The Social Sciences and Biblical Study
- To: Synoptic
On: Social Sciences and Biblical Study
Chuck Jones, on his own account, is firmly convinced of a universally
accepted 85%/15% divide between poverty and wealth in Mediterranean
antiquity, of the absence of a middle class, and of the fact that this
situation persisted unchanged, in his latest statement, "for millennia." I
had asked for the source of his figures, and he referred me to the
Introduction to Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the
Synoptic Gospels (1992).
I do not find those figures or those statements in the Introduction. What I
do find is an extended effort to persuade modern readers that the ancient
Mediterranean world was different from the modern industrial American world.
That is an admirable purpose, though one is appalled to see the amount of
space which in 1992 it was thought necessary to devote to what, as late as
1970, should have been an easy and indeed obvious observation.
As for the (to me) suspicious precision of the numbers, the static nature of
the supposed agrarian economy, and the claimed lack of contact or overlap
between high and low in that system, I continue to be unconvinced. But that
is just me, and as a Chinese person I have no standing in the matter. I
therefore submitted Chuck's statement (by liftoff; not paraphrased) to one
eminent Mediterranean classicist, so high up in the academic tree that a
proper Chinese person is naturally prevented by awe and ritual propriety
from mentioning a name. This was the response:
-----COMMENT FROM AN INFORMED SOURCE ABOUT THE MEDITERRANEAN
I'd agree that all these stats seem suspiciously exact and the terms
anachronistic: most unlikely is the non-mingling of classes, which all the
evidence of Greece and Rome flies against, whether in literary depictions,
public space arrangements, private housing placements or dispositions of
cemeteries. The accounting of "all the wealth" outside of good tax-reporting
systems is impossible (cf. current day Greece...). Payments in kind,
resources in land and ship-holdings etc are hard to quantify otherwise. And
it is more likely that a bell-curve of elite (5%?) representing merchants
and officials was balanced by abject poor at the other end (5%?)--mostly
urban or disabled--with the broad middle 90% made up of craftspeople,
soldiers, and farmers. The big income gaps will have been in late Republic &
Imperial Rome on the Italian mainland. In the provinces (Syria-Palestine) I
suspect it was more like Egypt through the ages.
---END OF COMMENT
The recommendation of this source for serious information about the society
and economy of the period was the following:
Which I venture to pass on to those interested in an evidence-based
There remains the question: is Malina/Rohrbaugh at least useful in its
announced purpose, as a commentary on the Synoptics? The matter is not to be
decided peremptorily: a commentary on more than one Gospel always offers a
chance of getting outside the usual one-text trap. In search of texts
relevant to the poverty question, I came on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
This is labeled in M&R as "A Warning About Premature Judgement of Family
Loyalty." Luke and I very much don't think so. We think it is about the
special joy in Heaven when one sinner is converted to the company of the
saved, a joy which has to contend with the resentment of those who were
saved long before, by their own laborious efforts at piety, and who resent
the sinful latecomers being made equal with themselves, and more fussed over
than themselves. If the unlost sheep or the unlost coins had feelings, the
Nonprodigal Son in Luke gives them voice.
The M&R Textual Notes on Lk 15:11-32 begin with the remark that "the younger
son has made a sharp break with his father, his brother, and the community
in which they lived. Village hostility would have been substantial upon his
return . . ." There is nothing of this hostility in Luke's story, which
deals only with the resentment of the dutiful son, and there is in any case
nothing in the division of an inheritance within a family that need involve
the villagers in any way - they are not potential claimants and are not
imaginably injured. That is, the loyalties and hostilities in Luke's story
are precisely personal, not social. The focus of M&R is in an irrelevant
direction, and draws the reader away from what Luke is trying to get across.
The father in Luke sees his errant son "afar off," and runs to greet him and
embrace him. M&R: "Older men in the Middle East do not run except in an
emergency. Hiking up flowing robes in order to run not only lacks dignity,
it inappropriately exposes legs to public view and hence causes dishonor." I
should have thought that the worst possible social consequence was simply
indignity, and that enthusiasm at the recovery of a lost family member would
be sufficient excuse, if excuse were needed. In any case, Luke implies no
robe and no onlookers, so that the state of the father's legs, whatever it
may have been, may safely be dismissed as irrelevant to the story.
M&R further to the same line: "He is not running to welcome his son, as
Western readings would have it. By hastening to the edge of the village the
father preempts hostile village reaction, signaling by his kiss and embrace
that the errant son is under his protection." Again the hostile villagers,
and again there is no warrant in Luke for introducing them, except presently
as implied happy feasters, any and all hostility forgotten, at the ensuing
welcome party. As for the "Western" reading, it seems to be also the one
Luke invites, since such is the event as he gives it, and such is the reason
he assigns to it. Is it the presumption of M&R that they know better than
Luke what Luke is up to, or that they are better informed than Luke about
how the social situation around pre-70 Antioch affects Luke's aims and
perceptions? If so, I would venture to hope that some competent critic will
find a way to disabuse them. Their comments on this passage (a parable which
has exactly the same point as the two previous parables, except for being
more developed, literarily and emotionally) look to me like a caricature of
a reading. M&R are all dressed up with their pockets full of socio-whatever,
the honor of the aged and the hostility of the village, and no valid place
to put it.
So they put it everywhere. If Luke were a highway, M&R could be hauled in
Back a final time to the Introduction, where we find at least a candid
statement of what is wrong with this kind of approach. I quote from p5:
-----------QUOTE FROM M&R INTRODUCTION--------------
. . . most New Testament scholars were trained as historians and taught to
focus on what is particular and unique about moments in the past. Thus
countless historical books and articles are still at pains to discriminate
between the Roman and the Greek, the Egyptian and the Hebrew. We know all of
the ways ancient Israelites were atypical and unique, and as historians we
resist attempts to lump them together with other groups. We worry over
assuming that conditions known to have existed in the second century can be
applied to the first, or whether the situation in Syria in the year 90 can
be assumed to be the same as it was in the year 80.
The social sciences, by contrast, seek the culturally common and generic.
Their focus is not on unique details but on generalizations. Their methods
focus on what groups have in common rather than what makes them unique.
Instead of what distinguishes the ancient Egyptian from the ancient Roman,
the social scientists want to know what they, as members of an agrarian
Mediterranean world share in common.
--------END QUOTE FROM M&R INTRODUCTION--------------
Not all social scientists among my circle of acquaintance would accept this
description of their interests, but let us go anyway with M&R. I submit that
this description, without any argument required from myself, disqualifies
their approach from offering anything cogent for the interpretation of the
Synoptics, or of any other text in any other century. I suggest that the
Kingship did make a difference to previously tribal Israel, that the Exile
did make a difference to previously monarchical Israel, that Roman
overlordship was not imposed on Israel without significant effect on the
business prospects of the small entrepreneurs such as Jesus seems to have
attracted to his movement; that the situation in Syria was liable at any
point to be influenced, in ways that may have been important for both Paul
and Luke in their time, by the backing and forthing of the Arabian and
Parthian powers in the immediate vicinity. To cast all this aside for pallid
"generalizations" (unquote) about agrarian society (whether or not correctly
reported in a statistical sense) or about honor cultures (whether or not
accurately differentiated at the several social levels), looks to me like
intellectual and interpretive suicide.
So all together, I cannot in good faith recommend M&R to any reader or
expositor of the Synoptics, and I venture to hope that those presently
impressed with the M&R approach will find a few moments in which to
reconsider the matter.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
A sociologist might imaginably say that Luke (or any other text) is "about"
its environing society. A music theorist might similarly say that Mozart's
Piano Concerto #24 is "about" the key of C Minor. Both statements are true.
The problem is that they do not exhaust the relevant truth.