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Sociological Criticism of the Old Testament

by Norman K. Gottwald

Dr. Gottwald is Wilbert Webster White professor of Biblical studies at New York Theological Seminary. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 21, 1982, p. 474. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Sociological criticism addresses long-noticed social features of the biblical text. The single most pervasive subject of the Old Testament traditions is the community of Israel itself. It is equally apparent that Israel lived in differing forms of social organization over its long history: as extended families or clans under patriarchs, as tribes during the period from Moses to Saul, first as one and later as two kingdoms from David to the destruction of Jerusalem, as refugees groups in homeland and exile, and as a colony under great empires with home rule dually exercised by priests and governors after the exile.

Transitions between the phases of Israelite social organization -- from tribes to kingship or from refugee status to colonization -- were stormy and strongly contested within the community. Clashes between opposing socioeconomic and political interests surfaced in what were supposedly purely “religious” reform movements, such as the communal reorganizations achieved by the Deuteronomic party and by Nehemiah. Conflicting social interests were at work in the regional divisions between northern Israel and southern Judah, notably in the rift between Samaritans and Jews.

If the Old Testament is self-evidently social, what is so controversial about sociological criticism? The sore point lies in the move from social observation to sociological criticism. “Social” is a catch-all category for group behaviors and meanings, whereas “sociological” refers to methods and theories for systematically describing and explaining group behaviors and meanings.

We can best appreciate the controversy over sociological criticism of the Bible by noting the impact of scientific method in the history of biblical studies. Each new form of biblical criticism has offered explanations for biblical features previously passed over or explained on the basis of common sense, prejudice or dogma. In every instance, the new critical method was both resisted and welcomed.

A major leap in understanding occurred when literary criticism introduced methods and theories to explain authorship, dates and sources of Old Testament writings. “Defenders of the Bible” rejected the appropriateness of applying such criteria to a sacred book with a single divine author. Literary criticism went on to vindicate itself and eventually to lay bare features of biblical literature that could be treated only by the introduction of form criticism, tradition-historical criticism and redaction criticism, and, more recently, by new literary criticism, rhetorical criticism and structuralism.

A similar qualitative leap in understanding took place as historical criticism supplied methods and models of historical inquiry, on the assumption that the biblical accounts, like all reporting, expressed the selective viewpoints of human observers. Reactionaries rejected the legitimacy of applying such criteria to a sacred history that was thought to have happened exactly as related, requiring only a harmonizing of apparent discrepancies. Historical criticism proceeded to demonstrate its validity by uncovering the history of Israel within its ancient Near Eastern milieu and by clarifying the connections between that history and the growth of the biblical literature.

Do the older methods of biblical criticism capture all the important dimensions of Scripture? Suppose that literary and historical criticism began a process of understanding that only additional forms of criticism can complete. The adequacy of our understanding of the biblical text is at stake in the qualitative leap from social observation to sociological criticism, a process for examining biblical social behavior and self-understanding according to methods and theories developed for the study of social reality at large. But do we want that kind of social knowledge and understanding? Predictably, there is fear that study of biblical religion as an aspect of social systems will undercut the uniqueness of the Bible and plunge believers into “unspiritual” social controversy.

A loose body of social observations has accumulated concerning patriarchs on the move, the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness, and the tribal organization of the settled Israelites. From these observations, theories were constructed about Israelite pastoral nomads from the desert who invaded or infiltrated Canaan. These theories were formulated by biblical critics on the basis of na´ve precritical sociological assumptions.

With the presumably self-evident “desert origins” model of pastoral nomads in mind, it was easy to cite parallels among pre-Islamic Bedouins. With the “religion as chief cause of Israelite society” assumption in view, it was tempting to find parallels to inter-tribal Israel among the Greek sacral leagues (amphictyonies) by which city-states joined for worship and the upkeep and protection of a central shrine. Cross-cultural comparisons from Arabia and Greece gave the appearance of sociological support without an actual sustained application of social-scientific method to all the steps of inquiry, especially to the initial undergirding assumptions.

The tenuousness of precritical biblical social models is exposed by a few elementary questions. Is it true that all, or most, tribal people are pastoral nomads? No. While some tribalists are pastoral nomads or hunters, fishers and gatherers in environments with abundant wild food, most tribally organized people are engaged in simple agriculture.

Are all population movements nomadic? Not at all. People sometimes move because of historical or natural displacement; movements are nomadic only when people migrate in regular itineraries in the pursuit of their occupation. Are all the tribal features of early Israel signs of pastoral nomadism or of pastoral nomadic survivals? By no means. Israel’s tribal traits are better understood as indicators of a “retribalizing” village network with a peasant base incorporating some pastoral nomads on the fringes of Canaan. Similarly, some biblical population movements were more historical than occupational -- notably the exodus from Egypt as a flight from oppression.

George E. Mendenhall first declared that the pastoral nomadic theory, like the proverbial emperor, “has no clothes” (“The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” the Biblical Archaeologist 25 [1962], pp. 66-87). Mendenhall proposed the alternative model of a peasant uprising among the Canaanite lower classes, catalyzed by escaped slaves from Egypt who brought the religion of Yahweh into the ranks of the insurgent peasants. His hypothesis was largely ignored or dismissed, even after he elaborated it in The Tenth Generation: Origins of the Biblical Tradition (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973). Nevertheless, the capacity of the model to throw light on broad areas of Israelite origins could not be neglected indefinitely. For one thing, it illuminated the prominence of the exodus and warrior-god imagery of Israel’s religion. Moreover, it accorded with the abundance of agricultural references in the earliest traditions of Israel. It also made social historical sense of the strong indications that only a fraction of early Israelites participated in the exodus and that the Joshua narration a massive Israelite invasion and annihilation of Canaanites was a late “revisionist” interpretation by the Deuteronomists.

Recently I have advanced an expanded and amended version of an early Israelite social revolution in The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E. (Orbis, 1979). An array of biblical, archaeological, social theoretical and comparative anthropological and social historical data was marshaled to argue a form of the hypothesis diverging from Mendenhall in important respects. I laid greater stress on the protracted and many-sided revolutionary struggle that elicited varying responses from different sectors of the Canaanite populace. I also emphasized that, while Israel’s tribal system was not a state, it was a form of political-military organization that used force to establish its domain in the hill country against the counterrevolutionary force of Canaanite city-states. Furthermore, I urged that the religion of Yahweh, though a vital ideological force in the movement, was not a sole or isolated cause of all the accompanying events and processes but an aspect of the total social complex that ranged from techno-environmental realities to the symbolic and ritual culture of the new religion.

If the hypothesis of social revolution as the matrix of biblical Israel stands, it will be qualified and deepened beyond any of its present formulations. In assessing the hypothesis, social scientific methods and theories will be fully acknowledged as privileged factors in the inquiry. It will no longer be tenable to spin out social models about early Israel as “hunches” derived from simplistic readings of the literary and historical data, or as “wishes” expressing the interpreters’ social and theological preferences. To argue, for example, that the biblical deity would never have been party to a social revolution will become as scientifically and religiously foolish as to contend that God would never have created the world by an evolutionary process.

Curiously, the monarchy has not been extensively treated to date with social-scientific methodology. Scholars within the Social World of Ancient Israel Group (1975-81) of the Society of Biblical Literature, and in preparation for a Seminar on the Sociology of the Israelite Monarchy (1982-86), have just begun to tap rich resources in state formation theory.

Prophecy, last treated with social theoretical depth by Max Weber, is coming under renewed sociological scrutiny. Robert R. Wilson in Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Fortress, 1980) employs anthropological data on prophetlike figures whom he calls intermediaries between the spirit world and the human world. He traces how societies shape and credential the intermediary roles and how intermediaries function both as supporters of the central establishment and as critics and irritants on the periphery of the society. Wilson uses the results discriminatingly to clarify options for understanding biblical prophets in their social roles.

Along related lines, Anthropological Perspectives on Old Testament Prophecy (Semeia, no. 21, 1982) contains essays by Martin 1. Buss (call narratives), Burke O. Long (prophetic conflict), Thomas W. Overholt (cross-cultural comparison), and Robert R. Wilson (apocalyptic), with responses by anthropologists Kenelm Burridge and I. M. Lewis and by biblical critic N. K. Gottwald. In addition to the anthropological data, we need to gather social historical information on prophets and prophetic movements in literate societies and to trace the social and religious contradictions in conflict situations as perceived by the prophetic parties (see my reference in Semeia 21 to the essay by Henri Mottu on ideology in Jeremiah, to be republished in The Bible and Liberation, revised edition, edited by N. K. Gottwald [Orb is, forthcoming]).

Working with the cognitive dissonance theory of Leon Festinger, Robert R. Carroll has analyzed how prophetic promises were seen to be fulfilled by modifying their interpretation in order to adjust for delays or contrary events that threatened to disconfirm the original understandings. In When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament (Seabury, 1979), Carroll concentrates on Isaiah and Haggai-Zechariah and proposes social functions for the inner-biblical reinterpretation of texts which redaction criticism, canonical criticism and midrash studies have approached from other angles.

Social factors in apocalyptic are advanced by Paul O. Hanson in The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Fortress, 1975). Through a literary and conceptual assessment of Isaiah 56-66 and Zechariah 9-14, Hanson detects a movement from proto-apocalyptic Deutero-Isaiah to full-blown apocalyptic, all within a century or so of the return from exile. The social component is an early postexilic power struggle between a defeated “visionary” faction of disciples of Deutero-Isaiah and a victorious “hierocratic” or priestly faction of Zadokites. Ezekiel, Haggai-Zechariah, and Chronicles are products of the hierocratic faction, while the apocalyptic texts of Trito-Isaiah and Deutero-Zechariah are the products of the visionary faction. Hanson believes that, because the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah subsequently reduced socioreligious conflict, apocalyptic did not re-emerge with force until later Maccabean times.

In contrast to the extensive use of social scientific theory in the works of Gottwald, Wilson and Carroll, Hanson’s use of sociological theory is confined to limited citation of categories from Karl Mannheim, Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch as alternative ways of typifying the hierocratic and visionary parties. Hanson’s early dating of full-blown apocalyptic and his sharp division of the postexilic society into two parties are in dispute, along with his claim that apocalyptic developed directly out of communities of frustrated prophets. Wilson (Semeia 21) contends that apocalyptic was a form of expression that tended to emerge among any socially blocked group in postexilic Israel, irrespective of office or tradition.

Walter Brueggemann has sketched a trajectory of conflicting Israelite social groups correlated with a trajectory of literary and theological traditions (Journal of Biblical Literature 98 [1979], pp. 161-85). This endeavor at a grid for the whole of Israelite socioreligious history both indicates the potentialities in sociological method and pinpoints major gaps in our knowledge. Brueggemann’s placement of certain texts is problematic, and the lack of analysis of the political economy (modes of production) leaves much to be done before such trajectories can be offered with sufficient detail and persuasion. Meanwhile, George V. Pixley, in God’s Kingdom: A Guide for Biblical Study (Orbis, 1981), provides a brief initial articulation of the modes of production during the several eras of biblical history.

Contributions from the social theorists Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx are entering increasingly into sociological criticism of the Bible. Among the influential aspects of their work are Durkheim’s understanding of religious beliefs as social facts and of the division of labor in society; Weber’s fascination with the interplay between economics and religion and his analysis of traditional, charismatic and bureaucratic forms of authority; and Marx’s analysis of the modes of production and his comprehensive grasp of the conditioning force of political economy on societal structure and ideology.

I find methodological and conceptual values in all these theorists. In my efforts to grasp the social formation of early Israel in all its interacting facets, I concluded that Marx provided the most inclusive, dynamic and incisive model of human society, within which the work of Durkheim, Weber and others can be incorporated constructively (Tribes of Yahweh, chapters 50-51). Evaluation of the adequacy of methods, theories and research strategies will dearly be a vital aspect of a maturing sociological criticism.

I have been asked by readers of The Tribes of Yahweh if theology is still possible in the wake of sociological criticism of the Bible. It seems that many people are still operating with a “God in the gaps” notion of theology: whatever cannot be explained by some other theory remains the province of theology, while whatever can be convincingly explained by some other theory is denied to theology. This way of conceiving theology raises the specter of “reductionism” with its fear that theology will lose more -- maybe even all -- of its sacred ground.

What about this reductionist charge against sociological criticism? Every method of knowing involves reduction of what is studied to regularities in phenomena and to abstractions about the relationships of the phenomena. Literary criticism reduces texts. Historical criticism reduces events. Sociological criticism reduces social structures and processes. Theological criticism reduces religious beliefs and practices. Frankly, no discipline is more radical in its reductions than theology, which asserts how data drawn from many realms of experience and ways of knowing can be plausibly subsumed under the rubrics of God, humanity, sin, grace, faith, eschatology or whatever categories are favored.

The mandate of theology is continually to re-examine its status and ground in relation both to faith and to all the data it alleges to explain. Theology is an inevitable trafficker in reductionist currencies, since it must take into account whatever is plausibly validated by other ways of knowing, especially when referring to data which form part of its own prime evidence, as in the case of biblical traditions. One such significant prime datum is the growing disclosure that ancient Israel’s religion was a function of -- as well as a set of symbols and practices within -- a long conflictual social history that had revolutionary origins (Tribes of Yahweh, chapters 55-56).

Insofar as theology is an arm of the church, the church itself is called to grapple with the social conflictual origins and substance of its own Bible and to ponder deeply what all this means for the church’s placement in society and for its social mission.


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