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

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Social Science Methods

Biblical Studies Social Sciences and the Old Testament
Victor H. Matthews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0118


The aim of social scientific criticism, as a subfield of biblical exegesis, is to study the biblical materials as a reflection of their cultural setting. The meaning and/or the social background of the text are thus more fully illumined by the exercise of sociological, psychological, and anthropological methods and theories. The era of modern social-scientific research began in the late 19th century with the work of Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, and Herbert Spencer. Their social theories created an atmosphere of curiosity about the human condition and advanced the evolutionary perspective that had taken hold with the writing of Charles Darwin. As sociology, psychology, and anthropology emerged as separate sciences, scholars such as W. Robertson Smith and Louis Wallis adapted their methods (at least comparative and functionalist perspectives) to Israelite history and culture. Despite this early start, there was a hiatus in the use of the social sciences (especially psychology, sociology, and anthropology) in the study of the Bible between 1930 and 1960 as literary, historical-critical, and archaeological approaches (the W. F. Albright School) predominated. However, in the last several decades, building on the earlier works of Max Weber and continuing with the study of Israelite origins by George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald, social science methods have experienced a revival and burgeoned into a major subfield.

General Overviews

A wide range of resources is available to facilitate a student’s exploration of social scientific criticism and its applications to the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Among them are dictionary articles in major reference works, as well as journal articles (particularly in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Biblical Theology Bulletin, and Journal of Biblical Literature) and book chapters that provide an introduction to social scientific methods and their application to biblical criticism.

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