June 10, 2002
Not surprisingly, Richard Rohrbaugh’s favorite course, the Social World of Early Christianity, focused on his scholarly pursuit: putting Biblical texts in proper historical and cultural context. Its popularity among students, however, reflected not only the subject and the professor’s passion for it, but also the groundbreaking research opportunities it offered.
Students in the class helped craft or revise portions of what became the first-ever published anthropological commentaries on several New Testament writings: the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John, and, in a work not yet published, the Book of Acts. “If you take students seriously as contributing scholars to a project,” says Rohrbaugh, “they respond very positively.”
Over the last quarter century, many students responded eagerly to the chance to learn from—or even assist—a pioneering scholar recognized as a founder of social-science criticism of religious texts. His numerous books, journal articles, and essay collections place New Testament writings in the cultural context of the ancient Mediterranean world.
“Texts have meaning only in the time and place in which they’re written and read,” explains Rohrbaugh, a member of the faculty since 1977. The vast majority of Biblical interpretations, he argues, represent anachronistic, ethnocentric viewpoints distorted by their authors’ contemporary worldviews. More accurate interpretations require vigorous anthropological study of ancient Mediterranean culture. “What I’ve done in my work and in this class,” he explains, “is to try to recreate the cultural and social context out of which this literature came.”
Each year in the annual upper-level seminar, Rohrbaugh has guided about a dozen students as they determined the unique aspects of American culture, compared our culture to contemporary and ancient Mediterranean culture, and then applied their newfound knowledge to a piece of Biblical literature. Rohrbaugh led students in an exhaustive anthropological analysis of the text in class; for each segment of text, one student was responsible for drafting a cultural commentary. Through that process, students helped Rohrbaugh compose the rough draft of social-science critiques on New Testament writings. He credits their role in his books.
Students in the class also wrote essays about an ethnographic model of Mediterranean culture, such as the mores around honor and shame, the role of folk healing, or the phenomenon of fictional kinship. They mined ancient literature for evidence of these cultural hallmarks and added anecdotes and quotes to the thick binders of such material that may someday be published. “We were not just rehashing theories,” Rohrbaugh says of the course’s appeal. “We were breaking new ground.”
—by Dan Sadowsky