The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation

Richard Rohrbaugh, ed. (1996), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Many of the contemporary understandings of western christian belief derive from our peculiar cultural interpretations of the bible.  When we immerse ourselves in strange Mediteranian readings of the bible, old interpretations are threatened, and we need to see through the eyes of someone socialized in a culture different from our own.  Eg westerners  know little about ‘the evil eye’, and when we read Mt 6:22,23 we find it difficult to understand Jesus’ words. In the text, an evil eye is bad for the person being looked at; Jesus’ hearers would have recognized that Jesus was talking about light that originates in the heart and could do them either good or evil.

High infant mortality rates (up to 30%) made children vulnerable; when mothers brought their children to Jesus it was not because of a sweet interest in children, but of ‘the vulnerable, the frightened and the terror-stricken who make up the implausible kingdom of G-d’ (p 5).  Jesus’ prayer, that we not be put to the test, is the plaintive cry of a peasant that he not be hauled into a debt court in front of a corrupt judge’ and have his land taken from him (p 6).

The book examines ten Mediterranean cultural strands (eg kinship, honour and shame, patronage, table fellowship) by referencing key social science studies; each chapter has at least one example of using contemporary anthropological studies in working with a biblical text (ie in the honour-shame discussion, ‘grace’ is the theological term that supercedes the ‘honour’ cultural theme), and has a helpful bibliography on the anthropological theme being examined, a good combination of theological and secular.

A wonderful help for understanding the New Testament.

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