John H. Elliott’s Social-Scientific Criticism -- By: James D. Dvorak

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 28:2 (Fall 2007)
Article: John H. Elliott’s Social-Scientific Criticism
Author: James D. Dvorak


John H. Elliott’s Social-Scientific Criticism

James D. Dvorak*

* James D. Dvorak is a part-time faculty member at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, as well as an adjunct instructor at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

I. Introduction

The past thirty years of biblical studies has seen the substantial growth and impact of social-scientific criticism of the Bible. Barton attributes, but does not limit, its rise to the following factors:

The rise to prominence of the social sciences from the late nineteenth century on, and the impact of the sociology of knowledge in a wide range of academic disciplines; the influence on interpretation theory of the hermeneutics of suspicion represented by such intellectual giants as Nietzsche, Durkheim, Marx, and Freud; the exhaustion of the historical-critical method as traditionally understood, and the failure of form criticism to fulfil its promise of identifying the Sitze im Leben of New Testament texts; shifts in historiography generally away from the “great man” view of history typical of Romanticism to one more attentive to history “from below,” with a much stronger popular and sociological dimension; the influence of the discovery of texts and archaeological remains, as at Qumran, which provide important new comparative data for social history and sociological analysis; and the surfacing of different kinds of questions to put to the New Testament in the light of developments in twentieth-century theology, not least, the failure of liberal theology and the urgent concerns (often of a social and political kind) raised by liberation and feminist theologies.1

Because of these factors and others like them, it has become the norm for students of biblical studies to learn that determining the cultural background of biblical texts is as integral a part of the exegetical process as determining the historical background of the texts.2

Several questions come to mind regarding social-scientific criticism: (1) What exactly is social-scientific criticism? (2) How does it relate to the more traditional historical methods of criticism? (3) What real or potential contributions can social-scientific criticism make to biblical studies? (4) What are the limitations of social-scientific criticism? (5) What does social-scientific criticism’s methodology look like? The purpose of this article is to investigate the answers to these questions. More specifically, this article will analyze social-scientific criticism from the perspecti...

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