John H. Elliott’s Social-Scientific Criticism

By Dvorak, James D

I. INTRODUCTION The past thirty years of biblical studies has seen the substantial growth and impact of social-scientific criticism of the Bible. Barton attributes, but does not limit, its rise to the following factors:

The rise to prominence of the social sciences from the late nineteenth century on, and the impact of the sociology of knowledge in a wide range of academic disciplines; the influence on interpretation theory of the hermeneutics of suspicion represented by such intellectual giants as Nietzsche, Durkheim, Marx, and Freud; the exhaustion of the historical-critical method as traditionally understood, and the failure of form criticism to fulfil its promise of identifying the Sitze im Leben of New Testament texts; shifts in historiography generally away from the “great man” view of history typical of Romanticism to one more attentive to history “from below,” with a much stronger popular and sociological dimension; the influence of the discovery of texts and archaeological remains, as at Qumran, which provide important new comparative data for social history and sociological analysis; and the surfacing of different kinds of questions to put to the New Testament in the light of developments in twentieth-century theology, not least, the failure of liberal theology and the urgent concerns (often of a social and political kind) raised by liberation and feminist theologies.1

Because of these factors and others like them, it has become the norm for students of biblical studies to learn that determining the cultural background of biblical texts is as integral a part of the exegetical process as determining the historical background of the texts.2

Several questions come to mind regarding social-scientific criticism: (1) What exactly is social-scientific criticism? (2) How does it relate to the more traditional historical methods of criticism? (3) What real or potential contributions can social- scientific criticism make to biblical studies? (4) What are the limitations of social-scientific criticism? (5) What does social- scientific criticism’s methodology look like? The purpose of this article is to investigate the answers to these questions. More specifically, this article will analyze social-scientific criticism from the perspective of its leading American proponent, John H. Elliott. As will be shown, there are different emphases among social- scientific critics, but focus will be given to social-scientific exegesis, which best describes Elliott’s method.


A. Biographical Sketch

John H. Elliott is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco. He received his Bachelor of Arts as well as his Bachelor and Masters of Divinity degrees from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He earned the degree of Doktor der Theologie from the Westfalische Wilhelms-Universitat in 1963, the same year he was ordained a Lutheran clergyman. He has taught at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (1963-67), Webster College, St. Louis (1963-67), the University of San Francisco (1967-2001), the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley (1977-present), Notre Dame University (1981), and at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome (1978) as the first and only Lutheran scholar since the Reformation.3

B. The Context Group4

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a growing dissatisfaction with the then-current methods of biblical studies, especially the type represented by Rudolf Bultmann.5 Form and other criticisms were not fulfilling the desires of biblical scholars as a means of understanding the phenomena of early Christianity. As a result, scholars like Gerd Theissen, John Gager, Wayne Meeks, Abraham Malherbe, and others began engaging the social-sciences looking for models to describe the social world of the Bible.6 The success of these works attracted more scholars to the enterprise of social-scientific criticism. Eventually, a group of scholars including John Elliott, Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, and John Pilch involved themselves with organizations like the Bay Area Society for Theology and Related Disciplines and various task forces in the Catholic Biblical Association and focused their attention on the relationship between biblical studies and the social-sciences.7 In 1979, Elliott and Malina began a working relationship, in which was planted the seed that would later sprout as the Context Group.8 A mixture of personal friendship, scholarly interaction, and various task forces, birds-of-a-feather groups, and publications continued to attract others to the social-scientific approach. In the Spring of 1990, a core group of these scholars met and formed the “Context Group: Project on the Bible in Its Cultural Environment,” and Elliott was appointed Program Chair of the group.9


A. General Definition

Social-scientific criticism has been broadly defined as

that phase of the exegetical task which analyzes the social and cultural dimensions of the text and of its environmental context through the utilization of the perspectives, theory, models, and research of the social sciences.10

Further, social-scientific criticism is seen as a “component” or “subdiscipline” of the historical-critical method, which “investigates biblical texts as meaningful configurations of language intended to communicate between composers and audiences.”11 It accomplishes this task by studying in three different (though related) veins: (1) “the conditioning factors and intended consequences of the communication process”; (2) “the correlation of the text’s linguistic, literary, theological (ideological), and social dimensions”; and (3) “the manner in which this textual communication was both a reflection of and a response to a specific social and cultural context.”12

B. Two Chief Focuses

1. Socio-Cultural Anthropology13

As social-scientific criticism of the Bible has taken shape as a “sub-discipline of exegesis,”14 two major methodological focal points have become clear.15 The first focuses on the “social and cultural conditions, features, and contours of early Christianity and its social environment.”16 Here one finds descriptions of geography, economic life, religious practices, daily life, the political scene,17 and other topics usually discussed by cultural/ social anthropologists.18 An example in this line of work is the book edited by John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina entitled Handbook of Biblical Social Values.19 Briefly, the purpose of this work “is to describe some of the values prominent in the New Testament and frequently referred to in the Bible in general.”20 For example, a few of the values described in the book are (typically pairs in binary opposition): honor/shame, individualism/dyadism, and being/ doing.

Another sample work in this area is the volume edited by Jerome Neyrey entitled The Social World of Luke-Acts.21 Though this work moves in the direction of social-scientific exegesis (discussed below), it is not merely another collection of exegetical essays on Luke-Acts, another attempt at reconstructing the history behind Luke- Acts, or a social description of the “world” of Luke-Acts.22 Instead, it attempts to “discover the meanings implicit in Luke- Acts through attention to the values, social structures and conventions of Luke’s society which determine and convey those meanings.”23 In terms of content, then, the essays deal with similar topics as the handbook edited by Pilch and Malina: social values (e.g., honor/shame, individualism/dyadism, labeling and deviance theory), as well as social institutions (e.g., temple/household, patron-client relations) and social dynamics (e.g., social location of the author, status transformation, and ceremonies).24

Many important contributions have been gleaned from this vein of social-scientific criticism. Perhaps the most important contribution is the recognition that honor (“publicly acknowledged worth”) and shame (“publicly denied worth”) are perhaps the foundational values of the Mediterranean world.25

2. Social-Scientific Exegesis

A second emphasis focuses more specifically on the exegesis of biblical texts, of which the key North American proponent is John H. Elliott. I will discuss his methodology more thoroughly below, but a general description here is profitable. Broadly speaking, social- scientific exegesis (a.k.a., “sociological exegesis”) is “the analytic and synthetic interpretation of a text through the combined exercise of the exegetical and sociological disciplines, their practices, theories and techniques.”26 The objective of social- scientific exegesis is clearly stated by Elliott:

The objective of sociological exegesis is the determination of the social as well as the literary and theological conditions, content and intended consequences of our text; that is, the determination of the sum of its features which make it a vehicle of social interaction and an instrument of social as well as literary and theological consequence.27

The approach is exegetical in that its focus is still on determining the meaning of the biblical documents, and it does not neglect other operations of the exegetical enterprise such as textual, literary, narrative, historical, tradition, form, redaction, rhetorical, and theological (ideological) criticisms.28 The approach is also sociological in that it exercises the presuppositions, theories, analytical methods, and comparative models of the discipline of sociology.29 I shall discuss more thoroughly the presuppositions, assumptions, and models underlying social-scientific exegesis in the next section. IV. ELLIOTT’S METHOD OF SOCIAL-SCIENTIFIC EXEGESIS

A. The Method: Presuppositions

Taking a cue from the social sciences, Elliott is very careful to be forthright regarding the presuppositions of social-scientific criticism. He writes:

Such an interdisciplinary approach to a biblical text involves a plethora of presuppositions. In general it may be said that a sociological exegesis operates comprehensively and yet critically with the received presuppositions and methodological principles of both sociological and exegetical disciplines. This requires an acquaintance with, and as critical an acceptance of, the assumptions, procedures and “assured results” of each discipline as is possible. In addition, however, the fusion of the perspectives and procedures of both disciplines may well be expected to generate new methodological insights and cast unidisciplinary presuppositions and techniques into critical light.30

Elliott is also careful to explain that presuppositions of social- scientific criticism are not only related to methodology and the objects being interpreted; they also relate to the interpreter.31 The following paragraphs describe each of the major presuppositions of social-scientific criticism in general, which also includes those pertaining specifically to Elliott’s social-scientific exegesis.32

1. Knowledge is Socially Conditioned

The first presupposition is that “all knowledge is socially conditioned and perspectival in nature,” and this includes the knowledge of the authors and groups under examination, as well as the interpreter.33 This presupposition has two implications. First, complete objectivity in interpretation is impossible because, as sociologists of knowledge have pointed out,34 even “reality” itself- whether the original author’s or the interpreter’s – is conditioned by “specific temporal, psychological, social, and cultural locations.”35 About this, Elliott is quick to point out that this conditioning does not eliminate the “possibility of creative thought and expression on the part of the ancient authors whose work we study.”36 However, it does mean that the authors’ expressions are constrained by personal and social experience, as well as communicative frameworks of the day-without which no communication could have occurred at all.37 The challenge for the interpreter, then, is to understand as clearly as possible the social location- all the factors that might influence a person or group38-of the ancient authors in order to achieve the clearest interpretation.

A second implication of this presupposition is that the interpreter must be aware of his or her own personal and social locations.39 One of the dangers interpreters face as they do their work is (and always has been) eisegesis, that is, reading meaning back into the text being interpreted. This can occur when one’s own personal and social locations influence the interests, methods, and goals of textual analysis. Thus, it is very important for interpreters to understand first of all that they approach the interpretive task with “baggage” that may influence their exegetical decisions. Recognizing as much of this “baggage” as possible before beginning the interpretive process may help the interpreter to come to what Elliott calls “relative objectivity.”40 As was noted above, there is no such thing as total objectivity, but relative objectivity is possible as the interpreter does their best to recognize their own personal and social location and to work around any accompanying interests and presuppositions.

Determining one’s own social location as well as that of the authors and objects of interpretation is important for several reasons. First, it raises awareness about how people in different social locations might be more or less sensitive to the nuances of the text. For example, someone in a context of poverty and destitution may pick up more readily on how Luke seems to give prominence to “the poor” in the programmatic statement regarding Jesus’ ministry recorded in Luke 4:16ff. Yet even this example highlights another reason for seeking to know social location, because it prompts the sociological question, “Who are the poor?” More specifically, in what way were they poor? That is, were they necessarily economically poor? Joel Green asks this question and turns to social-scientific criticism to help answer it:

In [the Mediterranean culture and the social world of Luke- Acts], one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as “poor,” but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and “poor” would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although “poor” is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke, this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.41

The point here is that different people in different social locations are susceptible to reading and interpreting biblical texts a certain way because of their social location. Such readings are anachronistic and ethnocentric and can more easily be avoided if the interpreter takes time to ask sociological questions of the biblical text and world of the text.

2. Analytical Method Must Provide a Way To Distinguish Social Locations

If it is true, which undoubtedly it is, that the interpreter must establish the social location of the authors and objects being interpreted as well as their own, then social-scientific interpretive methods must provide a means for doing so.42 Elliott suggests that one possible way to distinguish between ancient biblical and modern conceptual points of view is to utilize the distinction between “emic” and “etic” typically employed in anthropological field study.43

Emic information is that which is supplied by the “natives.” In other words, emic information is the explanation (or interpretation) of

phenomena as perceived, narrated, and explained according to the experience, folk knowledge, conceptual categories, ratiocinations, and rationalizations of the indigenous narrators in their historical, social, and cultural locations.44

Thus, for example, in John 9 when Jesus and his disciples came upon a man blind from birth, the disciples, given their social location, assumed the reason for the man’s blindness was that either he or his parents had sinned.45 Their interpretation of the situation is an example of emic information, and may be thought of as looking at things “from the inside out.”

Etic information is that which comes from the external investigator or interpreter. It is the explanation (or interpretation) of phenomena as perceived “by his or her own social, historical, and cultural location, experience, and available knowledge and the conceptual categories used for analyzing these same phenomena.”46 If emic information may be characterized as an explanation of phenomena from the “inside out,” etic information may be characterized as an explanation of phenomena from the “outside in.” Interpreters utilizing social-scientific criticism employ models and theories to transform the data of the ancient texts and artifacts into etic information, so to speak.

More will be said about the use of models below. Here it is important to emphasize why the emic/etic distinction is important to social-scientific criticism. It lies in the fact that in making the distinction, “interest shifts from decrying the ‘primitive’ (and ‘uninformed’) views of the native to the questions of how and why the natives found this explanation plausible and cogent.”47 Looking again to John 9, modern interpreters may treat the disciples’ reasoning regarding the cause of the man’s blindness as mere superstition or perhaps as ignorance, though an ignorance that was no fault of their own (i.e., they simply lived in a time before science and medicine could have answered their question). But social- scientific criticism does not dismiss such instances so quickly. Rather, these critics seek to know why the disciples would have raised such a question, prompting such probing questions as, “What social or religious script might have caused the disciples to think sin was the cause of the ailment?” In this way the sociological attempt “to keep real flesh and blood human beings at the forefront of the stage in all the complexity of their social relationships and turmoil of their social situations”48 becomes clear.

3. Models as a Means to Finding Meaning

Theories and conceptual models play an essential role in social- scientific criticism, especially in terms of producing etic information.49 Social-scientists use various methods of observation to seek typical and recurring patterns and regularities in human behavior (emic information), whether behavior of individuals or groups of humans. Based on those observations, social-scientists then create theories (etic information) to explain the patterns they have observed. These theories are then articulated through the use of models.50 A model is “an abstract simplified representation of some real world object, event, or interaction constructed for the purpose of understanding, control, or prediction.”51 Models, then, are essentially “cognitive maps” or conceptual frameworks

that organize selected prominent features of social terrain such as patterns of typical behavior (for instance, at work, at meals, in law courts), social groupings (kin and fictive kin groups, faction, coalitions, patrons and clients, and such), process of social interaction (for example, buying and selling, oral and written communication, feuding, making contracts), and the like. Such models alert the social traveler to typical and recurrent patterns of everyday social life in given times and places.52 Malina describes three basic types of models from a fairly high level of abstraction: the structural functionalist, the conflict, and the symbolic models.53 The structural functionalist model assumes that

a social system is embodied in a group of interacting persons whose interactions follow certain mutually understood and expected patterns (structures) that are oriented around mutually shared purposes or concerns (functions).54

Thus, meaningful behavior is that which functions within the parameters of the social structures. What holds societies together in equilibrium are core values held in common consensus by all the units making up the system.55

The conflict model explains social systems “in terms of various groups with differing goals and interests and therefore use coercive tactics on each other to get their own goals realized.”56 In this view the only constant is change and all units of social organization (persons and groups in society) are constantly changing unless someone or something intervenes to stop the change.57 What holds the system together is not consensus, as in structural functionalist models, but constraint, a sort of checks-and-balances type of relationship among the units of society.58

The symbolic model (the most abstract of the three) explains social systems as systems of symbols “consisting of persons (self, others), things (nature, time, and space), and events (activities of persons and things) that have unique reality because of their perceived symbolic meaning.”59 Each symbolic entity is given meaning and significance by the others sharing in the system, much like words get their range of meanings from the shared social speech system.60 Thus, symbols have a “range of meanings” made up of various roles, rights, and regulations that unite them with or separate them from other symbols in the system.61 These social “meanings” function to maintain a tentative equilibrium in the system.62

It is important to understand that the models themselves are not meant to create material evidence; instead they are meant to provide a way to visualize the patterns and relationships among the emic information under scrutiny so as to understand them.63 Thus, models are valuable explanatory tools.

Models, however, not only have explanatory (or descriptive) value, they also have heuristic value. Models provide a means of testing64 the theories behind them as well as stimulating further investigation.65 As new theories are produced (or existing ones are revised) and new models of those theories are created (or existing ones revised), others can apply them to see if they work. Not only are they tested on the same data or information of their genesis, but they may be taken and applied to data gleaned from similar cases. In this way, the model is tested to see if it can explain similar phenomena. Where the model breaks down (technically, where the theory behind the model breaks down), the researcher will be prompted to ask new sets of questions regarding the information to which the model was applied. Theories and the resulting models can then be revised (or new ones created) and the cycle of testing begins again.66

Finally, since models are “cognitive maps” (or conceptual models), social-scientists say there is no choice as to whether or not researchers use them.67 The choice lies in the deciding whether or not one will use models consciously or unconsciously.68 From Elliott’s perspective, it is crucial that practitioners of social- scientific criticism-especially as applied to biblical studies-are up-front with their models of interpretation. This encourages interpreters to think constructively and critically about how they approach the Scriptures and the task of interpretation. Moreover, it allows other interpreters to critically examine and test the model to see if it works, which, as mentioned above, brings out the heuristic value of using models.

4. Employing Abduction/Retroduction

Social-scientific criticism involves a process of logic that is neither exclusively deductive (from model to material) nor inductive (from material to hypothesis) but inclusive of both in a procedure called “abduction.”69

This process (as implemented in the social-sciences) may be thought of as “inference to the best explanation.”70 It is a way of finding an explanation that “renders the observed facts necessary or highly probable.”71 In other words, abduction starts with an observable fact and reasons backwards to the best explanation of the fact. This kind of reasoning follows this pattern:72

D is a collection of data (facts, observations, givens)

[H is tested against D and other hypotheses]

H, if true, explains D;

No other hypothesis explains D as well as H.

Therefore H is probably correct.

This process is similar to induction,73 but one thing sets it apart: abduction involves “a back-and-forth movement of suggestion checking.”74 In relation to the emic/etic categories put forward earlier, abduction is a cyclical process of analyzing emic information, creating etic hypotheses about how that emic information was formed, and then testing those hypotheses against the emic information, making necessary adjustments along the way.

5. Basing Models on Circum-Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern Emic Information

It is presumed by social-scientific critics of the Bible that the most appropriate models for interpreting the Bible and the biblical world are those constructed to analyze the emic data of the Circum- Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern regions, that is, the geographical, social, and cultural areas inhabited by the biblical communities.75 Historical criticism attempts to locate the biblical documents in their appropriate time frame and setting and interpret them in light of that information.76 In addition to this, social- scientific criticism seeks to locate the biblical texts in their appropriate geographical, social, and cultural contexts and interpret them in light of that information.77 This places the biblical documents in the agrarian society of the Circum- Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern worlds. Appropriate models, then, will analyze the biblical texts in light of the cultural values and scripts of these worlds, as reconstructed by historians, archaeologists, and socio-culrural anthropologists.78 In general, appropriate models would seek to identify and to explicate features from the Circum-Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern worlds such as:

* worldview

* societal structures

* physical features

* economic structures

* political climate

* behavior patterns, dress, and customs

religious practices, power centers, convictions, rituals, or affiliations.79

6. Linguistic Presuppositions Regarding Texts

More specifically related to social-scientific exegesis are various presumptions about how “text” is defined, as well as what are the features, functions, situations, and strategies of a text.80

First, social-scientific criticism defines “text” as a “unit [sic] of meaningful social discourse in either oral or written form.”81 “Meaningful discourse”82 assumes a shared system of significationa social semiotic83-which determines the “meaning potential” or range of possible meanings of language in a given social system.84 Language, then, is that which realizes or encodes the meanings generated by and making up of the social system.85 Thus, Elliott may assert, “the expression (form and content) and the meaning of a text are relative to its historical and social location.”86

Given this definition of “text” and view of “meaningful discourse,” a second assumption in this category arises: to determine what texts meant in their original contexts (the task of exegesis) necessarily requires the exegete to know as well as possible the social and cultural systems from which the communication occurred.87 This is especially important because the ancient Mediterranean world was a “high context” society.88 A high context society is one in which “people have been socialized into shared ways of perceiving and acting,” thus “much can be assumed” in the transfer of meaning.89 Discourses from high context societies are not as likely to explicitly communicate contextual details simply because they do not have to do so. This makes it all the more important for interpreters (esp. those from low context societies) to learn the social and cultural systems of the biblical world.

A third presumption about texts is that they not only have cognitive and affective dimensions, they also have an ideological dimension.90 In other words, texts not only inform and evoke emotional responses, they also fulfill a variety of social functions.

They can express cultural perceptions, values, and worldviews and articulate the relation of persons to the other more abstract dimensions of human experience: other persons and society, time, space, nature, the universe, God. They can describe social relations, behavior, and institutions and explain how and why they work. They can serve to motivate and direct social behavior. They can conceptualize for groups faced with present deprivation a compensation for current suffering later. They can legitimate social institutions by tracing them back to ancient sacred or divine origins. They can situate and integrate social phenomena cosmologically within the social, cultural, and physical cosmos and invest this cosmic order with coherence, plausibility, and ultimate meaning.91

Fourth, alluded to above, the biblical texts are instruments of communication with the following features: (1) they encode (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) and express comments about the social experience of the biblical world; (2) they imply or explain the relationship between author and targeted audience/ readers; and (3) they organize the elements of the preceding features into coherent discourses related to specific situations with the intent to produce a specific effect (cognitive, affective, and/or behavioral).92 These features emphasize that the biblical texts have an occasion and a purpose, or as Elliott prefers, a “situation” and a “strategy.”93 Elliott believes that the conventional terms “occasion” and “purpose” do not accurately describe why the biblical texts were written. Generally, occasion and purpose are thought of in terms of “ideas needing reinforcement or misunderstandings requiring correction.”94 “Situation,” as Elliott defines it, is meant to take into consideration those social circumstances and interactions that prompted the communique. Further, “strategy” implies that the author did not merely have an intention or purpose, but the text he produced was “specifically designed . . . not simply to communicate ideas, but to move a specific audience to some form of concerted action.”95 7. Social- Scientific Criticism Is Distinct From But Complementary to Historical Approach

Typically, an historical approach focuses on the individual, distinctive, or exceptional actors, actions, and properties found in a text, as well as personal relationships and diachronic development.96 These are important and valuable aspects of a text upon which to focus study. However, social-scientific criticism maintains that the results of the historical approach can only come as one looks for these things against the larger backdrop of social life.97 Extraordinary actors and actions only stand out against regular patterns of behavior. Distinctive personal relationships only stand out against institutionalized and structured patterns of relationship. The “movie” of diachronic change and development is made up of many synchronic “frames.” The point is that both disciplines are necessary if satisfactory interpretations of the biblical texts are going to be produced.98

8. To Study “Religion” in the Bible Requires the Study of Social Structures and Relations

Socio-cultural anthropology has helped give prominence to the fact that “religion” in the Bible was not a free-standing institution as in modern times. Instead, religion was “embedded” in the two dominant institutions of kinship and politics.99 Malina concludes,

Just as there was domestic economy and political economy in the first-century Mediterranean, but no economy pure and simple, so also there was domestic religion and political religion, but no religion pure and simple.100

So, rather than imposing modern ideas of religion and religious phenomena upon the first-century Mediterranean context, socialscientific critics seek to analyze religion as it was intertwined with kinship and politics.101 This requires research into such topics as relationships, power, conflict, and the like- all social phenomena enmeshed in the fabric of life and social location.

9. Social-Scientific Critics Draw on the Full Range of Social- Science Theory and Practice

Earlier in the discussion of models, three basic types of models were said to exist at a fairly high level of abstraction (the structural functionalist, the conflict, and the symbolic models).102 These models were created by social-scientists from various branches of the socialsciences such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology. To a social-scientific critic, any of these theories and models, no matter the social-scientific discipline from which they were derived, may be employed in the study of the biblical texts and biblical world. Of key importance, then, is that social- scientific critics must always be aware of the theories, methods, philosophical and developmental differences among the various branches of social-science that stand behind the basic models available for use.103 This means more than a superficial knowledge of the social-sciences is required of interpreters using this method.

10. Concern for Aggregated Meaning of the Biblical Documents

The final presupposition of social-scientific criticism is that it holds the history of interpretation in high regard. Social- scientific criticism “asks how and under what conditions the Bible continues to be meaningful for modern readers.”104 It seeks to know how and why the Bible has been interpreted in the ways it has; how and why it was appropriated into liturgy, hymnody, prayer, creeds, and the like.105 In seeking these answers social-scientific criticism seeks to continue the rich legacy of exegetes and theologians that have gone before.

B. The Method: Procedures and Practice

1. Phases

According to Elliott, there are two main phases in socialscientific criticism. The first phase is the data collection and organization phase.106 As is common in the social-sciences, this phase is characterized by designing research, conducting the research, and organizing the findings in preparation for the second, interpretive phase (more below).

Research design is shaped by a hypothesis about particular social properties of, in this case, the biblical world or the texts of the biblical world. A hypothesis is a specific statement of prediction that describes in concrete terms (as opposed to theoretical terms) what one expects the results of the research to indicate.107 Generally, hypotheses are formed by asking questions of empirical study that has been done previously108-by setting out to evaluate109 previous theories/models or attempting to apply those theories/ models in new and constructive ways.110 The researcher then articulates the hypothesis in a conceptual model, and in turn uses the model to identify the source and scope of the items (in this case, social properties) to be studied (and the criteria used to choose those items), the relationship between those social properties, and the specific methodological operations (the “steps”) to be followed when research commences.111 This phase concludes when the findings of the research are reported.112

The second phase is the synthetic (interpretive) phase. In this phase, “the aim shifts from the description of social properties and relations to the explanation of social properties and relations.”113 Here one tests to see if the prediction (hypothesis) is supported by the data. If the findings fit the model, the hypothesis (and the accompanying model) is confirmed; if not, the hypothesis is disconfirmed and the model must be modified or rejected. Figure 1 summarizes the basic research process.114

Figure 1: General Research Process

These procedures may be applied to study of the socio-cultural system from which the biblical documents were produced (e.g., institutions such as kinship relations or values and value objects like honor and shame) or the social features and functions of the biblical texts themselves. Since Elliott’s application falls more in the latter realm, the sample application of the method will likewise deal specifically with social-scientific exegesis.

2. Sample Application – 1 Peter

The purpose here is not to produce a fully-orbed exegesis, which cannot be done due to space constraints; however, a brief sample that focuses on the principles brought to the exegetical table by social-scientific criticism is in order, especially as Elliott employs them.115 This discussion will proceed as though the conventional tasks of exegesis have already been completed (text, source, form, etc.). Further, although there are two areas of social interaction that might be studied, namely, a narrower field of interaction (author, addressees, and their respective geographical and social locations) and a wider field (how 1 Peter has been read and interpreted throughout the history of its interpretation),116 the sample will of necessity be confined to the narrower immediate field of interaction and will focus even further on the situation of the letter based on the addressees of the letter. If one desires a more thorough treatment, Elliott has contributed many volumes to Petrine studies over the years, and those may be consulted for a full treatment of 1 Peter.117

a. Determining situation and strategy

Before dealing specifically with the addressees and their situation, it is beneficial to list the types of questions that are usually asked when attempting to determine a document’s situation and strategy (and their relationship). They are:118

1. Who are the explicitly mentioned or implied readers-hearers of the document?

2. Who is the explicitly mentioned or implied author-sender of the document?

3. How is the social situation described in the text?

4. How does the author(s) diagnose and evaluate the situation?

5. How is the strategy of the text evident in its genre, content (stressed ideas, dominant terms and semantic fields, comparison and contrasts, traditions employed and modified, semantic relations), and organization (syntax and arrangement, line of thought and argumentation, integrating themes, root metaphors, ideological point of view, and, in narrative, the mode of emplotment of the story [romance, satire, comedy, tragedy])?

6. What response does the author(s) seek from the targeted audience (implicit or explicit)?

7. How does the author attempt to motivate and persuade the audience?

8. What is the nature of the situation and strategy of the text as seen from social-scientific etic perspective with the aid of historical and comparative social-scientific research?

9. What are the self-interests and/or group interests that motivated the author(s) in the production and publication of this document?

Our sample application will attempt to answer question one.

b. The geographical and social profiles of the addressees of 1 Peter

(1) Geographical profile

Map 1: Asia Minor – Flavian Period (69-% CE)

Given the fact the land was successively controlled by Persians, Greeks, and Romans, but without complete political or cultural unification,125 the nearly nine million people living in these areas126 comprised a sort of cultural melting pot. Further, the general populace represented a diverse socio-ethnic makeup: The population of these provinces included natives (local aristocrats, administrators, and ordinary citizens), freed persons (former slaves who had been manumitted [liberti]), a massive number of slaves (douloi, oiketai, servi), as well as a sizeable number of resident aliens (paroikoi, metoikoi, katoikoi), strangers passing through (parepidemoi, xenoi), a small number of Roman officials and military veterans, and numerous Israelite communities that had been accorded special rights and privileges (living according to their own law, grants of land for farming and viticulture, exemption from tithes on produce, and the protected right to send an annual temple tax to Jerusalem; cf. Josephus, Ant. Books 14, 16).127

There are many implications that are drawn from the geographical location of the addressees alone that have a bearing on how we read 1 Peter.128 (1) The vast expanse of territory in interior Asia Minor mentioned in 1 Pet 1:1 indicates that Christianity had spread rather extensively after the activity of Paul and before the writing of 1 Peter. (2) The recipients most likely lived in the rural sections of the region, given the rural feature of the geography and the lack of mention of major cities (esp. those in Asia). (3) The situation of the recipients of 1 Peter cannot be assumed to be the same reflected in the writings of Paul, John, and Acts. These writings addressed Hellenized urban areas of Asia, whereas 1 Peter appears to address the inland and highland areas.129 The “social tension between Christians and natives instead would have been typical of the animosity regularly directed by natives against displaced and foreign outsiders.”130 (4) The political, geographical, ethnic, and cultural diversity suggest the heterogeneity of the addressees.

A movement with members of diverse regions, cultures, and religious backgrounds presents the practical challenge of establishing some sense of a singular social identity and promoting an effective measure of social cohesion.131

Given the emphasis of 1 Peter on a common identity and solidarity, it appears that Peter takes on this challenge. (5) The addressees of 1 Peter were most likely not from the mission field of Paul. Paul did not campaign in Bithynia-Pontus or Cappadocia; further, he worked in and wrote to urban communities; and his mission from the A.D. 50s reached only part of the territory described by 1 Pet 1:1 (Galatia).

(2) Social profile132

Third, this local constituency addressed in the letter is itself made up of diverse members. There are free people and slaves (2:16, 18-20); males and females (wives and husbands are addressed directly in 3:1-7); older and younger people (5:1-5)136; and a mix of converts137 (1:14,17; 4:1-4) of both Gentile and Jewish origin.138

Fourth, 1 Peter presupposes that there was a body of faith, tenets of worship, as well as Christian norms and values that were shared not only by the recipients of the letter, but also by the author himself. This presupposition pool allowed the author to communicate readily with the believers from such a large area.

Fifth, the letter presumes that the recipients knew the Apostle Peter139 and that they respected his authority (1:1; 5:1,12). Moreover, the recipients must have known Silvanus (5:12) and Mark (5:13), the colleagues of Peter.

Finally, the situation or predicament of the recipients, as presumed in the letter, was that they were a dispersed alien minority within a larger, generally hostile society.140 The hostility toward the believers was addressed as “suffering” in terms of slander (e.g., 3:16) and “unjust suffering” (cf. 2:19). In general the social situation of the addressees was tenuous and precarious.

(3) Concluding remarks

Having ever-so-briefly described the geographical and social locations of the recipients of 1 Peter (barely skimming the surface, in fact) hopefully one can at least get an idea of the kinds of things that social-scientific exegesis practitioners aim to ask about the text and the world portrayed by the text. From this point, exegetes employing social-scientific criticism would determine as best as possible the strategy of 1 Peter from an etic perspective.141 Once the strategy is determined, the exegete can seek to apply an appropriate model. For example, Elliott has discerned that the emic information of 1 Peter portrays Christianity as a “messianic sect”142 which was once a faction within Judaism that had split off from its parent body both socially and theologically (ideologically).143

From an etic perspective, Elliott uses a sect typology model to identify the strategy of 1 Peter: “to empower and motivate its addressees to meet the challenge posed by their abuse in society and their unjust suffering.”144 It fulfills this strategy in three ways. First, the letter affirms the distinctive collective identity of the believers by focusing on their union with God through Jesus Christ and their status as an “elect” and “holy” people of God (cf. 1:2; 1:3-2:10).145 second, it encourages group solidarity and cohesion by presenting obedience and subordination to God’s will (cf. 1:14,17, 21; 2:13,15, 18-20, 21; 3:17; 4:19; 5:6), loyalty to Christ (1:8; 2:7,13; 3:15; 4:14,16), and constant love and mutual respect for other believers (cf. 1:22; 3:8; 4:8-11; 5:l-5).146 Finally, the letter promotes an enduring commitment to God, Christ, and community in the following ways:147 (1) by providing a rationale for innocent suffering (such is Christlike [2:21-25; 3:13 to 4:6; 4:12-16]) and suffering as a “test” of loyalty (1:6; 4:12); (2) by stressing hope of vindication and salvation through relationship with the vindicated Christ (1:3-12, 18-21; 2:2-10, 24-25; 3:18-4.16, 12-19; 5:10-11); and (3) by depicting the Christian community as a “community” (2:17; 5:9), a “household” of the Spirit/God (2:5; 4:17), a “family” of God (1:3, 23; 2:2).

Christians, in other words, form a Active kin group, a community bound by the loyalties and reciprocal roles of the natural family-a potent notion of community in a culture where religion is embedded in kinship!148


A. Benefits and Contributions

Social-scientific criticism offers many potential benefits and contributions to biblical studies. First, whereas traditional historical-critical approaches to exegesis have provided insights into cause and effect relations of a diachronic sort, social- scientific criticism offers insights of a synchronic sort.149 In other words, social-scientific criticism emphasizes how meaning is produced by humans interacting with one another in a complex socio- cultural system. Above the difference between historical approaches and socialscientific approaches was described as being like the difference between a “movie” and an individual “frame” of the movie strip. Social-scientific criticism stops the movie’s film from moving and focuses on individual frames, making it possible to identify and to describe how that frame fits into the larger framework of the film.

Social-scientific criticism can also benefit biblical interpretation by providing a way to fill in gaps where traditional historical approaches may not be able to do so. For example, if a socialscientific model (e.g., labeling and deviance theory) has been tested on analogous data and proven valuable as a descriptive and heuristic tool, that model may be able to help interpreters make better sense of a text. Of course, as we shall mention below, there is a danger in placing too much value on a model that has not been tested or that has been shown to be lacking; thus, I emphasize the conditional nature of this benefit. Models and the theories they represent are hypotheses that must be thoroughly tested before they are fully adopted.

Barton highlights a third benefit:

[Social-scientific criticism] offers a corrective to the strong tendency to “theological docetism” in many circles, that is, to the assumption that what is important about the NT are its theological propositions, abstracted somehow from their literary and historical setting, and that true understanding has to do with the interpretation of words and ideas rather than, or to the neglect of, the embodiment and performance of NT faith in the lives of the people and communities from whom the text comes or for whom it was written.150

The method provides a way to further understand the “world behind the text” as well as the “narrative world within the text” and ourselves as “culturally-embedded interpreters of the text.”151

Finally, social-scientific criticism has provided some fresh air for biblical studies that is capable of displacing the stagnant air of the conventional historical-critical approaches to exegesis. It has done so by “enlarging the agenda of interpretation”152 which allows interpreters to ask new sets of questions of the biblical world and texts and to produce models for more fully describing those entities.

B. Cautions and Limitations

1. Over-Interpretation

Any method of interpretation flirts with the danger of overinterpreting a text, but social-scientific criticism may be more susceptible to this trap if not closely scrutinized. One has to be very careful when choosing or producing a model for interpreting the biblical texts. Models are to be tested carefully against the text itself as well as other hypotheses, and the interpreter must be willing to modify the model or abandon it altogether if it is shown to be faulty. A main reason for this is that interpretive models in social-scientific criticism are largely devised by abductive (a.k.a., “retroductive”) logic (see above). This logical process, though widely employed by all people with capacities for reasoning, is ultimately a way of “guessing” what factor(s) precipitated data that has been observed. Abductive logic is not “bad,” but it must always be borne in mind that one’s “guessing” may be wrong and may need adjustment. 2. Methodological Egoism

Related to the first limitation is the proneness of social- scientific exegesis to claim too much about its contribution. Social- scientific criticism, indeed, can offer fresh and illuminating approaches to interpretation. However, social-scientific criticism is not the only valid way of interpreting. Believing so ends up in “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” dismissing many of the other productive and enlightening methods that have come before socialscientific criticism.153 On this point, Elliott’s view of social-scientific criticism as co-existing and functioning in partnership with the more traditional methods of interpretation is an appropriate attitude.

3. Anachronistic Fallacy

There is a very real danger inherent in using models developed by a modern discipline like sociology to interpret the ancient world and text of the Bible. In other words, some models are better at eisegesis than exegesis. For example, the commentary on John’s apocalypse by Malina and Pilch154 may serve as an example of an interpretive model run amuck. There is not much from the text of Revelation that supports the idea that John was an astral prophet or that there was any relationship at all between the genre of the Apocalypse and astronomy.155 The model they employ from a later cultural situation seems to end up imposing a certain meaning back onto the text of Revelation that the author most likely did not intend. Social-scientific exegetes must always bear in mind that the text being interpreted is also a primary source of information for learning about the social and cultural location from which it was born. In this sense, the text plays a role in the interpretation of itself.


Though social-scientific criticism has limitations and is susceptible to serious pitfalls, overall it is beneficial for the biblical interpreter to add this method to his or her exegetical toolbox. If employed, as Elliott prefers, in concert with the other conventional methods of historical-critical interpretation (which may provide a check and balance system), it can illuminate the text of Scripture for the interpreter.


* James D. Dvorak is a part-time faculty member at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, as well as an adjunct instructor at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Copyright Trinity International University Fall 2007

(c) 2007 Trinity Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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