Study Resources for the Social World of the Bible

On this page, we're big on understanding the Bible in its cultural and social context. These resources will aid you in that understanding. Books are grouped according to author last name.

John Walton and Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture

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Review by Nick Peters.

Summary quote:

"LWS (Lost World of Scripture) seeks to bring us back into touch with the historical background that the Bible was written in. The name is familiar to some since John Walton, a co-author, wrote The Lost World of Genesis One. I have high hopes that the viewpoints of people like Walton and his co-author, Brent Sandy, will soon became the norm in the world of biblical studies and maybe we’ll actually begin reading the Bible the way it was meant to be read instead of treating it like it was a modern book sent to us, a fax or email from Heaven as it were."

David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity

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This one is excellent. We can't say it enough: when it comes to the ancient world, their thoughts are not as our thoughts, and if you don't understand how they thought and you are a reading the Bible, you may as well not be reading it at all, because you will not get the message as fully and coherently as you would otherwise.

deSilva relates four major ancient social conceptions, demonstrates their effects and purposes from contemporary literature, and shows how these factors relate to the Bible and the interpretation thereof. Examples:

Honor? As we have shown here, the ancient view of honor shows why the Christian faith was an impossible one to believe in the ancient world.

Purity? We offered some of the results of that out here.

Patronage? Understand why the Christian offer of grace was so hard for ancient people to accept.

Kinship? Know why it was such a risk to become a Christian and alienate yourself.

This is one we can't recommend enough. Pick it up and savor the flavor of the NT world!

William Herzog, Prophet and Teacher

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Prophet and Teacher is offered as a study of the historical Jesus, but that's probably not what it ought to be classed as first. It is such a study, but I would class it first rather as an exegetical analysis, from a social-science perspective, of certain episodes in the Gospels.

In the process you do get a portrait of the historical Jesus, and you do happen to see some of the former portraits refuted (like the one painted by Bultmann).

This is not to say that Herzog is not at times maddeningly non-commital in terms of the results of form criticism. His penchant to describe form criticism's most unreasonable conclusions with a literary straight face, however, is well-balanced by the correctives he applies with just as much clarity. His insights into the socio-political world of the NT will, to many veteran readers, by familiar (a case of facts read elsewhere being combined in a new way) but Herzog makes it interesting enough to warrant a fresh look through his eyes.

James Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament

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"If we try to make sense of the Bible with no knowledge of the people who wrote it, those who read it and the society in which they lived, we will be inclined to read into the Scriptures our own society's values and ideas. This would be a major mistake since our culture is very different from that of the ancient Romans." These words, on the first page of this book, earned it a good rating alone; that it made good on the promise this statement indicated earns it a rating of excellence.

James Jeffers has written a book that every erstwhile apologist needs in his library: A summary of the key aspects of Greco-Romans society, ranging from city life to life and death, from politics to religion, from citizenship to family. You won't understand the NT unless you understand the world it came from -- a world in which 90 percent of the people were engaged in farming or herding; a world in which shepherds were looked down upon as dirty and smelly (imagine how that helped to spread the word of Jesus as the "Good Shepherd"); a world in which businesses of the same type shared the same street for practical purposes; a world in which the rich were thought to be the most honest, because they supposedly had much less reason than the poor to steal.

Critics need to read books like this one. Get a copy of this elemental book, and you will have Superman vision -- while Skeptics continue to amble around in the Bible without guide dogs.

This book is highly recommended for beginners; but veterans and avid readers will still find a few surprises in it.

Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Handbook of Biblical Social Values

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This has a lot of the same material you will find in Malina's other book Portraits of Paul (see below) and is not as comprehensive on points as deSilva'sHonor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity (see above), but you will still find it useful if you are into knowing the world of the Bible as the people there knew it. I got a lot of rich material from this book, and for the price it packs a punch.

Pilch and Malina provide entries for a variety of ancient values (activeness/passiveness, altruism, clothing, faithfulness, etc.) explaining how they were expressed. With the lay reader in mind, they then compare the ancient expression of these values to the modern American expression of the same values. The comparison effort makes the book extremely effective. We highly recommend this book for apologetics students and suggest that it may be useful for honest inquirers as well.

Bruce Malina, Windows on World of Jesus

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Where, you might ask, is a good place to start in learning about the social world of the Bible? Look no further than Windows on the World of Jesus by Bruce Malina. It offers 60 short and easy to digest scenarios that explain the social setting of the Bible, and offers Biblical and extra-Biblical examples to further explain. Plus, at the end of each chapter, it offers more books to read on each subject.

This book, along with the Handbook of Biblical Social Valuesis the perfect place to start in understanding the culture that Jesus lived in.

-Lee Foster

Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey, Portraits of Paul

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Portraits of Paul (despite the main title) isn't so much about Paul, but does use Paul as an example, to explain how the ancients thought compared to us today. Hmm, did I say ancients? Actually we're still the odd ones out. Even in modern times most of the world still thinks as the people in the Bible did.

And how did they think differently? The key word is "collectivism". Not an economic theory, but a way of looking at the world and at other people. Dismissing the "easy ethnocentrism" of certain scholars (which is also shared by many Bible critics) who try to analyze Bible characters in terms of modern psychology, Malina and Neyrey lay out what it is that ancient people thought was most important, and show how Paul (and by extension other people in the Bible) fit into this context.

Ancient people related to each other "in terms of their group embeddedness and resultant social connections, their standing in the network of relationships, and their prestige deriving from these connections." [61] Where you came from was important and defined what sort of person you were (viz. the Pastoral comment about Cretans). What was done for the group was paramount; what was done for the individual was a matter of the least importance; individualism was deviance, because it impaired the group's ability to survive. (This is why a single death of one of our soldiers seems so meaningful to us, yet other cultures can seemingly "throw away" lives by the score without experiencing dissonance. It is also why something like the destruction of the Canaanites could be done without guilt.)

Control over behavior was exerted by the group, not by individualized norms. You made defenses of the truth in certain ways we would find strange. How a person looked determined what sort of person they were. Concern for public awards of respect or honor was a constant (not money!).

Modern Skeptics and critics who think their way is better need to be informed that even today 70 percent of the world thinks in this collectivist fashion. We are the odd ones out and we need to respect that fact in our dealings with others -- and in our dealings with the Bible.

I think one sentence sums it up well from this work: "No one in a group-oriented context would understand something as culturally nonsensical as 'Let your conscience be your guide.'" [187]

A review by Nick Peters.

Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels

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This is another of those works that explains how the ancients thought compared to us today, and it uses the Synoptics as a guide. However, it could have been cut down by about 300 pages. Parallel Synoptic entries are generally given exactly the same comments in each case -- verbatim. Indeed some comments are repeated a half dozen times are more throughout the book. I like to read about things like the sort of bread the ancients ate, and how this colors the meaning of Jesus' words, but I don't need to read it more than once in the same book. A simple "see here" entry (which is used, oddly, in other places) would have been sufficient, especially considering that to do so would have cut the price of this book in half.

This work also has minor problems not found in other Context Group works. The authors appeal for example to the Mark 7:31 objection. The beginning matter also offers some intrusive political commentary about "Israeli brutality and inhumanity" against Palestinians that I feel has no place in a scholarly work about the Bible. However, the bulk of the information, beyond repetition, is quite helpful and insightful. We recommend this work for those engaging in depth study of the Bible from a social-science perspective.

Also available in this series:

Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John

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Like its brother on the Synoptic Gospels, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John is the product of the Context Group, which has done some invaluable work, but unlike its brother, this one does not spend a lot of time repeating itself (though it does repeat itself now and then, and does repeat a few things from the Synoptic book).

This one does contain fewer theses I found objectionable (notably an excursus on resurrection appearances as the result of "alternate states of consciousness" without any explanation of how and why they are to be regarded as such); most unique are the beginning analyses which frame John as an "antisociety" piece filled with specialized "antilanguage." A discourse on the difference between high- and low-context societies was also very helpful. A neat connection made as well: John is the most popular Gospel, but why? Because it appeals the most to our individualism by way of its numerous personal conversations.

As with the companion volume, this is best suited for high-interest students, but is a bit more user-friendly.

Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul

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I waited a while for this one; was it worth it? Yes and no. Yes, because:

No, because:

So you'll want this one mainly for quick-reference purposes, if you see the need.

Dale Martin, Slavery as Salvation

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Here in the modern West the word "slavery" is locked in with images of men torn from their homes across the sea and brought in chains to new shores. Slavery in the first century was quite different from that in some ways, but critics of the Bible, who know nothing of these differences, express disgust at NT writers' descriptions of themselves as the slaves of Christ. In this smoothly-written volume, Dale Martin shows that the "offense" of this self-designation is strictly our problem and our misuderstanding.

A key difference in Roman society is that in essence, a slave and a poor yet free person could be in no different circumstances -- and in fact, slaves could have any given job a free person did, even a position of power, especially as agents for their powerful owners. It is in this crucial sense that the NT writers asserts themselves to be "slaves" of Christ: In asserting this they are not being humble, but rather asserting their authority as Christ's agents.

Armed with this basic understanding, Martin explains how many NT passages that use slavery as a metaphor (including the difficult 1 Corinthians 9) have been misunderstood by commentators and readers alike. As always, understanding the social context of what is written goes far in solving many perceived "problems" in the text.

My one reservation concerning this book is that it is, for the price, not worthwhile for anyone who isn't doing serious research on the subject. I'll actually act in my own worst interest here and advise you to do as I did if you can, and buy it at a cut rate some other way. (I managed to pick it up for $1.98, if you can believe it.) But if you have an interest in the metaphor of slavery in the NT, you are strongly advised to make this work part of your collection, for it will be essential to understanding why the NT writers speak of themselves as slaves of Christ as they do.

Victor H. Matthews, Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BC

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Who would see fit to comment upon a society and it's culture that they did not even understand? Many critics of the Bible do, but our purpose here is to encourage you to take the road of familiarity towards an understanding of Israeli culture - and take the first step by reading Social World of Ancient Israel .

A key to truly understanding some of those 'obscure' passages in the Old Testament is getting a grip on the different mental processes and social views of ancient Semitic culture. Our co-authors explain the differences in a concise way easily comprehended by the layman as they explore the ins and outs of a variety of ancient Israelite social roles. The prose flows easily and means not so much as a dull moment, despite the usually dry nature of the topic.

I can presently think of no better volume to serve as a 'handshake' to our religious forebears in the OT. It is decidedly an essential item for the apologist's home library.

Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians

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If Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity does not seem detailed enough for you, flesh it out by getting a copy of this book. Meeks goes into places in the Roman world you won't be able to visit by seeing Ben Hur. We're talking about the down and dirty urban city, the place where Christian growth and the church as a social unit came to the fore. The biggest surprise? Christianity was a movement that was top-heavy in the social status arena.

Beyond the background, Meeks also goes into detail on the internal structures and rules of the urban church, placing them squarely in their social context. This is an excellent foundational book for the student of Christian roots.

Jerome Neyrey, Render to God

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I'll get my one reservation out of the way first: When it comes to writing style, Jerome Neyrey is very unenjoyable. But don't let that stop you from picking up this extremely valuable volume in which Neyrey looks at various parts of the NT through the lens of client-patron relationships.

We have noted that the client-patron model has serious effects on our exegesis of the NT. While I wish Neyrey had offered more in terms of practical interpretation (what it means in terms of various theological models), the serious student will not need this and will be able to make their own applications. This is not quite the blockbuster I had hoped it would be, but it is nevertheless an invaluable tool.

Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism

I'm no fan of the Western church, because it's become more clear from my studies that it has squandered its legacy as a vanguard of Christian faith. Philip Jenkins has pointed out that Christianity is growing in the Third World, and in The Next Evangelicalism (hereafter TNE), Soong-Chan Rah gives us Part 2 of that: America, too, is becoming less Western as more immigrants move in -- and many of them are bringing Christian faith in with them.

TNE has chapters that approach from some of the same aspects we've discussed in our social science studies of the Bible, such as individualism, contextualization, ingroups, and the effects of technology. The difference is application: Rah speaks as a modern version of someone from a society like the world of the Bible, and the things he says are very much we might have expected had Peter or Paul come into the present.

My one reservation: Rah is not a scholar, but a pastor, and he unwittingly gives in to the very Western views he rightly criticizes when he speaks of a "personal relationship with Jesus" [31]. But that's the only exegetical problem I did find; you'll find other aspects are in accord with the Bible's collectivist/agonistic context, such as a well-placed disposal of the modern abuse of Jeremiah 29:11 as some sort of personal guarantee of blessing [35].

A thought-provoking work that will help the apologist have a look ahead at how their mission will be affected by the changing face of American Christianity.

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes

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E. Randolph Richards and Richard James, Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eyes

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These are two of those rare books that you should buy even if you know all the basic facts in it already -- and if you've read Tekton material for any length of time, you do. Richards, James and O'Brien give us the rundown on all those cultural facets of the Biblical world -- like honor and shame, collectivism, patronage, and so on -- that make it so vastly different than the world of the West.

What makes these books special is that the authors have spent a good deal of time ministering in places like Indonesia and the Middle East, which gives them the chance to illustrate some of those differences with real-life examples from a parallel culture. Therefore, even if you do know all the factual material, it's worth having the book for these examples.

There's one more reason to buy these: It will encourage IVP and other publishers to produce like them. Encourage them to do so -- buy a wheelbarrow, then fill it with copies of them.

I respond to some misinformed critics of the first book here.

Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel

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This is another of those excellent "contextualizing" books that I love to recommend. It has some familiar material, but its primary focus will be pretty much new, and that is, how NT material (particularly the Gospel of Mark) would have been "performed" in the oral culture of the 1st century world. Shiner goes into great depth here, using ancient sources on rhetoric to describe performance characteristics, and offering direct applications (which he indicates are informed speculations on his part - highly informed, I would say) as to how particular parts of Mark would have been performed. Shiner himself, in addition to being a NT scholar, does some "performances" of Biblical material himself, so he speaks as one with experience in more than one way.

The one drawback is the price tag -- buy it used instead. Accessible and scholarly, this book deserves to be part of the library of anyone seeking to understand the NT world.

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity

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Don't hate Rodney Stark because he's secular! True enough, this sociologist engages himself in finding totally naturalistic explanations for Christianity's growth in its first centuries. But take that "indiscretion" with a grain of salt. Other than a few minor errors and problematic presumptions, of the sort we might expect from someone not trained in Biblical scholarship and not taking theology into account, this is an incredibly useful and insightful book.

Stark stands against the conventional wisdom of much of NT scholarship. He argues that, contrary to commonly-held belief, the Christian mission to Judaism was successful, and outlasted both the destruction of Jerusalem and the Bar Kochba rebellion; that two hardly-noted plagues in 165 and 251 A.D. were keystones in Christian growth, and that the conversion of women to Christianity was likewise a major factor in the hold that the disciples of Christ took into the face of the pagan Roman Empire. Sound amazing? It isn't - Stark's case for these assertions is rock-solid and compelling.

Packed with useful information, and written at a comfortable pace, Stark's volume makes the case for Christianity as a belief system that won out in the centuries past the first because, quite frankly, it was the best ideological deal in the Empire, and Christians showed that it was. To which we would add: What would you expect from the God of Creation but the system that worked better than the rest?

David Watson, Honor Among Christians

I picked this one up thinking that it would be a more in-depth case for an explanation of Mark 10:18, and the "messianic secret," I have used before. It turns out that Watson is keen on a different explanation: That the Messianic secret was Jesus' way of redefining honor, in a way that anticipated the reversal of honor that would be associated with the crucifixion and Resurrection.

The oddity of this, though, is that while Watson also describes the explanation of Malina and Rohrbaugh I use, he neither affirms of denies it. And perhaps he didn't need to: The two explanations are far from mutually exclusive. So I'll take this as an extra layer of explanation for the so-called messianic secret rather than a new explanation.

I also took from here the thought that Jesus was perhaps intent on suppressing anything that would highlight his ascribed (or as I say, inherent) honor as a divine person, but not, per se, anything that enhanced his acquired honor (honor for performance -- which he could hardly suppress anyway, while still doing good works in public). But that is a thesis I have not worked out in detail as yet.

Other than that -- Watson's volume is rich with information and commentary on honor and shame; not a great deal was new to me, but there are enough treasures in one place here that this one could do extra duty as a modest introduction to key Biblical social concepts. You'll even find the familiar exposition on crucifixion as a shameful death in here, as well as some good material on patronage. Consider it a good specialty volume to add if you have the cash.

Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

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The Romans didn't like the Christians, because Christian belief represented a fundamental reversal of numerous sacred and cherished beliefs that the Romans held dear. This is the message behind the detailed work of Wilken's splendid little volume, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.

In a well-written and highly readable presentation, Wilken explains in detail why the Christians of the Roman Empire were despised, rejected, persecuted, and sometimes even martyred. He does so with perhaps a hint of bias in favor of the Roman point of view, but this should be taken by the reader with a grain of salt: Indeed, it makes the entire presentation come more alive than it would otherwise.

Two of the chapters are devoted to general social setting, describing Roman beliefs that Christianity offended. Five others are devoted to examining the works of specific writers of Rome, who, though they varied in their attitude - ranging from the nasty polemic of Celsus to the moderated consideration of Galen - all agreed that Christianity was not a belief system to be welcomed.

Assuredly a classic in the field, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them is a must-have for understanding the social world of first- and second-century Christianity, and an excellent companion volume to Meeks' The First Urban Christians. We recommend it highly.

Additional Books on Non-Biblical Cultures

J. K. Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage

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This one's a classic, also not on the Biblical world, but on a group called the Sarakatsani from Greece. The title by itself gives hints why I recommend it for comparative study. You'll find a lot of situations comparable to those in the Biblical social world, even if the details vary: For example, The Sarakatsani place particular honor and prestige on a man with respect to the number of sheep he owns and the condition they're in. But again, as with Davies and Ikeno, use this to expand your horizons -- and prove that we don't just make this stuff up. (As an aside, Campbell recently died, in September 2009.)

Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno, The Japanese Mind

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What's this? A book on Japanese culture? Isn't this a list of resources on the social world of the Bible? Yes, but a book like this is also good for comparative study -- as well as for proving that we're not making up stuff like honor and shame, loyalty, patronage, collectivist thinking, etc.

Japanese culture has parallels for these and other notions we have discussed on this site, and while they're not always expressed the same way, and there are also plenty of ideas with no counterpart in the Biblical world, there's enough here to expand the horizons and confirm what you will learn from other sources here on the social world of the Bible. If you also happen to visit Japan later, that's a bonus.