Knowledge of the culture in which a particular ancient text was formed is critical to gaining a clear understanding of the meaning of the text. This is especially important when studying the Bible, as the improper interpretation of its contents could lead to serious problems, given how much of our moral and eschatological foundations are derived from scripture. A relatively new heuristic device in the interpretation of the Bible is social science criticism, which makes use of models to understand the culture in which biblical texts were formed. Modeling may involve interpolating features of the modern cultures present in the same geographical region under study, as well as an examination and application of extrabiblical historical sources.
The culture of the New Testament was a mixture of both Hellenism and Judaism, which may be grouped together in historical studies under the heading “Mediterranean”. Hellenism was marked by a hierarchical structure, with various gods and heroes falling between the supreme God and the average person, while Judaism posited one true God, under whom were angels who demand no sacrifice.1 The relations between the various levels, as well as among members of a particular level, may be characterized using certain sociological and anthropological parameters, predicated upon a notion of “limited goods”, where even aesthetic (intangible) realities may be accounted for and redistributed as quasi-material substances. Among these parameters we may include: honour and shame, patronage and questions of purity.2
Molina andNeyreydefine honour as “a claim to positive worth along with the socialacknowledgmentof that worth by others”.3 Honour is viewed as a commodity in Mediterranean cultures, which may be either ascribed or acquired. Ascribed honour may be hereditary or bestowed, but is not achieved through personal effort, in any case.4 Hereditary honour comes from kinship ties, which may be estimated either in a limited sense (e.g., the nuclear family unit) or in a broader one. For example, one may be a king's son, with all the duties and privileges that such a title entails. The respect due to the king is also given to the son, regardless of any heroic deeds or exceptional wisdom displayed by the latter. In a more general sense, kinship may be delineated in terms of nationality, or locality. In the case of the Samaritans, for example, honour seemed to be lacking on their part in the eyes of their Jewish neighbours.
Ascribed honour may also be bestowed upon an individual by a higher authority, such as a patron god, or the state.5 In this category we may place such things as the request made by the mother of James and John that her sons sit on either side of Christ (Mt. 20:21), or the statement by Jesus that Peter be the rock upon which the church be built (Mt. 16:18). The authority of the one granting the honour is the security for the public validation of the honour in the individual.
Honour may also be acquired in Mediterranean cultures, in a complex system that accounts for achievements in a public forum. A particular characteristic during the time of the New Testament period was theagonisticchallenge to honour which required a retaliatory response, or a riposte.6 Challenges were to be had among social equals, for the redistribution of honour, the verdict for which was given by the public.7 Thus we see the Pharisees sending their disciples to challenge Christ about paying taxes (Mt. 22:15-22), where they question his honour before others. His answer seems to have the effect both of weakening their honour and Caesar's, in favour of Christ's own honour, and God's.
Another aspect of the challenge-riposte dynamic is whether it is positive or negative. A positive challenge, for example, may involve sending a gift, or an invitation to dinner, while a negative riposte may involve snubbing the challenge, by ignoring it.8
Gender lines played a strong role in the positioning of individuals within ancient societies. While men participated in public contests of challenge and riposte, women's morality was more inward, and was based on shame rather than on honour.9 The distinction included different expectations in various fora, including sexuality. Women were expected to guard their sex from aggression, while men were expected to be aggressive. We see this dichotomy in the account of men gathering to stone a prostitute (John 8:1-11). Molina and Neyrey show the subtlety of this distinction:
“Honor assessments thus move from the inside (a person's claim) to the outside (public validation). Shame assessments move from the outside (public denial) to the inside (a person's recognition of denial).”10
Another dynamic in the Mediterranean world which must be examined to better understand the context of the New Testament is that of patronage: “patron-client relations are social relationships between individuals based on a strong element of inequality and difference in power.”11 While the patron offers resources, the client offers allegiance; there is therefore an interaction of social and economic factors.12
The patron-client model is based on the idea ofoikonomia, or themanagement of a household.13 Two versions of the patron-client relationship are offered: brokerage and friendship.14 In the ancient Roman world, brokers mediated between the central authority and local clients. Friendship was not a mutual warm feeling in this context, but rather a contract between two parties, whereby favours might be given in return for fidelity.15
In this view, God may be seen as a patron and Jesus as a broker.16 God offers spiritual goods, including comfort, joy, peace and eternal life, and expects faith from His clients in return Jesus, being the Son of God, has access to God and His gifts, and provides mediation for humanity in various acts of power, and through disclosure of God's will.17
Jesus, while serving as broker for God, did not, as did the other teachers of Torah in his day, subject his clients to humiliating impositions, such as taxation and loss of honour. This reversal cut at the very root of the traditional patron-client relationship: “...a service performed or a favor done shall not be transformed into status and honor.”18 The new model was one where the patrons (be they apostles or God Himself) served, in order to foster a “community of equals”.19
Purity was another focus in the ancient Hebrew culture. Moses gave detailed laws concerning what was clean and what was unclean. Places were considered holy, as in the case of Jerusalem (centre), or unclean, as in the case of the desert (periphery).20 Even within Jerusalem, the were degrees of holiness, with the temple at the top of the chain. Certain parts of the temple, too, were considered holier than others; the Gentiles were not allowed beyond the outer courts, and the very presence of God in the “Holy of Holies” forbade all but the High Priest from entering, except under strict conditions, including specific times. Times, then, too, were distinguished from times; the Sabbath was holy, festivals commemorating great deliverances were holy.
Parts of the body were considered holier than others, the head and the eye being sacred not only in the individual, but in the body politic.21 Thus Paul states that God is the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, and man the head of woman (I Cor. 11:3). Issues coming from the body were considered impure, including semen, blood, excreta, etc.22 Personal and national boundaries were sacred, too; we read that Israel is considered the “apple of God's eye” (Zech. 2:8).
Having examined in some detail the dynamics of ancient Mediterranean culture, let us apply the social scientific method to the following passage:
Luke 6: 1-5: “One sabbath while Jesus was going through thegrainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, 'Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?' Jesus answered, 'Have you not read what David and his companions did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave them to his companions?' Then he said to them, 'The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.'”23
The first thing we notice is that the Pharisees are issuing a public challenge to Jesus and his disciples. By questioning the actions of his disciples, the Pharisees are seeking to draw away some of their honour, honour that has been ascribed to them by God, or acquired by them through their service to the people. Now the nature of the criticism rests upon assumptions about purity; the Sabbath was to be a day of rest, and for the Pharisees, this often meant not lifting a single finger to satisfy one's needs. In his riposte, Jesus refutes their interpretation of the law by making reference to the precedent set by David and gains public honour in the exchange.
We also notice the dynamic of patronage in two ways in this passage. First, Jesus represents his disciples; that is, he defends them before others. They have decided to follow him (fidelity, or solidarity), and he gives them his protection. Second, Jesus establishes himself as the mediator of God's law by giving its proper meaning. He displays a reversal of previously-held opinion, namely that the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27).
For us, the readers, there is yet another reversal in this passage, one which flows from Jesus' affinity with the lowly and the outcast. We know Jesus is the Son of God, yet here he is gleaning from the edges of the field, a practice that was reserved for the widow and the stranger, the lowest rungs of society. He is gathering not only grains of wheat, but souls, from the “highways and the byways”, the edges of society itself.
The study of social science, of the cultural and anthropological context of the Bible has proven to be a fruitful means by which to better understand the meaning of the text. It is a lens which brings various elements into focus which were previously less intelligible to the average student of Scripture. As more and more work in the related fields of history and archaeology brings new data to light, our appreciation of the words of Christ and those of his followers will become better and better.
Ehrman, B. The New Testament. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Douglas, M. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. (London:Routeledge, 1966). p. 125.
Malina, B. & Neyrey, J. “Honour and Shame in Luke-Acts: Pivotal Values of the Mediterranean World,” inThe Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation(ed. J. Neyrey; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991).
Moxnes, H. “Patron-Client Relations and the New Community in Luke-Acts,” inThe Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation(ed. J. Neyrey; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991).
Shantz, C. Lecture Notes for Introduction to New Testament. (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
Throckmorton, B. Gospel Parallels. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992).
1 Ehrman, B. The New Testament. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). p. 24.
2Shantz, C. Lecture Notes for Introduction to New Testament. (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
3 Malina, B. & Neyrey, J. “Honour and Shame in Luke-Acts: Pivotal Values of the Mediterranean World,” in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation(ed. J. Neyrey; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991). p. 26.
4 Ibid. p. 27.
5 Shantz. Op. Cit.
6 Malina. Op. Cit. p. 28.
7 Ibid. pp. 30-31.
8 Ibid. p. 31.
9 Ibid. pp. 41-43.
10 Ibid. p. 45.
11Moxnes, H. “Patron-Client Relations and the New Community in Luke-Acts,” in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation(ed. J. Neyrey; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991). p. 242.
12 Ibid. p. 243.
13 Shantz. Op. Cit.
14 Moxnes. Op. cit. p. 244.
15 Ibid. p. 245.
16 Ibid. p. 257.
17 Ibid. p. 258.
18 Ibid. p. 261.
19 Ibid. p. 263.
20 Shantz. Op. Cit.
22 Douglas, M. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. (London: Routeledge, 1966). p. 125.
23Throckmorton, B. Gospel Parallels. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992). pp. 58-59.