Intended for "the undergraduate, seminarian, pastor, or generally educated reader" (xvii) familiar with contemporary United States culture, Hanson and Oakman's Palestine in the Time of Jesus is an excellent introduction to the achievements and limits of applying social-scientific models and theory to understand the world of first-century Palestine (understood by the authors as including Judea, Galilee, and surrounding territories c. 37 BCE to 70 CE). Originally published in 1998, it has been re-published (though not updated in the print version) in 2002 with an accompanying CD-ROM encoded in the Libronix Digital Library System used by other Fortress print/CD publications. Most of the CD-ROM consists of the complete, now-searchable text of the book with numerous charts, hyperlinked glossary and hyperlinked NRSV texts, but it also supplements the printed text with further primary documents, additional photographs, updated bibliographies, and internet links.
At the risk of incurring the authors' wrath, I strongly recommend that the reader begin with the short concluding chapter, where Hanson and Oakman spell out most clearly how social-scientific perspectives assist historical analysis and interact with theological concerns. Understanding the task of historical analysis to be explaining change, they state that the social sciences help us "to understand the shape and contour of social systems: how they function, what roles individuals and groups play, what values energize them, where the conflicts emerge, and who benefits from the maintenance of the system" (161). According to the authors, employing social-scientific perspectives in studying first-century Palestine provides the following benefits: (1) "we learn to take seriously the distance between ourselves and the ancients"; (2) "we learn to work and think cross-culturally"; (3) "by using models we learn to make our assumptions and approaches explicit"; (4) "we learn to read the New Testament and other ancient documents in terms of the complex social systems of which they are products"; (5) "it becomes clearer that the interests of the elite were often in conflict with the interests of the peasants"; (6) "we have the tools to look more realistically at how Jesus fit into and reacted to the social systems of first-century Palestine"; and (7) "we see more clearly the complexity of the hermeneutical task for contemporary communities of faith that read the New Testament" (161-163). This last insight is especially important for constructing biblical theology: how do we build a bridge between documents generated in a socio-cultural environment quite different from the contemporary First World? The authors declare that it is not enough to ask "what did the ancient text mean?" and "what does it mean now?". Rather, biblical theologians must also ask: "(1) What in the biblical record is culture-bound and outmoded...? (2) What values might we want to attempt to translate...? (3) What should we retain without question...? And (4) What is 'coming to expression' in the biblical traditions...?" (163).
Knowing that these are the authors' beliefs and intentions illuminates the preceding material. Chapter One introduces the notion of analyzing social systems by contrasting values, norms, and roles in first-century Palestine and in the United States of the twentieth century. The results of this contrast appear in a helpful chart of a "general model for first-century Palestinian society" (15) relating historical and environmental factors to the cultural system of values, norms, statuses, roles and technology embodied in social domains of kinship, politics, economics and religion, with education and law acknowledged as separate domains in some social systems but theorized by the authors as embedded in the other social domains of first-century Palestine.
Chapter Two explores what is claimed to be the typical Palestinian kinship system — "endogamous community family" — manifested in terms of structures of gender, genealogy and descent, marriage, divorce, and inheritance. This exploration certainly sheds new light on the importance of Jesus' genealogies in Matthew and Luke, as well as the "fictive kinship" uniting Jesus' followers. Chapter Three explores the political domain of first-century Palestine using the Lenski-Kautsky model of aristocratic agrarian empire under headings of "elite" (patronage/clientele) and "peasant" (rebellion/social banditry) interests. Here the authors' option for conflict theory over structural-functionalist social-scientific approaches (9) may skew their presentation. Chapter Four is devoted to exploring the economic domain as embedded in both kinship and politics in first-century Roman Palestine. Considerations of production, distribution and mechanisms of control such as taxation, ownership and leasing of land, and indebtedness provide the framework for this exploration. Chapter Five examines the religious domain with a lengthy analysis of how the Jerusalem Temple functioned in first-century Palestinian society. This chapter is the least satisfying in the book, not only because properly domestic (circumcision/Passover Seder) and associational (synagogue) religious practices are ignored, but because of the authors' seeming bias against Temple religion (again, perhaps a consequence of choosing conflict over structural-functionalist theory).
Palestine in the Time of Jesus admirably succeeds in addressing each of its presumed audiences. Undergraduates and their teachers will be grateful for the illustrative charts and photographs, the internet links and bibliographies (including an invitation to address questions to the authors by email), and the "applying the perspectives" sections of Chapters Two through Five that sketch fine topics for research papers. Seminarians and pastors will appreciate fresh insights for their preaching from these social-scientific perspectives. The three volumes of John J. Pilch's The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday correlated to the Roman Catholic three-year Sunday lectionary series and published by Liturgical Press of Collegeville, MN makes a fine supplement to the work under review. The "generally educated reader" will be thankful for the clarity of the writing and the frequent comparison/contrasts with contemporary United States examples. I would caution all of these audiences, however, to recognize the limits of the work. Hanson and Oakman opt for a generalized portrait of the "ancient Mediterranean" and its "honor/shame" culture. It may have been more interesting (if more complex) to explore the distinctive culture of Galilee in contrast to that of Judea (as well as the other surrounding territories) to illuminate assumptions behind Jesus' teaching and activity and that of his followers. Nevertheless Palestine in the Time of Jesus is a worthy successor to John H. Elliott's What is Social Scientific Criticism? (Fortress, 1993) and Bruce Malina's The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Westminster John Knox, 1993).