Monday, January 26, 2009

The Utility of Models for the Ancient Mediterranean

Here's more from Esler's book on ancient Israel, a well-formulated statement about the use of social models:
"Models are essentially simplifications...of data used for comparative processes. Those who employ them in exegesis know they are merely tools available to enable comparison. It is senseless, therefore, to ask if models are 'true' or 'false', as one certainly could ask of some alleged social law. Rather, one must judge a model by whether or not it is helpful... Models of phenomena such as identity, ethnicity, religion, sect, kinship, time, honor and shame, patron and client, collective memory, and so on allow us to interrogate those issues in biblical texts in helpful and socially important ways... Models that are employed heuristically in this way cannot reasonably be tarred with the brush of social nomism or deductivism, as some have tried to do. Nevertheless, most users of models, including the members of the Context Group, of which I am a member, do accept the existence of certain regularities of social life, even though these regularities fall short of 'social laws'... These probabilities can be used predictively... Indeed, to deny the reality or importance of [these regularities] could, in some circumstances in the Middle East, be dangerously irresponsible." (Philip Esler, Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in its Social Context (edited by Esler), "Social Scientific Models in Biblical Interpretation", pp 3-4,9)


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

In general I agree with the point, but how does Esler say we should about determining whether a model is useful?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Esler doesn't get much into that in the article, since it's more a response to scholars like Susan Garrett who have complained that models are too positivistic. But essentially models pose questions which the biblical texts should answer. If they fail more often than succeeding in answering those questions, the model needs to be either refined or discarded.

An example from a recent SBL session may illustrate the point. Last Novemeber Zeba Crook was calling for a refinement of Bruce Malina's model which holds that challenge-ripostes generally did not take place between social unequals and that women generally did not challenge men publicly. Crook found enough texts which (to him) indicates that the model is too restrictive and doesn't do justice to "all the data". On the basis of Pliny the Younger, ancient Egyptian letters, Thecla challenging Alexander, the Syrphoenician woman besting Jesus, Crook believes that wives competed for honor with men and were awarded it more commonly than we assume.

Crook's refinement model is that of the "public court of reputation", which he finds to be wildly unpredictable in honor-shame cultures. I happen to disagree and think the public court of reputation was more predictable, and thus the counter-examples he lights on more exceptions to the rule. But in any case, here we see a model being refined in light of problems thrown up by certain texts for which the classic model doesn't work.


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