Thursday, March 09, 2006

The NT and social-scientific approaches

I want to vent a very short rant on social-scientific approaches to the NT, given the announcement on Mark Goodacre's blog, NT Gateway, of the publication of Malina's and Pilch's new volume, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul.

While I do value the contribution social-scientific studies make to the interpretation of the New Testament, especially in able hands like those of Esler, I can’t help but feel that when you’ve read one social-scientific book, you’ve read them all. The crazed search for yet another ‘model’ with which to read the biblical texts has, in my opinion, led to a neglect of the texts themselves. Cf. also my comments in relation to Asano's recent work on Galatians in the next post.

What do you think about social-scientific approaches to the exegesis of scripture?


At 3/09/2006 7:12 PM, Anonymous Volker said...

Hi Chris,
yeah, I have my reservations too, as you know. But you will remember that I told you last week that I had ordered this book - so you're welcome to have a look at it later this week.

At 3/09/2006 7:32 PM, Anonymous C. Stirling Bartholomew said...


Models, like the poor, are with you always. Everyone uses them, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, linguists, theologians, preachers, bible students ...

There are two ways to become a victim of your model. One is to become obsessed with your model so that it blinds you. This is a malady commonly found among professional scholars. The second is to be unaware that you are using a model. This is found among simple folk who think they are just employing common sense.

As a long term student of linguistics, I have engaged various language models. Started out with transformational grammar and then move backwards to structuralism, and then moved forward to functionalism, pragmatics ... currently working in the cognitive approach and relevance theory. I have observed that scholars involved in applied linguistics (e.g., translation consultants) are more effective in their work if they are not fanatic disciples of one particular school. The late Chomsky cult of true believers are IMHO the least likely to be effective working on real world problems like translation.

The second group, which we might call the "common sense realists" are generally not professional scholars or at least not leaders in their field. These folks seem to go through life blissfully unaware that they are victims of their model. When it comes to biblical exegesis these people will often look at NT Greek as if it were a problem in algebra which can be worked out by applying a set of rules the validity of which is beyond question. This mechanical approach to NT language is supported by the pedagogy found in the most popular seminary textbooks.

So are social science models valuable? I think they are. But like language models one needs to keep them at arms length and not become enslaved by them.

I worked in the late 80s as a analyst/writer in a telecommunications R&D group. We employed numerous models and changed them all the time. The name of the game was how many models can you learn and how flexible can you be in your application of multiple models to a real world problem that needs solving.

I agree with you that many we see a lot of biblical studies publications where the author has become victimized by a model. But we really cannot avoid them so we are better off becoming very self-conscious in our use of them.


At 3/10/2006 12:59 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Volker! I'll answer your e-mails soon, but I've been a little busy with 'the letter' tonight. Anyway, it would be good to see the book when it arrives!
All the best matey.

Hi Clay.

Thanks for these interesting comments - and I thought you put it well. I totally agree with you.
Will we get to see any pictures of the man behind the camera on your blog at some stage?!


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