The Social Gospel of Jesus

by Bruce Malina (2001), review by Vern Ratzlaff

‘The Bible is necessarily misunderstood if one’s reading of it is not grounded in an appreciation of the social system from which its documents arose’ (p 5).  This is the basic orientation of Malina’s discussion of the New Testament documents, as he examines cultural anthropological dimensions and backgrounds.

Malina identifies the social institutions comprising the biblical story:  kinship, politics, religion and economics (of which only kinship and politics were of explicit focal concern’ (p 5). Biblical authors never spoke of economics simply…the vocabulary of the various ideologies expressed in the bible worked within kinship and politics.  ‘Religion is to be understood through belonging and power (not reasoned influence).  Economics is meaningless unless convertible into honour, and thus has no focus in and of itself’ (p 17).

The two major Mediterranean social institutions were kinship and politics; patronage marked the relationships within these.  Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of G-d challenges these institutions and their embodiment in Roman structures.  For the Kingdom of G-d to make sense to Israelites living in Galilee and Judea, it would have to speak to what was wrong:  ‘the Roman political economy and its appropriation by the local Israelite aristocracy.  This is  the role that the G-d of Israel would play on behalf of his people: not that of monarch but of ‘Father’ (p 84).  ‘The kingdom of G-d was to take the form of personal and representative theocracy’ (p 161).

A good treatment of the interplay of social structures in Jesus’s proclamation.

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