Chapter 1: the social history method

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  • Social history is the history of a society’s organizational development.

  • Social history investigates the contradictions in biblical texts to understand the varying social conditions that created the contradictory texts.

  • Fernand Braudel and the three different speeds of history

    • the history of natural phenomena (ice ages, climactic change)

    • the history of (individual) events

    • social history (the development of a society over time).

  • Types of social history.

    • The history of social institutions.

    • The history of eras or time periods.

  • The history of biblical social-history scholarship

    • “Biblical antiquities” approach—Roland des Vaux’s Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions.

    • Sociology of ancient Judaism—Max Weber. Influenced Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth.

    • Post-1968—liberation theology, use of sociological and anthropological theory, Marxism.


Note: Some questions require you to check the glossary or the recommended references.

1. In biblical interpretation, what does social history examine?

2. What is Sitz im Leben?

3. What is form criticism?

4. Briefly discuss social history interpretation as an exegetical method.

5. What is “history over the long term”? What is its “rhythm”?

6. What is the “history of events”? What is its rhythm?

7. What is the rhythm of social history?

8. Briefly discuss the relationship of social history to other exegetical methods such as political history or literary history (also known as source criticism).

9. Compare and contrast the “history of institutions” and the “history of epochs”.

10. What are realia?

11. What is the sensus literalis?

12. Describe biblical social history as performed by “biblical antiquities” scholars. What are the two consistent aspects of this approach?

13. What is sociology of religion?

14. Briefly summarize Kessler’s overview of the sociology of religion of ancient Israel.

15. What developments have occurred in the social history of Israel since 1968?


Articles from Reference Books

Begg, C. T. “Kittel, Rudolf.” DBI 2.30.

Bourgoin, Suzanne M. “Baron, Salo Wittmayer.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2d ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998, 2: 16–17. 

Hauser, A. J. “Gottwald, Norman Karol.” DBI 1.458–58.

Kapelrud, A. S. “Buhl, Frants Peder William Meyer.” DBI 1.147–48.

Kimbrough, S. T. Jr. “Causee, Antonin.” DBI 1.173–74.

McCreery, D. W. “Martin Noth. In Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters. Ed. McKim, Donald K. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998, 510–11.

Ringgren, H. “Pedersen, Johannes Peder Ejler.” DBI 2.254–55.

Schley, D. G. “Bertholet, Alfred.” DBI 1.125.

Thiel, W. “Benziger, Immanuel Gustav Adolf.” DBI 1.122–23.

Thiel, W. “Volz, Paul.” DBI 2.614–15.

Viviano, B. T. “Vaux, Roland Etienne Guéin de.” DBI 2.606–7.

Birnbaum Norman. “Weber, Max.” Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, 14:9710–13.

Online Resources

Hanson, K. C. K. C. Hanson. “The Old Testament: Social Sciences & Social Description.”

Hanson, K. C. K. C. Hanson. “Social Science Resources: Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, and Handbooks.”


Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. Includes detailed scholarly articles on specific aspects of the social history of ancient Palestine and its neighbors.

The Hebrew Bible and Marxist Interpretation

Miranda, José Porfirio. Communism in the Bible. Trans. Robert R. Barr. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Histories and Social Histories of Ancient Israel

Ahlstrom. Gosta W. Ancient Palestine: A Historical Introduction. Facets. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. A short introduction to the difficulties inherent in writing the history of ancient Palestine.

———. The History of Ancient Palestine. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. A monumental history of ancient Palestine heavily dependent upon archaeology. For the advanced student.

Bright, John. A History of Israel. Westminster Aids to the Study of the Scriptures. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000. A moderately conservative traditional history of ancient Israel.

Gottwald, Norman K. The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction, with CD-ROM.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. Relates the canonical Hebrew Bible to its social setting and social history.

Matthews, Victor Harold. A Brief History of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002. An introductory work, moderately critical in its approach.

———. Studying the Ancient Israelites A Guide to Sources and Methods. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. An introductory work that discusses various ways of studying and analyzing ancient Israel.

Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H, Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. A moderately critical history of ancient Palestine.

Pixley, Jorge. Biblical Israel: A People's History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. An introductory work that attempts to describe the social history of ancient Israel from the perspective of its poor.

Vaux, Roland de. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. Trans. John McHugh. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. Repr., The Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Social Histories of Specific Elements of Israelite History

Gafney, Wilda C. Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Gerstenberger, Erhard S. Theologies in the Old Testament. Trans. John Bowden. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. Studies the various theologies in the Hebrew Bible in light of social history and the social setting of each theology.

Gottwald, Norman K. The Politics of Ancient Israel. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001. A social history of ancient Israelite politics. For the advanced student.

McNutt, Paula. Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999. A sociological analysis of Israelite history. For the advanced student.

Meyers, Carol. Households and Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women. Facet Books. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. A brief introductory discussion of the religious practices of Israelite women.

Rendtorff, Rolf. The Old Testament: An Introduction Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991. Discusses the interrelationship of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel including aspects of Israel’s social history.

Wilson, Robert R. Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980. A social history of Israelite prophecy using anthropological models.


  • Geography of ancient Palestine

    • Broken terrain, hills and valleys, coastal plain

    • Population lived in small isolated units.

    • Cause commercial exchange.

    • Unequal development with settlement and organized states first appearing in the flatlands.

    • Highly diverse population.

  • External cultural influences.

    • Early period—Egypt.

    • Around the turn of the first millennium—regional power vacuum, Israel and Judah developed.

    • After the eighth century—Assyrians and Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians, Greeks and Romans.


  1. What is the “historical speed” of geography?

  2. What affect did Palestine’s rough hill country have upon the social organization and settlement patterns of its early residents?

  3. Define “secondary creation of states” or “secondary state creation”.

  4. How did the secondary state creation process affect Israel and Judah?

  5. Were the borders of ancient Palestine open or closed? What affect did this have upon the ethnic nature of the local population?

  6. According to Kessler, did the ancient Israelites develop within the land itself or by the conquest of a group leaving Egypt?

  7. What cultures influenced the ancient Israelites?

  8. How did the collapse of the southern Canaanite states and their accompanying Egyptian influence affect the development of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah?

  9. What other cultures must we refer to in discussing the later history of ancient Israel?


Online Resources

The Oriental Institute. “Ancient Near Eastern Maps.” Printable maps of the ancient Near East.

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