The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels

Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina, Gerd Theissen, editors Fortress Press, Minneapolis July 1, 2002
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In the past several decades scholars have shown an increased interest in utilizing the social sciences for gathering insight into the historical dimensions of the biblical documents. It is along these lines that this collection of nineteen essays attempts to show what can be known about the historical Jesus by using appropriate social-scientific models. This approach assumes that Jesus, being fully human, was socialized and enculturated by the society in which He lived. Thus Jesus’ teachings and behavior can be fully understood only in relation to the social context of His time.

The first of six sections has three essays dealing with introductory issues. The first essay, by Malina, provides an overview of what the social-scientific approach can contribute to historical Jesus studies. In particular he notes that this approach can help filter out ethnocentrism in interpretations and can provide boundaries for assessing when a reconstruction of the historical Jesus appears to be off course. In a similar vein Richard Rohrbaugh argues that inquiries into Jesus’ messianic self-understanding suffers from Western ethnocentrism since in a collectivistic culture of the first century one is primarily concerned with the “in-group” opinion and not that of the “private self.” In Stegemann’s chapter on the ethics of Jesus he says one must avoid emphasizing their distinctive nature, and instead must assess them within the moral system of the ancient society in which Jesus lived.

The four chapters in the second section discuss social-psychological issues. An essay by Andries van Aarde argues that Jesus’ behavior can be attributed to His childhood years growing up in a fatherless home. The remaining three essays in this section deal with various supernatural aspects of Jesus’ ministry: the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, His “altered states of consciousness” (e.g., His transfiguration and resurrection appearances), and His exorcism of demons. While traditional historical-critical approaches have been skeptical of these accounts, a social-scientific analysis indicates their plausibility as they are consistent with the beliefs and behavior in a first-century Mediterranean culture. The third section, “Social-Boundary Concerns,” has five essays that demonstrate how research from the social sciences gives insight into Jesus’ actions. For example two essays discuss the importance of understanding the core values of honor and shame in a Mediterranean culture: Jesus’ response when He was accused of being possessed by Beelzebul was designed to win honor in the eyes of the public (p. 167), and Jesus’ teaching against seeking places of honor at a banquet would have been perceived as radical since it was contrary to the values of an honor-seeking society (p. 179).

The next two sections deal with the various political dimensions of Jesus’ ministry. A couple of thought-provoking essays are briefly noted here. T. R. Hobbs considers the “political activism” of Jesus through a model of disengagement; he argues that Jesus’ nurture of an inner group and avoidance of trouble was a survival strategy in an oppressive system dominated by Roman legions, but one that did not avoid critiquing that system. Gary Stansell shows how understanding gifts from a social-scientific perspective of patron-client systems and the principle of reciprocity in an ancient culture can give fresh insight into several passages in the Gospels. It is noted that gifts conferred honor while challenging the recipient to accept and respond; Jesus’ command to give alms would have been perceived as undermining the general principle of exchange. The final section has an essay by Albert Verdoodt that compares Jesus with Paul from a social scientific perspective.

For the most part these essays demonstrate how insights from social-scientific research provide an added dimension to the understanding of the Gospels and a necessary corrective to the tendency of reading the New Testament through the eyes of Western culture. By evaluating the events in Jesus’ life in light of His own social context, the social-scientific approach provides a meaningful way to evaluate the supernatural events recorded in the Gospels without the skepticism of the usual historical-critical approaches. In fact this approach, which evaluates the historical Jesus in relation to the values and norms of His own culture, is a welcome relief from the views of critical scholars (e.g., the Jesus Seminar), which often produce a distorted portrait of Jesus at odds with His own cultural background because of their emphasis on dissimilarity.

While the social-scientific approach can provide useful insight for historical Jesus studies, not all the arguments presented in this book are persuasive. Social-scientific models are heuristic devices for providing insight into “normative” human behavior in a given culture. Malina rightly cautions that because the models operate at a high level of abstraction, they cannot be used to construct a detailed biography of Jesus, but provide only rough boundaries (p. 15). However, even in setting up rough boundaries, there is difficulty when this approach is too rigidly applied without consideration for individuality and variation within a society. In reading some of these essays one is left with the impression that there is nothing distinctive about Jesus and His disciples—they are simply products of their cultures that can be explained with the appropriate model. One striking example is Rohrbaugh’s discussion on Mark 8:27–30 (p. 38). He argues that Jesus’ query to His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” must be an inquiry about how His “in-group” perceived Him because in a collectivistic society a person receives his identity from the in-group; one cannot assume that Jesus possesses self-knowledge. But if Jesus received His sense of identity from His disciples, one wonders how He could ever lead a group that would change the world, for the Gospels consistently portray the disciples as dull and slow to learn from Jesus. While the collectivist model provides a corrective against reading Western ideas into the New Testament, an overemphasis results in a caricature of Jesus controlled by the expectations and opinions of His followers and society in general, which is not the portrait of Jesus presented in the Gospels.

Models that can be used to explain the distinctive nature of Jesus’ ministry and teachings are needed to balance the discussion. Some essays attempt this, such as van Aarde’s assertion that Jesus exhibited subversive behavior with regard to the patriarchal values of the second-temple period because He grew up in a fatherless home. Because Jesus never received the resources that a father gives a son, it is argued that Jesus behaved in a “motherlike” manner as an adult: He taught on forgiving wrongs and serving others, and called on God as His Father. But this hypothesis is wrong. The conjecture that Jesus grew up without a father figure is questionable and an argument from silence at best. Also this view of Jesus ignores other qualities of His, such as His manly leadership and courage (e.g., casting out the money-changers in the temple). Other models presented in the book need further research or clarification. For example in Pilch’s discussion on “altered states of consciousness,” one wishes for more precision in the definition of these altered states when he claims that 90 percent of the current population in the world experience such states without drugs (p. 112). Guijaro’s assertion that Jesus’ exorcisms were a subversive activity because demon possession was considered a socially accepted escape valve from oppression during the era of Roman-controlled Palestine is a conjecture without any support from ancient sources (p. 165). This was not the tension point between Jesus and the religious leaders, as Jesus argued that the sons of His accusers were also engaged in this activity (Matt. 12:27; Luke 11:19).

The social-scientific method seems to be a useful tool for exegetes when combined with other interpretive tools, and this book gives access to some of the latest research in this developing field. Critical readers will no doubt have questions about the validity and applicability of the some of the models used, but traditional approaches and assumptions will certainly be challenged.

—David H. K. Hoe

April 1, 2004
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2004 vol. 161 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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