In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Sciences and the New Testament

  • Introduction
  • General Anthropological and Ethnographical Studies
  • Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament
  • Surveys and Collections
  • Parables, Gospels, Epistles, and Apocalypses
  • The Roman Empire and the Social World of Early Christianity

Biblical Studies Social Sciences and the New Testament
Dietmar Neufeld
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0117


Social-scientific criticism is the stage in the exegetical process that brings scrutiny to bear on the religious, geographical, historical, economic, social codes, and cultural values operative within the world of early Christianity. It does so by utilizing the perspectives, theories, and models generated by the social sciences. Broadly defined, social-scientific criticism approaches the texts of the New Testament from the viewpoint that meaning in language is embedded in a social system that is shared and understood by speakers, hearers, and readers in the communication process. It investigates the social features of the form and content of the texts along with the factors that gave shape to them. It seeks to discover the intended consequences of the communication process. It looks for complementary relationships between the texts linguistic, literary, ideological, and social dimensions—each of which contributes to a proper analysis and understanding of the texts of the New Testament. Social-scientific criticism investigates the manner of textual communication—that texts were strategically designed for effective social interaction that had social, literary, and theological consequence. Most significantly, it seeks to isolate the social data embedded in texts and constructs models that simplify and systematize the data for comparative purposes. Models of social phenomena such as kinship and family, honor and shame, patronage and clientage, collectivism, social status, limited good, evil eye, purity and pollution, ritual, gender and sexuality, landscape and spatiality, ancient economies, healing and health, and social memory permit the careful examination of these issues in biblical texts in socially significant ways.

Introductory Works

In an overview of the development of social-science approaches to the New Testament, Elliott 2008 notes that it found root in the midst of a resurgence of interest in the social and cultural milieu of early Christianity. Horrell 2002 remarks that the interest in the social context of the New Testament was not new (Case 1923), but that by the turn of the 1960s interest in the social aspects of early Christianity peaked. This interest was heightened by the influential essays in Judge 2008 and the pivotal publications of Hengel 1974 and Theissen 1978. Elliott 2008 observes that two approaches emerged, one labeled the sociological approach (Sozialgeschichte), which seeks to describe the social and cultural givens (persons, events, social institutions of the Greco-Roman world) reflected in the New Testament, and the other, social-scientific criticism, which seeks to explain the social dynamics, cultural scripts, and institutions revealed in the New Testament from the perspective of the theories and models derived from the social sciences (Horrell 2002, Malina 2008, Harrington 1988). This focus on models is what sets social-scientific criticism apart from the sociological approach (Horrell 2002).

  • Case, Shirley Jackson. The Social Origins of Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923.

    An early, well-known example of a sociological study with a focus on the social experiences and religious problems faced by those who converted to Christianity.

  • Elliott, John H. “From Social Description to Social-Science Criticism.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 38.1 (Spring 2008): 26–36.

    An overview of the origins and developments of social-scientific criticism under the auspices of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in 1972.

  • Harrington, Daniel J. “Second Testament Exegesis and the Social Sciences: A Bibliography.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 18 (1988): 77–85.

    DOI: 10.1177/014610798801800206

    A bibliography of early studies of the New Testament from a social-scientific perspective.

  • Hengel, Martin. Property and Riches in the Early Church: Aspects of a Sociological History of Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974.

    A landmark study of social aspects of early Christian phenomena.

  • Horrell, David G. “Social Sciences Studying Formative Christian Phenomena: A Creative Movement.” In Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches. Edited by Anthony J. Blasi, Jean Duhaime, and Paul-André Turcotte, 3–28. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2002.

    A balanced overview of thirty years of social-scientific criticism with a summary of the different social-scientific approaches employed in the study of the New Testament and early Christian literature. This chapter is a revision of David G. Horrell’s “Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation: Retrospect and Prospect,” printed in his Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), pp. 3–27.

  • Judge, Edwin A. Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century: Pivotal Essays by E. A. Judge. Edited by David M. Scholer. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.

    An important collection of eight influential essays by E. A. Judge, whose focus on the social identity of the early Christian communities initiated the establishment of social-scientific criticism of the Bible.

  • Malina, Bruce J. “Rhetorical Criticism and Social-Scientific Criticism: Why Won’t Romanticism Leave Us Alone.” In The Social World of the New Testament. Edited by Jerome H. Neyrey and Eric C. Stewart, 5–21. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.

    A study of the fundamental law of language—namely, that words have meaning in social systems of shared understanding.

  • Theissen, Gerd. The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity. London: SCM, 1978.

    An early pioneering study that applied the principles and methods of sociology to the New Testament.

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