The Beginnings of Christianity

An Introduction to the New Testament

by Howard Clark Kee

New York: T&T Clark, 2005, vii + 502 pp.
$39.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Bruce Chilton
How can we come to know the living communities of people, with all the economic and political challenges they faced, who produced the 27 documents presented in the New Testament? Howard Clark Kee, professor emeritus from Boston University, has been a pivotal figure in the development of social-historical approaches to the texts that seek to answer that question.

Those who engage in social history have needed to broaden the range of evidence they address as they read the New Testament. Historical, cultural, religious, magical, political and philosophical sources from a wide variety of contexts must be assessed, among them the wider Hellenistic world, particular communities within the Greco-Roman world and the various streams of Judaism that run through the entire period. In addition, social historians have come to evaluate archaeological evidence more in terms of how it reveals sociological and anthropological patterns—the social worlds of antiquity—rather than as offering alleged proof that the Bible is historically accurate (or not) in one detail or another.

Professor Kee has proven an especially clear-headed contributor to an understanding of the New Testament within its volatile social worlds. Unlike some scholars in this field, he has committed himself to writing lucid prose that sets out the data he is reasoning from and specifies the connection he sees with the New Testament. He also works his way through texts in a detailed way, rather than resorting to abstract models of society in the ancient world. When sociological data is dense, for example in the case of a modern census report, there might be enough information to draw up a detailed graph of social relations. But in the case of ancient societies such graphs are highly speculative, and Kee has long proceeded with a conscious appreciation of the limits of our knowledge.

In his justly renowned books, Kee has never lost sight of his exegetical aim: the social worlds of the New Testament are used to understand the texts, rather than the reverse. He calls attention to the specifics of the history and meaning of the documents that make up the canon, rather than reducing them to a single, lowest common denominator of social strata. The house churches of the wealthy and the tenement meetings of slaves, for example, have persistently had a place side by side in his expositions.

In another respect Kee’s close attention to what the texts of the New Testament say, not only to their social settings, has drawn some criticism over the past 20 years. But he has rightly insisted that the message of these documents is irreducibly theological, so that referring to what they say about God draws from knowledge of their social context but cannot be limited to issues of social circumstance without seriously distorting their meaning. So should the social historian ignore the theological message of the New Testament or somehow stretch his method to accommodate it? The interpretation of texts that address transcendent issues is difficult to reconcile with a concentration upon social concerns.

The Beginnings of Christianity attempts just that reconciliation: to unite an analysis of theological meaning with a grasp of the social worlds of the New Testament. Intellectually, this represents an innovative development in social-historical reading over the past two decades (and also makes serious demands on the reader).

The key to the project is found at the beginning and the end of this book. Kee proposes to read the texts in terms of what they say about epistemology (how people can know what they claim to know), about sociology (the social group the texts belong to) and about eschatology (what the texts expect God will do with humanity at the end of time). Kee sees answers to these questions implicit from the beginning of history within the Hebrew Bible and ancient Christianity. But at the end of the book, indeed in one of its penetrating excurses, he points out that our understanding of history changed during the 20th century as a result of our awareness of changing social contexts in the ancient world. The issue is no longer only, What exactly happened? but also—How did the people who shaped the texts see the meaning of events?

With good reason, Professor Kee is relentless in his criticism of the Jesus Seminar for failing to adjust to this central awareness of what history is, which has been prevalent in the Humanities since the Second World War. The positivist picture that reduces history to weeding “subjective” opinions out of the garden of “objective” was superseded long ago, and only Fundamentalists and old-fashioned liberals still support it.

Nonetheless, the Jesus Seminar reverted to what I call the Sgt. Joe Friday approach to the biblical history: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Fortunately, the witness does not have to follow the script of “Dragnet.” Scripture does not sob, look up, and change her tune to suit the interrogators. She is either heard in terms of the vision she wants to convey in her own language or not understood at all.

Professor Kee makes this plain throughout his detailed introduction. Those who take up the challenge of his critical perspective may well want to consider some other works in association with Kee’s. Recent work on synagogues, for example, suggests they were already well represented in Galilee and Judea during the first century (see Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery, edited by Dan Urman and Paul V.M. Flesher [Leiden: Brill, 1995]), and Jesus’ relationship to Israelite issues of purity was not as negative as Kee assumes (see Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans; Jesus in Context. Temple, Purity and Restoration: Arbeiten zur Geschichte des Antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums XXXIX [Leiden: Brill, 1997]). Although Kee’s criticism of Rudolf Bultmann is incisive, his reversion to the old German habit of calling the Judaism of Jesus’ time “late Judaism,” as if it were a debased form of the religion, is unfortunate. Lastly, the impact of Stoicism upon Paul has been traced to specific Stoic teachers in Tarsus, a city whose intellectual environment exercised a deep influence on Paul’s thought until the end of the life (see Chilton, Rabbi Paul. An Intellectual Biography [New York: Doubelday, 2004]).

These are examples of bumps in the road along an interesting and innovative journey into a new territory, where social worlds and theological messages meet. In that meeting, the social-historical approach to the New Testament changes because it becomes obvious that the social worlds of the canon included their communities’ convictions about, and experiences of, the divine. When people anchor their reality in their belief in God, that alters their social landscape irrevocably. As Kee shows, you will never understand what the New Testament writers say if you try to ignore the transcendent aspect of their beliefs. It is worth noting that most of the literature of antiquity is theologically grounded; for example, most of the Roman officials on record who permitted pogroms or pursued legal actions against Christians did so out of loyalty to the genius, or spirit, of the emperor. Ignoring appeals to the transcendent in a blinkered limitation to allegedly empirical data will only result in a misunderstanding of the ancient world (and, come to that, most of the modern world).

The meeting of social history with ancient conceptions of the transcendent has another, equally profound, result. There was a time when the methods of theological reading were used to produce a homogenized reading of the New Testament in order to support doctrinal findings along confessional lines. Although that orientation lingers, it was long ago discredited in critical discussion by an historical analysis of the individual texts involved. Now the social historical approach of Professor Kee and contributors like him has demonstrated that, just as the old theological approach constrained the texts in doctrinal shackles, so too have many social-historical approaches been reductionistic in limiting interpretation to sociological data rather than considering issues of meaning. When the texts are heard in terms of what they wish to say, they voice a variety of beliefs, by no means all consistent with one another.

Professor Kee has articulated the fundamental challenge to New Testament interpretation during the 21st century: to open our consideration of social world to include beliefs in transcendent reality and to allow the voices of different, sometimes competing, communities to speak in all their theological diversity.

Bruce Chilton’s latest book, Mary Magdalene. A Biography, is available from Doubleday.

How did Christianity become a religion distinct from its Jewish origins? Read The Origin of Christianity in Bible History Daily.

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