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The Social Sciences and Biblical Study

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    To: Synoptic On: Social Sciences and Biblical Study From: Bruce Chuck Jones, on his own account, is firmly convinced of a universally accepted 85%/15% divide
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 7, 2012
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      To: Synoptic
      On: Social Sciences and Biblical Study
      From: Bruce

      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:


      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.


      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
      for littering.

      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.
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