In recent decades, there has been an increased interest in interpreting the Gospels and letters of the New Testament in light of sociological theory. Pioneering scholars like Gerd Theissen and then later scholars such at Wayne Meeks paved the way for the use of sociological models in the study of the New Testament. Nearly two decades ago, Philip Esler in Conflict and Identity in Romans helped pioneer the use of social identity theory in New Testament interpretation. More recently, Francis Watson in Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles interprets Paul’s discussion about justification as part of offering an ideological explanation for the split of Paul’s apostolic mission from Judaism, turning Paul’s mission from a reform movement into a sect.
As I have read parts of Theissen, Meeks, Esler, and Watson, there is no doubt that sociological/socio-scientific studies on the New Testament can bear some great fruit in helping up to understand the early Christians. For instance, if I had a PhD and were a professor teaching a more advanced NT exegesis class, I would tell every student that they need to know a little bit about social identity theory. Knowing how our sense of shared identity is constructed and impacts daily life and our interactions with others is a source of incredible insight. While I don’t ultimately agree with Esler’s interpretations of Romans, many of the issues Paul raises can be helpfully understood using social identity theory.
Nevertheless, I am left finding that the use of sociology in NT studies is also deeply problematic. As I am working through Watson’s Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles, I am struck by how he suggests the combination of denunciation of opponents, the usage of antitheses that differentiate good and bad, and the act of reinterpreting something different from another group is evidence of a sect, which Watson takes to refer to a (religious) group that is pessimistic about society. Do these combinations of three behaviors really serve as evidence of separating and disconnecting from others? Or, can they be more appropriately understood as evidence of a stark conflict? Many conflicts revolve around people denouncing the behaviors of others, contrasting thems and the others in terms of the antithesis of values, traits, practices, etc., and disagreements about how to interpret events, specific actions, texts, etc. While certainly a sect will probably engage in a combination of denunciation, antitheses, and reinterpretation, there can be other social causes for the behaviors of conflict and disagreement. As Watson does a quick overview of Qumran, Johannine Christianity, and Paul in light of these three behaviors to say each of these three groups are sectarian, I am left to think that Watson is unconsciously engaging in the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.
What is happening here? The problem is that whereas social reality is complex, the science of sociology is unable to adequately represent this complexity. There are multiple causes for any sort of social behavior. For instance, hostility by one group of people against another can be caused by a sense of unmet entitlement, a desire to remedy injustice, an attempt to protect oneself from oppression by the others, serious disagreement on matters that are considered significant, etc. Hostility can even be caused by a combination of these causes. Any theory I can formulate to explain hostility between social groups is going to inevitably privilege certain types of explanations over others in order for the theory to be actually usable. For a sociological theory to say “it is complex and we can’t explain it” may be good reasoning, but it isn’t a usable theory or explanation. Rather, sociology, as with many other forms of science, have to regular need to place explicit or implicit limitations on what type of phenomena their theories do apply to and explain.
While some scientists understand this, albeit not all, even fewer people who appropriate science would understand that there are limitations to application. As a consequence, whereas an expert in sociology may have a refined intuition as to what circumstances familiar social theories can apply to, non-expert appropriators of sociology may unconsciously treat sociological theory (a) as sociological laws that (b) explain all or most phenomena one can imagine the theory to apply to. The end result is that we can be left with what ultimately amounts to interpretations that engage in the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Is a specific set of behavior predicted by a theory? The inclination is to regard that theory as being a successful application in that specific instance. However, if a set of behaviors can be explained variously, one may be going down a rabbit trail away from the true explanation.
The point being that sociological theories value isn’t in how it helps us to interpret specific parts of the New Testament. Rather, it’s value is how it can allow us to make connections throughout the New Testament and our understanding of the history of the time period. For instance, I would propose the social theory of Terror Management Theory can be used to help make a connection between Paul’s description of baptism into Christ in Romans 6.1-12 and that one must suffer with Christ to be glorified with Christ (Romans 8.17). Paul’s discourse about the participation in Christ functions in part to alleviate the sense of anxiety and fear that comes to Jews who would live as second class citizens in a city and society that negatively stereotypes them and regularly expels them from Rome. To persistently fall under the judgment of the Roman Emperor would have been a source of fear of death, leading to the rise of sin in Paul’s understanding. As such, Paul’s discussion of participation in Christ invites the Jewish Christians in Rome to see their relation to Christ as more than simply the inheritor of David’s dynasty (Rom 1.3), but that by being united to Christ one dies in his death so they may be rendered free from the bondage to sin and death that holds them back to live a new, transformed life.
In proposing the applicability of TMT, I am making a connection between four things (1) Romans 6.1-12, (2) Romans 8.17, (3) my interpretation of Romans being addressing to deconstruct the theological narrative that taught that the vindication of the righteous Jews would come through God’s judgment of the evil Gentiles, and (4) knowledge of how ethnic tensions caused by a group with greater power being threateningly used against another group can contribute to the increasingly severe moral denunciation by the socially weaker ethnic group. I imagine that TMT can be used to help bridge connections between other points.
Furthermore, in drawing the connections between other observations and explanations, I am minimizing the extent to which my usage of sociology contributes to making my interpretation of Paul an etic description from my own modern, social perspective, rather than moving towards an emic perspective. While Paul’s discourse can be understood as helping the Jewish Christians in Rome manage their terror under the hands of the Roman Caesar (Nero at the time), Paul is not consciously thinking about trying to help them manage such terror. He is not a modern psychologist. Rather, he presents his understanding of the Christian experience of being in Christ as a response to the fear and hostility that he supposes to have been felt in his audience. The usage of TMT is simply used to help us recognize that the management of fear and terror is a common motivator for various behaviors and beliefs that seek to address these problems.
As a consequence, focusing on simply making connections minimizes running the risk of reducing Paul’s understanding of participation in Christ to a set of beliefs about one’s own self-esteem to mitigate fear, which TMT theorizes about. There is a good reason to consider that Paul’s account of union with Christ is due to the combination of his Damascus Road experience and the outpouring of the Spirit, but in Romans, he uses the theme of participation to address the specific circumstances in the primarily Jewish Christian audience living in the center of Roman power. Etic descriptions often risks reducing causes and sources of people’s thinking and behavior in another culture in terms of our own expectations, explanations, and values. However, as the complex of social life also includes many causes co-contributing to a single effect, focusing simply on making connections does try to use sociological theory to offer the most significant explanation for a specific type of discourse in the New Testament.
In summary, the application of sociological theory should be limited by the recognition that there are explicit and implicit limitations on the applicability of theory to specific phenomena, particularly something as complex as social life. Rather, the value of sociological theory can bring is more so in bridging connections in what we already have and believe/know. Put differently, we should be wary in using sociology to try to construct explanations and interpretations of the various parts of the NT, but we can more safely use it to try to offer a coherent account of what we do have in the NT.