An Introduction to the Sociology of the New Testament

Written by Derek Tidball Reviewed By J. A. Gardiner

This guide to the proliferating body of literature in a growth area of New Testament studies will have something to offer both to the student and the general reader. It offers a lucid, sympathetic and critical exposition of the sociological method and its results which emphasizes the tentative nature of any conclusions reached and attempts to minimize the use of the jargon to which this subject is particularly prone. As Tidball explains, the main benefit of this approach is that it ‘tries to keep the real flesh and blood human beings to the forefront of the stage in all the complexity of their social relationships … it makes it more difficult either to idealize what we read of the early disciples or to over-theorize about them.’

He proceeds to demonstrate this in his exploration of the relationship between the Roman social world and the growth of the Christian community as he addresses himself to the familiar topics which have shaped the sociological debate amongst New Testament scholars. The easy designation of the Jesus movement as a millennarian sect is criticized and balanced by reference to E. A. Judge’s analysis of it as a Jewish scholastic community, while Theissen’s views on its growth and organization as a Jewish renewal movement are generally accepted. A major problem to scholars has always been ‘how was the transition from this rural Jewish situation to that of the urban Gentile world achieved?’ Tidball offers only a brief treatment of this question but has useful summaries of the work of Troeltsch and others on sects, Weber on charismatic authority and Festinger and Gager on cognitive dissonance as a spur to evangelism. His conclusion is that Christianity became a conversionist sect under the dual impetuses of good news to share and hostility from within Judaism and met with success because it suited the character and needs of the Roman world so well. The whole of this section illustrates one of the weaknesses of the book in that it was written before several seminal works, notably those of Kee, Malina and Meeks, were available. It is thus less useful than it could be even in its coverage of English language literature. It is to be hoped that the author has the chance to revise and update it later.

The major part of the work concerns Christianity’s interreaction with its urban surroundings and its organizational development. How far did it resemble the politeia oikonomia and koinonia of Roman society? What was the social background of its members? How were they distinguished from their contemporaries by their lifestyle? How did the early church become institutionalized and was this a rejection of the earlier charismatic order? In attempting to answer these questions, Tidball does not claim to be making an original contribution to the subject, but his own position, which tends to conservative conclusions, is made very clear. One problem with his treatment here is his adherence to the New Testament alone as a source. Surely in this kind of study it is time that the traditional boundaries between New Testament and early church studies were broken down? Such divisions are becoming increasingly unrealistic in the light of recent rethinking on the dates of writings such as Hermas and 1 Clement which may be contemporaneous with the later books of the New Testament and which complicate the picture of a neat movement from charisma to institution suggested by traditional chronologies. One further problem here is the omission of reference to writers who take more radical positions on some of the issues raised—the ‘Yoder, Sider, Kreider’ anabaptist view and that of Macmullen, De Ste. Croix and Hopkins the classicists. Nevertheless there is much here that is stimulating and of relevance to debates in today’s church about church growth, evangelism and church order.

The final chapter seeks to answer the charge that sociology makes religion just another social construct. Going beyond Berger and Durkheim’s attempts to solve the problem, Tidball concludes that if early Christianity was a religious construction it was not a creation ex nihilo but a simple expression of words which corresponded to a reality which already existed. One would like to see him develop these methodological debates in more depth for it is in this area that the ordinary evangelical reader will find most difficulty. This book is a fairly useful introduction; we look forward to more substantial and original contributions in the future.

J. A. Gardiner