SOCIAL LOCATION: The Importance of Recognising Point of View:
In a church group where I was making a presentation about the recent Biblical research on Empire Scholarship, one person raised the question of ‘why’. Why do we have this latest biblical scholarship? What evidence has brought it about?
I’ve read a number of books about Empire Scholarship (or empire critique). I’ve been writing on this subject for the past year and reading about it for much longer. I’ve developed a bibliography of over 100 books produced over the last 25 years that have been written about it. But until his question, I hadn’t found it necessary to answer that ‘why’ question. As a matter of fact, very few of the books on my list deal with it. Maybe only three do. Two of them are books by Adam Winn and Joerg Rieger and are in the Further Reading suggestions below. My third source I can’t remember; I’ll have to put it in later when I find it.
I gave the questioner the usual answer of why scholars have come up with a new approach in looking at the New Testament and the early church. Either some new texts have been found that were written from the first two centuries of the Common Era (C.E.). Or archaeologists have unearthed new material that bears upon that time. Neither of these new material sources were the real reason for the new view. So what has brought about this new approach?
It hasn’t been the uncovering of new material that has brought about the new look at the New Testament. Nor has it been from discovering flaws in the insights of previous Biblical scholars or previous approaches. No, it is something else. It has to do with what scholars call ‘social location’. It is the social location held, in the main, by previous biblical scholars that has come into question.
All people have a social location that is defined by their gender, race, social class, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and geographic location. We cannot escape having a social location. But we can be more or less conscious of our location and how it affects the way we look at our world or a previous one. Here is how a pastor/writer, Brian Zahnd, describes it:
“I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.
I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.”
Biblical scholars and theologians of the 18th to 20th centuries were not aware of their social location. If they were Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, British, French, Dutch, Belgians, or Germans, they were citizens of a country that had colonies in Asia , Africa, and/or Latin America. They were elites in an empire. But this perspective almost never entered into their writings.
The result is that they saw the Roman Empire in a favorable light. They spoke of the Roman roads which made easier the spread of the Gospel; they saw standardizing of the Greek and Latin languages making communicating the Good News easier across the empire. What they couldn’t empathize with was what it felt like to be at the bottom of the heap in a brutalizing empire.
“Thus the place of privilege held by many interpreters kept them from recognising the primary players in the New Testament for what they actually were, namely, the poor, oppressed, powerless, and dominated people of the Roman Empire. Without recognising the people of the New Testament as a dominated people, there was no real hope of seeing in their writings a critique of the powerful.” (Adam Winn, 2015 page 2)
The social location of Biblical scholars prevented them from recognising the social location of the persons by whom and for whom the New Testament was written, and it therefore made them miss the critique in the New Testament of the oppressive, exploitative Roman Empire from the view of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus had proclaimed. And from the viewpoint of early followers of Jesus who were mostly peasants and slaves of the Roman Empire, not the privileged elite.
According to Rieger. “The problem with empire has to do with forms of top-down control that are established on the back of the empire’s subjects and that do not allow those within its reach to pursue alternative purposes.”
Further, he says, empires are “so overpowering and so pressing that those living under their rule cannot remain neutral. They have no other choice than to develop forms of resistance, however small and insignificant,..”
There are other factors which have contributed to empire scholarship. One of them is a misperception that we share with previous Biblical scholars, differing from those of the first century . We, like early Biblical scholars, tend to see religion and politics as separate arenas. That is because we are post-Enlightenment people. Again, from the same book by Winn:
“Since the New Testament was a religious book and the Western world created a sharp divide between the interests of the state and religion, it was presumed that the New Testament would have little interest in political realities…Thus, by imposing its own dichotomy between religion and state onto the New Testament, the modern Western world was blinded to many ways in which the New Testament might be engaging or responding to Roman imperial realities.”
For Further Reading
Carter, Warren. 2006. The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdon.
Porter, Stanley E., and Cynthia Long Westfall, eds. 2011. Empire in the New Testament. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
Rieger, Joerg Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, 2007
Winn, Adam, An Introduction to Empire in the New Testament 2016
Zahn, Brian My Problem with the Bible, Blog:
In my next article I will illustrate how these two factors are found in the New Testament and the early church. If you are interested in being notified when I am posting subsequent writings, you may click the ‘follow’ button either on this blog or, preferably, on my Facebook page, Subversive Church.