Hanson and Oakman write so readers will "learn to take seriously the distance between ourselves and the ancients," so we can read the Gospels in the right context, so we may "learn to work and think cross culturally," and so we can recognize the complexity of the hermeneutical task (pp. 161-163). They invite the reader to ponder what is culture-bound, what requires translation, and what is clear enough transculturally without such translation. These are questions to which our grappling with Biblical texts inevitably drives us sooner or later. This work does not seek to answer all such questions, but it does sharpen them and provides information useful for our reflection.
Each chapter opens with questions about Jesus and the Gospels and then reviews the data from the ancient Mediterranean world. Chapter one introduces social-science models and social structures in ancient Palestine, chap. two kinship (including marriage, gender roles, dowry, and divorce), chap. three politics and patronage (the application of patron-client models to Galilee is somewhat controversial but has value), chap. four political economy (including the preparation and sale of fish, the use of caravans, trade, taxation, and debts), and chap. five political religion.
Any work about antiquity employing modern social-science models may risk the danger of extrapolating from generalizations conceived in very different cultural contexts. The best way to guard against this danger is to work from as much concrete data as possible from the ancient society in question. The positive value of such extrapolations, however, is that even when we must make educated guesses in the absence of solid data, an educated guess is better than an uneducated one. Extrapolations based on analogous cultures are far more likely to prove correct than uninformed readings simply from our own often quite distant cultural assumptions.
Much more than some earlier social-science works dealing with ancient societies, Hanson and Oakman ground their conclusions in concrete data. They are careful to define the nature of their analogies clearly, e.g. advanced agrarian societies and slave economies. They properly reject comparisons of Jesus with Cynic philosophers (an urban model, pace Mack and Crossan). They recognize that Jesus, though ministering in a largely "peasant society," was himself an artisan rather than a peasant. They also define their social-science models more carefully than do many writers today, and, in keeping with current social-science approaches, appear to apply the models heuristically-that is, finding the models that fit their data rather than conforming the data to the models. Sometimes they could have found closer modelse.g. synagogue prayer for authorities tells us more specifically about 1 Tim 2:14 than the more general questions they ask-but their purpose here is not so much to explore all points of specific background as to invite fresh, relevant ways of thinking about the texts.
They ask useful comparative questions, helping readers most familiar with our culture to understand the integration of religion with other social structures in antiquity such as group identity, kinship and gender patterns, the nature of the economy, life expectancy, and parental role in spouse choice. While using modern studies of analogous cultures, they derive their ancient material from sources like the OT, Apocrypha, Josephus, and the Mishnah rather than much later sources (they also cite archaeological data and Roman sources where relevant).
Those unfamiliar with social-science models could learn from this book even if they skipped the introduction to social systems (chap. one) and used only the index. Nevertheless, comments on passages make more sense in the context of the larger treatments that Hanson and Oakman provide, so the reader will profit most by reading the work more thoroughly, especially the introduction. The authors also provide suggested reading at the conclusion of each chapter for those who wish to pursue such questions further.
The work includes less specific cultural information on the NT setting than, say, Everett Ferguson or James Jeffers, but should prove useful for probing ways to apply social-science models to NT (especially Gospels) study. As such, it would be useful not only as one of several texts for a backgrounds course but also as one of several texts for a hermeneutics course.