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The Sociological Interpretation of the New Testament: The Present State of Research*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009


It is fitting that the first major attention given by the SNTS to sociological concerns should occur in Paris, the home of Auguste Comte (often called the father of sociology) and his circle. Actually there seem to have been many fathers and many more offspring, such that the present genealogy of the discipline presents an almost bewildering profusion of perspectives, goals, models and methodologies. This is a productive situation and a sign of health, but it suggests right away that I cannot analyse in this paper a single or simple sociology of the New Testament. Those of us who are experimenting – and that cautious phrase must be taken literally – with sociological approaches have come from different backgrounds and perspectives, borrowing from sociology where it seems useful and tentatively trying out various methods and models. The exploration has really just begun.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1980

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1 Since in these footnotes I hope to present as full a bibliography of sociological work on the New Testament as is suitable, given space limitations, it has been necessary rigorously to exclude mention, except when necessary for the discussion, of non-New Testament studies, whether those secular studies which form the groundwork for work on the New Testament, or those which deal with contiguous areas such as early Judaism or the Greco-Roman world. For the latter the interested reader should consult the bibliography in Smith, J., ‘Social description of early Christianity’, Religious Studies Review 1 (1975), 1925.Google Scholar

2 E.g. Deissmann, A., Licht vom Osten (Tübingen, 1908)Google Scholar; Lohmeyer, E., Soziale Fragen im Urchristentum (Darmstadt, 1921)Google Scholar; Schumacher, R., Die soziale Lage der Christen im apostolischen Zeitalter (Pader-born, 1924)Google Scholar; Cadoux, C. J., The Early Church and the World (Edinburgh, 1925)Google Scholar; Case, S.J., Evolution of Early Christianity (Chicago, 1914)Google Scholar; idem, The Social Origins of Christianity (Chicago, 1923)Google Scholar; idem, The Social Triumph of the Ancient Church (Chicago, 1934)Google Scholar; Matthews, S., The Social Teaching of Jesus: An Essay in Christian Sociology (New York, 1897)Google Scholar; idem, The Atonement and the Social Process (New York, 1930)Google Scholar. Some have argued that form-criticism itself opened the way for a sociological interpretation, or at least for the asking of social questions by concerning itself with the Sitz im Leben of the pericopae. Cf. Gewalt, D., ‘Neutestamentliche Exegese und Soziologie’, Ev.Th. 31 (1971), 88 f.Google Scholar, and Berger, K., Exegese des Neuen Testaments (Heidelberg, 1977), 219.Google Scholar

3 London, 1926.

4 In this statement I am referring explicitly to New Testament scholarship. With regard to the social history of early Judaism there has been and continues to be careful work. Baron, S., A Social and Religious History of the Jews (2 vols., New York, 1937)Google Scholar, has long been standard. More recent is the work of Kreissig, H., e.g. ‘Zur Rolle der religiösen Gruppen in den Volksbewegungen der Hasmonäerzeit’, Klio 43 (1965), 174–82Google Scholar; Zursozialen Zusammensetzung der frühchristlichen Gemeinden im ersten Jahrhundert u. Z.’, Eirene 6 (1967), 91100Google Scholar; Die Landwirtschaftliche Situation in Palästina vor dem jüdischen Krieg’, Acta Antigua 17 (1969), 223–54Google Scholar; Die sozialen Zusammenhänge des jüdischen Krieges (Berlin, 1970)Google Scholar. Also Urbach, E., e.g. ‘The laws regarding slavery as a source for social history of the period of the Second Temple, the Mishnah and Talmud’, Papers of the Institute of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1964), 1, 150Google Scholar. Now there is the massive The Jewish People in the First Century: Historical Geography, Political History, Social, Cultural and Religious Life and Institutions (2 vols., Philadelphia, 1974), eds. Safrai, S. and Stern, M..Google Scholar

5 E.g. Theissen, G., Soziologie der Jesusbewegung (München, 1977), 913.Google Scholar

6 Theissen, G., ‘Soziale Integration und sakramentales Handeln: Eine Analyse von I Cor. XI 17–34’, Nov.T. 16 (1974), 200–2.Google Scholar

7 The reader must understand that I must limit myself to references to recent work only.

8 Among his many contributions one can note the following: War Jesus Revolutionär? (Stuttgart, 1970)Google Scholar; Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit: Zur ‘politischen Theologie’ in neutestamentlicher Zeit (Stuttgart, 1971)Google Scholar; Judentum und Hellenismus (2 vols., Tübingen, 1973 2)Google Scholar; Eigentum und Reichtum in der frühen Kirche (Stuttgart, 1973)Google Scholar; Christus und die Macht (Stuttgart, 1974)Google Scholar. Hengel has been particularly concerned with the problems of political force and the question of war violence. This topic has been much discussed in recent years; here I can mention only Cullmann, O., Jesus and the Revolutionaries (New York, 1970)Google Scholar, and Edwards, G., Jesus and the Politics of Violence (New York, 1972).Google Scholar

9 In Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit Hengel argues that only when the social context bears some analogies with the contemporary setting can the teaching of Jesus about violence be relevant for today's world. Cf. my introduction to the English translation of Gewalt: Victory over Violence: Jesus and the Revolutionists (Philadelphia, 1973), ix–xxiv.Google Scholar

10 London, 1960.

11 Eds. S. Benko and J. O'Rourke (Valley Forge, 1971). Covering some of the same ground is the collection of essays by von Campenhausen, H., Tradition und Leben: Kräfte der Kirchengeschichte (Tübingen, 1960).Google Scholar

12 Social Aspects (Baton Rouge, 1977)Google Scholar, and Early Christianity (New York, 1977)Google Scholar. Cf. also Bartchy, S., Mallon chresai: First Century Slavery and the Interpretation of I Corinthians 7:21 (Missoula, 1973)Google Scholar, and Batey, R., Jesus and the Poor (New York, 1972)Google Scholar; Keck, L., ‘The Poor among the Saints in the New Testament’, Z.N.W. 56 (1965), 100–37Google Scholar; idem, The Poor among the Saints in Jewish Christianity and Qumran’, Z.N.W. 57 (1966), 5478.Google Scholar

13 Many papers were produced by working members of the group on various social realia in Antioch, processing what information is known about Jews and Christians in the early centuries. Two papers which originated the discussions of the group have been published: Keck, L., ‘On the ethos of early Christianity’, J.A.A.R. 42 (1974), 435–52Google Scholar, and Smith, J., ‘Social description’ (cf. n. 1 above)Google Scholar. The recent volume by Meeks, W. and Wilken, R., Jews and Christians in Antioch in the First Four Centuries of the Common Era (Missoula, 1978)Google Scholar, lucidly summarizes many of the findings of the group, as well as including translation of some relevant texts (Libanius and Chrysostom). Cf. also the essays of several American scholars translated in Zur Soziologie des Urchristentums, ed. Meeks, W. (München, 1979)Google Scholar. Two projects begun by the group are still under way. One is a bibliography which, under the direction of L. Keck, will hopefully be completed by 1979. The second is a prosopography for Antioch which is being compiled by the Disciples Institut zur Erforschung des Urchristentums in Tübingen. According to F. Norris, director of the project at the Institut, completion is not expected before 1985.

14 Licht vom Osten.

15 Social Pattern.

16 P. 55.

17 P. 57.

18 P. 60.

19 Aspects, 31. In addition to the authors cited here Malherbe has supporters in Wuellner, W., The Meaning of Fishers of Men' (Philadelphia, 1967)Google Scholar; idem, The sociological implications of I Corinthians 1: 26–28’, Studia Evangelica 4 (1973), 666–72Google Scholar; and Buchanan, G., ‘Jesus and the upper class’, Nov.T. 7 (1964/1965).Google Scholar

20 Soziale Schichtung in der korinthischen Gemeinde’, Z.N.W. 65 (1974), 232–72.Google Scholar

21 Eigentum, 44 f.

22 Early Christianity, cf. 83–95.

23 P. 134.

24 Cf. Scroggs, R., ‘The earliest Christian communities as sectarian movement’, in Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults, ed. Neusner, J. (Leiden, 1975), 2, 3Google Scholar. I am dependent here upon Stark, W., The Sociology of Religion: 2, Sectarian Religion (London, 1967), 629.Google Scholar

25 Cf. n. 24 above.

26 My analysis concerned only the rural setting of Palestinian Christianity, and it cannot without alteration be applied to the urban churches of the Hellenistic mission. Kee, H., in a recent work using sociological analysis, believes that the Markan church in the late 60s is still non-urban: Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark's Gospel (Philadelphia, 1977), 104 f.Google Scholar In the Paris meeting of the SNTS in 1978, however, W. Meeks addressed the question whether sectarian analysis would fit a Pauline church. He concludes that the evidence is ambiguous, Paul displaying both sectarian and universalistic tendencies. His address, ‘“Since then you would need to go out of the world”: group boundaries in Pauline Christianity’, has now appeared in Critical History and Biblical Faith: New Testament Perspectives, ed. Ryan, T. (Villanova, Pennsylvania, 1979), 429.Google Scholar Atleast some of the suggested essential characteristics of the sect are clearly present, however, in the Hellenistic churches, at least in the earliest period. Recent investigations have shown, for example, the basic egalitarianism that existed within the communities – the test case being the relation between male and female. For discussion and bibliography, cf. Scroggs, R., ‘Paul and the eschatological woman’, J.A.A.R. 40 (1972), 283303Google Scholar, and Meeks, W., ‘The image of the androgyne: some uses of a symbol in earliest Christianity’, H. R, 13 (1974), 165208Google Scholar. Before the New Testament period is over, however, this egalitarianism has disappeared, at least in those churches representing emerging ‘orthodoxy’.

27 Professor of New Testament at Bethany Theological Seminary, Brook, Oak, 111. Cf. his ‘Survey and “new thesis” on. the bones of Peter’, The Biblical Archaeologist 32 (1969), 35Google Scholar, and an unpublished paper he presented to the SNTS Seminar on Social Background and History of the Early Church, Tübingen, 1977: ‘The great tradition and its local complement in early Christianity’.

28 Key here are Redfield, R., Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago, 1956)Google Scholar; Spiro, M., Buddhism and Society (London, 1971)Google Scholar; and Thouless, R., Conventionalization and Assimilation in Religious Movements (Oxford, 1940).Google Scholar

29 The book is subtitled The Social World of Early Christianity (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1975)Google Scholar. Gager's book has stirred up quite an active response in the U.S. Cf., e.g., three recent review articles all appearing in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 13 (1978)Google Scholar: Bartlett, D., ‘Gager's, John G. “Kingdom and Community”: a summary and response’, 109–22Google Scholar; Smith, J., ‘Too much kingdom, too little community’, 123–30Google Scholar; Tracy, D., ‘A theological response to “Kingdom and Community”’, 131–5.Google Scholar

30 Festinger, L., Riecken, H., Schachter, S., When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (New York, 1964)Google Scholar. The ‘modern group’ in question was an actual flying saucer cult in the U.S. The thesis, however, does not rest primarily on study of this group alone but involves analysis of many other millennial cults. The theory of cognitive dissonance has been used by at least two other scholars in related studies. Cf. Wernik, U., ‘Frustrated beliefs and early Christianity: a psychological enquiry into the Gospels of the New Testament’, Numen 22 (1975), 96130Google Scholar, and Zenner, W., ‘The case of the apostate Messiah: a reconsideration of the “failure of prophecy”’, Archives de sciences sociales des religions 21 (1966), 111–18Google Scholar, the latter dealing with the history of the Zabatean movement.

31 P. 43.

32 Pp. 43–6.

33 Wanderradikalismus: Literatursoziologische Aspekte der Überlieferungsform von Worten Jesu im Urchristentum’, Z.T.K. 70 (1973), 245–71Google Scholar; Soteriologische Symbolik in den paulinischen Schriften’, Ku.D. 20 (1974), 282304Google Scholar; Soziale Integration und sakramentales Handeln: Eine Analyse von I Cor. xi 17–34’, Nov.T. 16 (1974), 179206Google Scholar; Soziale Schichtung in der korinthischen Gemeinde: Ein Beitrag zur Soziologie des hellenistischen Christentums’, Z.N.W. 65 (1974), 232–72Google Scholar; Theoretische Probleme religions-soziologische Forschung und die Analyse des Urchristentums’, N.Z.S.Th. 16 (1974), 3556Google Scholar; Legitimation und Lebensunterhalt: Ein Beitrag zur Soziologie urchristlicher Missionäre’, N.T.S. 21 (1975), 192221Google Scholar; Die Starken und Schwachen in Korinth: Soziologische Analyse eines theologischen Streites’, Ev.Th. 35 (1975), 155–72Google Scholar; Die soziologische Auswertung religiöser Überlieferungen: Ihre methodologische Probleme am Beispiel des Urchristentums’, Kairos 17 (1975), 284–99Google Scholar; Die Tempelweissagung Jesu: Prophetie im Spannungsfeld von Stadt und Land’, Th.Z. 32 (1976), 144–58Google Scholar; Wir haben Alles Verlassen (Mk 10, 28): Nachfolge und soziale Entwurzelung in der jüdisch-palästinischen Gesellschaft des I. Jahrhunderts n. Chr.’, Nov.T. 19 (1977), 161–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Soziologie der Jesusbewegung: Ein Beitrag zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Urchristentums (München, 1977).Google Scholar

34 Of this method Theissen says simply: ‘Die Rollenanalyse untersucht typische Verhaltens-muster’, Jesusbewegung, 10.Google Scholar

35 Ibid. 14–21; also Z.T.K. 70.

36 N.T.S. 21, 200–5.Google Scholar

37 Ibid. 205–17. Two other authors who have recently wrestled with the problem of the bases of apostolic authority in the Hellenistic churches, both of these in dialogue with the Weberian analysis of charisma and legitimation, are Schütz, J., Paul and the Anatomy of Apostolic Authority (Cambridge, 1975)Google Scholar, and Holmberg, B., Paul and Power: The Structure of Authority in the Primitive Church as Reflected in the Pauline Epistles (Lund, 1978).Google Scholar

38 A sociological work that has had great influence, perhaps especially in the U.S., is Berger, P. and Luckmann, T., The Social Construction of Reality (New York, 1966)Google Scholar. These authors are themselves dependent on A. Schutz. Cf. my paper read in the seminar on Social Background and History of the Early Church at the Tübingen SNTS meeting in 1977: ‘A theological apology for using sociological methodology’; Meeks, W., ‘The social world of early Christianity’, Bulletin of the Council on the Study of Religion 6 (1975).Google Scholar

39 J.B.L. 91 (1972), 4472Google Scholar. For a critique of Meeks' views, cf. Berger, K., Exegese, 230 f.Google Scholar

40 P. 41.

41 P. 67.

42 P. 68.

43 P. 70.

44 P. 71.

45 Cf. his famous sentence: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness’. This is from the preface of Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, and I take it from the translation of Bottomore, T., Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology & Social Philosophy (New York, 1964), 51.Google Scholar

46 Kautsky, K., Der Ursprung des Christentums (Stuttgart, 1921)Google Scholar. Interesting here is also Stasiewski, B., ‘Ursprung und Entfaltung des Christentums in sowjetischer Sicht’, Saeculum 11 (1960), 157–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

47 Leipzig, 1967.

48 Jesus für Atheisten (Stuttgart, 1972)Google Scholar; A Marxist Looks at Jesus (Philadelphia, 1976).Google Scholar

49 P. 88. The references are to the English translation.

50 P. 97.

51 P. 31.

52 Paris, 1974. By 1976 there was already a third edition.

53 Paris, 1976.

54 Although I am sure this list is not complete, I have noted the following reviews: by Poulat, , Herrieu-Leger, , Hadot, and Ladrière, in the Archives de sciences sociales des religions 40 (1975), 119–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar; by Trocmé, E.; in R.H.P.R. 55 (1975), 293 f.Google Scholar; by Bouttier, M. in Etudes théologiques et religieuses 1 (1975), 8991Google Scholar; by , VanhoyeinBiblica 63 (1977), 295–8Google Scholar. Cf. also the interesting comments by Trocmé, E. in ‘Exégèse scientifique et idéologic: de l'école de Tubingue aux Historiens Français des origines chretiénnes’, N.T.S. 24 (1977/1978), 461 fGoogle Scholar. Pokorny, P. discusses Belo and other Marxists in ‘Die neue theologische Linke’, Communio Viatorum 19 (1976), 225–32Google Scholar. From the same perspective cf. Rostagno, S., ‘Is an interclass reading of the Bible legitimate?’, Communio Viatorum 17 (1974), 114Google Scholar; and the paper delivered at the Paris SNTS meeting in 1978 by Tagawa, K., ‘Possibilité de l'inter-prétation matérialiste: un essai de I'exégese de Marc 6, 712’.Google Scholar

55 Lecture, 373–81.

56 Ibid. 331 f.

57 Ibid. 335.

58 Ibid. 337–40.

59 Ibid. 351 f.

60 Ibid. 388–97. Cf. also Pokorny, , Communio Viatorum 19, 227.Google Scholar

61 Approches, 152.

62 R.H.P.R. 55, 294Google Scholar. An equally provocative study is that of Miranda, José, Marx y la biblia (Salamanca, 1971)Google Scholar, translated into English as Marx and The Bible (Maryknoll, New York, 1974).Google Scholar