Early Christian Texts, Ideology and Social Context
With regard to early Christian writings, part of the task of Christian literary production in its earliest phase was to position itself over against the dominant ideology, whether it be a dominant form of Judaism or the ideologies of the wider Graeco- Roman world (Wengst 1985; Esler 1984; Mosala 1989). An example of the ambiguity of an early Christian text may be detected in the Gospel of Luke, which at times seems to evince a greater concern to convince and perhaps even placate the influential and important rather than be a mouthpiece for the oppressed. Luke wrote in order to present an acceptable religion which conformed to Jewish tradition, offered hope to the penitent rich and mighty, and did not frighten the powerful segments of Roman society. The reader of the gospel is left in little doubt about the appropriate response to those like Lazarus, however. Luke, like his contemporary Flavius Josephus, enables us to catch a glimpse of another dimension to the story of Second Temple Judaism than what appears to have been the one preferred by him (Rowland 1993).
History is rarely the memory of the poor and insignificant, which is frequently lost for ever from our view. This is an important point to bear in mind when a facile choice of texts like the Lucan beatitudes may be seen as an indication of ‘history from below’ (Hall 1985; cf. Scott 1990; Bradstock and Rowland 2002; Rowland 1988; West 1998). Its retrieval is the task of the critics of another age sympathetic to the voiceless and the marginalized. The focus of interest in Luke is different from a modern grass-roots story of popular protest. This has Christology, albeit in narrative form at the centre of their presentation, and this towers over all other concerns. The poor and the outcast are incidental to that dominant concern. But that Christological perspective privileges the orientation of Christ towards the outcasts and rejects, and so, in the process of convincing Theophilus of his version of the story of Jesus, Luke at least ensured that the story was written. The writing of the tradition about Jesus was a formative moment for the antique world in its focus on the relatively insignificant life of a Galilean peasant. The story was thus fixed in the midst of genres which were largely the prerogative of those who served the interests of the politically powerful. Luke to some extent falls into the category of a book which seeks to set down a story which might hardly merit a record in the annals of the ancient world, and in so doing includes a glimpse of those poor and insignificant people who were the beneficiaries of the gospel.
Paul as a Social Actor
Sociological approaches to Paul (Horrell 1999; Meggit 1998; Meeks 1983; Theissen 1999) have attended to the social function of the doctrine rather than the origin of particular ideas like the righteousness terminology. In such an approach, the way in which ideas are intended to effect social change is examined. So, Paul's activity as a communities organizer is served by ideas whose purpose is to establish a community with enough sense of common endeavour that they can survive as distinct, and viable, groups in the social contexts. Justification by faith alone is less an article of faith than a technique of social cohesion used to weld disparate ethnic and social groups together. The maintenance of social identity is enabled by strategies of ideological polemic. Ancient traditions are appropriated and reinterpreted in favour of the new group. So the Abraham story functions as legitimating story not of the election of the Jewish nation but for those who espouse the law-free gospel (Watson 1986).
In this approach to the Pauline letters, ideological criticism is used to analyse the role of doctrines in the context of a social strategy determined by a socio-economic context. In addition, there is the elucidation of the power struggles at work and the reasons for this. Such a task is as old as the modern study of the New Testament, when F. C. Baur pointed to the life and death struggles between Paul and the representatives of the Jerusalem church. The difference in modern social and ideological criticism is twofold, however. First, it is less related to personalities, except as they are embedded in particular patterns of social change. Paul represents a particular trend in the emerging movement (charismatic, sitting loose to received wisdom) and to a degree continues a liberal attitude to the ancestral custom which is found in Pharisaism. James, on the other hand, is more respectful and attached to the contemporary interpretation of the ancestral religion. Secondly, there is a wider socio-economic context in the Roman Empire, in which protest movements of the politically marginalized find in religion some degree of fulfilment in a situation where they are cut off from real political power (Meeks 1983; Holmberg 1978).