Social Aspects of Early Christianity

by Abraham Malherbe (l983), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

I know it’s an old book, but after I reread it after many years I realized how insightful Malherbe had been in focusing differently on the biblical writings.

One of the major changes in the biblical landscape has been the interest in religious studies in universities and colleges not affiliated with ecclesial bodies; ‘the perspective from which early Christianity is studied is no longer that of the church’ (p 3).

Malherbe widens the interpretation of early Christian literate and the communities with which the writings are associated.  ‘It is at least possible that some documents were rescued from obscurity not because they represented the viewpoints of communities but precisely because they challenged them.  It is too facile to view literature as the simple product of communities; (p 13).  And the New Testament deals with concrete situations and should be understood in relation to these precise situations.  Any sustained attempt at homogenization will lead to imprecision’ (p 17).

Malherbe cites writers whose emphases have been on the historical/cultural background of the material.  Where church history tended to emphasize doctrinal development, he (and others like Wayne Meeks and Gerd Theissen) worked at sociological analysis, and characterization of belief and ethics seen from the reactions of the biblical letters.

Social Aspects probes church history with analysis of literary scope, house churches and hospitality (with particular reference to 3 John).

Of sharp interest to me was his treatment of thiasos, ‘guild’ or ‘association’, which was one of the names given to the early Christian bodies (pp 88-91).

A good read, again and still! And a helpful hermeneutic.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.