Knowing the Truth: A Sociological Approach to New Testament Interpretation

Written by Howard Clark Kee Reviewed By Edwin Yamauchi

Professor Kee, the distinguished author of Miracle in the Early Christian World (1983) and of Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times (1986), has written a very useful if concise introduction to one of the most popular recent approaches to the NT—the sociological approach. As he critiques a large number of scholars from a variety of viewpoints in a brief compass, this slim volume is at times little more than a bibliographical essay.

Kee dedicates the volume to sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger, from whom he has gained basic insights into the sociology of knowledge. From this vantage point Kee offers trenchant criticisms of the reductionist tendences of the History-of-Religions school, Adolf von Harnack, S.J. Case, Shailer Matthews, Rudolf Bultmann, and his latter-day disciples, e.g. Helmut Koester.

Kee remarks: ‘Especially since the discovery of the gnostic gospels, a historical theory has been promulgated that the noncanonical gospels preserve more faithfully the historical Jesus tradition than the canonical gospels do, since in the former there is little if any interest in his activities and his predictions about the future. Instead, Jesus comes across as a teacher of timeless truths for those who are already “in the know”. This has an understandable appeal in terms of contemporary intellectual values, but it is scarcely an appropriate ground on which to base what are presented as historical judgments’ (p. 24).

He is also critical of the anachronistic use by unnamed scholars (one thinks of Morton Smith) in using parallels from Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana to elucidate the gospels portraits of Jesus’ (pp. 23, 54). Nor does he have much use for structuralist or Marxist approaches. Kee, who has been deeply influenced by Jacob Neusner’s researches to view the use of rabbinical traditions to reconstruct the Judaisms of the first century as anachronistic, criticizes the revised Schürer and the studies of E.P. Sanders for their use of such sources.

Kee has appreciative comments on Eugene Nida and Anthony Thiselton for their linguistic and hermeneutical insights. But he takes to task such scholars as Edwin Judge and Derek Tidball (p. 37) for their failure ‘to discriminate between the social contexts of the authentic Pauline letters, of the stories in Acts, and of the later material attributed to Paul’. From his other studies one can discern that Kee has been influenced by the alleged lack of archaeological evidence for first-century synagogue buildings to conclude that Luke-Acts is a document from the early second century, as they refer to synagogue buildings. But this is to take an overly sceptical attitude about the identification of buildings at Masada and Herodium as first-century synagogues. (Kee’s scepticism coincides with the view of L.M. White and M. Chiat, but runs counter to the vast majority of scholars—J. Gutmann, G. Foerster, A. Kloner, L.I. Levine, Z. Ma’oz, E.M. Meyers, E. Netzer, S. Saller, F. Strange, Y. Yadin—on the subject.) He also seriously underestimates the fragmentary nature of the archaeological evidence, which should not be preferred to the testimony of the NT, Josephus, and Philo.

His final remarks are cautionary as he warns against three approaches (p. 106): ‘The first is the reductionist approach, which accounts for the appeal of Christianity by identifying its dynamic primarily or even exclusively with economic or political factors. Second is the abstractionist approach, such as that of structuralism, which subsumes all the evidence under a rigid, allegedly universal pattern of binary opposition, in which every action evokes its opposite. Third is the formalist approach, which chooses a set of categories, ostensibly deriving from the social sciences, and then forces the evidence of Christian origins into this pattern, obscuring important differences by sweeping generalizations.’

On a more positive note as illustrated in his own books, Kee urges: ‘Rather, the historian must seek to enter into the symbolic universe of the community that produced this evidence, and to identify both what the shared assumptions were as well as what explicit claims and norms were declared by the group. Unless this analytical approach is undertaken, it is virtually certain that the unconscious assumptions and values of the interpreter will be imposed on the ancient evidence’ (p. 53). To assist scholars in this task, Kee has prepared in chapter III a list of questions on boundary, authority, status, role, ritual, group function, symbolic universe, and social construction of reality issues.

If there is a weakness in Kee’s otherwise excellent volume, it is his failure to be critical of certain sociological constructs such as ‘cognitive dissonance’ (p. 67), used in such commended works as John Gager’s Kingdom and Community (p. 116). This concept was developed from Leon Festinger’s flawed conclusions about the disappointments of a flying saucer cult! (See my ‘Sociology, Scripture and the Supernatural’, JETS 27 (1984), pp. 169–192.)

Edwin Yamauchi

Miami University, Oxford, Ohio