Anthony J. BLASI.  Social Science and the Christian Scriptures: Sociological Introductions and New Translation, Volume 1,2,3. Eugene, Oregon: WIPF & STOCK.  2017. Pp. 723. pb. ISBN 978-1-5236-     1150-6.  Reviewed by Michael J. McCALLION, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, Michigan.



In his introduction to the series, Blasi makes clear that biblical texts are not interpreted as they were in the early Church nor as a 19th century scholar would interpret the NT in conforming to a natural scientific epistemology.  As Blasi writes: “We are more sensitive today to the fact that histories are always written from some viewpoint and that historical accounts reflect the frames of mind in which events are experienced, committed to memory, and recounted.  Miracles became a major issue in the natural scientific perspective: nineteenth century scholars considered them to be impossible claims that had to be deleted from the narratives . . ..  Today we are more likely to place miracle narratives in a different universe of discourse, one to be appreciated for the genre of discourse that it is” (p.2).  Modern scholars, such as Blasi, then, adopt an interpretive framework (Weberian) which attempts to understand the mentality of people inhabiting various strata of society rather than linking history to natural processes of societal evolution (Comte or Spencer).  Even more specifically, Blasi argues “the symbolic interactionist approach serves as the implicit working philosophical anthropology of most sociologists today” (p. 2).

Arguing there are two steps in preparing to interpret scripture today.  The first  involves biblical scholars and social scientists collaborating, which he argues has begun.   Blasi focuses more on the second step. The second  “involves bringing the results of the specialized studies together in a form that is accessible to the general reader.”  This has not been done sufficiently and so Blasi writes, “what I try to do in the present volume is present the reader with the NT text with social scientific introductions to each book of the NT, and to array the textual and contextual material in a manner useful for purposes of sociological interpretation” (p. 4).  His then is a social scientific, specifically sociology account, keen on establishing the social context in which cultural products and social relationships are created, enacted, and carried forward.

This 3 volume work is fascinating in its use of sociology to interpret the NT.  In pre-modern times, people were not as concerned about the literal truth as they were the point of the narrative – its lesson.  Pre-moderns were more ethnocentric sociologically speaking.  Blasi, of course, tries not to do this by discussing social relationships in the NT and how these relationships shaped and formed early Christian communities, investigating who was connected to whom and how they were sociologically connected to larger social groups and even to larger social settings such as villages, towns, or cities.  Using an array of sociological concepts to unpack the meaning of why people were interacting the way they were and with whom is interesting and valuable.  Sociological concepts such as race, class, and gender are applied as expected.  I found the array of other concepts that illuminate the NT texts such as charisma, social conflict, stratification, sects, social movements, stigma, sociology of knowledge, sociology of secrets, social worlds, liminality, micro-sociology, in-group and out-groups, syncretism, and others to be even more illuminating and in some cases fascinating. 
In the first volume, Blasi examines the Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, First Letters of Paul to the Corinthians, Letter of Paul to the Philippians/Romans/Hebrews and the Gospel of Mark.  His use of the concepts of charisma and social conflict IN Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, for example, I found point on and intriguing.  Since a variety of sociological concepts are used and cannot be dealt with in this short review, let me just end with his employment of the concept of social conflict as a means to understanding the early Christian movement.  “In the case of the early Christian movement, conflict was occurring on the part of the Jewish community in Palestine with the Roman Empire.  The natural tendency would be to close ranks and permit little if any deviance or dissent.  How much Judean Jews, let alone those in the Diaspora, could unite rather than fracture apart was an open question.  The nascent Christian movement was clearly an irritant under such circumstances.” As to the Christians themselves he writes, “To the extent that the Christian movement consisted of rather intimate local groups in cities rather small at that, one would hypothesize, following Simmel, that the conflicts within the movement would occasion intense psychological anguish” (p. 30-31).

Volumes 2 and 3 take up the other books of the NT with equally deft application of the sociological perspective.  Using this three volume work in courses dealing with the sociology of religion or NT studies is recommended and certainly recommended for professors teaching such courses.  I’m planning on using this series in my sociology of religion course to show students the practical and illuminating way sociological concepts can be used to understand the lives of those mentioned in the NT.