Jan 24, 2012

Social-Scientific Interpretation

Stephen Barton in arguing for the place of social-scientific perspectives in New Testament studies states,

"Once it is recognized that NT interpretation is a necessarily historical enterprise (whatever else it may be), then it is a short step to recognizing that other disciplines from the human sciences have a part to play as well, not least the social sciences. Conventionally, these include sociology, social (or cultural) anthropology, and psychology. These disciplines have the potential for throwing new light on the world behind the text (the world of the author), the world within the text (the narrated world of characters, intentions, and events), and the world in front of the text (the world of the reader).

"The main presupposition that underpins the use of the social sciences in NT interpretation is that the text of the NT is a product, not just of historical conditioning, but of social and cultural conditioning as well. To the extent that cultural factors and social forces played a part in the lives of the individuals and groups that produced the NT or to which the NT refers, sociological analysis is legitimate and necessary. If it is possible to write a social history of early Christianity using the NT as a prime source, is it not possible to engage in social-scientific analysis as well?"

Stephen C. Barton, "Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives in New Testament Study," in Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation, 2nd ed., ed. Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 40-41.



Richard Fellows said...

A while ago another blogger published a post in which he recommended a social-scientific approach to the NT. I asked him to give an example of a new insight that the social-scientific approach has produced. I am still waiting for his reply. Does Stephen Barton come up with specific examples?

Charles said...

Sorry about the delay in responding. Barton seems to suggest that the value of social-science in interpretation is that it leads us to ask certain (maybe different) kinds of questions. Barton sataes, "For example, applied to Luke 3, social-scientific analysis forces us to go beyond interpretation of the Baptist episode in terms of the sequence of events as they are narrated and to ask questions like: What is significant culturally and geopolitically about the wilderness as the location of John’s revelatory experience (v. 2)? Why are tax collectors and soldiers specifically identified as responsive to John's apocalyptic preaching (w. 12-14)? What is it about John's status and social location that makes him appear as a threat to the Herodian dynasty (vv. 19–20)? What part is this disturbing tradition about the prophetic activity of John meant to play in Luke's own act of communication in writing his Gospels" (p. 43).

Barton also believes that SS interpretation "is useful also in helping the interpreter of the NT fill the gaps in understanding created by the fragmentariness of the texts as sources of historical information" (p. 43). As an example Barton points to modern social dissonance theory as a way of explaining "why the apparent disconfirmation of early Christian eschatological hope for the return of Christ did not lead to the failure of the Christian movement as a whole" (p. 44).

Finally, Barton argues that SS interpretation 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. In particular, social-scientific methodology draws attention to the fact that beliefs and doctrines help constitute systems of communication and patterns of action within a society. As such, they are cultural artifacts that shape and are in turn shaped by the societies and groups that develop them and pass them on" (pp. 44-45).

Richard Fellows said...

Thanks, Charles. The types of questions that Barton seems to credit to the social scientific approach seem like common sense. I'm not sure that we need to invent a new sub-discipline and import a whole new vocabulary. Also, though questions are good, it would be nice to have a few answers from the social science gang too.

I agree that there is a tendency of NT scholars to assume that every piece of data has a theological explanation.

Charles said...

In fairness to Barton he does provide examples in his chapter in Hearing the New Testament. I would commend the piece to you.

Also, I am not sure whether the point is the necessity of creating a sub-discipline as much as it is to see whether another discipline can shed some light on the the discipline of biblical studies. It might be fair to say that the jury is still out as to whether social-science will make a lasting and significant contribution to biblical studies.