Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Social scientific interest in Hebrew, early Jewish, and early Christian social organization stems from the fact that the modern world has been affected greatly by the religions that originated in ancient Israel. It is also true that biblical scholars and social historians find social scientific theories suggestive of interpretations of ancient data, although obviously one cannot mechanically apply modern models in such unmodern settings.

Although archaeological findings and ancient histories are helpful, most of the relevant knowledge comes from the Bible and other religious writings. These texts are often reworkings of earlier material, applying traditions to new circumstances and making them comprehensible to new groupings of people. The social scientist cannot ignore the literary history of such works. Every time an ancient editor has refashioned a text, there are resultant clues in it about the audience that the editor had in mind as well as a resultant set of interpolations that do not reflect an earlier point in time. Thus, much that is in Deuteronomy provides us with information about the social world of the Deuteronomist, not about the world of Moses, who is depicted as the speaker in Deuteronomy; much that is in the Gospel of Matthew provides us with information about the social world of the Matthean writer, not about the world of Jesus of Nazareth. It would certainly be naive to portray the personalities of Moses or Jesus on the basis of reedited legends and discourses. Rather, one should look at the histories or "trajectories" of the editing of the texts, develop portrayals of intended audiences, and focus on the reception of works as scripture; these can tell us something about specific historical societies.

Hebrew and Early Jewish Societies

Hebrew and early Jewish societies are reflected in the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, the "apocrypha," and the New Testament. The first explicitly sociological study of Hebrew religion seems to be that by Louis Wallis (1905), who read the history of Hebrew religion as a series of efforts to make collective responses to other nations. Wallis described his model of human action as "indirect egoism," wherein people would form motives from the perspective of others. Such an approach reminds one of "Chicago School" social psychology. In a series of articles in the American Journal of Sociology from 1907 to 1911, which he edited into the book, The Sociological Study of the Bible (University of Chicago Press 1912), Wallis formulated accounts of Hebrew ethnic identity, kinship systems, industrial institutions, the Covenant, the settlement in Canaan, hostility toward other nations and their religions, sanctuaries, centralization of the cult, law, and national unity. These are all matters that would be taken up by subsequent writers. After his 1912 book, there does not seem to have been much further interest in the sociology of Hebrew society among the Chicago scholars.

Within a few years, the German sociologist Max Weber was also investigating ancient Hebrew society. His Antike Judentum (Mohr 1921 [Ancient Judaism , Free Press 1952]) reveals a thorough knowledge of the source criticism and other aspects of Old Testament scholarship of the day. Weber was particularly interested in contrasting Hebrew to Hindu and Confucian developments and in exploring the contribution that the Hebrew prophetic tradition made to the promotion of rationalism over magic in Western culture. Following the mid-nineteenth-century work of the historian Eduard Meyer, he was interested in the accretion of traits in the tradition through the centuries. He therefore pays particular attention to the social location of the prophets and others, and to the different sources of charisma in ancient Israel. Despite some minor errors that he probably would have caught had he lived to complete the work, Ancient Judaism reads very well three-quarters of a century later.

The one major aspect of the study that has not stood the test of time is Weber's application of the "pariah people" concept from Indian caste society to the Jews; his effort to explain how a nation became a "pariah people" uncritically retrojects a nineteenth-century European phenomenon back into history, although the Dead Sea materials do show that ritual separations did occur in ancient Palestine. Weber's use of such types as the city-state, the oath community, and kingdom remains valid, although ancient Judaism was more heterogeneous than Weber knew. Weber also seems to have underestimated the popularity of monotheism among the populace of Israel and the importance of the priesthood in maintaining it, and accorded the prophets too great a preservative role (Zeitlin 1984). Weber's impact on Old Testament scholarship has been largely mediated through Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth.

The Durkheimian tradition of social science took up the study of the Hebrews in the person of Antonin Causse, who wanted to apply the developmental scheme of Durkheim's student, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, to Hebrew history. Lévy-Bruhl maintained that primitive and prehistorical people were pre-logical and corporative in their thinking while moderns are logical and individualist. Causse (1937) believed that the Hebrews marked a transition between these two mentalities.

Other studies of the ancient Hebrews by social scientists have been scattered in time, place, and topic. A few studies have explored Hebrew family structures and a few (Martindale 1962, Berger 1963) have addressed Weber's old question of the social location of the prophets. Berger's review of the biblical scholars' literature on prophets convinced him that the prophets were not as opposed to priests as Weber thought, while Martindale's independent analysis parallels Weber's depiction. Winter (1983) associates the Hebrew belief in a high god with the monarchical regime of David transcending local interests.

The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen an explosion of sociologically informed studies of the Hebrews conducted by biblical scholars. Norman Gottwald's The Tribes of Yahweh (Orbis 1979) made a considerable impact; citing Karl Marx but proceeding in a largely Durkheimian manner, Gottwald portrays the emergence of Israel in Canaan as a heterogeneous, classless, decentralized association of tribes that came to conceive of themselves as an egalitarian brotherhood under the symbolism of the Israelite deity. One study (Dutcher-Walls 1991) seeks to find the social location of the Deuteronomist. Major works on prophecy applied social psychological cognitive dissonance theory to them (Carroll 1979), depicted prophets as marginalized religionists who gained prominence by providing an explanation for Israel's catastrophes (Wilson 1980), and applied the personal charisma model of Max Weber to them. The charisma model also has been used in careful studies of the premonarchy leaders, or "judges" (Malamat 1976, Munch 1990). That the premonarchy legends pertain to small groupings of people who resemble the tribes studied by anthropologists rather than the societies studied by most sociologists is not lost on some; Wilson (1984) and Malamat (1973) compare the biblical tribal genealogies to those of other tribal peoples, noting the function of genealogies in legal and military matters. Studies of the postexilic Jewish period include a major survey by Kippenberg (1978) and Saldarini's careful analysis of Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees in first-century Palestine (1988).

Early Christianity

The initial uses of social science to understand early Christianity appeared early in the twentieth century at the University of Chicago. The general approach was to describe the broad social environment of the first-century Roman Empire. Biblical scholars do that anyway, but in Chicago, Shirley Jackson Case (1923) proposed doing it with the help of sociological sensitizing concepts. Today some works continue in much the same way, drawing parallels with extra-Christian phenomena—such as miracles (Kee 1983) and women's religion (Kraemer 1992)—or treating such broad subjects as ancient slavery and city-states.

There was considerable discussion early on about whether the early Christians were proletarian activists, but only the argument by Lohmeyer (1921) that the movement drew on the same strata of craftsmen and professionals as did the Pharisees—although adding a few upper-strata members, especially women—has stood the test of time. Advances in New Testament critical techniques as well as the refinement of sociological conceptualizations have led to further explorations of the middle-strata, and even interstitial-strata, character of early Christianity (e.g., Esler 1987, Holmberg 1990, Malherbe 1977, Meeks 1983, Stark 1986).

It is necessary to distinguish between a sociology of the Jesus movement, led by Jesus of Nazareth in Palestine, and subsequent early Christianity. The literary evidence we have about the former was written from within the latter. The clues a scholar can use to establish the social world of the writer and audience pertain to early Christianity, not to the Jesus movement. Consequently, students of the Jesus movement need to rest satisfied with identifying whatever seems historically accurate in the Gospels and interpreting it in terms of depictions of the social context of early-first-century Palestine, using such concepts as relative deprivation, the millenarian movement, and the charismatic prophet (Gager 1975), wandering charismatics, social rootlessness, city-countryside tension, status inequality, and intensification and relaxation of norms (Theissen 1977), the religious virtuoso within the Jewish framework (Zeitlin 1988), the social movement and imperial systems (Horsley 1989), the precarious legitimacy heritage (Fenn 1992), Jewish-Christian relations (Sanders 1993), and stigma—including the embracing of stigmatized traits in a countercurrent against status coordinates (Ebertz 1992).

The social scientific study of the early Christian movement, that is, the movement after the time of Jesus, can use the literary evidence of the New Testament much more readily. The various New Testament books were written for purposes; they themselves represent social acts that we can observe and interpret. We can see Paul asserting authoritative claims on the basis of apostolic charisma, and we can see the original charisma of Jesus being routinized in an institutionalization process (Bendix 1985); various stages in the process emerge visibly when the New Testament books are read in chronological order (Blasi 1991). We can also see the logic of cognitive dissonance following upon the execution of Jesus and the absence of any visible kingdom (Gager 1975), and we can see it at work in the thinking of Paul after his break with the Antiochene church (Taylor 1992).

It is useful not only to use source criticism to help arrange the data temporally to see such processes at work but also to arrange the material geographically. A number of studies have focused on particular communities, such as those for whom Luke (Esler 1987) and Matthew (Saldarini 1991, Stark 1991a) wrote, and that in Corinth (Theissen 1982, Meeks 1983). These locality-based studies have occasioned the use of the perspectives of urban sociology, stratification, and deviance perspectives, respectively.

Social scientific perspectives have supplied numerous sensitizing concepts and their attendant vocabularies to the study of early Christianity—gender roles (Funk 1981, Corley 1993), group (Schreiber 1977), household (Malherbe 1977), role sets (Funk 1981), social movement (Blasi 1988), sect (Watson 1986), and the stranger (Elliott 1981). Such concepts can and have made their appearance apart from any explicit social scientific intent, but with such an intent they have come to be elaborated and evaluated. Together with such conceptualizations have come new analytical methodologies and perspectives—population analyses (Stark 1991b), content analysis (Funk 1981), sociolinguistics, the sociology of knowledge (Blasi 1991, Holmberg 1990). Consequently, it has become difficult to take any discussion of biblical studies seriously that does not have a social scientific dimension. Moreover, once the social phenomena rather than theologically privileged texts are taken as the matter of inquiry, scholars are led beyond the biblical materials to other early works (see Edwards 1919, Riddle 1931).

See also Greek and Roman Religions, Judaism

Anthony J. Blasi


R. Bendix, "Umbildungen des persönlichen Charismas," in Max Webers Sicht des antiken Christentums , ed. W. Schluchter (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1985): 404-443

P. L. Berger, "Charisma and Religious Innovation," American Sociological Review 28(1963):940-950

A. J. Blasi, Early Christianity as a Social Movement (Bern: Lang, 1988)

A. J. Blasi, Making Charisma (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1991)

R. P. Carroll, When Prophecy Failed (New York: Seabury, 1979)

S. J. Case, The Social Origins of Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923)

A. Causse, Du groupe ethnique ŕ la communauté religieuse (Paris: Alcan, 1937)

K. E. Corley, Private Women, Public Meals (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993)

P. Dutcher-Walls, "The Social Location of the Deuteronomists," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 52(1991):77-94

M. N. Ebertz, "Le stigmate du mouvement charismatique autour de Jésus de Nazareth," Social Compass 39(1992):255-273

L. P. Edwards, The Transformation of Early Christianity (Menashe, Wis.: Banta, 1919)

J. H. Elliott, A Home for the Homeless (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981)

P. F. Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

R. K. Fenn, The Death of Herod (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

A. Funk, Status und Rollen in der Paulusbriefen (Innsbruck: Tyrolia, 1981)

J. G. Gager, Kingdom and Community (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975)

N. K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1979)

B. Holmberg, Sociology and the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990)

R. A. Horsley, Sociology and the Jesus Movement (New York: Crossroad, 1989)

H. C. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983)

H. G. Kippenberg, Religion und Klassenbildung im antiken Judäa (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978)
R. S. Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

E. Lohmeyer, Soziale Fragen im Urchristentum (Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1921)

A. Malamat, "Tribal Societies," Archives européennes de sociologie 14(1973):126-136

A. Malamat, "Charismatic Leadership in the Book of Judges," in Magnalia Dei , ed. F. Cross et al. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976): 152-168

A. J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977)

D. Martindale, "Priests and Prophets in Palestine," in Social Life and Cultural Change (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1962): 239-307

W. A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983)

P. A. Munch, "The 'Judges' of Ancient Israel," in Time, Place, and Circumstance , ed. W. H. Swatos, Jr. (New York: Greenwood, 1990): 57-69

D. W. Riddle, The Martyrs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931)

A. J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Wilmington, Del.: Glazier, 1988)

A. J. Saldarini, "The Gospel of Matthew and Jewish-Christian Conflict," in Social History of the Matthean Community ed. D. L. Balch (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991): 38-61

J. T. Sanders, Schismatics, Sectarians, Dissidents, Deviants (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity, 1993)

A. Schreiber, Die Gemeinde in Korinth (Münster: Aschendorff, 1977)

R. Stark, "The Class Basis of Early Christianity," Sociological Analysis 47(1986):216-225

R. Stark, "Antioch as the Social Situation for Matthew's Gospel," in Social History of the Matthean Community , ed. D. L. Balch (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991a): 189-210

R. Stark, "Christianizing the Urban Empire," Sociological Analysis 52(1991b):77-88

N. Taylor, Paul, Antioch and Jerusalem (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992)

G. Theissen, Soziologie der Jesusbewegung (München: Kaiser, 1977)

G. Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982)

L. Wallis, Egoism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1905)

F. Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)

R. R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980)

R. R. Wilson, Sociological Approaches to the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984)

J. A. Winter, "Immanence and Regime in the Kingdom of Judah," Sociological Analysis 44(1983):147-162

I. M. Zeitlin, Ancient Judaism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984)

I. M. Zeitlin, Jesus and the Judaism of His Time (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).

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