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Sociology of Early Christianity: By Way of Introduction

Author(s): Anthony J. Blasi

Source: Sociology of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 299-303
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Sociology of Religion
1997, 58:4 299-303
Sociology of Early Christianity
By Way of Introduction
Anthony J. Blasi
Tennessee State University
The articles that follow
by Harry W. Eberts, David Horrell,
Pietersen - should occasion some satisfaction on the part
sociologists of
religion. Each article reports a study by a scholar from another discipline who
has benefited from our own line of work. It has not always been so; many earlier
works in the sociology of early Christianity involved forced impositions of our
theoretical frameworks and terms of art to materials for which they were ill-
suited. The result was often a caricature of our field. However in recent years we
have witnessed more sophisticated readings and uses of our collective insights by
biblical scholars, historians of religion, and comparative religionists. The present
set of articles is only illustrative of the kinds of sociological work now being done
in these fields, as well as our own, on early Christian materials since there are
many more to which one can point.1
Early Christian phenomena are of importance to the sociology of religion as
a field. The Weberian trajectory of study, including the typological framework of
Ernst Troeltsch, was based in part on early Christian history as that was under-
stood early in the twentieth century. The religious texts that took form in the
early Christian setting have provided tenets and customs that came to be
elements of a large civilizational framework that, in crystallized form, define
twentieth century conventionality. Moreover, in recent years an interest has
emerged in new religious movements; with early Christian materials we have
historical data on a new religion that over time became an established Ecclesia
and later a tradition embracing many denominations and sects. Comparisons
between the ancient new religion and contemporary ones, as well as between the
ancient and contemporary contexts, follow naturally from our disciplinary per-
It is necessary to keep a few basic facts in mind in order to assess and appre-
ciate sociological studies of early Christianity. First, the context is that of the
Roman Empire, a setting in which all three kinds of stratification
class, status,
were at work. Discrepancies among these dimensions were known and
written about in the satirical literature of the period. Consequently there was a
tendency to seek social acceptance on the one hand and on the other, in a true
Blasi 1993, 1996a, 1997; Bloomquist, Bonneau, and Coyle 1992; deSilva 1993; Draper 1997;
Ebertz 1992; Kee 1992; Nielsen 1996; Staples 1993, 1996; Stegemann 1997; Taylor 1996, 1997
all appearing
in special issues of religious studies journals.
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dialectic, a tendency to reject the games of status-climbing, material acquisition,
and political intrigue. In this
the world of the Empire was one similar to
the world we know, full of cultural contradictions over inequality. The Empire
had also created a culturally pluralist environment, engendering the kind of
dynamics of syncretism and identity ambiguity with which we are also familiar.
However, there is also much that is quite foreign to our experience
- a pre-
technological civilization, a pre-capitalist world of commerce, a backdrop of
social problems derived from completely inadequate health and sanitation con-
ditions (R. Stark 1996: 147-162), a dialectic of public and private religions, a
family system not differentiated from the political and economic structures, and
a partially literate population that was unconcerned about authorship, unsophis-
ticated in matters of literary genre, and more given over to creating effects than
recording or transmitting information.
Second, our information on early Christian phenomena is largely literary
and to a limited extent archaeological. In contrast to our usual research settings,
where we begin with a problem, a population, and techniques for obtaining
refined measures, we begin instead with unsystematic data and need to ascertain
what problems are relevant and then determine what size of a population and
which population are reflected by the data (Blasi 1988: 199-218). More than
sociological sensitivities are involved in such work; for example, literary sensitiv-
ities are of critical importance. Methodologically this is a more difficult endeavor
than the standard hypothesis-testing survey, and for that reason we should not
be surprised that some of the earlier attempts at it were fairly crude.
Third, there are really several early Christian movements that can be studied
(Staples 1993: 21), and they need to be studied in different ways. There is the
Jesus movement, led by Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee. There may well have also
been a parallel movement in the city of Jerusalem, which Jesus would
inspired and visited. The extant literary evidence seems to merge legendary nar-
ratives about each of these Jesus movements and report on them as one phe-
nomenon from the perspective of Greek-speaking residents of cities that were at
some remove from Palestine. Learning anything about the Jesus movement(s)
requires isolating those passages in the literary data that represent the
Palestinian stage of the development of the traditions; this is a difficult task of
source criticism. Learning anything about the Jesus movement also requires
interpreting these earlier data in the light of the cultural context of the Jewish
world that is "inter-testamental," i.e., later than most of the biblical
traditions but earlier than both the extant Christian writings and Talmudic
literature - a line of research pursued, for example, by Peter Staples (1993).
Then there is the early Christian movement that formed after the death of Jesus
and for whom most of the extant early Christian literature had been composed.
This movement was greatly marked by a conflict within Judaism over assimila-
tion into the Hellenistic world; those in favor of more assimilation gained
adherents to the Jesus tradition among highly Hellenized Jews and among
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Jews, thereby creating what we now identify as a "new religion."2 Learning
anything about this new religion of the first and second
century C.E. involves
detective work within the early Christian literature
both biblical and
biblical. Of particular importance is what editors ("redactors," as textual scholars
call them) of the traditions that had originated from the Jesus movement(s) did
in order to make the traditions understandable and relevant to their Hellenized
readership ("audience"). Here the cultural context of the Hellenistic world is
central, and the intertestamental Jewish context became largely a source of
references that require explanation on the part of the redactors for their audi-
ence. A third early Christian phenomenon is the Hellenized church whose
agenda was set by its situatedness as a religious community within the Roman
Empire rather than by the conflicts over assimilation within a Jewish setting or
by the conflicts over the emergence of Christianity as a new religion.
The articles that follow have been formulated with a sociological readership
in mind. In the paper by Harry W. Eberts, familiar concepts and objects of
observation include organizations, ethnic and subethnic identities, leadership
strata, and the clienteles of social movement organizations. However, in the
course of pointing to these familiar objects of inquiry, it becomes necessary to
attend to subtle differences of wording used by the author of the Acts of the
Apostles (traditionally named "Luke"), something with which sociologists are
rarely familiar. Luke composed his early history of Christianity with the intent of
depicting it as a singular divine dispensation in progress. To do so he interwove
traditions from disparate early Christianities and glossed over as many intra-
Christian differences and conflict as he could without creating a wholesale fic-
tion. Consequently a modern reader seeking data for a historical sociology needs
to deconstruct, or unravel, what Luke has woven. The kind of close reading in
the original Eberts uses
a specialty of sorts of biblical scholars
is necessary
for establishing the facts that lend themselves to interpretation with the familiar
sociological concepts. The payoff is a sociological correction to the kind of "great
man"$ account that Luke and other historians wrote and write.
In his analysis of early Christian leadership strata, David Horrell builds upon
widely cited work by Gerd Theissen and corrects that author's conceptual appa-
ratus. Horrell does not say as much, but Theissen had taken "charisma" in a
more popular than technical sense. By focusing on the rival claims of itinerant
and residential leaders, both of whom have charisma in the technical sense,
Horrell advances the study of early Christian leadership strata. He also brings to
our attention a phenomenon that we have found particularly intriguing in the
sociology of contemporary religion
the tendency of many marginal religious
groups to become more socially conservative over time. In order to focus on this,
he points to a literary genre that has long been recognized in biblical scholarship
and classics
the household code. Pseudonymous Christian authors, writing
under "Paul" as a pen name, resorted to these codes, which are received from
secular sources, as a stratagem in intra-Christian disputes over how much in
The study of the relationship between early Christianity and organized Judaism is a difficult one; see R.
Stark (1996: 49ff.), Blasi (1996b), and Sanders (1993).
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accord with the world the new religion is to be. The interpretive payoff of this
particular focus lies in identifying the awkward transition from origins to an on-
going religion as more than a mere succession from "founders" to "seconds"
(terms used by W. Stark 1970: 74ff.). The new, residential leaders' clienteles dif-
fered from the first followers of the founders even as much as the leaders them-
selves differed from the founders. It is also noteworthy that Horrell uses non-
biblical materials to good advantage - the Didache, Lucian on Peregrinus, First
Clement, and the Letters of Ignatius.
Lloyd Pietersen finds it less necessary than Eberts and Horrell to develop or
"ground" theory in his paper; the familiar labeling theory approach, with its
focus on status degradation processes, suits the evidence quite well. In reading
pastoral epistles as a literary version of a degradation cere-
mony, Pietersen declines to take at face value the pastorals' characterizations of
the ancient writer's opponents. The labeling theory perspective serves princi-
pally as a rationale for being skeptical about the polemical characterizations and
for conceptualizing the process through which the unidentified or barely identi-
fied opponents are taken. In the manner of a literary critic, Pietersen speaks of a
polemical creation of opponents, but he decides to speak of such a literary form
only on the basis of his having detected some social constructing of deviance.
Gone are times when a scholar can affirm or deny the accuracy of the biblical
account on the slim basis of a theological, literary, or psychological disposition
to either affirm or deny the historicity of what ancient texts seem to say. The
implication of Pietersen's procedure is that a social process that requires either a
social construction or an appeal to fact needs to be identified before the modern
scholar can assume either an uncritical or an overly skeptical stance.
Neither Eberts, Horrell, nor Pietersen is a sociologist by any departmental
affiliation, yet all three reflect impressive sociological sensitivities. Their and
others' appreciation and analysis of religious phenomena have been irreversibly
transformed by the sociological imagination; consequently, biblical studies will
never be the same as it was when it was a literary pursuit of nineteenth century
elite gentlemen imbued from childhood with classical learnedness. The dialogue
works two ways, however. How will the sociology of religion be changed by this
kind of work? It is, of course, too early to tell, but one could well anticipate our
field going beyond while not abandoning the problems attendant upon early
capitalist lifeways, the problems around which Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim,
Max Weber developed their early sociologies of religion.
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