Friday, October 2, 2020


    Social- scientific criticism is ‘that phase of the exegetical task which analyzes the   social and cultural dimensions of the Biblical text and of its environmental context through the utilization of the perspectives, theory, models, and research of the social sciences.’[1] It is a sub-discipline of exegesis, not a new or independent methodological paradigm. It complements the other sub-disciplines of the historical-critical method by bringing social- scientific scrutiny to bear both on texts and on their geographical, historical, economic, social, political and cultural contexts.[2] 

Emergence of Social-Scientific Criticism

    There was a growing awareness in the last third of the 20th century that the social and cultural contexts of texts and traditions needed more refined analysis and articulation. In 1972 one network began asking social questions of the New Testament in terms of “social history” and “social description.” Simultaneously, another network asked social questions by means of cultural anthropology and sociology.  Thus two parallel ways of considering New Testament documents in terms of “social” perspectives emerged with significantly different presuppositions, aims, and methods: forms of “social history” on the one hand, and “social- scientific” interpretation on the other.[3] Scholars like Abraham J. Malherbe,[4] Robert M. Grant,[5] Ronald ‎F.‎ Hock[6] etc., published their seminal work on the “Social History” of early Christianity. While scholars like Gerd Theissen,[7] John G. Gager,[8] John H Elliott,[9]  Wayne A. Meeks[10], Norman Petersen,[11] Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey[12] etc., made their study of early Christianity using social-scientific criticism. 

 Why Social-Scientific Criticism

        Each writings of the Bible is not merely a literary composition but also   designed to serve as a means of social communication and social interaction and to prompt social action on the part of its targeted audience. Therefore, determining the meaning of these texts requires extensive knowledge of the social and cultural systems they presume, that is, on the one hand how these systems are constituted and how they work, how they shape the perspectives, values, interests and aims of the authors; and, on the other hand, how these texts may represent counter-cultural positions.  In addition to this, social sciences are essential for exploring and explaining the relations and patterns of sociality; the structure and components of social systems; the dynamics of social relations; core cultural values; typical attitudes and perspectives; and prominent social-cultural behavioral scripts. Social-Scientific Criticism seeks to supply method and models for understanding relations amongst the social phenomena: how they connected and how they work.[13]

 Assumptions and Methodology of Social-Scientific Criticism

          As an interdisciplinary approach to a biblical text social-scientific criticism involves a plethora of presuppositions. Exegesis without social presuppositions is as impossible as exegesis without theological presuppositions. J.H. Elliott points out  that presuppositions of social- scientific criticism are not only related to methodology and the objects being interpreted; they also relate to the interpreter.[14]

 a)  Knowledge is Socially Conditioned

         The first presupposition is that “all knowledge is socially conditioned and perspectival in nature,” and this includes the knowledge of the authors and groups under examination, as well as the interpreter. This presupposition has two implications. First, complete objectivity in interpretation is impossible because, as sociologists of knowledge have pointed out, even “reality” itself— whether the original author’s or the interpreter’s—is conditioned by “specific temporal, psychological, social, and cultural locations.”[15] A second implication of this presupposition is that the interpreter must be aware of his or her own personal and social locations. One of the dangers interpreters face as they do their work is (and always has been) eisegesis, that is, reading meaning back into the text being interpreted. This can occur when one’s own personal and social locations influence the interests, methods, and goals of textual analysis. Thus, it is very important for interpreters to understand first of all that they approach the interpretive task with “baggage” that may influence their exegetical decisions. The point here is that different people in different social locations are susceptible to reading and interpreting biblical texts a certain way because of their social location. Such readings are anachronistic and ethnocentric and can more easily be avoided if the interpreter takes time to ask sociological questions of the biblical text and world of the text.[16]

 b) Analytical Method Must Provide a Way To Distinguish Social Locations

        The interpreter must establish the social location of the authors and objects being interpreted as well as their own, then social-scientific interpretive methods must provide a means for doing so. Social-scientific critics also find it necessary and useful to distinguish ‘emic’ points of view from ‘etic’ points of view. Adopted from ethnologists, this contrast distinguishes information and accounts supplied by indigenous informants according to their frameworks of experience, knowledge and rationalizations (emic) from the analytical perspective and categories of the modern investigator (etic). For exegesis, the former applies to the biblical texts and all ancient sources; whilst the latter applies to contemporary readers and scholars. This distinction enables the exegete to remain conscious of the gaps separating the modern scholar from the world and literary productions of the ancient cultures under examination. This in turn prompts the interpreter to consider the ‘plausibility structures’ that lend credence to beliefs and concepts striking moderns as ‘unscientific’ or ‘superstitious’ or merely bizarre. The distinction also helps to minimize anachronistic and ethnocentric readings and evaluations of ancient texts.[17]

 c) Models as a Means to Finding Meaning

      Theories and conceptual models play an essential role in social- scientific criticism, especially in terms of producing etic information. Social-scientists use various methods of observation to seek typical and recurring patterns and regularities in human behavior (emic information), whether behavior of individuals or groups of humans. Based on those observations, social-scientists then create theories (etic information) to explain the patterns they have observed. These theories are then articulated through the use of models. A model is “an abstract simplified representation of some real world object, event, or interaction constructed for the purpose of understanding, control, or prediction.”[18]

       Models,[19] then, are essentially “cognitive maps” or conceptual frameworks that organize selected prominent features of social terrain such as patterns of typical behavior (for instance, at work, at meals, in law courts), social groupings (kin and fictive kin groups, faction, coalitions, patrons and clients, and such), process of social interaction (for example, buying and selling, oral and written communication, feuding, making contracts), and the like. Such models alert the social traveler to typical and recurrent patterns of everyday social life in given times and places.[20]             Bruce J. Malina describes three basic types of models from a fairly high level of abstraction: the structural functionalist, the conflict, and the symbolic models.[21] Jerome H. Neyrey gives a list of social model from standard anthropological textbooks to read another cultural world, especially the ancient one.[22] It is important to understand that the models themselves are not meant to create material evidence; instead they are meant to provide a way to visualize the patterns and relationships among the emic information under scrutiny so as to understand them. Thus, models are valuable explanatory tools. Models, however, not only have explanatory (or descriptive) value, they also have heuristic value. Models provide a means of testing the theories behind them as well as stimulating further investigation. [23] 

 d) Linguistic Presuppositions Regarding Texts

        Social- scientific exegesis is “the analytic and synthetic interpretation of a text through the combined exercise of the exegetical and sociological disciplines, their practices, theories and techniques.”[24] There are various presumptions for social-scientific critics about how “text” is defined, as well as what are the features, functions, situations, and strategies of a text. First, it defines “text” as a “unit [sic] of meaningful social discourse in either oral or written form.”[25]  A second assumption in this category is to determine what texts meant in their original contexts (the task of exegesis) necessarily requires the exegete to know as well as possible the social and cultural systems from which the communication occurred.[26] This is especially important because the ancient Mediterranean world was a “high context” society.[27] A third presumption about texts is that they not only have cognitive and affective dimensions, they also have an ideological dimension.[28] Fourth, alluded to above, the biblical texts are instruments of communication with some features.[29] These features emphasize that the biblical texts have an occasion and a purpose.

 e) To Study “Religion” Requires the Study of Social Structures and Relations

           Socio-cultural anthropology[30] has helped give prominence to the fact that “religion” in the Bible was not a free-standing institution as in modern times. Instead, religion was “embedded” in the two dominant institutions of kinship and politics. For B.J. Malina ‘just as there was domestic economy and political economy in the first-century Mediterranean, but no economy pure and simple, so also there was domestic religion and political religion, but no religion pure and simple.[31] So, rather than imposing modern ideas of religion and religious phenomena upon the first-century Mediterranean context, social- scientific critics seek to analyze religion as it was intertwined with kinship and politics.[32]

Merits and Demerits of Social-Scientific Criticism

        Some scholars have argued that applying social-scientific criticism to an ancient society or to an ancient text is virtually impossible because the methods of social science depend on participant observation and an ability to test results by interacting with the subjects being studied. While such testing is possible in contemporary societies, it is method matters obviously impossible in the case of ancient ones.[33] While some others have felt that the application of social-scientific criticism can lead to a social reductionism that ignores all nonsocial forces in the shaping of history and literature.[34] There has been some criticism of the comparative use of ethnographic data on the grounds that the data is not representative of similar data in other cultures. The use of atypical comparative material is always a danger, as is the failure to recognize cultural uniqueness. Social-scientific criticism can flirt with the danger of over- interpreting a text, if not closely scrutinized. One has to be very careful when choosing or producing a model for interpreting the biblical texts. Models are to be tested carefully against the text itself as well as other hypotheses, and the interpreter must be willing to modify the model or abandon it altogether if it is shown to be faulty.[35]  

        Social-scientific criticism offers many potential benefits and contributions to biblical studies. First, whereas traditional historical-critical approaches to exegesis have provided insights into cause and effect relations of a diachronic sort, social-scientific criticism offers insights of a synchronic sort.[36]In other words, social-scientific criticism emphasizes how meaning is produced by humans interacting with one another in a complex socio-cultural system. It can also benefit biblical interpretation by providing a way to fill in gaps where traditional historical approaches may not be able to do so. The method provides a way to further understand the “world behind the text” as well as the “narrative world within the text” and ourselves as “culturally-embedded interpreters of the text.”[37]It has also provided some fresh air for biblical studies that is capable of displacing the stagnant air of the conventional historical-critical approaches to exegesis.

 Evaluation and Conclusion

         The New Testament critical studies are incomplete without the knowledge of the social life setting of the first Christian era and their social aspects. Since human beings are always influenced by our environments, out thought form and ideology are often molded by our experiences. So also is the case of the early Palestinian Christians that are formed and influenced by their cultural, religious, social and political lives. So, the social criticism tries to study these entire primordial contexts in order to bring out the real and authentic message of the Bible. Further, true knowledge a meaningful interpretation of the Bible only come from the knowledge of the first century CE. Though social-scientific criticism has certain limitations and is liable to some pitfalls, overall it is beneficial for the biblical interpreter to add this method to his or her exegetical toolbox. If employed in concert with the other conventional methods of historical-critical interpretation, it can illuminate the text of Scripture for the interpreter.

End Notes

[1] John H. Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 7.

[2] J. H. Elliott, “Social- scientific criticism: Perspective, process and payoff,” in Theological Studies 67/1 (2011), 1.

[3] J. H. Neyrey , “Social-Scientific Criticism” in The  New Testament,  Ed. D. E. Aune (UK: Blackwell Pub., 2010), 177.

[4] A. J. Malherbe in his book Social Aspects of Early Christianity, advocates close scrutiny of the written sources of the New Testament. ‎‎Malherbe’s stress‎ on ‎understanding‎ the‎ unique and particular elements of the NT writings and his reluctance to proceed too quickly to “theoretical‎ description‎ or ‎explanations” ‎of ‎communities ‎keep ‎his‎ work ‎firmly ‎within ‎the ‎confines‎ of “social ‎history.” Malherbe suggests that the relationship between a given document and the community with which it was associated may have been complex; one cannot take it for granted that documents were always products of communities. Consequently, Malherbe counsels against premature efforts to draw analogies with non-Christian movements, or to apply sociological theory to the pertinent data. Rather, one must begin by examining the character and intention of ‎the ‎documents‎ “in‎ order ‎to ‎discern ‎how‎ they ‎functioned in relation to the communities with which they were ‎associated.” A. J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983), 20.

[5] In his book Early Christianity and Society, R. M. Grant  ‎explores ‎seven‎ different‎ topics,– Christian‎ population; relationship to the monarchy; taxation; occupations; private property; almsgiving; and temples, churches and endowments, covering the time span from the 1st to the middle of the 4th century. Grant‘s ‎work‎ is valuable for ‎its ‎focus‎ on ‎social, “mundane” ‎aspects ‎of ‎Christian‎ life ‎seldom ‎attended‎ to ‎in ‎histories ‎of‎ the early church. See for more details R. M. Grant, Early Christianity and Society (San Francisco: Collins, 1977).

[6] In The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry R. F. Hock makes no use of methods or insights from the social sciences, but does endeavor to place Paul within a particular social and cultural milieu. ‎Hock ‎illuminates ‎Paul‘s ‎references ‎to ‎his ‎manual‎ labor‎ by ‎discussing ‎the ‎trade of tent making or leather working as it is known from contemporary sources, the experiences that would likely have arisen from tent making as a way of life, and contemporary attitudes held by different groups of persons (including rabbis and philosophers) toward manual labor. Hock uses his findings to illuminate the nature of ‎the ‎Corinthian ‎controversy ‎over ‎Paul‘s ‎refusal ‎to ‎accept ‎their ‎financial ‎support. ‎He ‎concludes‎ that‎ “far‎ from ‎being ‎at ‎the ‎periphery ‎of ‎his ‎life, ‎Paul‘s‎ tent making‎ was‎ actually ‎central ‎to ‎it.” R. F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry (Philadelphia:, Fortress Press 1980), 67.

[7] G. Theissen‎ in Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity seeks ‎to ‎determine ‎how‎ “the Jesus ‎movement” contributed to the resolution of the disruptive tensions caused by Roman rule in 1st-century Palestine. The governing sociological perspective is Functionalism:‎ societies ‎in ‎general ‎are ‎regarded‎ as ‎entities‎ whose‎ “basic ‎aims” include ‎achieving ‎the‎ integration of their members and overcoming conflicts through change. The analysis is broken down into ‎three ‎parts. ‎In ‎Part ‎One ‎ (“Analysis‎ of ‎Roles”) describes three standardized patterns of behavior in the Jesus‎ movement: ‎the‎ “wandering‎ charismatics,” ‎who ‎abandoned ‎family, ‎possessions,‎ and ‎self-pride in order to follow Jesus; the “sympathizers ‎in ‎the ‎local ‎communities,” ‎who ‎subjected ‎themselves ‎to ‎the ‎authority ‎of ‎the ‎wandering‎ charismatics and provided physical‎ sustenance ‎to ‎itinerants ‎who‎ passed ‎through ‎their ‎towns;‎ and ‎the “Son‎ of‎ Man,” ‎who ‎was ‎central ‎to ‎discipleship ‎for ‎members ‎of‎ each ‎of ‎the ‎other ‎two ‎groups.‎ In‎ Part ‎Two‎ (“Analysis‎ of ‎Factors”),‎Theissen ‎studies ‎the ‎history,‎ nature,‎ and ‎extent‎ of ‎societal conditions that may have ‎caused ‎the‎ movement ‎to ‎take ‎the ‎shape‎ it ‎did. ‎In ‎Part ‎Three ‎( “Analysis ‎of‎ Function”), ‎relying ‎heavily‎ on ‎psychoanalytic ‎concepts,‎ Theissen ‎explains ‎how‎ the ‎Jesus‎ movement‎ “articulated ‎an‎ answer” ‎to ‎the deep-seated crisis in Palestinian society: Parables, incidents, and sayings in the NT reveal how the earliest Christians‎ “diverted, ‎transferred, ‎projected, ‎transformed,‎ and ‎symbolized” ‎the ‎aggressions ‎resulting ‎from‎ societal tensions. G. Theissen, Sociology of early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 110.

[8] In his book Kingdom and community: The social world of early Christianity  J. G. Gager introduced a variety of social-scientific ideas to the field, including millenarianism, cognitive dissonance, and charismatic authority. See for more details J.G. Gager, Kingdom and community: The social world of early Christianity, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1975).

[9] In A Home for the Homeless, ‎J. ‎H. ‎Elliott‎ engages ‎in‎ “sociological ‎exegesis” ‎of ‎1‎ Peter. ‎Elliott ‎rejects ‎the ‎traditional‎ ‎reading ‎of ‎1‎Peter, ‎arguing ‎vigorously ‎that‎ the‎ terms ‎paroikos (“resident ‎alien”;‎1 Pet 2:11) and parepidēmos (“visiting ‎stranger”;‎1 Pet 1:1; 2:11) designated the actual political and social condition of the addressees.‎ For him, ‎the ‎addressees ‎must ‎have ‎constituted ‎a “conversionist ‎sect.”‎ ‎Using ‎these ‎insights, ‎and‎ armed‎ also ‎with ‎observations ‎on “the‎ functions ‎of ‎social ‎conflict,” ‎Elliott‎ sheds‎ new ‎light ‎on ‎the ‎letter‘s‎ references‎ to‎ conflict ‎with ‎society. ‎He‎ summarizes: …‎the‎ strategy‎ of ‎1‎Peter was not to provide ways of eliminating or avoiding social tension but of accentuating the struggle and presenting it as something which could bring about positive results. This strategy ‎was ‎not ‎to encourage ‎withdrawal‎ or ‎escape‎ of‎ “world-alienated pilgrims” ‎from‎ society‎ or, ‎even‎ less, from the earth. Nor was it to urge cultural assimilation or accommodation. It was rather to encourage the recipients to stand firm for their faith. Elliott ‎also ‎examines ‎the ‎significance ‎and ‎function ‎of “the ‎household” ‎in ‎the ‎socio-religious‎ strategy‎ of ‎1‎Peter, ‎concluding ‎that ‎the “household ‎code” ‎in ‎the ‎letter ‎serves ‎to ‎reinforce the distinctive communal identity of the recipients. J.H. Elliott, A Home for the Homeless: A Social-Scientific Criticism of I Peter, its Situation and Strategy, (Fortress, Minneapolism, 1983), 118.

[10] W. A. Meeks’ book, The First Urban Christians, ‎is ‎a‎ study ‎of “the ‎world ‎of ‎ordinary ‎Christians” ‎in ‎the ‎Pauline ‎churches ‎of ‎the‎ 1st‎ century.  Meeks does address traditional social historical issues, such as the urban environment of Pauline Christianity, and the social level of the members of the Pauline churches. But he also addresses questions more commonly associated with the work of the sociologist or anthropologist, concerning, for example, the social structure of the Pauline churches, the way they governed themselves, the types of rituals in which they engaged, and the correlations between stated beliefs and social forms. Moreover, Meeks makes use of various social scientific models in his analysis. The models are used as heuristic devices, to prompt questions and highlight possible connections among the data. W.A. Meeks, The first urban Christians: The social world of the apostle Paul (Yale University: New Haven, 1983), 5-7.

[11] N. Petersen’s book Rediscovering Paul, brings insights from interpretive‎ anthropology,‎ the ‎sociology ‎of‎ knowledge,‎ and‎ literary ‎criticism‎ to ‎bear‎ on ‎Paul‘s ‎letter ‎to‎ Philemon.‎ Petersen ‎had‎ noticed‎ that ‎both ‎narrative ‎worlds ‎and ‎social ‎worlds‎ consist ‎of “symbolic ‎forms”‎ and‎ “social relationships.” ‎How, ‎then, ‎do narrative worlds relate to social worlds and vice versa? To what extent ‎is ‎it ‎legitimate ‎to ‎speak ‎of ‎the “sociology” ‎of ‎a ‎narrative ‎world?‎   1. In ‎chap.‎2, ‎Petersen ‎turns‎ to‎ examine ‎Philemon, ‎seeking ‎to “view ‎the ‎actions ‎of ‎the ‎actors‎ in ‎the ‎story ‎as‎ social ‎relations,” ‎and ‎to “determine ‎from‎ these ‎relations ‎the ‎sociological ‎structures‎ underlying ‎them.” N.R. Petersen,  Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the sociology of Paul’s narrative world (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 31.‎ 

[12] Malina and Neyrey in their joint work, Calling Jesus Names made an investigation of the Christology of the gospel of Matthew (especially chaps. 12 and 26–27). In ‎order ‎to ‎illuminate ‎the “name-calling” ‎or “labeling” ‎process ‎by ‎which ‎Jesus’ contemporaries evaluated him, the authors utilize models of witchcraft and labelling/deviance theory. They ‎suggest ‎that ‎this ‎approach ‎offers “…‎accurate, ‎plausible ‎and ‎testable ‎scenarios for understanding aspects ‎of ‎conflict ‎in ‎isolated‎ detail ‎and ‎as ‎coherent ‎patterns ‎of ‎behavior.” ‎In ‎chap.‎1, ‎they use ‎the‎ categories provided by the group/grid model to analyze the conflictual social dynamics of the community reflected in the Q-stratum of Matthew, focusing especially on Matt 12:22–32. In chap. 2, the same segment of Matthew is examined in the light of labeling and deviance theory. Chaps. 3 and 4 apply first labelling theory, then prominence theory to the account of Jesus’ ‎trial ‎in ‎Matthew 26–27. In each chapter the procedure is the same: the model is laid out in considerable ‎detail, ‎then‎ “tested” ‎against ‎the ‎data ‎from‎ Matthew‎ so ‎as ‎to ‎illuminate ‎the ‎dynamic ‎process‎ of name-calling in which Jesus and his contemporaries were engaged. One‎ of‎ the ‎authors‘ ‎primary ‎goals ‎in ‎adopting ‎the ‎model-testing approach is to avoid ethnocentric readings of the biblical texts. B. J. Malina, & J.H. Neyrey, Calling Jesus names: The social value of labels in Matthew (Sonoma: Pole bridge Press, 1988), 65-67, 135-138, 143.

[13] Elliott,  “Social- scientific criticism: Perspective …,” 2.

[14] Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? 36.

[15] Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? 36-37.

[16] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 211.

[17] Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? 38.

[18] Bruce J. Malina, “The Social Sciences and Biblical Interpretation,” Interpretation 36 (1982), 231.

[19] Malina suggests that models have the following six features to be useful for studying the Bible and its environment: “(a) it should facilitate cross- cultural comparison of the social situations of the interpreter and the object interpreted; (b) its level of abstraction should be general enough to display similarities that allow comparison; (c) it should fit a larger sociolinguistic framework for interpreting texts; (d) it should be designed from experiences that match as closely as possible empirical evidence from the biblical world; (e) the meanings it exposes should be culture-specific and thus possibly irrelevant yet comprehensible to modern Westerners; and (f) the quality of the model should conform to social-scientific standards” (Malina, “The Social Sciences and Biblical Interpretation,” 241). 

[20] Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? 42.

[21] The structural functionalist model assumes that a social system is embodied in a group of interacting persons whose interactions follow certain mutually understood and expected patterns (structures) that are oriented around mutually shared purposes or concerns (functions). Thus, meaningful behavior is that which functions within the parameters of the social structures. What holds societies together in equilibrium are core values held in common consensus by all the units making up the system. The conflict model explains social systems “in terms of various groups with differing goals and interests and therefore use coercive tactics on each other to get their own goals realized.” In this view the only constant is change and all units of social organization (persons and groups in society) are constantly changing unless someone or something intervenes to stop the change. What holds the system together is not consensus, as in structural functionalist models, but constraint, a sort of checks-and-balances type of relationship among the units of society. The symbolic model (the most abstract of the three) explains social systems as systems of symbols “consisting of persons (self, others), things (nature, time, and space), and events (activities of persons and things) that have unique reality because of their perceived symbolic meaning.” Each symbolic entity is given meaning and significance by the others sharing in the system, much like words get their range of meanings from the shared social speech system. Thus, symbols have a “range of meanings” made up of various roles, rights, and regulations that unite them with or separate them from other symbols in the system. These social “meanings” function to maintain a tentative equilibrium in the system. Cf. Malina, “The Social Sciences and Biblical Interpretation,” 233-36.

[22] The important models are (a) Institutions: An institution is a system of interrelated behaviors, relationships, roles, and exchanges created in response to persistent social needs. The ancient world revolved around two institutions, namely, kinship/family and politics. (b) Honor and shame: The premier value that drove the behavior of the ancients and for which they competed intensely was “honor.” “Honor” means respect, praise, fame, admiration, and the like. As regards the sources of honor, it may be either ascribed or achieved. First, honor is ascribed to someone by birth, adoption, laying on of hands or commissioning. Alternately, people achieve honor by prowess or, e.g., military, athletic, aesthetic prowess, and by benefaction. Although all honorable deeds are done in public, they do not produce honor until others acknowledge them. For example, Jesus often experiences a “schism”; while many acknowledge his worth and status and so honor him, his rivals refuse to honor his good deeds (Matt. 9:32–4; Luke 13:16–17; John 7:12). (c) Purity and pollution: It requires to reconstruct an elaborate worldview, not just of Israel but also of the Mediterranean world. Put simply, something is “clean” or “pure” when in its proper place.  The same object, but “clean” or “unclean” depending on its context. Hence, one must know the code or cultural context that makes something clean or unclean, that is, the implicit “maps” of where persons, places, times, and things “belong.” We find the code to Israel’s maps both in Genesis 1 and in the temple system. God himself created maps by “separating” and “dividing”: (1) place (wet/dry), (2) times (light/dark, day/night, sun/moon), (3) things (sea creatures, air creatures and land creatures; trees with seeds in them), and (4) persons (Adam and Eve). Thus, there was such a code which put everything and person in its proper place; hence all of Jesus’ touching of unclean people, eating with sinners, not washing before meals, not keeping the strict Sabbath indicate in the eyes of those who enforce the maps that Jesus is frightfully “out of place.” “Clean” and “unclean” also apply to the physical human body. The argument goes that where control is strong in the social body (boundaries, ports/ cities of entrance and exit), so there will be comparable control of the physical body (boundaries: hair, skin, clothing; orifices: eyes, ears, mouth, and genitals). (d) Group-oriented Personality: Ancient peoples were strongly group-oriented, not modern individualists. We know them primarily in terms of tribes, clans, parents, and husbands. Moreover, they may be identified as part of a religious or political party, a Sadducee, a Pharisee, a Zealot. Their social status is often signaled by note of their father’s trade (“son of a carpenter”) or their position in temple or palace.  Group-oriented persons, moreover, are socialized from birth to know the ways and customs of their group and to live up to these expectations; the “common good” outweighs personal desires. Such persons constantly seek to know what others think about them or expect of them, so as to know what they should do. Failure to live up to the group’s expectations results in “shame.” (e) Ancient Economics: Exchange and Reciprocity: A few elites controlled most of the wealth, basically land; they employed retainers to keep their books, police their properties, and collect their taxes. There was no middle class, as we know it. Most of the population was rural and so tied to land and agriculture; they were severely burdened by taxes. Displaced farmers migrated to cities as artisans, but few made anything of any value; and life was much crueler in cities than in the countryside. At society’s bottom lived beggars, cripples and blind people, prostitutes, and other untouchables huddled around the cities, who had no financial support whatsoever. Yet whatever wealth could be grown in the rural areas was also heavily taxed by local rulers. (f) Gender-divided World: The ancient world was completely and thoroughly gender-divided. There were different virtues and behaviors expected of males and females; they “belonged” in different spaces, used different tools, performed different tasks. Male praise is “honor,” but female worth is “shame.” Females sensitive to their reputation “have shame”; were they unconcerned, they would be “shame-less.” But both male and female are concerned with reputation, whether “honor” (for him) or “shame” (for her). See for more details, Neyrey, “Social-Scientific Criticism,” 181-88.

[23] Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? 42-44.

[24] Elliott, A Home for the Homeless, 7-8.

[25]M. A. K. Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interp. of Language and Meaning (Baltimore: University Press, 1978), 108-9.

[26] Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? 50.

[27] A high context society is one in which “people have been socialized into shared ways of perceiving and acting,” thus “much can be assumed” in the transfer of meaning.89 Discourses from high context societies are not as likely to explicitly communicate contextual details simply because they do not have to do so. This makes it all the more important for interpreters (esp. those from low context societies) to learn the social and cultural systems of the biblical world. Cf. B. J. Malina “Reading Theory Perspective: Reading Luke-Acts,” in The social world of Luke-Acts: Models for interpretation, ed. J H Neyrey (MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 20.

[28]In other words, texts not only inform and evoke emotional responses; they also fulfill a variety of social functions. They can express cultural perceptions, values, and worldviews and articulate the relation of persons to the other more abstract dimensions of human experience: other persons and society, time, space, nature, the universe, God. They can describe social relations, behavior, and institutions and explain how and why they work. Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? 50-51.

[29] (1) They encode (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) and express comments about the social experience of the biblical world (see Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic…, 141ff); (2) they imply or explain the relationship between author and targeted audience/ readers [see Michael Hoey, Textual Interaction: An Introduction to Written Discourse Analysis (London: Routledge, 2001), 11-43]; and (3) they organize the elements of the preceding features into coherent discourses related to specific situations with the intent to produce a specific effect (cognitive, affective, and/or behavioral) [see e.g., Michael Stubbs, Discourse Analysis (Chicago: University Press, 1983), 40 ff].

[30] Social-cultural anthropology used to refer to social anthropology and cultural anthropology together. It studies the diversity of human societies in time and space, while looking for commonalities across them.  

[31] Quoted in Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism?  57.

[32] Elliott, A Home for the Homeless, 165 ff.

[33]  For an example of this position, see Cyril S. Rodd, “On Applying a Sociological Theory to Biblical Studies,” JSOT 19(1981), 95–106.

[34] See, e.g., the remarks of Gary A. Herion, “The Impact of Modern and Social Science Assumptions on the Reconstruction of Israelite History,” JSOT 34 (1986), 3–33.

[35] Stephen C. Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives in New Testament Study” in Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation, ed. Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 75.

[36] Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives …,” 69.

[37] S.C. Barton, “Social-Scientific Criticism,” in A Handbook to the Exegesis of the New Testament, ed.S. E. Porter; Boston: Brill, 2002), 279.


Barton, S.C. “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives in New Testament Study.” In Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation. Edited by Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Barton, S.C. “Social-Scientific Criticism.” In A Handbook to the Exegesis of the New Testament. Edited by S. E. Porter; Boston: Brill, 2002.

Elliott, J. H. A Home for the Homeless: A Social-Scientific Criticism of I Peter, its Situation and Strategy.  Fortress, Minneapolism, 1983.

Elliott, J. H.  “Social- scientific criticism: Perspective, process and payoff.” Theological Studies 67/1       (2011): 1-10.

Elliott, J. H. What is Social-Scientific Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Gager, J. G. Kingdom and community: The social world of early Christianity. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Garrett, Susan R. “Sociology of Early Christianity.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Grant, R.M. Early Christianity and Society. San Francisco: Collins, 1977.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Halliday, M. A. K. Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. Baltimore: University Press, 1978.

Hock, R.F. The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.

Malherbe, A. J. Social Aspects of Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983.

Malina, B. J. & J.H. Neyrey. Calling Jesus names: The social value of labels in Matthew. Sonoma: Pole      bridge Press, 1988.

Malina B. J. “Reading Theory Perspective: Reading Luke-Acts.” In The social world of Luke-Acts: Models for interpretation. Edited by J H Neyrey. MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Malina, B.J. “The Social Sciences and Biblical Interpretation.” Interpretation 36 (1982): 229–42.

Meeks, W. A. The first urban Christians: The social world of the apostle Paul. Yale University: New Haven, 1983.

Michael Hoey, Textual Interaction: An Introduction to Written Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge,       2001.

Neyrey, J. H. “Social-Scientific Criticism.” In The New Testament. Edited by D. E. Aune. UK: Blackwell Pub., 2010.

Petersen, N.R. Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the sociology of Paul’s narrative world. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Stubbs, Michael. Discourse Analysis. Chicago: University Press, 1983.

Theissen, G. Sociology of early Palestinian Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.



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