As stated in the preface, “This volume provides a general orientation and background information for people interested in the social scientific study of early Christianity” (p. ix). A collection of essays written by specialists, this book makes insights from social scientists accessible to a broader audience, although it is by no means an easy book to read.
The book is divided into six sections. The first section includes three essays that provide a general perspective on social scientific approaches to the study of the origins of Christianity. David G. Horrell’s essay, “Social Sciences Studying Formative Christian Phenomena: A Creative Movement,” is particularly helpful as a survey of the development of interest in the social aspects of early Christianity.
Essays in the second part discuss archaeology and architecture, historical and literary criticism, statistical textual analysis, rhetorical analysis, and structuralism. Although legitimate insights are provided by these approaches, some strange claims are advanced in these essays. For example Ritva H. Williams (“An Illustration of Historical Inquiry: Histories of Jesus and Matthew 1:1–25”) concludes from a historical analysis of the text that “Matthew was probably not asserting a virginal conception for Jesus . . . neither were Matthew’s sources doing so; neither was any member of Jesus’ family or circle of first followers” (p. 121). Since Matthew clearly did assert the virginal conception and birth of Jesus (1:18–25), presumably reflecting the convictions of his sources and the early followers of Jesus, Williams’s claim is absurd. Also absurd is the claim that “this way of contextual reading also shows that the meaning of Matthew’s birth narrative is not in the words of the text itself, but is to a certain extent the product of the audience’s social location” (ibid.). Certainly knowing an author’s social context is helpful as a means to understanding what he wrote, but to claim that his words are contradicted by his social context is ridiculous.
The third section of the book includes essays on the “Contexts and Emergence of the Jesus Movement and Early Christianity.” In “Sociological Insights into the Development of Christian Leadership Roles and Community Formation” Howard Clark Kee shows “that from the outset Jesus and his followers were promoting a new understanding of the ground of participating in the covenant people that combined features that in some ways matched but in important ways differed from perceptions of the community of faith fostered in Judaism” (p. 337).
Power and social inequality are discussed in the fourth part. Warren Carter (“Vulnerable Power: The Roman Empire Challenged by the Early Christians”) argues that what made Christianity threatening to the Roman Empire was not the danger of military attack, revolution, or economic boycott, but that the presence of Christians demonstrated Rome’s “inability to secure and maintain attachment and loyalty” (p. 487). In short, “the very existence of the early Christian communities and texts points to people who did not find the imperial system politically, economically, militarily, or ideologically (theologically) compelling” (p. 487). The countercultural nature of the church remains a threat to human institutions that use power to control others.
The fifth part of the book treats economic questions. One of these essays is particularly helpful. In “What Would You Do for a Living?” David A. Fiensy concludes that the church in the first three centuries included people “from just about every walk of life” (p. 573). There were some “abysmally poor, a significant minority of slaves (in the Roman church several imperial slaves/freedmen), a few soldiers and bureaucrats, almost no people of senatorial or equestrian rank, and a large number of artisans and merchants. We can find no evidence that Christianity appealed only to one social level” (pp. 573–74).
The concluding section includes three examples of “Psycho-Social Approaches.” Nicholas H. Taylor’s essay discusses the role of the community in establishing the identity of early Christian converts, using the apostle Paul as a test case. Richard K. Fenn bases an interpretation of internal conflict in the early church on the dubious claim that Judas Iscariot and Jesus of Nazareth were blood brothers. Jack T. Sanders focuses on “Conversion in Early Christianity,” particularly the conversion of Gentiles. A comprehensive list of references and an extensive bibliography complete the volume, providing an excellent list of sources for further study.
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