Social-Scientific Methods for the New Testament

About: this paper was delivered to Professor Peter Rodgers at Fuller Theological Seminary during my final quarter for a self-directed study of Socio-Rhetorical Analysis.


When we study the text, we should attempt to hear the words of the New Testament in the way the original Greek-speaking audience would have heard them, which involves understanding the argument of the text and its persuasiveness. Since all compositions utilize rhetoric, whether oral or written, we can be certain that the documents of the New Testament have rhetorical features. We need not force any classical rhetorical features upon the text; we need only to allow the text to speak for itself, and to describe its argument, how it makes its argument, and how it was received, if at all possible. As such, we are not forcing anything upon the text, but rather, we are extracting out from the text what was there all along. But in order to understand the text rhetorically, we need to understand its social context.

The text was delivered to a particular people in a particular time with particular customs, practices, and beliefs. The text is the product of its culture, within which it must be understood. Therefore, we need to begin to learn the theories and practices of the social-sciences,1 so that we can apply them when interpreting the Bible. The social-sciences address social categories, topics for thinking about the world, life in the Mediterranean world, the ideology of the text, and a variety of other categories. There are four social categories, which are as follows: social roles; social institutions; social codes; and social relationships.2 The topics for thinking about the world, life in the Mediterranean world, and the ideology of the text all fall into one of these four social categories. We will briefly look at the topics, the Mediterranean world, and the ideology of the text, respectively, so that we can begin to equip ourselves for a socio-rhetorical analysis of a biblical text.

There are seven social topics for talking about the world, which are as follows: a conversionist response; a revolutionist response; an introversionist response; a Gnostic-manipulationist response; a thaumaturgical response; a reformist response; and a utopian response. The conversionist response maintains that salvation for the world comes through transformation of the individual. The revolusionist response maintains that salvation comes through destruction of the world. The introversionist response believes that salvation comes through withdrawal from the world. The Gnostic-manipulationist response believes that through the right means and methods evil can be overcome in the world, and therefore salvation is possible. The thaumaturgical response focuses on individual salvation or relief from ill situations, where salvation takes the form of healing, relief, restoration, or eternal life. The reformist response focuses on the necessity for social structures to be transformed since they are corrupt, so that salvation will be present when the structures change and improve general behavior, and this response assumes that the structures are open to supernatural influence over the individuals that make up and alter the structures. The utopian response attempts to create a new world and eradicate evil.3 We must identify these responses not only in the text, but also in ourselves, so that we might strive to keep our presuppositions from creeping into the text.

The Mediterranean world of the first century was an honor and shame society. Honor for this society meant one’s rightful place. Honor was associated with males. Shame for this society meant one’s sensitivity towards one’s honor. Shame was associated with females. In terms of honor, it could be ascribed or acquired. Acquired honor was highly desired. Honor in general was a claim to self-worth, an acceptable way to rate one’s self socially in the culture.4

The Mediterranean world consisted of dyadic personalities. Dyadic personalities perceive that individuals are dependent upon each other, that they are interconnected. Since they emphasize the group, they understand that it is necessary to live out the social expectations of them. Dyadic personalities perceive themselves based upon how others perceived of them.5

The Mediterranean world of the first century was largely based upon dyadic contracts. Dyadic contracts were informal contrasts between pairs that functioned off of the value of reciprocity within the honor and shame society. There were two possible dyadic contracts. First, colleague contracts, which were agreements made by two parties of the same social standing. Second, patron-client contracts, which were agreements made between two parties of different social standing. In the former, the agreement is ongoing, where the parties, for the sake of honor, continually reciprocate the challenge indefinitely. In the latter, since the statuses of the parties are not symmetrical, the agreement is more of a gift, and it is usually to obtain something that is badly in need.6

The Mediterranean world was built around a public challenge-response system among equals. The system was such that a challenge would be raised publicly, the individual receiver and the public would perceive the challenge, and the individual and the public would evaluate the challenge and respond. Failure to respond would be publicly perceived as a failure to defend one’s honor. The receiver would lose honor while the challenger would gain honor. Among equals, all events outside of the family were understood within this challenge-response system.7

The Mediterranean world of the first century was an agrarian-based society. The society made exchanges on account of reciprocity at a variety of levels. Food and services were freely given within the family, which is understood as full reciprocity. Among members of the clan, food and services were given, but there was a record for repayment, which is understood as weak reciprocity. The more removed the parties were in relation to each other, the need to repay grew greater and the time within which to repay grew less, which is understood as balanced reciprocity. Anyone outside the family was fair game for haggling, lying, and cheating, which is understood as negative reciprocity. But with the institution of the temple came the concept of redistribution. Priests used the temple facilities as a storehouse for the goods, and then redistributed them to the people who needed them. They held power over the communities for agrarian-based societies.8

The Mediterranean world consisted of a large population of peasants. Peasants were those people who had to make exchanges with other groups for material goods that they could not otherwise provide for themselves. In general, peasants had to grow enough harvest for the family and livestock to survive until the next harvest and to provide enough seed for the next crop planting. But the peasants also had to grow a surplus to make transactions for material goods. In addition, some of the surplus had to be used for festivals and to provide loans for others, so that, when in a time of adversity, they would have the right to ask for help according to the rules of reciprocity. Finally, the peasant also had to produce enough crop to pay the rent for the land to the landlord or tax collector. In the peasant communities, there was the idea of wantlessness. Wantlessness was based upon the idea that all things, honor, food, goods, etc., are in limited quantity, so to pursue them and to gain more than another is to gain at the expense of all others. Surpluses in crops were shared among the whole group in festivals. As a result of this idea, peasants were at the mercy of outsiders.9

The Mediterranean world of the first century also had purity codes. Purity was the arrangement of the in-group and the separation of the out-group. The out-group, impure or unclean, has no place in the in-group, and therefore it belongs elsewhere.10

It’s important to study the ideology of the text. There are three aspects of the ideology of the text to be considered. There is the ideology of the social and cultural location of the author, the ideology of power in a text, and the ideology of the modes of intellectual discourse. When analyzing the ideology of the social and cultural location, there are nine items to consider: first, previous events; second, the natural environment and resources available; third, the population structure; fourth, available technology; fifth, socialization and personality; sixth, culture; seventh, foreign affairs; eighth, belief systems and ideologies; and finally, the political-military-legal system. When analyzing the ideology of power in a text, there are five practices: first, define the system of differentiations that permit the dominant people to act over the subordinate people; second, to identify the objectives of the dominant people for acting over the subordinate people; third, determine the means that bring these relationships about; fourth, identify the forms of institutionalization of power; and finally, analyze the degree of rationalization of power relations.11

We have only begun to start utilizing the theories of social-science for New Testament interpretation. Bruce Malina and John Pilch provide a vast amount of other topics to consider in their Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Among the host of topics they address are baptism, change agents, circumcision, the city, conflict and dispute, coworkers, death and resurrection, demons, devolution, gatherings, encomiums, the power of the eyes, fictive kinship, flesh and spirit, nationality, Hellenistic letters, the holy man, the kingdom of God, love and hate, meals, the military, porneia, prayer, religion, economics, politics, righteousness, the sacred and profane, slavery, Son of God, violence, and wrath.12 The topics already discussed earlier are also included in Malina and Pilch’s list of topics.

The social-sciences help interpreters of the Bible understand the context within which the text was written. They help interpreters to see the rhetoric employed and the argument of the author. But they also help interpreters to see how the original readers and listeners understood the text. The theories and insights of the social-sciences are invaluable. We must ask questions about the Mediterranean world, how ancient and modern readers interpreted the world, and apply the various categories for studying the intricate relationship between society and the text. If we fail to ask such questions and to study this intricate relationship, we will fail to fully understand the Bible.







Malina, Bruce, and Pilch, John. Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2006.


Robbins, Vernon. Exploring the Texture of Texts: A guide to socio-rhetorical interpretation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1996.

1 As a correction to my paper addressing introductory matters of socio-rhetorical analysis, I must acknowledge that “socio” does not refer to “sociology” as originally stated. Instead, it refers to the social-sciences, mainly sociology and anthropology. As a result, I will be referring to the social-sciences in this paper rather than to sociology. Cf. Vernon Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A guide to socio-rhetorical interpretation (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1996), 1.

2 Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A guide to socio-rhetorical interpretation, 62.

3 Ibid. 72-4.

4 Ibid., 76.

5 Ibid., 77-8.

6 Ibid., 78.

7 Ibid., 80-1.

8 Ibid., 83.

9 Ibid., 84-5.

10 Ibid., 85.

11 Ibid., 111-3.

12 Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2006), 331-408.