Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context

By Philip F. Esler | Go to book overview

5

EARLY CHRISTIAN GROUPS

Using small group formation theory to explain Christian organizations

Bruce J. Malina

MODELLING SMALL GROUPS

In his recent book, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? John H. Elliott with his usual perspicacity provides a rather detailed chart of desiderata for the understanding and analysis of early Christian groups (Elliott 1993a: 110-121). This essay is a contribution towards filling in but a small segment of those desiderata. By group here I mean any collection of persons who come together for some purpose (see Elliott 1993a). 1

I believe it fair to say that early Christians formed groups that were essentially small, face-to-face groups within an incipiently face-to-mace (agency controlled) society. 2 (Whether Christians were aware of belonging to a wider social entity extending beyond their small group is not my question here.) As a contribution to scenario building, my concern here is with developing a model of the formation of small groups and their development that might fit the data we have from the first generations of Christians. Although this essay touches on many different aspects of early Christian groups, the discussion of these separate topics could be subsumed under one or another of several generalizations that summarize the major ideas in contemporary, cross-cultural group study. A fundamental presupposition in social-scientific criticism of the Bible, duly outfitted with historical and cross-cultural lenses, runs: if something actually exists, then it could possibly exist (the old Scholastic bromide: Ab esse ad posse valet illatio). Thus generalizations about small groups deriving from empiric, cross-culturally validated contemporary models could possibly apply to group formation in the past. Some of these generalizations will seem rather obvious. They are structural-functionalist observations, based on the axiom that if things were any different, they would not be the way they are. I set out three of these generalizations that I find pertinent to an initial understanding of early Christian groups.

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