Berger and New Testament Studies
In the early 1970s New Testament scholars began to rekindle an interest in the social dimensions of early Christianity.1 Social questions were by no means new to the agenda for historical studies of early Christianity – they had been prominently addressed in diverse ways much earlier in the century, by scholars such as Adolf Deissmann, Shirley Jackson Case, Shailer Mathews, and Karl Kautsky – but for a variety of reasons they had come to be somewhat neglected. By the 1970s, it seemed to a number of scholars that New Testament studies, in its focus on the development of early Christian theology, had rather lost sight of the social realities in which those theological ideas were enmeshed. In Robin Scroggs’ (1980) oft-quoted words, ‘too often the discipline of the theology of the New Testament (the history of ideas) operates out of a methodological docetism, as if believers had minds and spirits unconnected with their individual and corporate bodies’ (p. 165). The aim of those who sought to revive an interest in the social aspects of early Christianity was, again in Scroggs’ words, ‘to put body and soul together again’ (p. 166). In 1973 a group was established under the auspices of the US-based Society of Biblical Literature to study the social world of early Christianity (see Smith, 1975). In Germany, the ‘sociological’ approach to the New Testament was almost single-handedly brought to prominence by Gerd Theissen, who published a series of now classic articles between 1973 and 1975.2
As scholars sought to develop their understanding of the social dimensions of early Christianity it was natural that they should turn to the social sciences – themselves expanding in the 1960s and 1970s – for resources to help them in their task. Indeed, in the succeeding decades New Testament scholars have drawn upon a wide variety of theories, models and methods, from sociology, anthropology, social psychology and allied disciplines, in their attempts to illuminate the context and character of the earliest Christian movement. What have come to be known as ‘socialscientific’ approaches are now well established and widely employed in the field of New Testament studies.3 And since 1972, when his co-authored
theoretical treatise (Berger and Luckmann, 1996b) was (to my knowledge) taken up by a New Testament scholar, Peter Berger’s work has remained among the most widely used theoretical resources – and for good reason, as we shall see below. In this chapter I shall first outline some examples of the ways in which Berger’s work has been employed in studies of the New Testament. These are, let me stress, only selected examples from what could be an extensive list. Then I shall reflect on both the significant gains and the critical questions that seem to me to remain.