The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels

By Wolfgang Stegemann; Bruce J. Malina et al. | Go to book overview

1
Social-Scientific Methods
in Historical Jesus Research

Bruce J. Malina

Social-scientific interpretation of New Testament documents involves reading some New Testament writing by first selecting a suitable model accepted in the social-scientific community,’ and using the model to form adequate scenarios for reading the document in question (see Malina 1991b, reprinted in 1996d). Forming adequate scenarios involves retrojecting an appropriate model to the first-century eastern Mediterranean culture area by a process of abduction, while making it applicable by using proper filters to keep out anachronism and ethnocentrism (Malina 1991a; 1996c). When I speak of social-scientific interpretation and the historical Jesus, I refer to a process like the one just described (see Malina 1981; 1982; 1983; 1997c; Elliott 1993; Pilch 1994a; May 1997).2 The purpose of this presentation is to highlight what social-scientific research in New Testament studies offers the various quests for the historical Jesus (see Moxnes 1997, “Theological Importance”; Theissen and Merz 1998:1–15).

It is perhaps important to note that North American Context Group scholars who employ the social sciences in biblical research teach, for the most part, at the undergraduate level (the German upper Gymnasium level). The quest for the historical Jesus that the Context Group members might take up is triggered largely, if not exclusively, by the fact that group members teach undergraduates who want to know about Jesus in the same way they know about other persons and things. In other words, the work of these scholars is not ecclesiastically driven. While it is true that they are aware of what the guild is seeking, their concerns are to answer their students’ questions within the students’ undergraduate training and context (many, if not most, know about the social sciences and many know the natural sciences).3 What these scholars “prove” has to make sense to these students and to the invisible audience of their Context Group

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