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Social Sciences and The Bible

This entry deals with the application of anthropology and sociology to the Bible, and consists of two articles, the first on Cultural Anthropology and the Hebrew Bible, and the second on Sociology of the New Testament.

Cultural Anthropology and the Hebrew Bible

Cultural anthropology as understood in the United States, and its British counterpart social anthropology, is the study of the material culture and the beliefs and social organization of pre‐industrial societies. Although it did not obtain the status of a distinct discipline until the nineteenth century and did not establish methodological precision until the twentieth, it has a long prehistory, some of which deeply affected the study of the Bible.

Travelers to Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia over many centuries recorded their observations of life and customs in those lands, and these were often used to help interpret biblical texts. Further, the Hebrew Bible contains material that invites speculation of an anthropological nature. How were Israelite tribes organized? How did sacrifices achieve their desired ends? In the second half of the nineteenth century, when general theories of the evolution of culture and religion were propounded, the Bible was fitted into the resultant schemes. Israelite religion, it was thought, had evolved from animism (belief in spirits) through polytheism to monotheism, and there had been both a progressive elaboration of the sacrificial cult, and a spiritualization of that religion in terms of social justice.

These evolutionary schemes were largely abandoned after World War II, but until around 1970 it was commonplace to regard the people of ancient Israel as quasi primitives who knew little about scientific causality, and who thus lived in a mystical and magical world in which any event was potentially a miracle. A variation on this view was that the Canaanites, among whom the Israelites lived, had an essentially magical worldview, whereas Israel had broken with this outlook thanks to God's revelation to them through historical events.

Since 1970 there has been a renewal of interest in social anthropology among biblical scholars, and the work done has been based upon thorough and up‐to‐date knowledge of anthropological literature. Special attention has been focused on the following areas, each of which will be discussed in turn: Israel's origins and social organization, Israel's classification of the world and its sacrificial system, and the social dimensions of prophecy.

Israel's Origins and Social Organization.

Visitors to Arabia and Palestine in the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries were able to observe tribes of bedouin who were predominantly camel nomads. It was understandable that such visitors thought they were seeing people living the same kind of life as Abraham, and many comparisons were made between the bedouin and the people of biblical times. With the rise of theories about the evolution of culture, the early Israelites were described as seminomads, people some way along the road from “pure” nomadism to being fully settled. In the 1930s, it was suggested that the Israelite occupation of Canaan was in fact a largely peaceful process of sedentarization in which Israelite seminomads ceased to move from winter to summer pasturages and settled down in one area.

Recent studies have shown that “pure” nomadism is a late phenomenon in the ancient Near East, and that seminomadism is not a staging post along an evolutionary road from nomadism to being permanently settled. Indeed, settled peoples can become seminomads by being expelled from their lands, or because of small changes in the climate. There is, however, growing agreement that the Israelites were, from the mid‐thirteenth century BCE, settled farmers living in villages in the central highlands of Canaan remote from the main cities and loosely associated in an acephalous society, that is, one without a central political organization.

Exactly how Israel came into being in this form is a hotly debated issue. Norman Gottwald (The Tribes of Yahweh, 1979) has argued that Israelite society was the result of a retribalization process that enabled groups oppressed by the Canaanite city‐states to form an alternative, liberated, and egalitarian society. He has focused attention upon the nature of Israelite tribes and of their political organization. Niels Lemche (Early Israel, 1985) disagrees with Gottwald on anthropological grounds, arguing against the retribalization view and pointing out that acephalous societies are not necessarily egalitarian.

From the viewpoint of the evidence of the Bible, Lemche is probably correct. The lists of “minor judges” in Judges 10.1–5; 12.8–15 indicate that these “judges” (probably the heads of dominant families who arbitrated disputes) had considerable wealth and prestige in return for the responsibilities that they bore. This evidence also militates against another theory, that early Israel was a segmentary lineage society, that is, a society in which power was distributed horizontally among equally ranked segments. This theory has been adopted from the influential book by Christian Sigrist (Regulierte Anarchie, 1967), and has been used to explain why opposition to monarchy continued for long after that institution became established in Israel. However, segmentary lineage societies as described by Sigrist have features that can hardly have existed in early Israel, such as indifference to murder within the family groups and avoidance of the inheritance rights of the eldest son. The persistence of opposition to monarchy can best be explained in terms of Jürgen Habermas's theory of conflict between belief systems and social mechanisms of integration (Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, vol. 2, 1981). Israelite tribes could well have been simple chiefdoms, ruled by dominant families. Economic and external political pressure combined to make these chiefdoms accept a form of monarchy at the close of the eleventh century BCE, but Israel's belief systems remained critical of the institution for many genrations. (See also Conquest of Canaan; Kingship and Monarchy.)

Israel's Classification of the World and Its Sacrificial System.

One of the largest changes in perception of the ancient Israelites brought about by social anthropology has been in relation to “the Hebrew mind.” Studies in the early part of the twentieth century suggested that the Israelites were like contemporary “primitives,” unable to distinguish clearly the limits of a group or of individuals, and attributing many natural events to supernatural causes. Attempts to explain the logic of sacrifice concentrated upon the psychology of individual Israelites: how did they think that sacrifices achieved their aims? As a result of the structural‐functional study of preindustrial peoples, given classical expression in the work of E. E. Evans‐Pritchard, a different picture of “primitives” emerged. They were seen to be no less rational than people in industrial societies, provided their overall framework of understanding was appreciated. This framework was articulated in sacred traditions and worked out in social networks and corporate activities.

The application of such an approach to the Hebrew Bible (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1967) has drawn attention to Israel's classification of reality as detailed in Genesis 1, in the prohibitions of clean and unclean animals (Lev. 11; Deut. 14.3–20; see Purity, Ritual), and in the regulations for dealing with the violation of sacred boundaries in Leviticus generally. It has emerged that, for Israel as for other ancient peoples, creation meant order: the dividing of reality into distinct spheres such as sky/earth/sea, clean/unclean, life/death, Israel/other nations, holy/profane. To violate these distinctions was to run the risk of offending God, who would withhold his blessing by not sending the rains necessary for producing food. Thus, far from living in a chaotic universe where distinctions familiar to us were not made, the Israelites made distinctions and organized them into a particular worldview. Their difference from us lies not in their supposed inability to divide reality into categories but rather in the organization of the categories. They regarded holy places and objects as the property of the deity, to be approached only by properly designated people. They had a sense that blood was the property of the deity, that it was not to be eaten, and that it should be carefully handled. This “danger” also inhered in corpses, which no longer strictly belonged to human society, and contact with which required washing with water medicated with special ashes (Num. 19).

Sacrifice has come to be interpreted by scholars not from the viewpoint of the psychology of individual worshipers, but as communal, symbolic action set within the framework of a strongly delineated world. Sacrifices enabled boundaries to be crossed: by priests moving from the ordinary to the sacred (Lev. 8) and by “lepers” moving from exclusion to acceptance in the community (Lev. 14). They removed the defilement believed to infect the sanctuary when offenses occurred for which a sin or guilt offering was required (Lev. 4—7). On the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), all types of moral uncleanness and social disharmony were identified with a goat, whose journey through the community and out into the desert symbolized and effected the removal of these factors from the society (see Azazel). The view just outlined was not, however, necessarily true for all Israelites in all periods. It is clear that in the premonarchic period there was no priesthood in Israel with exclusive rights, and that the predominant sacrifice was the burnt offering, given as a communal activity on occasions such as preparing to fight a battle (1 Sam. 13.9). The view of reality and order implied in Genesis 1 and in Leviticus is that of the postexilic community, which was a Temple‐based community living in close proximity to Jerusalem. Although the details of sacrifices no doubt contain elements much older than the postexilic community, in their present form they take their meaning from the story of God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Thus, social anthropology can shed light on many details of these rituals, but cannot supply the religious ideology of the traditions in their final form.

The Social Dimension of Prophecy.

We often think of prophets as individuals with an abnormal or unusual psychology, despite of the evidence that Elijah, Elisha, and Samuel were the heads of prophetic guilds, that Isaiah had a group of disciples (Isa. 8.16), and that Jeremiah was supported by the family of Shaphan (Jer. 26.24). Research into the roles of prophets in many cultures has indicated the importance of support groups and of the expectations that such support groups, as well as the societies in which prophets function, held. David Petersen (The Roles of Israel's Prophets, 1981) has suggested two main types of prophets: peripheral prophets and central morality prophets. The former operate on the margins of society, supported by their own groups, often acting amorally. Such a description fits well with Elijah, who was a marginal figure at the head of groups of prophets withdrawn from society, and whose conduct in calling down fire on those who sought to capture him was certainly amoral (2 Kings 1). A good example of a central morality prophet would be Isaiah, who moved in royal circles (Isa. 7.3–17) and who, though critical of the king, also provided support for the state when it was attacked by the Assyrians in 701 BCE (Isa. 37.21–29). Researches of this kind illustrate the shift that has been noted above—from the study of the psychology of individual prophets to a study of the corporate functioning of social groups and activities. Whereas earlier studies were concerned with the psychology of prophecy, recent study concentrates on its social dimensions. While this is valuable, drawing upon models taken from general observations of social phenomena, it must be noted that such studies illuminate only the outer aspects of the phenomena. As with sacrifice, it is the task of theology to illuminate the distinctive beliefs that formed the basis for the social actions of prophets.

J. W. Rogerson

Sociology of the New Testament

Although it is possible to trace earlier roots, the sociological perspective became embedded in the soil of New Testament studies in the 1970s. Sociology is the disciplined study of social relationships and the changes that occur in them over time. It will be readily seen how the application of the techniques and perspectives of sociology to the New Testament holds much promise for our understanding of it. The disciples of Jesus originated from the rural hinterland of Galilee and served as a renewal sect within Judaism before spreading throughout the Roman world and becoming most successful in the urban environment of Greek civilization.

Sociological explanations should not supplant a theological explanation of the New Testament. Rather, they should complement it, enriching the theological understanding of the text by bringing the real social content and the actual social relationships to the fore. Theological explanations alone too easily become abstract and academic. For example, the tensions in the church at Corinth are usually attributed by theologians either to the presence of incipient gnosticism or to overrealized eschatology. Without rejecting the value of such insights, one can also appreciate how the diversity of the social classes that rubbed closely together in a church—unusual for clubs and guilds in Roman society—illuminates the divisions that are mentioned in 1 Corinthians. The “strong” were the socially powerful who would act as hosts at the Lord's table and would see no difficulty in eating meat offered to idols, whereas the “weak” were the poor (1 Cor. 8.1–13; see also Meals).

The application of sociology to the New Testament is not without difficulty. There is danger that the birth and growth of Christianity might be reduced purely to explanation in social terms, and theology might not be given sufficient weight as an independent factor in explanation. Sociology tends to compress unique historical events and processes into general models and recurring patterns. The data with which the sociologist must work are limited and not selected originally for the benefit of the sociologist. Given the limited data, it is tempting to draw parallels between the social behavior of early churches and other contemporary social institutions where such parallels may not be legitimate. Nonetheless, for all the caution that needs to be exercised, a sociological perspective has much value for New Testament studies.

Several major areas of interest may be identified, though they cannot be distinguished neatly from each other. One is the description of the social context in which the disciples of Jesus came together and developed into a worldwide movement. This is most akin to social history but can never be divorced completely from sociological interpretation. The Roman occupation of Palestine had major political and economic implications for the Jews of that region, many of which are evident in the Gospels (e.g., references to “a house divided against itself,” the existence of beggars, robbers, and absentee landlords, and paying taxes to Caesar). But the presence of Rome also posed major questions for the Jews' self‐understanding as the covenant people of God who had a unique destiny in the world. Several movements had offered solutions to that cultural crisis, including the Herodians, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots; Jesus offered another that was to meet with a tremendous response.

Contributions have been made to our understanding of specific aspects of Pauline Christianity by describing such features as city life, mobility, the place of women, and the nature of urban Judaism. There is a growing consensus that early Christianity was not a proletarian movement but was very mixed in its social composition. Its members maintained their strength and purity through their leadership, through procedures for handling conflicts, rituals of initiation (baptism) and of solidarity (communion), common beliefs, and common life.

A second major area of study has been contemporary social institutions. An understanding of the nature and functioning of the household is vital to the interpretation of the leadership, organization, mission, training, place of women, and ethical teaching of early Christianity. The household was a large inclusive unit in which freedmen, slaves, and other dependent families grouped around a principal family. Often these people were economically dependent on the principal family and expressed their solidarity by adopting a common religion. The household structure had an impact even on the entire Roman empire, which saw itself as one vast household. In addition to the household, there were many unofficial associations, guilds, and cults through which people found personal identity and fellowship in the empire.

An extension of that area is the investigation of Christianity as a social organization. The primary understanding of Jesus, in this regard, is to see him as the founder of a millenarian movement. Such movements, frequently found among disinherited people, cater to a desire for change, offer a radically new interpretation of life and center in a prophet whose role is to bring heaven into being on earth and to vindicate his followers. Although this model when applied to the mission of Jesus has its difficulties, it largely fits and has the merit of rooting the ministry of Jesus in the real social world of his time.

After the death of the charismatic founder, the movement is usually seen in terms of a sect, that is, a small voluntary religious institution with an exclusive membership, clearly separated from the world as well as world‐rejecting in outlook. This provides us with a framework for understanding not only the early church in Jerusalem but also some of the developments in structure and theology that took place as it spread and eventually became acceptable to more people.

A number of secondary issues are raised by the study of social organization. In relation to Jesus, these concern the relationship between those who leave everything to follow him and those, such as Mary and Martha, who remain settled in their homes, as well as the structure of the band of twelve disciples. In the study of early Christianity, much has been done to explore the nature of apostolic authority and to set wandering preachers and prophets in the broader context of wandering philosophers of whose style of teaching and means of support we know. The relationship of the Pauline mission, originating in Antioch, to the church of Jerusalem, and this, in turn, to the authority of the original apostles is of special interest here.

The sociological insights mentioned so far aid the task of exegesis. But in addition to illuminating particular aspects of the text there is a growing body of literature concerned with sociological redaction. An excellent example is Philip Eschler's work on Luke/Acts, where he demonstrates the way in which the material has been shaped to answer questions posed by the mixed sociological situation of its readers (Jew/gentile, rich/poor, and so on).

A further major area is the tentative offering of sociological explanations for events described in the New Testament. The above‐mentioned concept of the millenarian movement, when applied to Jesus is not just a description but ventures toward an explanation as well. John Gager has also proposed an explanation as to why the dispirited apostles turned into zealous missionaries after the day of Pentecost. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, when a specific belief that many hold has been proved wrong (in the case of the early disciples, that Jesus would usher in his kingdom on earth), rather than giving up the belief people lessen their unease (dissonance) by converting others to their way of thinking. The addition of new members suggests to them that they could not have been wrong! Such an explanation is debatable. Less controversial, but still debatable, is the explanation that many joined the Christian movement because of status inconsistency. To be a woman of wealth, or a wealthy Jew in a gentile environment, or a skilled freedman stigmatized by one's origin, involved status contradictions. These could be resolved by joining a church, for there the sufferer would find a welcoming home that would provide an emotional buttress against the loneliness of a status‐ridden world. Much is also made of the process of institutionalization and its effect on the development of early Christianity. Such explanations vary in effectiveness but can prove illuminating, provided one does not resort to the view that the growth of Christianity was due to nothing but the operation of such social forces.

A final area may be identified as the sociology of knowledge. Everyone inherits as pregiven an interpretation of the world. But one's experience may raise questions, leading to modification or sometimes even to radical replacement. One's interpretation of life is formed in response to one's social location. Potentially, this is the most enriching perspective: already it has led to a deeper understanding of the way in which the gospel writers variously express the same life of Jesus, to a fuller understanding of the title “Son of man,” and to a fresh understanding of miracles. The perspective has also been used to relate the “ascent/descent” motif in John's gospel to the social location of John's readers; the idea of homelessness in 1 Peter to those who were literally displaced persons; and the cosmic conflicts of Revelation to the persecuted Christians.

Others have expressed interest in the social functions of literature and in the insights of anthropology. The sociology of the New Testament is a diverse discipline and is still in a youthful stage of development. Some theologians remain skeptical of its value, preferring to tread the well‐worn paths of more traditional approaches, but many have welcomed its perspective. As a youthful discipline, it will doubtless make many mistakes, not the least of which will be the mistake of thinking the traffic should all be one‐way, from sociology to the New Testament, rather than two‐way, enabling our understanding of the New Testament to enrich sociology in general and sociology of religion in particular. But the perspective these approaches offer will be ignored only at great cost to New Testament studies. It cannot be overstressed that the formation of earliest Christianity took place in a real social context and was inhabited by real flesh‐and‐blood people, not by abstract theologizers.

Derek J. Tidball

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