Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century

Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century Pivotal Essays by E. A. Judge. By David M. Scholer (ed.). Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, 227 pp., $24.95, paper.

Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century is a collection of important essays written over the last forty-eight years by E. A. Judge. It provides NT researchers with insight into the social identity of the early Christ-movement. David Scholer in the introduction understands Judge as ‘the new founder of social-scientific criticism of the New Testament’ but also recognizes that Judge rejects key developments within field with regard to social determinism and the imposition of sociological models (xiv). Scholer is to be commended for doing a vital service for researchers of the early Christ-movement by gathering in one place Judge’s research which is often difficult to access. The result is that these foundational articles are available to a new generation of researchers who will find stimulating analysis and probative examples of inter-disciplinary research between classical and biblical studies. Judge’s command of Greco-Roman sources and his interest in social history combine to provide a convincing description of communal life within the early Christ-movement.

Chapter 1, ‘The Social Pattern of the Christian Groups in the First Century’ concludes that the NT documents provide no systematic teaching on the social life of the early Christ-followers. He employs the Acts of the Apostles as his framework; however, he fails to recognize the continued role of Jewish identity in the formation of the early Christ-movement. Chapter 2, ‘Paul’s Boasting in Relation to Contemporary Professional Practice’ emphasizes the importance of rhetoric in the development of cultural identity in antiquity. Chapter 3, ‘St. Paul and Classical Society’ argues that understanding ‘the complex civil obligations and expectations under which Paul and his converts lived’ is vital to uncovering their social identity and Paul’s theologizing (83). In chapter 4, ‘St Paul as a Radical Critic of Society’ Paul is understood as a Roman citizen who was well-educated and part of the mainstream of society but also rejected the prevailing Greco-Roman approach to ‘self-protection’ and ‘status’ (105). Chapter 5, ‘The Social Identity of the First Christians’ reviews the ‘new consensus’ (125) concerning the social identity of the early Christ-movement as representing a cross-section of Roman society. Chapter 6, ‘Rank and Status in the World of the Caesars and St Paul’ reveals Judge’s command of the papyrological evidence and serves as a fine model for researches to follow when working with the fragmentary evidence from Oxyrhynchus. Chapter 7, ‘Cultural Conformity and Innovation in Paul’ surveys key ‘eulogistic terminology’ (166) to explain Paul’s attitude toward money while in Corinth and the absence of friendship language in Paul’s letters. He also convincingly argues that Paul rejected the patronage system while in Corinth (173). In chapter 8, ‘The Teacher as Moral Exemplar in Paul and in the Inscriptions of Ephesus’ relies on inscriptional evidence to understand how Paul’s call for imitation functioned. It was not to be understood as a call to imitate an educational model or an ethical system but as the cultivation of a ‘kindred practice’ within his communities (185). Scholer concludes with a comprehensive bibliography of Judge’s work and three useful indices including modern authors, subjects, and ancient sources. The book is free from typographical errors but tends to be disjointed which often occurs in compilations.

In a short review such as this there is only space for one critique of Judge’s work. His approach to understanding the social distinctives and context of the earliest Christ-movement relies on papyrological, textual, and inscriptional evidence while dismissing a significant explanatory role for contemporary social-scientific models. He argues that these models were developed much later and in a context foreign to that of the Roman empire (140). He argues that NT scholars should resist using the results of ‘modern sociology’ until their findings can be validated through a type of ‘painstaking field work’ that is all but impossible when dealing with ancient cultures. He concludes that those who employ these methods are engaging in ‘the sociological fallacy’ (128). Judge, however, employs the resources of ‘cultural-anthropology’ to explain Paul’s engagement with the economic realities of the Roman empire (166-7). His rejection of social-scientific theories as an explanatory device may not be as absolute as he presents in his writing. Scholer does, however, balance the discussion in the introduction by providing a summary of these issues and a bibliography for further research (xvii-xx). David Horrell (cf. xviii) has argued that the imposition of models on ancient data is only one approach that may be employed within social-scientific criticism. One may engage in historical and textual work as practiced by Judge and then allow themes to emerge that may then be correlated with the findings from the social-sciences. This inter-disciplinary work provides the conceptual resources that assist scholars in their efforts to address the concerns of contemporary society. This critique aside, this book is recommended for those interested in the social history of the earliest Christ-movement in its Greco-Roman context.

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