that connected them with different locations. Our maps have obscured all of this. No place is connected to only one other place.

One must note here that this is a particular problem of the construction of ancient religion and especially biblical scholarship. By contrast, sociologists of contemporary religion draw maps differently. The standard biblical studies maps (tribes or political boundaries of Israel; travels of Paul) are very different than the maps of contemporary religion, which may show, i.e., distribution of religion in certain populations in the U.S. Biblical scholars have used maps in static ways, whereas other religion scholars have found more creative and helpful uses for their maps.

The Problem of Identity

I have earlier indicated that every question of "where" requires the question of "according to whom." In other words, space implicates perspective. It also implicates identity. To ask "where am I" is to ask "who am I." (A parallel assertion is that identity is the sum of internal and external social labels.) Where am I, the author of this paper? In Boston, or in St. Louis, or in an airplane 6 miles over Wyoming? (Cyberspace further problematizes this, of course. But so does reader-response theory; the author exists wherever the readers are.) If space is the sum of its interrelationships, then space points to identity as the interaction of the social-spatial relationships. Consider an "average" Yehudite. Who is this one? An ally of Jerusalem leaders? A devotee of temple worship? A loyal Persian vassal? A consumer of Greek goods? A cousin of someone a few villages over?

Identity is always problematic and always contested and conflictual. It is an extension of self over against the world and the other, and often space is part of this extension (Doyle 1999). "Thirdspace and similar theories suggest that competing spatialities co-exist. Logically, the more complex the historical and social conditions, the more Thirdspaces there are in play at any one time" (Flanagan 1999: 9). All of these interrelationships are spatial and social; thus, they are all involved in the production of identity.

Each identity element is a spatial practice; each could be mapped, if anything could be mapped. The unique positional overlapping forms identity. What it means to be Israelite or Yehudite—and all of the scholarly assertions that depend upon those constructs—is at stake.

Projects and Practices in Space

Given these problems of spatiality and the new theories of space available, how should the study of space and the constructions of spatiality affect our discipline? Let me suggest seven projects or practices that will be worthwhile for activity and investigation.


The first task is a call for specificity. In terms of how the rest of the academy will perceive this discourse about space, the call to specificity may well prove to be the most visible and most annoying practice. But let me emphasize that it is not at all the most serious issue for the study of space. It is not even a necessary precursor. Rather, specificity may be a by-product or side effect of the practices of critical spatial discourse that resist universalization. Scholarship must break the habits of easy identification, especially that something is "Israelite," without careful consideration of the factors involved. This probably requires a rejection of political boundary maps, while recognizing the true importance of politics more than ever. Methods for mapping politics are present in historical geography and even used upon occasion in the study of contemporary religion; biblical scholarship can gain from the work already done there. It is instructive that some of the earliest work on the social world of ancient Israel concentrated on chiefdoms, tribes, and segmented societies (Flanagan: forthcoming). Scholars usually note this as a departure from previous academic treatments, due to the insertion of concepts from anthropology and sociology; in other words, the developments are treated as the historical arrival of different generations of academic thought. But note that we could also explain this as a change in spatialities, away from the monarchic/mythological spatialities that had informed traditional political-boundary maps and moving toward models that were "unmappable" by those standards because they relied on social interaction at different scales. This was sometimes seen (and still is) as a rejection of (monarchic) politics and as a political agenda by those scholars involved, but it is certainly a gesture toward the real politics of spatialities by undermining the authority of those who had constructed the traditional maps.

One problem is the confusion between ideas about space and space itself. Space is (at least) three dimensional; representations are not reality. Representations that exist in only one or two dimensions are imaginary. One of the first things that we can and must do is to challenge the two-dimensionality of scholarly conceptions. In this year of SBL’s celebration of the first two decades since Norman Gottwald’s The Tribes of Yahweh, we have before us a splendid example. In a sense, Gottwald’s study results from a question of space, in that he asked about elevation. This third dimension became crucial—did people live differently based on their altitude of highlands vs. valleys? The introduction of a dimension led to new insights.

A second problem is the tendency to generalize. An example is the frequent statement that an artifact or a text comes "from Israel." We must continue to ask questions and to interrogate the spatial assertions of biblical scholarship. We must ask if the claim points to physical, social, or mental reality—and we must suggest ways that space is different between these. We should inquire into the heterotopias between one region and another, at large and small scales. These heterotopias resist the universalizations that are scholarly commonplaces.

Third, the specificity of critical spatiality requires attention to the positions from which we perform our scholarship. In this work, postcolonial studies will be essential. The work of Edward Said (1978) has already been instrumental in biblical studies’ move toward postcolonialism, and other works are of clear importance even if their ramifications for the academic study of religion have not yet been fully articulated (Bhabha 1994; Ó Tuathail 1996). Increasing numbers of biblical scholars are building an impressive and diverse body of literature in this important area (Donaldson 1996; Sugirtharajah 1998, 1999; Dube: forthcoming). Although works connecting postcolonialism and spatiality are beginning to appear (Dube 1998), the interaction between these fields promises to expand greatly as newer theoretical works in postcolonialism are brought into dialogue with religious and biblical studies and as a fuller range of vernacular hermeneutics comes into western awareness (Sugirtharajah 1999).

The Sense of Place

A second set of projects and practices is to consider what is at stake in a sense of place (Tuan 1977: 149-178). Why would ancient people consider themselves as having a certain spatial orientation—i.e., why would they call themselves Israelite, or Persian, or any of the other geographic/spatial determinations that are extant in the records? What senses of identity are expressed in spatial terms, and how does this vary throughout the canon? Does a certain spatial term of identity mean the same thing from one book to another? Does it mean different things to persons of different classes? This is perhaps the central question of critical human geography: how do people interpret space in ways that produce a sense of home (Gregory 1994; Tuan 1996; Sack 1997)?

But also, how do we imagine this sense of space? Do we identify a person as Israelite, or as Jerusalemite, or as something else, when that person might have self-identified in any of those ways? The problem is made more difficult by language, when we use English words with their own signification. Which of these spatial terms come closest to the ancient perceptions? Further, what are the political ramifications of using any of these titles in the present world? When identity is at play, it is not possible to speak only of ancient identity, because the political battles over identity will not stay in only one time period.

Part of this will likely be a return to an old topic in biblical studies: the cosmological worldview of the ancients. However, this look at mythical space and place may appear quite different in the context of a critical spatiality (Tuan 1977: 85-100).


Under the rubric of urbanization, I would suggest that we study large-scale physical effects of ancient spatial practices. Much work has been done on urban centers, urbanization processes, and the practices of city life. More is needed, but we should concentrate on the spatial practices. My sense is that urban life is a different set of spatial practices, and that our understanding of cities in the ancient world can be enhanced by examining how cities and city dwellers interact spatially with the rest of the world, including the local areas (the daughter cities), the neighboring rural areas, and the distant cities with which there is trade.

Along with this should be considered new initiatives in demography. Work in this crucial aspect of Israelite settlement is quite limited at present. Few scholars have possessed the critical and analytical tools to assess population density in specific times and places (Tuan 1977: 51-66). Demographic study will concentrate on both urban and rural areas, but urbanization will be the primary focus for critical spatiality because of the complex ways in which cities use space. Monuments and architecture warp space to create the effect of a city, and so these issues become integral to the understanding of the processes and instances of urbanization (Lefebvre 1991: 169-228). The extensive work on the critical spatiality of postmodern cities will be an important point of departure for realizing both the commonalities of urban experience and the specificities of ancient city life. The shift to a discourse of practices instead of locations and meanings (i.e., the Thirdspace instead of Firstspace or Secondspace) will be crucial.


More generally, we must study the practices of spatial interrelatedness. This includes economics and trade. It also must involve the cultural boundaries, as well as their observances and transgressions. This study explores both symbolic and social uses of space, sensitive to the ways that these overlap.

Resources here include economics and sociology, and topics include an array of matters from language to cooking customs to luxury goods. This involves a change from understanding a space of places/locations to a space of flows (Castells 1996).

Beyond this, a critical spatiality must reorient us from seeing space as static units to dynamically interrelated flows, but also to understanding that different spaces affect each other. Spatial interrelationships are mutual and complex; that is, they affect all regions and entities (although in different ways) and they involve multiple subjects. Cause-and-effect language is not sufficient to understanding these spatial connections. For example, the study of the Persian period has at times asked questions about the direction on causation—did Persia dominate Yehud or did certain characteristics of Yehud (such as its monotheism) set the agenda for Persia’s local policies? In causal language, this question is quite important and certainly valid, but critical spatiality will point us to see the interrelationship as mutual (shaping and forming both parties), non-linear (perhaps even chaotic), and as complex (affecting more parties than only these two).


So far, scholarly discussions of space have dealt with large-scale effects, with few exceptions. But a thorough investigation of space should also consider the microspaces, especially that of the body (Tuan 1977: 19-50; Lefebvre 1991: 194-207; Gregory 1994: 157-165, 416). This allows spatial studies to connect with a very dynamic field of biblical and ancient world studies. Already, postmodern body studies have adopted a geographic terminology—the body is a site with positions, situation, and orientations; activities are written upon the body, for the body is a surface that is virtually cartographic; and the practices of the body are performances that map bodily concerns into social spheres.

Certainly bodies participate in the use of space in a crucial way (Mohanram 1999). Just as it is hardly possible to imagine a social practice that does not take place in space, one cannot conceive of social activities that take place without bodies. Again, the fractal abandonment of scale should shape future investigation by focusing on smaller units such as the body.

In the Hebrew Bible, gender is an important aspect of how the body and space interact. Some spaces are permissible for males and others for females. This creates a cartography of gender as well as a set of Thirdspace practices that can create and resist the construction of space at the same time that they create and resist the social construction of gender (McDowell 1999).


Our study must not exclude the religious uses of space. The practices called qadosh have been translated into religious language as holiness when they more directly refer to separation—a set of spatial practices. We must be sensitive to how this is a physical separation, as well as a set of meanings about what locations mean and also a codification of the practices related to space.

We might do well to consider the argument that the Hebrew Bible is obsessed with space. The matter of the land is paramount—its conquest, its occupation, and its loss. Although scholarly reconstructions of conquest, exile, and restoration have been found faulty, the matter remains that the Hebrew Bible concerns itself with land and thus with space.

At the same time, we must avoid the easy identification of sacred spaces and social centers. J. Z. Smith’s critiques of M. Eliade’s work should not be taken lightly (Smith 1978, 1987; Gill 1998: 304-5). However, our task will not be to replicate or extend the agendas of either Eliade or Smith, but instead to draw upon the resources of newer work in critical spatiality to rethink the enterprise.


Communication in the ancient world will provide an important field for spatial study. One might begin with the following typology. Thought, which is communication with the self, is non-spatial and non-temporal (at least not in observable, measurable ways in the ancient world). Speech is locally spatial and temporal; its temporality is linear (Fish 1980). Although writing and reading are time-consuming, the written page is not temporal but entirely spatial, until the practices of reading turn space into time through accepted customs. Through writing, persons of different cities and cultures communicate across space; thus writing is a practice that creates social-spatial connections. This is essential to remember given that those who write often combine Firstspace and Secondspace in an attempt to repress (alternate) Thirdspaces (Flanagan: forthcoming). In contrast, in postcolonial settings, writing becomes a means of Thirdspace-as-Othering, using the masters’ tools to dismantle the house.

Maurice Blanchot also suggests a space of literature, a place where others meet (Blanchot 1982). This space is, of course, a non-space, or at least a non-Cartesian space—a void, a set of distances. Distance and space allow literature to function as communication (Blanchot 1982: 198-207). Literature, as any communication, is a practice of space.

Of course, more traditional studies of communication emphasizing modes of message exchange over distance are also part of critical spatiality, both in the ways the space is transformed throughout practices of bringing information across it and in the ways that interacting cultures transformed each other’s mental notions of the nature of space.


Questions about Boundaries

The seven areas listed above are topics for discussion as religious studies and biblical studies move toward a critical spatiality. I do not claim to know in advance which paths will be most profitable or most efficient. In addition to these possible projects, let me suggest four areas that some may think are at the boundaries of the proper discussion of space and critical spatiality.


If communication in the ancient world is a proper area for discussion, I would argue that communication in the present is not only proper but necessary for our investigation. Communication technologies inherently disrupt the relations of time and space. These relations are so intrinsic to all of our study that we cannot be certain how they affect our perceptions of ancient spatiality. In the face of that uncertainty, our best strategy is to explore present-day changes in communication technology and their effects on scholarship.

Personally, I would be willing to take this argument much further. Our scholarly activity necessarily includes an investigation of the social relations that produce scholarly knowledge (Flanagan: forthcoming). However, this full-fledged critical epistemology is so fundamental to our work that spatiality constructions form a subset of the larger problem. This in no way reduces the relevance of our study of spatiality.


In this century, the unavoidable relationship between space and time has entered popular consciousness. Thus, the study of space will require attention to time (Flanagan 1995).

However, the particular configuration of our field requires that we concentrate on space, for time has occluded space within our scholarship. The historical-critical method has shaped our field for more than a century and has brought the matter of time to the forefront of our academic consciousness, even though our consideration of time has been modernist and uncritical, for the most part. Our fixation on time requires an act of will to think in other ways. As a result of this formative experience of historical-critical method, our theories take time as a primary category. Historical change and the development of Israel over time are basic ideas that we will not lose, but they quite likely have blocked our view of other things. We have been too quick to see chronological difference and too slow to think of spatial difference. Even when we have resisted the historical models, we have called our work "synchronic." Thus, I propose we strive to develop spatiality as a new paradigm that is parallel to chronicity. The resulting parallax can, in the long run, teach us about both time and space.


One of the problems that our study will face is the issue of metaphor. In most every previous study of space that has addressed issues other than representation in archaeology and architecture, scholarship has not been able to progress beyond an exploration of metaphors in texts. To be sure, space does operate as a literary trope within the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Important work has been done on the symbology of the cubit, the image of the city gates as a force of order, or the significance of the travel paths of Jesus and Paul. A vocabulary of space may well be a task worth pursuing as part of our constructions of the ancient world, but the study of the constructions of ancient spatiality must treat such an investigation as little more than an interesting sidelight for now. Instead, the full treatment of space requires a different and more sophisticated treatment.

On the other hand, we need sustained attention to the use of metaphors of space within present scholarship. Evolutionary paradigms throughout our discipline push us toward time not space as explanations; we must find ways to speak of space as vital to our study. Although it may sound trivial, it may change the results of scholarship if we talk of our work as a field with multiple locations and positions, instead of as a progression of ideas documented by the history of scholarship. Perhaps we can learn to think of ideas cohabiting with each other, rather than evolving into newer and better forms as one replaces another.


As we study space and spatial practices, we will deal with the question of how this study relates to the projects of modernity and postmodernity (Taylor 1999). In some ways, the drive toward increasingly accurate spatial representations and eventually into more quantifiable digital modes of representation reflects the interests of modernity, whereas the emphasis on practices and the understanding of space as not natural but constructed and performed plays upon a number of postmodernist themes. For myself, I think of critical spatiality as a postmodern practice, and I find strong allies in a number of moves within postmodern philosophy. However, I would not want us to codify that preference. To do so would be to fall into the old trap of historicist, progressivist thought by assuming that the latest (i.e., the postmodern) is the best and that earlier forms are to be forsaken. Such a time-centered assumption is not the best place for spatial discourse.

In another way, the momentum behind this study of space is an attempt to retrieve ancient practices of space. Although this is a matter of debate and is certainly unprovable, I would argue that a performative notion of space is closer to the ancient world’s understandings, and that our exploration leads us closer to the texts we study than modernism and the historical-critical method has done, narrowing the emic/etic distinctions in intriguing ways.


Recurring Questions

With these seven projects at the core of the study of space, and working with awareness of these four border areas, I would suggest that the following questions will be constant tools for our study. I do not see this list as exhaustive, but as a starting point.


Within every aspect of space that becomes the focus of our attention, we will ask about its meanings, its valuations, and its symbolization. This requires asking about differential values produced by perspectival differences; in other words, how space appears differently from various social locations within the ancient world and within contemporary interpreters.


Given any feature of space, we must ask about its interrelationships. This includes symbolic and social connections. How is this space like and unlike neighboring spaces? With what other spaces are there interactions? In what ways are overlapping practices and connections constitutive of this space?

Possible Levels

Since space has no scale, we must ask the difficult question about what other scales and levels exist alongside or inside the space we are studying. This will require pushing the scope into larger macrospaces (city, region, province or nation, empire, world, and relations to units of all sizes outside each of these) and into smaller microspaces (village, kinship, family, household, body). These two directions must occur simultaneously along with deep questioning about the interactions between the levels. Tuan (1996) argues that cosmos and hearth are two scales of crucial importance; I would wish to affirm his observation without limiting the discourse to concentrate on any scale to the exclusion of others.

Of course, medium-sized spaces have received the most attention in biblical scholarship: city, village, and household. Large-scale spaces (region, empire, world) have been assumed but have rarely been studied in terms of interaction. Small-scale spaces are mostly untreated, but may be an intriguing area for spatial study, including such units as the body and perhaps those even smaller.

Alternate Spaces

Any space can and will be resisted, and the spatial practices of resistance are a vital topic for study. The transgression of boundaries is also an important matter. Of course, the investigation of smaller and larger spaces will draw attention to the intricate patterns by which spaces reproduce themselves. Heterotopia are numerous, or perhaps innumerable. Our investigations of space should always be sensitive to the spaces between those we claim, as well as the differences within those spaces and the spaces other than those we define.


We must study how spaces are arranged, constructed, perceived, valued, practiced, and resisted. Although this is the assertion present within so much of what has been said throughout, I want to emphasize that social constructionism is a crucial assumption. It will be necessary to ask at every point about how the particular feature of spatiality at hand is constructed. What are the social mechanisms that produce and reproduce that space? These particular processes are vital. In places, this will call for investigation into social relations and modes of production; in other places, we will need to explore the mental landscape and logic of space.


How are the notions of spatiality expressed in the ancient world? How are they communicated to others? What differences are affected by it? What manifestations arise? These questions are crucial. The terms with which we express the spatiality of the ancient world may well be just as important, if not more so. Labeling integrates mental and social spaces, and often influences actions that affect the physical space (Davies 1992; Whitelam 1996). This is just as important in the investigation of current scholarship and in its continuing practice.



Critical spatiality offers an area in which to integrate sociological and philosophical concerns in such a way as to rethink contemporary biblical and religious scholarship and to create new constructions of the ancient world. The results of such investigation may well be alternate practices that are the customs appropriate to the new spaces we will inhabit. The exciting work in critical spatiality already apace in other disciplines provides more than sufficient examples for the work before us.





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