I have just finished reading Bruce J. Malina’s and John J. Pilch’s latest contribution to the “Social Science Commentary” series: Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts. It is no secret that I am a great fan of this series. After all, I have focused years of my life and reputation on them; basing my Context Group Version translation of the Bible upon the results of their research. I have a standing order with Amazon for any new releases in this series. They have not let me down and despite some repetition between the volumes, I always glean new insights from each release. They remain the most marked up, highlighted, book-marked, and “margin-noted” books in my rather vast library.
The current volume is no exception. In fact, there is more information in the introduction that will impact your study of the Bible than do most commentary series throughout. Seminary professors and Adult Sunday School teachers would be well served to copy these first 11 pages (with adequate permission, of course) for study in their classrooms. They will open up the cultural context in which the New Testament was written and first read (an interpreted) like no other. Here is a small sampling of what lies within:
On modern historian’s anachronistic reading of the Bible:
For example, all historians know that the separation of church and state and of bank and state is an eighteenth-century phenomenon…Rather religion and economics were substantial institutions that were embedded in politics, resulting in political religion and political economy…To be historically accurate, then, Jesus project was an enterprise in political religion; the Jesus groups that emerged from his communication of the innovation of a forthcoming Israelite political theocracy (that is, his preaching of a Kingdom of heaven/God, or the reign of God) were domestic religious groups awaiting this new Israelite theocracy. (Pg. 1-2)
The assumptions of “history” and what constitutes “historical writing” were also different when Luke put his pen to the scrolls:
A number of scholars have demonstrated how before the nineteenth century there was no sense of history as we use the term today. Today people believe the past was different from the present, and hence people today need not be bound to the past. Before the nineteenth century, it was generally believed that people in the past were just as we are in all significant dimensions. The purpose of history was to present slices of living that illustrate unchanging truths about human nature and God’s judgment through a series of transparent instances of timeless truths, as a process of verifiable and meaningful change. (Pg. 4; emphasis added)
Our modern world view, the not only separates the “spiritual” from the “physical,” “heaven” from “earth,” and “miracle” from “reality” would be regarded as madness in the first century (as it’s reverse is in ours).
[T]his kind of anachronistic judgment is based on a worldview that distinguishes natural from supernatural…In antiquity, there was no such distinction until Origen. It was quite natural for God (and gods) to interact with humans and vice-versa. The objective world was full of humans as well as demons, angels, spirits, and deities. Although ordinary people experienced that objective world, there were some persons experienced in interacting with nonhuman personages. These persons were holy men and women. (Pg. 6; emphasis added)
In addition to the cultural analysis, the authors also give some invaluable insights into the literary structure of the book of Acts. I cite only a few:
The main sections of Acts are based on two commands of the resurrected Jesus: the first command to the Eleven (soon to be Twelve) (Acts 1:8), and the second command to Saul/Paul (Acts 9:15). The Twelve are to witness to the resurrected Jesus in Judea and Samaria up to the boundary of the land of Israel. Paul, on the other hand, is to witness before kings and many sons of Israel living in non-Israelite territory. (Pg 9)
..Luke-Acts is not concerned about the outgroup. This means that these volumes are not documents for outsiders. They are not composed to be shared with non-Jesus group members to read, so that they might become Jesus group members. On the contrary, they are documents to be read within specific groups to maintain those groups in their loyalty to the God of Israel.. In other words, Luke-Acts was not written for missionizing or proselytizing. (Pg 10)
Whether you agree or disagree with their assessments, the authors Malina and Pilch make for interesting reading. This is not to say that I agree with all of their positions. I certainly do not, though I find them all challenging and intriguing. In many cases, they follow much more liberal positions regarding the scriptures than I can maintain. For example, they give credence to the more modern position that Israel was a “mythical” nation prior to the “return from exile” out of Persia (pg 27). The central tenant of Israelite theology was not monotheistic but henotheistic (pg 220 among others); that Paul only wrote part of the corpus of letters currently attributed to him. However, the prize still goes to their assertion that the early church had no mission to Gentiles at all; their only concern was for Jews living in Gentile lands. Though this was tolerable in their volumes on the Gospels, is wears thin in this volume as well as in their book on the letters of Paul.
I have covered my critique of this assertion in my review of that earlier work here. However, they have added a new wrinkle in this book. Apparently the Apostle would not bother preaching to the Gentiles because they would have no interest in such an “Israelite” message. Uhhhh. How then did we get into the condition we have today where the majority of Christians are Gentiles? I take it that at least at some time some Gentiles became interested!
Nevertheless, this book, like all the others in the series, is magnificent. Just the introduction and the “reading scenarios” at the back are worth the price. However, the detailed analysis they offer in the middle will open up new vistas of interpretation for most readers and can’t be slighted either. In short, buy this book.