Using sociological approach in Jeremiah

- using sociological approach in Jeremiah sociology. Discuss the difficulties of using sociological approach in analyzing Jeremiah

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The possibility of using sociological approach in Jeremiah concerns the problems in three areas: the data provided by the text, the relationship between the text and the social reality behind it (i.e., the hypothetic social descriptions), and the weakness of sociological theories itself. We will try to analyze one by one.

Another factor affecting the decision is the degree of certainity demanded by the researches. I will label it as 'certaintivity'. This is the degree of certainty achieved by the methodology of this research approach. This will be a discussion in the logical basis and the expectation on the method. This will be discussed in Chapter four.



The incoherence between LXX and MT is a well-known phenomena that forces us to admit the complexity of the transmission process. As Mckanes proposes, the two sources may have come from different Vorlage. Deuteronomistic editing of the 'latter prophets' is also at large accepted by scholars. In case of Jeremiah, a series of redactions (major or minor) can be seen in wide-spread discontinuity and incoherence throughout the text. These redacted works have been mingled with the original prophecy. The so-called "original prophecy" has been continually re-interpreted and hence masked by these later works. The "historical Jeremiah" and its social setting can hardly be reclaimed. Besides, the difficulty of handling some of the interpretive elements within Jeremiah is widely agreed among scholars. Diversified views on the meaning of any text of Jeremiah support this problem. As R.P. Carroll rightly proposes, should be axiomatic that primary data which themselves require interpretive sophistication are not easily amenable to simplistic cross-disciplinary theoretical treatments.



At least three basic approaches have been employed to bridge the gap between the text and the social reality behind it: namely, literary analyses, achaeological findings (and ethnography), and the sociological theories and comparative anthropologcial material. Since the anthropological material are usually used by the sociological approaches to ensure the universality of the theories, therefore I put them together under one method.

There are three pitfalls in the use of literary analyses.

First, it is 'illegitimate identity transfer', named by James Barr. It involves using the information avaiable in the text to draw a normative conclusions about the nature of social behaviour in ancient Israel. The social reality as described by the text is somewhat unreliable or unclear. For example, 2 Samuel 11.2 tells a woman taking bath on rooftops near the king's palace. It can hardly be totally reliable and a general practice in the ancient Israel. Contrary to that, a totally skeptic attitude towards the narrative stories is not appropriate. This stories can give us some social data implicitly or explicitly. For example, in 1 Samuel 9:9, taking gifts to a man of God is explained as a practice in older times. Whether it is historical or not, at least the social understanding of a author's times is reflected. Besides, some actions described in the narratives may be typical, but some don't. The power struggle between Adonijah and Solomon is a typical royal court power struggle. Of course, the details of the story are clearly from a good literary arrangement. Hence, the data provided can in some way enlighted us, if we use them with caution.

Second, it is 'in the well syndrome'. As the frog in the well thinks the world is consisted of blue sky and clouds only; this approach ignores the limitations of the text. The text is redacted and transmitted by a certain group of people. The text is continually re-interpreted by them. Since they redact it with some purposes unknown to us, narrow viewpoints have limited our possibility to see the original complexity of views in ancient Israel. This is not absolutely impossible, because the Biblical author(s) and redactor(s) have tried to perserve some older and diversified traditions. Therefore, the text itself contains some fragments of different views. For example, the attitudes towards the prophets are full of diversification. It reveals some lights on the sophication in the ancient Israel.

Third, it is the limitations of transmission process. To communicate is to change. When an oral speech is written, it has lost the original setting of preaching. Then this writing is successively re-applied by a series of redactors and writers. A decontextualising process is going on. The so-called 'original prophecy' is forever lost. But the question is how much do we have to know about the 'original setting' before we can understand the message? We are going to extremes if we hold that original setting is absolutely essential. Only the original audience can exactly grasp the original setting. Even if Jeremiah tells the situation to Baruch after his delivery of a sermon. Baruch who has not joined the audience will never fully grasp the impact and atmosphere. Hence, we human are living in a situation full of uncertainties. We can sufficiently understand a situation without knowing all the picture. Of course, our judgment should be taken as tentative. In case of the original settings of Jeremiah's sermons the uncertainties are so great that we should abandon the dream of 'full understanding'. Among the scholars, there exists two extreme positions on this issue. John Skinner, John Bright and William Holladay have assumed the book is from Jeremiah and all information is historically correct. Contra to this, Ernest Nicholson and Robert Carroll take Jeremiah (book) as a product of Deuteronomic redactions only. Totally denying any elements of historic Jeremiah exist in the book Jeremiah cannot explain the accuracy of the prophecy and impact of the book Jeremiah. Though as most of the influential books, it is perserved and re-applied continually; a core must exist before the passing down of this tradition. As Walter Brueggemann states,

"That reconstruction is not historically precise, but it is not literarily fanciful, undisciplined, or cut loose from its referent."

The uncertainty between the text and its social background has undermined the dating process of literary criticism, which is at best an intellectual guess. But we should not be discouraged and abandoned any attempts to give suggestions. Because the mark of 'science' ,as Karl Raimund Popper proposed, is falsibility, rather than absolute truth. The advance of science is based on continually renewing conjectures and refutations. Further discussion on this will be taken up in chapter 4.

Archaeological findings have been used to 'prove' the reliability of the Bible and reconstruct the original social life in ancient Israel. But archaeological findings are actually silent, they tell us about 'what' is in the ancient Israel, but nothing about 'why' and 'how'. These are essential parts of the social life. In order to understand how the people live, scholars have to build hypothetic reconstructins to explain the archaeological remains. These interpretations cannot be proved or disproved without further information. That's why there exists so many interpretations on some findings. But sometimes, the inscriptions and ancient literatures (like the Qumran's community regulation) will provide some social data for us. However, there are no many materials like these. Scientific advances in various branches have given us a better strength to recover the ancient world. For example, paleo-bontany, paleo-zoology, and researches on bones have provided more data on the finds in the tells. By the help of these new technology, archaeology has become a better tool in researches of ancient Israel, though still not perfect. Another shortcoming of archaelogy has limited its use: Social life is about the normal people, who are usually not written in the literature, especailly in Jeremiah. Hence, their social life, i.e., the large tradition, is hidden behind the small tradition of the important persons described in the literatures.

Sociological approaches have its only weakness. Theoretical frameworks incline to make ideal-typical reconstructions that may never exist in ancient Israel. Besides, the particularity of the culture (and customs) is totally ignored. To do sociological analysis of the 'imagined social reality' behind the text is a risky business. Imposing our sociological theories in the text may produce social phenomena that are unknown to the ancient Israelites.

As a starting point of this method, defining the meaning, extent and effects of the prophecy is essential. But there are extensive ambiguous stories and treatments of prophets in the texts available to us. The Bible itself doesn't define what is a prophets. Even the relationship between the prophets and cult is uncertain. Dim light can be found in this area. We don't know how the prophets are trained and related to the cult. For example, H. G. Reventlow has used Jeremiha's activities to argued that Jeremiah is an ordained cult prophet. But R. Coggins, who recognized Joel, Nahum and Habakkuk as cultic prophets, has found another mode of prophetic activity. It is associated with so-called 'individual prophets'; hence, clear-cut distinctions have not yet been found.

The biographical-historical elements distorted by redeactors can hardly produce accurate social details of Jeremiah's times. This social criticism may be belonged to only a group of people who want to shape their society into their ideals, but not reflecting any social reality.



Sociology is not an empirical-analytical science that can be proved by tests like that of the natural science. It tends to be multiple paradigmatic, rather than single paradigmatic as required by natural science. Hence, the 'scientific' nature of it has been doubted by many scholars one century before. Upto now, this science is recognized as a different kind of 'science' distinct from natural science. But the subjects of its searches are composed of multiple variables and determined by multiple dynamic factors that are uncontrolable by men. Reliability tests are sometimes primary and not convincing. German scholars have proposed to take sociology as "mind science" (Geisteswissenschaften ). Contra to the American scholars who put it under natural sciences, they treat sociology as a tool to interpret the understanding, not to make final conclusion. Dilthey has tried to separate understanding (verstehen) from explanation (erklren). He defines the previous one as understanding the human meaning-structure by means of human hearts. The latter one means to deduce all-true laws to explain the Nature.

Sociological theories are proposed after studing a certain society. They are usually bound by the cultural, language, racial, and historical distinctives of the society. The universality of the theory is doubtful. Scholars striving to overcome this weakness has used anthropological models. The models used must have surveyed a wide range of societies to ensure that it is typical. Even though they achieve it, the models have to face the problem of 'time gap' between our modern world and ancient world. As time goes by, everything changes; there are nothing unaltered. Therefore, using sociological models to explain ancient world has to assume the similarity of experience of human experience throughout history. But history never repeats itself. This assumption, though accepted by many unconsciously, is hardly a truth In order to fill the time gap (and other gaps too), scholars are forced to use some presuppositions to bridge the differences. They cannot be proved or disproved. It's why there are so many opposing theories, but none of them provides a comprehensive 'understanding' of social events. In order to overcome this difficulty, some have tried to study the change of culture. Men change with culture and it has traces and changing patterns. Some hints can be found in these studies, but they are not certain.

One methodological weakness in sociological models is that they are trying to find some general characteristics among different societies. The theories cannot explain and find the distinctives of the society under research, esp. when it has been extinct.

Using the sociological models, we must depend on the sociologists. The competency of them is substantial. The scope and presuppositions behind the theory must be noticed. For example, an evolutionary or functionalist perspective, will tend to be overly selective presentation of data. Also, Biblical scholars who is not experts in sociology, will easily be left behind the advance of this branch. They may use old models and theories which have been abandoned or amended by modern sociologists. The validity of the results using these models cannot be tested.




Carroll has proposed to reject the sociological approaches due to the uncertainties involved in the researching methods. His hidden agenda is demanding a method of higher certaintivity. The issue is "up to what level of certiantivity is demanded". To answer this question, we have to solve several problems.

First, logical reasoning is never immutable. It undergoes ever-newer formulations when men have ever-deepening inner experience on the Nature. As V. Shekahwat explains,

The dynamic purity of reason thus points to a cultural historicity of reason that has a span of cosmic temporality. The inner experience of spirit endows man with better and better rational capacity so that reason is employed as an instrument for sturcturing conceptualizations into more and more consistent truth-systems.

Hence, the logical systems of any nation is affected heavily by its culture that breed it. The cultural form is the work of reason and crystallizes into theorization. Even under 'same' culture, the diverse schools in India have flourished diverse methods of theorization developed in the pure and applied sciences and arts. The Chinese form of logic is different from that of the Greco-European cultures. In addition to this, the truth value of a definite event determined by the experience of the observers. If a man has never seen the Scotland soldiers who wear dresses in the war, then he will take his friend who tell him that 'fact' as a lunatic.

Second, the nature of natural science is hotly debated among the experts in philosophy of science. Thomas Kuhn has proposed the shift of paradigms as an advance process of science. This is to say, scientists are confined by a commonly accepted 'understandings' on the Nature. If some discoveries run against this paradigm, they reject the new findings or amend the paradigm to fit it. Besides, no paradigm is an absolute truth; it can be falsified by later findings. Therefore, Karl Raimund Popper has suggested 'falsibility' (can be proved false) as the basis of science. If we discuss on a lower level - modern theory on Physics (i.e. modern paradigm). The position and momentum of an electron cannot be measured together with accuracy. It is principle of unmeasurability. The special relativity has formulated the influence of the observer on the observed object. If the observer is moving in a near-light speed, the observed phenomena will change significantly. Hence, the absolute certainty doesn't happen even in modern Physics.




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very problematic for the sociological approaches. The relationship between the text and its social background cannot be fully reclaimed; though hoping some may be recovered. The weaknesses of sociological theories are some areas we must be cautious of. Overall, using sociological approaches in Jeremiah is extremely difficult. But 'difficult' doesn't means 'impossible'. The dilemma is to remind us of our limitations, rather than stopping us to advance. Carroll, to our surprise, has stated, "

Putting forward the case for epistemological scepticism in these matters as well emphasising how deep is our ignorance of the social realiteis behind the texts does not mean that absolutely nothing may be said about prophecy and society. On the contrary, many things can be said and much argument generated by the application of social theory to ancient texts."

We can know more about our ignorance as we probe more in the sociological approaches on Jeremiah (the book or the person).





I will use only the name of the author to represent the book or article written by an author. In case, I have used more than one book or article written by a certain author. I will use the first name of the title, ignoring 'the' or 'a'.

For example, 'Carroll' represents the following article,

Carroll, R.P. "Prophecy and society," Prophecy and society,



Carroll, R.P. "Prophecy and society," Prophecy and society, Cambridge: CUP, 1989. pp.203-225.

Carroll, R.P. Jeremiah. in OT Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989.

Carroll, R.P. Jeremiah: A Commentary. in OT Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986.

Carson, D.A. Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.

Jones, D. R. Jeremiah. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.

Kim, Tung To. The Philophy of Man - On the Basis of Science and Rationality. Chinese ed. Hong Kong: HK Comm., 1988.

Koch, Klaus. The Prophets. Vol. 2. Philadeophia: Fortress, 1982.

Lee, Ming Fong et al. ed. A new introduction to Sociology. Chinese ed. Hong Kong: HK Comm., 1992.

Mays, J. L. & Achtemeier, P. J. ed. Interpreting the Prophets. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.

Popper, Karl. A World of Propensities. tr. by Ho Yu Chin. Chinese ed. Hong Kong: Tin Yuen, 1991.

Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations. tr. by Fu Kwan Jung et al. Chinese ed. Shanghai: Shanghai Translation, 1986.

Schaeffer, Fracis A. A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture. Vol. 1 of The Complete Works of Francis A Schaeffer. 2nd ed. Westchester: Crossway, 1982.

Shekharwat. V. "Specific cultures and the coexistence of alternative rationalities: a case study of the contact of Indian and Greco-European cultures," Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research. Vol. IX, No.2 (Jan-Apr, 1992), pp.121-134.

Skinner, Quentin ed. The Return of Grand Theory in Human Science. tr. by Wong Shou Kong et al. Chinese ed. Hong Kong: Social Thought Press, 1991.

Yan, Pun Shun et al. ed. The Exploring thinking in Scientific Researches. Chinese ed. Cheung Chun: Shan Tung Ed., 1992.

Yau, Yan Chun ed. Scientific method and Scientific dynamics - Introduction to Modern Philosophy of Science. Shanghai: Knowledge, 1984.

Yan, Ting. The Fate of Understanding. Taipei: Tung Tai, 1990.



Quoted from Carroll p.205.

Mayes pp.113-114.

Quoted from Mays p.115.

Yan pp.42-44.

I have used the idea of Popper. Detailed discussion may be referred to his book, conjectures and refutations.

Carroll cited 1 Sam.9:9 as a most curious statement for definition. Also, the biblical word nabi has no definite meaning too.

See Carroll p.211.

Lee p.30.

See Lee p.118 endnote 50. I have tried to translate it as mind-science which can exactly explain the word throughly. It is due to the differences in languages and world-views and the incommensurability.

See Lee p.94.

Wilson (pp.28-29) has clearly warned scholars to be familiar with the original context of these researches, before they apply these theories or models.

Wilson p.29.

Reminded by Wilson p.28.

Quoted in Shekhawat p.123.

See Shekhawat p.124.