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Religious Studies Department, SCU
 
 
 
 
  Social-Scientific Criticism

  Definition
Social-scientific criticism is an exegetical method which attempts to explore the original social and cultural setting of a text through clues in the textís content and rhetoric and through the analysis of other ancient evidence.  The critic assumes that the world in which these texts were written is very different from our contemporary world; therefore, a modern interpreter cannot simply make claims about the textís meaning without first understanding the social conventions and assumptions of the authorís world.  Emphasis in this method is less on the individual author, as it would be in Narrative Criticism, and more on the social community within which s/he lived and communicated, because meaning is understood as a socially-constructed phenomenon.

  Method
To examine a text as a social-scientific critic would, first assume the posture of a "respectful traveler" visiting a foreign country.   Accept that the customs and social organization of the text you are visiting are foreign; prepare yourself to suspend judgment until you have observed the new phenomenon and tried to understand it in its own social context.
 
Second, choose an institution in which you are interested (family/kinship, economics, politics, religion) and read some social scientific analysis of how such institutions were constructed in antiquity.   Social-scientific critics build models of the dynamics of such institutions.  Choose such a model, and then apply it to your text.
 
An alternative approach would be to choose a social dynamic rather than an institution, and examine its relevance for your text.  Some such dynamics are offered below.
 
  1. Honor and Shame
    Honor is a claim to worth that is socially acknowledged.  It is gained or lost in the social struggle for power, in the exercise of gender roles and relations, and in the relationship between oneís god(s) and oneself.   Honor can either be ascribed to a person if they had nothing to do with its acquisition (being born into a good family, for example) or it can be acquired by a person during their life.  For men in antiquity, honor was usually acquired through regular occasions of social challenge and successful defense (someone makes a false charge against you and loses; you gain honor, and the other person loses it).   For women in antiquity, honor was gained by the successful completion of oneís matrimonial obligation - the birth of a male heir.
     
    Men and women are usually defined in opposite terms on the honor/shame axis.  For men, honor is asserted in the public sphere.  For women, honor is preserved in the private sphere; that is, women are to be kept at home, and their bodies are to be reserved for the exclusive use of their husbands.  For women, forays into the public sphere are regulated through the restriction of clothing and behavior.   If a woman is "shamed" (through rape, for example), ancient cultures generally considered her husband or father to be the true victim.
     
  2. Group Identity vs. Individual Identity
    Ancient peoples did not equate individual identity with adulthood, as we moderns living in the U.S. do.  Their honor and self-identity was bound up quite consciously in the opinion others had of them, and in the social groups to which they were party.  Since there was less emphasis on the individual, there was less emphasis on oneís psychology and personal development.  Instead, people defined themselves by the groups in which they were embedded, or to which they belonged.  Whatever characteristics were associated with your group(s), they were also assigned to you as part of that group - automatically.
     
    The importance of group identity helps to explain why honor was as much collective as individual.  Social groups and whole nations vied for honor.  They would do this by asserting the antiquity of their origins, defending themselves against the slurs of others, reconstituting themselves as a purified people, and discerning the hand of God in their histories.
     
  3. Social Status and the Limited Good
    In antiquity, social status was determined by where one fell on the social hierarchy.  The ruler was on top, followed by the retainer class (scribes, soldiers), the priests and the merchants.  Together, these groups represented only about 2-5 % of the population.  The other 95-98% were artisans, peasants and marginal people (slaves, prostitutes, beggars, cripples).  Literacy was limited to the top levels (scribes, priests, ruler), as was most of the wealth.  In order to preserve their status, rulers would naturally consider themselves responsible for the populace in times of crisis; it was common, for example, for rulers to distribute bread and to hear the cases of the destitute who had no other legal recourse.  Such magnanimity ingratiated the wealthy to their local subordinates and kept potential social tensions to a minimum.  There was a whole web of such social interrelations between relatively wealthy benefactors and their social clients.
     
    In contrast to the modern American myth, it was not assumed in antiquity that you could rise from rags to riches very easily.  If you did manage to improve your status, it was usually at the expense of someone else.  This was because commodities and honor itself were limited in antiquity; and when the goods are finite, someone is bound to lose when you gain.  People as a result generally sought to maintain their status rather than to gain or lose.
     
  4. Purity and Pollution
    Just as society was structured rather rigidly, reality was also imagined to have a particular arrangement or order.  When that order was compromised, when matter was dislodged from its proper place, the result was "impurity" or pollution.  Ancients devised ways to restore order after such pollution, through purification rituals, validation of authentic genealogical lines, scrutiny of sacred texts to determine the proper order anew.  Consider modern social analogues: purification after a period of illness, blood tests to determine paternity, examination of our foundational political documents to discern future courses of legal action.  We are still today concerned with order and the maintenance of proper social boundaries.
     
    In antiquity, pollution could be contracted from exposure to disease or a diseased person and from occasions of natural bodily emissions; one could become defiled by sin and by the sin of others; one could pollute oneself and the nation by marriage to a foreigner or by exile in a foreign land; the temple could become unclean if a statue of a foreign god was put within its walls.  Notice that the boundaries being violated can be either bodily (disease, emission), social (marriage), or geographical (exile, the temple as the preeminent sacred space).

  Bibliography
Method
Chalcraft, David J., ed.  Social-scientific Old Testament Criticism.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
 
Elliott, John H.  What is Social-Scientific Criticism?, Guides to Biblical Scholarship, New Testament Series.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993.
 
Hanson, K. C. and Douglas E. Oakman.  Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.
 
Horrell, David G., ed.  Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation.  Washington, D. C.: T & T Clark, 1999.
 
Malina, Bruce J.  The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3d rev. ed.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
 
Overholt, Thomas W.  Cultural Anthropology and the Old Testament.   Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
 
Robbins, Vernon K.  Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation.  Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1996.
 
Wortham, Robert A.  Social-scientific Approaches in Biblical Literature.  Lewiston: E. Mellen, 1999.
 
Applications
Blasi, Anthony J., Jean Duhaime and Paul-André Turcotte, eds.  Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches.   Walnut Creek, California: Altamira, 2002.
 
Campbell, Barth.  Honor, Shame, and the Rhetoric of 1 Peter, SBLDS 160.  Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998.
 
Carter, Warren.   Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, Bible and Liberation Series.  Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000.
 
deSilva, David A.  Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture.  Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
 
--------.  The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation.  Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1999.
 
Horrell, David G.  The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence: Interests and Ideology from 1 Corinthians to 1 Clement, Studies of the New Testament and Its World.  Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996.
 
Instone-Brewer, David.  Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002.
 
Malina, Bruce J.   The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.
 
Malina, Bruce J. and Jerome H. Neyrey.  Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
 
McKnight, Scot.   Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.
 
Moxnes, Halvor.  The Economy of the Kingdom: Social Conflicts and Economic Relations in Luke's Gospel.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
 
Neufeld, Dietmar and Richard E. DeMaris, eds.   Understanding the Social World of the New Testament.   Oxon, Canada: Routledge, 2010.
 
Neyrey, Jerome H.  Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew.   Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.
 
--------.  The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation.  Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1993.
 
Osiek, Carolyn and David L. Balch.  Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches, The Family, Religion, and Culture.  Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
 
Petersen, Norman R.  Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985.
 
Rohrbaugh, Richard L. and Bruce J. Malina.  Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
 
Smith, Dennis E.  From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.
 
Stegemann, Wolfgang, Bruce J. Malina and Gerd Theissen, eds.  The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002.
 
Trainor, Michael F.  The Quest for Home: The Household in Mark's Community.  Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2001.
 
Witherington, Ben, III.  The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997.
 
--------.  Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
 
--------.  The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.
 
Yoder, Christine Roy.  Wisdom as a Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1-9 and 31:10-31.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001.
 
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