The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation

By Johnson, David H. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation


Johnson, David H., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation. Edited by Richard Rohrbaugh. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, x + 240 pp., n.p.

In the last 25 years of Biblical studies, the standard historical-critical method (concerned with the authors' intents in their historical context) has been augmented by three other broad methods of inquiry: theological, literary and social scientific studies. The series of articles in this book is concerned with the last of these. Judging by the title, the authors cannot be faulted for not incorporating literary or theological approaches, but the reader of this volume should be aware that the book is intentionally unbalanced in its purview. There seems to be a deliberate neglect of such matters as intertextuality, literary theory, rhetoric and hermeneutics. Also, the social sciences by their very nature seek general truths through broad observations of large (and often cross-cultural) populations; hence, they do not analyze and cannot explain unique phenomena, and they attempt to explain particular phenomena using general patterns and principles. With these caveats in mind we can ask what the book has to offer.

This book is the second produced by The Context Group, an ongoing seminar of scholars concerned with appropriating the methods and findings of the social sciences (sociology, economics, psychology, anthropology) in the study of the NT. Actually, the book is mostly anthropological, so the title is a bit misleading. According to the editor, none of the authors in this book were trained in the anthropology of the Mediterranean world (p. 10). Nevertheless, the goal of the book is "to provide a handbook for both students and colleagues wishing to know where to begin in a field in which they were not trained" (p. 14). The book is divided into three parts "Core Values," "Social Institutions" and "Social Dynamics." Each chapter uses cross-cultural social theories to highlight various aspects of the NT that, according to the authors, have until recently been interpreted with ethnocentric presuppositions. The great value of using the social sciences to interpret the NT lies in removing ethnocentric interpretations, provided that the social science itself is not used in an ethnocentric way (of which Bruce Malina accuses Wayne Meeks, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor and Gerd Theissen: pp. …

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