The study of human communities. It is increasingly important in OT and NT studies to determine the structure and changes in the society of ancient Israel and in the development of Christian groups in the Roman Empire. A particularly interesting feature of Israelite society has been the transition from the tribal structure of the period of the Judges (who were heads of powerful families and who acted as arbitrators in quarrels), up to the time of the early monarchy, and the examination of this system has assisted in the understanding of prophecy. Like the judges, the early prophets were also heads of guilds, as was Elijah.
A lineage-based social system, in which there was much inter-tribal friction (Judg. 19–21) gave way to the monarchy under Saul. Pressures from outside and economic necessities within forced the independent units into accepting it; but the divergent attitudes to the monarchy in the narratives reflect opposition on the part of those losing out in the power struggle. A strong merchant class emerged under Solomon (965–924 BCE) and the power of the central government grew. Prophets could oppose the political and religious powers of the kings (1 Kgs. 12–14) because they were able to feel detached from the Establishment. Nevertheless Isaiah, who was at home in the royal court (Isa. 7: 3–17), could both criticize the king and also uphold popular morale in the state when it was under assault from Assyria in 701 BCE. The Exile saw the end of the system of central government in Jerusalem. After the Return from Exile there was a brief resurgence of prophecy. Malachi combined concern for the cult with a call for social justice (Mal. 3: 5), but thereafter groups that regarded themselves as deprived sought solace in apocalyptic fantasies (e.g. Daniel and 1 Enoch)
NT scholars have noted that primitive Christianity involved some breaks with the established norms of society in the Roman Empire: Jesus' demand that the disciples abandon family relationships if they follow him (Mark 10: 29) is one such social surprise. In the Pauline Churches the abolition of social barriers promoted social mobility (cf. Rom. 16: 23) amongst those on the margin either economically or religiously. The Pauline denigration of Jewish food laws and the law of circumcision was especially an affront to Jews because it threatened the basis of the people of the covenant. It was therefore essential for Christians to establish an alternative basis for the claim to be the people of God and to affirm the solidarity of the new groups. The controversy of Paul in Galatians and his theological argument in Romans can be understood in sociological terms. It was necessary for the success of the Gentile mission that the new Christian Churches should separate from Judaism and the synagogue and the demands of the Law. Paul was trying to persuade Jewish Christians in Rome to worship alongside the Gentile converts (Rom. 15: 7).
Much space is devoted in Mark to narratives about purity, hospitality, and meals, and in John to the demonstration that Jesus' miracles are ‘signs’ of heavenly food and divine light that are available to those who enter the new community. Mark's community needs to understand itself both against the Jews, in the matter of purity, and in relation to the empire, to have self-confidence as a mere sect in the midst of mighty pagan powers. So Christians were fortified by nursing the hope that beyond the present suffering lay divine deliverance, as it did for Jesus (Mark 13).
The study of social relationships has thrown light on the progress of a small group on the margin of rural Jewish society in Palestine into a world-wide Church consisting of related communities in many urban centres. Paul's letters to Corinth show that the Church there comprised members of different classes, both sexes, and varied occupations. In that Church was taught an ideal of equality which was unknown in the Graeco-Roman world, and this affirmation of each individual's worth acted as a strong means of recruitment. Cf. Gal. 3: 28.
An interest in social structures of the 1st cent. has led to studies of how Christians interacted with the Jewish community from which the first generation emerged, and with Gentile neighbours, since many converts retained links with pagans (1 Cor. 8: 10; 10: 1–22), and courtesy towards outsiders is enjoined (Col. 4: 5–6; 1 Pet. 3: 15). It appears from the social stratification at Corinth that there was commercial contact between merchants and Christian entrepreneurs. It was they who would have delivered Paul's letter to Christians in Rome (Rom. 16: 1). Among the recipients were Gentile God-fearers attracted to a form of ethical monotheism which did not demand circumcision. Officials of the synagogues understandably objected to potential members being lured away.