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Critique on

Theissen, Gerd.

Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity. tr. by John Bowden.

(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.)

The following critique is divided into two parts: terminology and methodology.

[Note that for sake of simplicity and flow of thought, I have deleted the third part, exegesis and discussed these under related topics. Now there are only two parts.]

I. Terminology

The terms and the concepts involved in this study have caused a lot of confusion.

Theissen does not define his terms and expands in details the theories employed in this work. The terms he used may relate to different disciplines of social sciences. I will scrutinize some of the important terms.

What is “Sociology”? According to Dennis Hume Wrong’s article in Encarta, Sociology is the scientific study of human social relations or group life. Other disciplines within the social sciences including economics, political science, anthropology, and psychology are also concerned with topics that fall within the scope of human society. Sociologists examine the ways in which social structures and institutions such as class, family, community, and power and social problems such as crime and abuse influence society.”

Normally it studies the modern societies in the world. Theissen uses it to study a dead society, he is using an interdisciplinary study: comparative historical sociology. This discipline borrows concepts from sociology and has carried out large-scale historical-comparative studies. The once firm barriers between history and sociology have crumbled, especially in such areas as social history, demographic change, economic and political development, and the sociology of revolutions and protest movements. So part one and part two are comparative historical sociology of “Early Palestinian Christianity.”

In part three, Theissen has used another interdisciplinary field, social psychology, mingled with the Functionalist approach of sociology. According to Dennis Hume Wrong’s article in Encarta, social psychology is described as: “.... virtually a separate discipline, drawing practitioners from both sociology and psychology. Sociologists primarily concern themselves with social norms, roles, institutions, and the structure of groups, while social psychologists concentrate on the impact of these various areas on individual personality. Social psychologists trained in sociology have pioneered studies of interaction in small informal groups; the distribution of beliefs and attitudes in a population; the formation of character and outlook under the influence of the family, the school, the peer group, and other socializing agencies. Psychoanalytic ideas derived from the work of Sigmund Freud and later psychoanalysts have been particularly important in this last area of social psychology.”

The movement described by Theissen extends from AD 30 to AD 70 covering Syria and Palestine, in p.1. This is a renewal movement. The English translation, “Early Palestinian Christianity," cannot express fully the concept conveyed by Theissen. I propose to use Jesus movement” (German: Jesusbewegung) which is used continually throughout the whole book. This emphasizes its nature as a movement and can extend the geography to include Syria. Besides, Theissen has not defined what kind of a renewal movement is Jesus movement. Its characteristics and supporting evidences for this choice are not supplied.

The meaning of the book may be better understood, if we change its name to “comparative historical sociology and social psychology of Jesus movement.” Note that these two disciplines are interdisciplinary studies, not sociology proper.


II. Methodology:

A. Critique on Part One: Analysis of Roles.

Theissen has not introduced clearly the theories or disciplines he used. Theissen simply introduces the terms and has not described the relationship and the sources of this arrangement. For example, in part one, analysis of roles, he proposes there are three roles in Jesus movement: the wandering charismatics, sympathizers in the local communities, and the Son of Man. He further elaborates the characteristics of the wandering charismatics as homelessness, lack of family, lack of possessions, and lack of protection. Where does Theissen get these features? He derives them from the constructive conclusions on the Biblical texts or the Cynics described in the comparative conclusion? I propose that Theissen derives them from the Cynics because the picture he suggested fits too well with the Cynics, rather than that of the Jesus movement.

Ronald F. Hock describes the Cynics as barefoot, without a house, wife and children, bed, undershirt, utensil, always facing hunger or thirst, and begging. They are popular, but not always welcomed. They wear threadbare cloak (Gk. Tribon), begging bag (Gk. Pera), and have a staff (Gk. Bakteria). Though Theissen seems to find some evidences in the Bible running against his proposal, he tries to conceal them. For example, Theissen says in p.9, “thus Antioch was the ‘home’ of a group of wandering charismatics. However, strange wandering charismatics also appeared here, including the prophet Agabus (Acts 11.27ff.) who also traveled through Judaea and Caesarea (Acts 21.10).” “Antioch as a sending basis cannot be denied. Agabus may be sent by another sending base.” To press for the “homelessness” is just to fit the Cynics picture in expense of the Biblical counter-evidences. Philip the evangelist preaches in desert and travels to Caesarea (Acts 8) and he settles in this city (Acts 21:8). In Mark, Jesus seems to use Capernaum as his base. After the miracle in Cana, Jesus continued to stay in this city, not many days (Jn. 2:12). When John was taken into prison, Jesus came and dwelt in Capernaum, and returned to it after their retreat (Mk. 9:33). The curse on this city (Lk 10:15; Mt. 11:23) and his saying to his folks in Nazareth proved that he had done a lot of miracles here (Lk. 4:23). A centurion (Mt. 8:5 and Lk. 7:1) and a tribute collector (Mt. 17:24) met Jesus here. Once Jesus withdrew to the mountain by himself, the disciples went across the sea to Capernaum (Jn. 6:15-17)! The Gentile centurion and the tribute collector may know Jesus’ home in Capernaum, so they went to him. Travel needed money, and Capernaum as a sending base would better serve this need.

The second feature, lack of family, is congruent with 1 Cor. 9:5. In this passage, Paul says, Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? (RSV). The companionship of one’s wife is assumed among apostles in their missionary journeys. Besides, after Jesus’ calling of Simon and Andrew (Mk. 1:16-20), Jesus went to their home (Mk. 1:29-31) and Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law in their home! Simon does not abandon his mother-in-law after following Jesus. Jesus’ relative can find him and does not imply any signs of abandonment (Mk. 3:31-35). In Jn. 19:26-27, Jesus asks John to take care of his mother! The relinquishment of family is not found even in Jesus.

The third characteristic, lack of possessions, is disproved by Theissen’s own example, Barnabas (Acts 4.36f) who sells part of his possessions. Basic food for wandering charismatics is a restriction on them to prevent abuse in using local support for laziness. The picture in Didache is of later period in which the abuse has occurred. The last feature, lack of protection, reflected in traveling with a staff is a unique feature. This is not found even among the Cynics! The picture is the only point that fits the Early wandering charismatics than the Cynics.

The hidden application of the Cynics as a model may have affected the collection of data and distorted the picture.

The role of sympathizers is to support the wandering charismatics with highest regard. Theissen builds the description from Didache, Lucian’s Peregrinus, and comparison from the Qumran texts. Theissen proposes that the wandering charismatics demand absolute authority while the administrators in local communities tend to keep original governing principles operated in the churches. The conflict is elevated and caused the conflict between Peter and James. The difference between Peter and James may be exaggerated by Theissen. Peter’s changing attitude is due to his compromising position between Paul and James. According to Acts 15, though probably a later harmonized version of the event, the differences between Paul, Peter and James are not extreme. Compromise is possible. It is strange that why Theissen does not use Paul’s conflict with the wandering charismatics as a testing case for his proposal. A. J. Malherbe has proposed that Paul is trying to avoid the Thessalonians to adopt the Cynic way of life that is morally and socially irresponsible. In contrast, Paul forms and nurtures a community that supports one another, rejects idleness (2 Thess. 3:6-15), and responds to the larger society. Paul, being a “wandering charismatic,” supports himself in some churches, e.g., in Corinth. The conflict between him and some Jewish wandering charismatics lies in the ways of being saved and his apostleship, as seen in Galatian.


B. Critique on Part Two: Analysis of Factors.

Theissen has assumed the reciprocal interaction between Jewish society in Palestine and the Jesus movement. Four factors are selected and the phenomena under investigation are supposed as good illustrations of these factors. Socio-economic, socio-ecological, socio-political, and socio-cultural factor are studied in four analyzing steps: phenomena, analogies, intentions, and causes.

Theissen has introduced a good framework for us to work with, but three questions can be raised on him. (1) Why only these four factors are discussed? Are there any important factors too? How can we know that this is not an anachronistic and ethnocentric modern categorization imposed on Jesus movement? (2) Are there any special reasons for the sequence he chooses in discussing these factors? What is the relationship between these factors and the whole conceptual system behind these factors? (3) How does Theissen get this model? Does he base on some social theories or synthesis of them? What are the theories and models he uses to build this work?

Socio-economic factor in the Jesus movement is the social rootlessness of the wandering charismatics.” Defined by Theissen, it means, the followers of Jesus left their ancestral homes, breaking more or less abruptly with established norms (33).” This understanding has assumed that the disciples following Jesus are poor men (34). Theissen has tried to minimize the counter-evidence of Levi (34) who is a Petty official (Mk. 2:13ff).” Besides, Barnabas (Acts 14:4,14) is not poor wandering charismatics. This portrayal may be affected by the Cynics. Theissen has noticed that some rich men have supported this movement. Why do they support this? How can a movement which advocates and practices rootlessness attract them? The so-called ambivalent attitude towards riches and possessions has been found by Theissen (38). This is a good reminder to us. If we try to impose a pre-determined picture on Jesus movement, then we will never see the whole balanced and complex scene.

The analogies done by Theissen are good observations. Without the basis of a clear model the relationship and significance of these comparisons and contrasts are lost. For example, social rootlessness is seen in six different groups of people. How does Theissen get this analysis? What else can we learn from the model behind his analysis? Does this classification imply some in-depth significance?

Theissen has not defined what is a renewal movement.” He classifies the Qumran community, resistance fighters, and prophetic movements as renewal movements in pp. 34-35. Why are resistance fighters counted as a renewal movement? Does it mean any movement or stance against the status quo is a renewal movement”?

Theissen defines the socio-ecological factors as the results of the interplay between man and nature as expressed in the relationship between city and country and in the trading pattern of a country (31).” Theissen proposes that there is tension between the cities and the country. The Jesus movement is basically a Galilean movement and ties itself closely to the infamous Galilean places. This will reflect the tension between the city and the country. This is an insightful observation, but the classification is unsuitable. socio-ecological” is a strange term. The factor is related to the economic system, or the trading pattern. It is not related to ecology. It concerns the distribution of wealth and its problems. It is a socio-economic factor. This classification causes confusion among different socio-economic problems.

The socio-political and socio-cultural factors are related to political sciences and anthropology. Theissen sees Jesus movement as a radical theocratic movement (59). The imminent rule of God is seen as a threat to both the Jewish aristocracy and the Romans. If this is true, then Jesus should have been arrested and executed earlier. Jesus has never directly attacked the Jewish authority, Herod and the Romans. The kingdom of God is seen as the rule of one’s heart. According to my study, Jesus movement is politically low tone. Theissen has explained the sphere of norms and the analysis without providing its theoretical basis and structure.

C. Critique on Part Three: Analysis of Function.

Theissen has used a sociological theory of conflict to explain. In regard to Theissen’s conclusions on the failure of the Jesus movement in Palestine, I will raise three questions on that.

Theissen treats Jesus movement as a renewal movement, but he does not show how it fits this type of social phenomenon. According to Theissen, Jesus movement has an ethical radicalism and eschatological expectations which shows its nature of movement of outsiders (15).” He further elaborates, the more they detached themselves from this world in their everyday actions, the more they kept destroying this world in their mythical fantasies, as if they had to work off their rejection by this world” (15-16). How can this picture of world-renouncing movement (part one) be reconciled with the societal renewal movement described by Theissen in part three?

Theissen claims he is using theories of conflict” (94), but in practice he employs structural functionalism. In this perspective the structure and operations of a social system functions in its entirety. The entities within the system "function" to serve the system in meeting its needs of system maintenance, integration, goal attainment, and adaptation to changing conditions. It is assumed that the system as a whole has certain needs and goals as distinct from the needs or the goals of the individuals and groups within the system. We may illegitimately reifying the social system and attributing to it certain “unreal” requisites and purposes. For example, Jesus movement has been studied under the conflict perspective in part two, now becomes a contributing force to the societal equilibrium. The chief sociological concern in this part is well-being of Palestinian society as a whole and all the conflicts in the part two have suddenly contributing to the ultimate social equilibrium. This postulated function is doubtful. Internal conflict tends to be viewed as destabilizing and destructive process, Jesus movement has taken up the role of balancing the conflicts (part three). Theissen proposes that Jesus movement has contain aggression in four ways: compensation, transference, reversal, and symbolization.

The third problem lies in using “Psycho-analytical terminology” (124 n.35). Theissen tries to explain his position in p.124. He has used the ego-functions (the so-called defence mechanisms of the ego) and taken no account in aggressive drives. Does he use the terminology only or use also the concepts behind? The psycho-analytical study of individual personality and behavior is imposed on the reactions of groups and other collectivities. Direct borrowing from psycho-analysis is not a healthy usage. Though it has been helpful in social psychology, using the theories demands a deeper understanding on their implications and weakness. Theissen’s work is of an early time which cannot be benefited from the contemporary study in social psychology.




The sociological methods are promising, but they have some pitfalls. The nature of the evidence (faith documents) restricts the recovery of the whole picture. Any conclusion based on these limited data can hardly be used to make generalization that reflects the reality. The differences in culture and time, even with the help of social-anthropological models, are serious problems for us. We should be aware of our only cultural glass.” Besides, it is hard to find social interactions in an extinct society from the texts and even archaeological findings. In some cases, it is impossible to test a hypothesis. We may be tempted to impose modern social and economic categories on a past that is not structured in the same as ours. We must ask some questions on ancient texts that their authors did not intentionally answer. We must avoid reductionism that explains all religious experience in terms of social sciences only. The developing nature of sociology itself poses some problems. Many conflicting theories exist and many amendments are demanded. Rapid changes in this field have left the Biblical scholars who used the “world” theories hard to catch up with the currents.