The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels

By Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina and Gerd Theissen, eds.
Minneapolis : Fortress (2002). xv + 404 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 353-354

Seeking to answer the question, “What can one, with the help of historically informed social-scientific models, know about the ‘historical’ Jesus from the New Testament that cannot be known by other approaches?” (vii), this volume is the compilation of papers presented at the Fourth International Meeting of the Context Group in Tutzing, Germany in 1999.

The group dedicates itself to interpreting the NT by means of historiography and utilizing social science research, once they find a “suitable model” (3) to facilitate such research. It advocates a minimalist-to-radical-minimalist approach to Scripture. In fact their view of Scripture is only assumed and never defended; the idea of an inspired, inerrant text as the source of propositional truth would be considered nonsensical. In fact, this reviewer could not find one mention of the word Scripture or discussion of any level of inspiration.

At the beginning of the book, this reviewer was struck by two things: (1) the disdain for any approach to NT studies that affirms absolutes in theological truth, and (2) the acrimony toward those who disagree with the contributors’ affirmations. One example is Malina’s statement:

For the most part, social-scientific research in New Testament studies has been concerned with interpreting written documents, not with the general storytelling of historians. In other words, its concerns have been exegetical, not historiographical. . . . This is perhaps why, so far, there has been no “life” of the historical Jesus based on social-scientific interpretations. . . . Nonetheless, what has been done with the social sciences is significant, much of it important enough to be plagiarized by John Dominic Crossan (4).

This is a technical work, not for the faint of heart. The authors assume a familiarity with various social-science constructs and make no effort to explain their models, except for why their selected model is chosen over another competing model (15). They use a great deal technical jargon from the social sciences, such as the so-called “forming,” “storming,” “norming,” “performing,” and “adjourning” phases of small group development that the authors ascribe to the ministry of Jesus (11-15). One author speaks of the “public self,” the “private self,” and the “in-group self” of Jesus (38), stating that if Jesus did think that He was the Messiah, no one would have heard about it in His lifetime because to assert such “private self” beliefs would be a shameful practice (39).

Other chapters discuss “Jesus as Fatherless Child” (65 -84); Jesus’ baptism by John and His walking on water in terms of “altered states of consciousness” models (108-111); demon possession as a “socially accepted way to deal with tensions, because it allowed those possessed to do and say what they could not do or say as a sane person” (165). In a chapter entitled “The Jesus Movement and Network Analysis” (301-32), the travels of Jesus and His disciples are evaluated in terms of an “ego-centered network” (325).

All of this is simply what one might call the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” on steroids. It is the full-scale abandonment of Scripture as inspired and historicalgrammatical hermeneutics as a viable methodology for interpreting the text. Paul’s warning about those who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7) is the best summation for this thoroughly useless book.