The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century

By Oakman, Douglas E. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century


Oakman, Douglas E., Journal of Biblical Literature


The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century, by Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, trans. 0. C. Dean, Jr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. Pp. xx + 532. $45.00.

This major work, published in German under the title Urchristliche Sozialgeschichte: Die Anfange im Judentum and die Christusgemeinden in der mediterranen Welt (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1995) deserves a careful reading by all scholars in NT studies and related fields. It represents an achievement of substantial erudition and wide-ranging synthesis.

The work divides into four parts: (1) Economy and society in the Mediterranean world of the first century: Ancient Mediterranean societies can be classified, following Lenski, as "advanced agrarian societies." Technological level, power structure, population, cities, division of labor, money, writing, and social inequality are all important dimensions of the social picture. The authors examine production, distribution, consumption, and daily living conditions for various social strata. Power is a key variable in agrarian social stratification, and the economy is embedded in politics. The book's seven pyramidal models for stratification support careful discussions of social location.

(2) The land of Israel, the social history of Judaism, and the followers of Jesus: The authors trace the development of political economy in Hellenistic-Roman Palestine; include a solid discussion of taxation; follow changes in social structure of HellenisticRoman Palestine; note the problem of debt; examine "religious currents" in a situation of crisis; characterize religious institutions and explain why deviance theory is preferable to sect theory; pay attention to various groups in relation to ideology and stratum of origin; and examine the relationship of religion and politics. Discussion then turns to Jesus and his movement. Pre-70 and post-70 C.E. contexts are distinguished. The Stegemanns prefer Weber's notion of charisma over sect or millenarian theoretical approaches to Jesus. They consider the relationship of the Jesus movement to other groups; focus especially on information in Matthew and John about conflict; and discuss the relationship of Christ-followers to synagogue and rabbinic movements.

(3) The social history of Christ-confessing communities in the cities of the Roman empire: The urban Christ-confessing assemblies fostered unrestricted social interaction, especially at meals, between Jew and Gentile. Innovation is attributed to "charisma." Ancient analogies are found in household, political structures, and voluntary associations, but not in army or ethnos. The authors trace stratum membership of Christ-confessing groups and show a mix of mostly "upper" non-elite and some "lower" elite; discuss conflict and persecution due to upper-stratum inclination to criminalize Christianity; consider Roman suspicions of Christians after 70 C.E. as an anti-Roman Jewish group; show political pressure on Diaspora Judaism; and draw on deviance theory as a way to understand social dynamics.

(4) The social roles and social situation of women in the Mediterranean world and in early Christianity: With careful nuance in terms of stratum and culture, the authors examine the gendered nature of space and roles for ancient women; assess occupations women could engage in by stratum; and attempt to determine the role and status of women in the earliest Jesus movement. The reputation of such women in the entourage would have been questionable. The Stegemanns show how a certain equality of role and status for women reverted in the later church to conventional norms.

The book's carefully constructed framework situates the social history of the groups behind the NT such that the political domain is a primary variable in the discussion. This is the proper emphasis. Attention to social structure is central for the analysis, and the social location of various Jesus and Christ-confessing groups is established in the account of historical developments. …

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