The last decade has seen a growing recognition among biblical scholars
that the agrarian society of antiquity differed markedly from that of
contemporary America. Simultaneously, important studies have appeared
demonstrating how language, including biblical language, derives its
meaning from the social system in which it is embedded. Language cannot be
understood apart from the social context that produced it.|
It is in this light that the volume by Hanson and Oakman is designed to
provide the reader an overview of the social system in which the Gospels
were produced. It begins by enumerating a series of fundamental
differences between the social institutions, values, and social patterns
of U.S. society and those of first-century Palestine. The first century
knew nothing of the separation of church and state, individualism and
individual rights, social mobility, career change, or neo-local marriage.
We know little about the precariousness of peasant farming, arranged
marriages, the evil eye, or limited good.
The book identifies four basic soical domains: kinship, politics,
economics, and religion. Hanson and Oakman argue that in agrarian
societies, politics and religion are deeply embedded in kinship and
politics. The result is that there is kinship religion and political
religion, but no such thing as independent religion. There is a kin-based
economy and political economy, but no economy that is independent of
either. The result is a set of social dynamics that differ markedly from
anything we know today.
The book illustrates the ways in which economics and religion emerge and
are played out inside the realms of kinship and politics. Given
contemporary interest in the religious meaning of Jesus, this is
where we get the real payoff in the "systems" approach the book advocates.
Both the actions and the teachings of Jesus are shown to derive their
meaning from the social system in which they are embedded.
Undergraduates, seminarians, pastors, and the generally educated reader
will appreciate the extensive glossaries (thematically organized), charts,
figures, and bibliographies. The net result is the best (and most
accessible) overview of the social system of ancient Palestine currently
available for the general reader.