Musings August 6, 2015

In the course of working on my ‘project’ I have come across three current strands in biblical studies. Two of them I have felt an unqualified support for. First there was the group of biblical scholars who were looking anew at the New Testament while becoming aware of the effect of the Roman Empire on the N T writers. In the expression from the 1970s, I grooved on that. It seems sensible; it seems relevant to the present day.

Second, there was the group of scholars looking at what they called the Greco-Roman Meals and their effect on the early church. It would be hard to overlook the significance of discovering what was probably the structure of the earliest church gatherings. That seems to have relevance as we look at present forms of Christian worship, education, and fellowship.

But in the course of my studies I have come across a third strand of contemporary biblical scholarship. This has grown out of a number of N T scholars who call themselves the Context Group. It has developed out of a dozen members of the Society of Biblical Literature who found themselves using the social sciences to develop insights into the Scriptures. (It now numbers about two dozen members.)

One needs to look at the history of modern biblical criticism to see how this new group fits in. Modern biblical criticism began in the 18th century when those who studied the Bible became influenced by the recent developments of science. Specifically, they turned the tools of historical studies toward the Bible better to understand it. They asked the how, when, who questions toward the Scriptural documents. Who wrote Genesis? Was there more than one author? If so, when and how were the strands brought together?

By the middle of the 20th century there was a significant consensus on the answers to these questions. Unfortunately, there had developed a split in the use of the Bible by scholars to answer the academically oriented questions as over against the use of the Bible in the church to help people living out their faith. It was not that the results of the academic study were wrong or not helpful in their own context. They just didn’t seem to be relevant to be applied in the typical church member’s life.

Hence, beginning in the mid 20th century, the scholars began exploring other avenues to study the Bible. If one looks at an article on Biblical Criticism on-line (, one finds about a dozen different types of critical methods that were developed in the middle and last half of the 20th century to try to aid in making the Bible more understandable and relevant. Different academic disciplines were used as lenses through which to view the Bible. Each method as it came into being was seen as ‘the one to help us really understand the Bible’ as the historical critical method had not quite done. Giving credit where credit is due, each of the methods did give new insights into the Bible.

Beginning in the 1980s the Context Group began their work. ( ) Led by such persons as John Elliott, Jerome Neyrey, and Bruce Malina, they have used various social sciences— sociology, social-psychology, cultural anthropology, archaeology. Their work begins with the premise that to step into the First Century world is like stepping into a foreign culture.

They contend that Bible study, done by professionals or by lay persons, fails to take into account how different the biblical world is from our own. What creates problems of understanding that world is anachronism and ethnocentrism, that is, “reading into the text information from some present social context rather than comprehending the text in accord with its own contemporary social and cultural scripts.” 1

We think that when they use a word or phrase, it means what we mean by that word. We tend to think that the way we look at culture and society is the way that people have always looked at things.

“Cross cultural reading of the Bible is not a matter of choice. Since the Bible is a Mediterranean document written for Mediterranean readers, it presumes the cultural resources and worldview available to a reader socialize in the Mediterranean world. This means that for all non-Mediterraneans, including all Americans, reading the Bible is always an exercise in cross-cultural communication. It is only a question of doing it poorly or doing it well.” 2

This is a helpful corrective for a day in which the Bible has been used so often by someone who selects a passage from Scripture and assumes its meaning can be easily and simply transferred to the present. According to the Context Group, the first goal of reading the Bible is to try to understand what the writer wanted to convey to another Palestinian who lived in the same culture as the writer.

It is clear the group want us to distinguish between the culture of the biblical writer and the culture of a reader today. That is essential. So far in my reading I have not answered to my own satisfaction the question as to what extent the Context Group  understood that the first century writer saw a distinction between the culture of their day and the message of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached. That to me is also essential. Both of the previous biblical studies I have been following in this project were clear on that issue. They saw the N T writers as expressing a counter-cultural movement. I am assuming that further reading of the social scientific critique will find the same.

1 What is Social Scientific Criticism? (Kindle Locations 130-131). John H Elliott. 1993

2 Social Science and New Testament Interpretation Richard Rohrbaugh, ed  2003

BOOKS: Social Scientific Criticism

A Home for the Homeless: A Social-Scientific Criticism of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy John H Elliot  1991, 2005

The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology Bruce Malina 1991

The Social World of Luke – Acts: Models for Interpretation Hardcover, Jerome H. Neyrey (Editor) 1991

What is Social Scientific Criticism?  John H Elliott. 1993

Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Malina and Rohrbaugh 1998

The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology Bruce Malina 2001

The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels Bruce Malina 2002

Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce J. Malina  2002

Social Science and New Testament Interpretation Richard Rohrbaugh 2003

Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul Bruce Malina 2006

Social World of the New Testament, The: Insights and Models, Jerome H. Neyrey (Editor), Eric C. Stewart (Editor) 2008

Social-Science Commentary on Deutero Pauline Letters Malina and Pilch 2013


One thought on “Musings August 6, 2015”

  1. Very important and useful strand of study. But you don’t mention narrative criticism, which studies the Biblical documents as literature (especially as literature of its time), and rhetorical criticism, which studies the Biblical documents in the light of ancient rhetorical practice. All have important insights.

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