Perspectives in John: A Social-Scientific Prespective

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Dr. Jones, I Presume

I had the privilege of growing up in the 1980’s, a time when some of the greatest movie sagas found their way to the silver screen. Movies came with sequels and film franchises were born, blockbuster franchises with superheroes, great space operas, horrific demons who would not stay dead, and one series in particular about a certain professor with a penchant for getting into trouble with both university administration and Nazis.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, two of the men behind many of the blockbusters of the 1970’s and 80’s and frankly, the men who developed the first of those films (Jaws), were vacationing after successful films in Hawai’i. Lucas showed Spielberg a script for a character named Indiana Smith a globetrotting adventurer whose exploits harkened back to the serial films of the 1930’s and 40’s.  Spielberg liked everything but the name and changed it to Jones.[1]

In 1981, Harrison Ford took a break from his iconic turn as an outer space cowboy in the Star Wars films and took up another trademark getup, this one with a fedora, a .45 revolver, and a bullwhip. The character was a mix of treasure hunter and academic, a sort of professor by day and adventurer by night. Indiana Jones became iconic and cemented Harrison Ford’s career as an action hero and creating a model of an intelligent, academic character who knows a thing or two about life outside the college library. In one teaching scene, Dr. Jones shows us an example of his character and that of other social scientists by saying,

“Archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s Philosophy class is right down the hall. So, forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and “X” never, ever marks the spot.”[2]

He then proceeds to spend the next ninety minutes of the movie breaking all of those rules.

The character, an obvious exaggeration, is depicting a social scientist and close enough to the real thing to have something interesting happen at the University of Chicago Admissions Office in 2012. According to the university’s Oriental Institute website,

On December 12, 2012, the University of Chicago Admissions Office received a mysterious package addressed to “Henry Walton Jones, Jr.” They could find no faculty or staff by that name. A student worker then realized that the package was meant for Dr. “Indiana” Jones, the famous archaeologist of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” fame. Inside the package was a journal of Abner Ravenwood, the fictional University of Chicago professor who trained Indiana Jones. But who sent it here, and why? The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times picked up the story.

Six days after its arrival, the mystery was solved. The package, a collection of replica props from the Indiana Jones films, had been purchased online and shipped by its maker from Guam to Italy. The original packaging was lost in transit, leaving only the parcel addressed to Henry Walton Jones Jr. of the University of Chicago where it had been forwarded by the postal service.

The Oriental Institute Museum presents the journal and its contents in a small display in its lobby area. This mini-exhibit also explores the possible connections between the characters of Indiana Jones and Ravenwood and two pioneering scholars of the Oriental Institute: James Henry Breasted and Robert Braidwood. Some have suggested that these two individuals (amongst others) partially inspired the characters of Indiana Jones and Ravenwood. Unlike some Hollywood depictions of archaeologists, Breasted and Braidwood were not treasure hunters. They made significant contributions to the study of ancient civilizations – you can find out more about their contributions to Middle Eastern archaeology in our Mesopotamian gallery, and see many of the objects associated with their expeditions and research in our permanent galleries.[3]

So, what does Indiana Jones have to do with studying the bible? Quite a bit as it turns out. The fictional professor is actually a good model for an academic in that he realizes that a knowledge of the intellectual has to be balanced with the practical. Which leads us to the subject of social-science criticism.

What is social-scientific criticism?

Social-scientific criticism is a part of interpreting Scripture that looks at and tries to understand social and cultural dimensions of the biblical story using things like sociology, anthropology, archaeology, and other sciences that focus on the cultural world at the time the text was written.[4] What we are trying to understand by looking at these things is the context that the Scripture happened in and answering questions like how did the way people thought about politics, religion, family, and the world around them influence their society and how it operated or how did shared knowledge of culture and society create a shared understanding of communication and language?[5] One commentary talks about why to have a social-science commentary and says that it will “enable the reader to interpret the Gospel in a way that would be fair to the original author and audience.”[6] The goal is to help us, the modern readers of these ancient texts, to see the texts in the way someone would have in the first or second century when they were written. It is an attempt to be a part of the audience in its time by understanding what that means. Green and McDonald put it this way,

“Holding Bibles written in our languages, we easily assume that our assumptions are shared by its writers, its first-century audiences. We forget that reading the pages of the NT is for everyone in the twenty-first century a cross-cultural experience. To attend to the NT, we need a better grasp of the first-century world of Peter and Paul, Priscilla and Phoebe, as well as of the years, movements, struggles, and literatures that gave the NT era its shape.”[7]

So, what kinds of things would you study in order to practice social-science criticism? You look for things that help you see people.

The truth of the social sciences is that they are focused on being able to see people, who they are, where they are, for what they are and do so in an objective manner. It is in seeing people in this way, one that is purely observant, that we can begin to understand their hopes, dreams, motivations, and actions. The best way to understand this is to practice so, let’s have a look at the Marriage at Cana in John chapter two.

An application

Marriage in the ancient Jewish community was not a religious right but a civil contract. It was considered the normal mood of existence since celibacy had no status and to be unmarried was considered humiliating.[8]

The Jewish wedding was not just a family event; it was a  social and civic engagement that drew in the entire community. Weddings were based on local customs and the ceremony is reflected in those customs. There was no state body that gave out marriage certificates, the legal document that defined a marriage event was a dowry contract.[9] The marriage celebration itself, however, was a massive celebration. The groom would go to the brides home with his friends to escort her to the grooms home accompanied by singing and dancing.[10] The bride entering into the grooms household was the most significant moment; when she did they were considered husband and wife.[11] At this point but huge feast commenced followed by festivities that could last 1 to 2 weeks. Music and some were a major part of these wedding festivals and songs such as Psalm 45 give us an idea of the kind of celebrations that took place citing ‘stringed instruments’ used in the celebration.[12] At the very least, these were large community wide celebrations that brought not only families together but the people who shared life together in those communities.

With some of these basic ideas in mind, we come to the text in John chapter two and we begin asking questions, social questions of the text. These questions will become our interpretive directives. Who were the writer and audience for the story? What is a Gospel? What is the purpose of the story from the perspective of the writer? Or the audience? Why was it important to have wine? Why did Mary concern herself with whether or not the celebration went well? Why was the headwaiter upset about the wine that Jesus created? Why did Jesus say my time hasn’t come yet?

I think the answers to these questions will be illuminating as well as insightful. First off, the text. What is a gospel? A gospel is, in the simplest terms, is a kind of ancient biography intended to show the character traits of the person being written about. It is usually a collection of stories and anecdotes that show these characteristics and distinctives of the person’s life in the most favorable light.[13] So, the gospels about the life of Jesus were essentially, honorific biographies that told their audience about the Jesus of Galilee, a first-century prophet and teacher who was sent by God to bring a message of hope and good news.

So, who wrote the message and to whom? The Gospel of John, like the other gospels, was written anonymously. Like the other three, it was most likely the work of several people collecting the stories and teachings of Jesus that their particular traditions had handed down to them.[14] These stories were collected and preserved with the intent of trying to proclaim the teachings and person of Jesus while persuading those who might hear to believe in them, seeing that God did remarkable things through this person Jesus and becoming disciples or followers of Jesus.[15] The message itself was most likely directed to a group of Christians in a Greco-Roman setting, somewhere in Ephesus or somewhere else in Asia Minor, since the early church fathers believed that John (either the elder or the apostle) resided and ministered.[16] Most scholars believe the Gospel, along with the other texts attributed to John, were written during the end of the first or the beginning of the second century and edited by the Christian community over the next few centuries.[17] Some of the traditions may ultimately go back to the preaching of an original follower of Jesus but it is unlikely that this person wrote any of their messages down for posterity.[18]

Knowing the writer and audience and the time that this was most likely written and the cultural understandings of weddings in the first century, we can look at this story with a more critical eye and see the underlying nuance and message. Primarily, this is a story that is part of a larger set of stories intended to show is that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of God, sent to show us the Way of salvation and life. The story of the wedding at Cana shows us a great many things about how Jesus cares for those he was sent to show God’s love to. Most likely, Jesus’ mother was distressed about the wedding running out of wine because the bridegroom’s family, the ones responsible for the feast, were family members of close friends. We can make this assumption based on her concern for the family being embarrassed by not having enough wine. Wine was the common drink of the day, and good wine was supposed to be served first so that the guests would not notice how bad the bad wine was later. When Jesus made better wine than was being served at first, the headwaiter was afraid that the people would be insulted that the good wine did not come out first for them to enjoy.

All of these social things happen against the backdrop of Jesus having told his mother, my time has not come yet. In the author’s version of Jesus life, Jesus was not yet ready to reveal himself as ‘the anointed one.’ This ‘sign’ of transforming water into wine happens on the third day (John 2:1), an apparent allusion to the resurrection and the wine made in thirty-gallon vats used by the guests for ritual purification, another allusion to Jesus anointed nature and to the new, transformed life he offers to the people. All of these things would have been apparent to the Asia Minor audience in the first century but not necessarily to a reader of an English version of the story in the twenty-first century. This makes it necessary for us to ask these questions of the people, place, time, and culture in order to better understand the message behind the story.

This first lens is far from exhausted in the course of this sermon, in truth we have barely begun to learn to focus. The important thing is that we know such a lens exists, what it does, and the with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can begin to learn beyond the words to the meaning.


Ehrman, B. D. (2004). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Elliott, J. H. (1993). What is Social-Scientific Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Green, J., & McDonald, L. M. (2013). The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Vol. Kindle Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Haenchen, E. (1984). John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 1-6. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

King, P. J., & Stager, L. E. (2001). Life in Biblical Israel. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Malina, B. J., & Rohrbaugh, R. L. (1998). Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.

Martin, F., & Wright IV, W. M. (2015). The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

McBride, J. (1997). Steven Spielberg. New York: Faber and Faber.

Oriental Institute, The. (2014). Retrieved from University of Chicago, The:

Sloyan, G. (1988, 2009). John: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Lousiville: Westminster/John Knox.

Spielberg, S. (Director). (1989). Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade [Motion Picture].

[1] (McBride, 1997, pp. 309-322)

[2] (Spielberg, 1989)

[3] (Oriental Institute, The, 2014)

[4] (Elliott, 1993, p. 6)

[5] (Elliott, 1993, p. 12)

[6] (Malina & Rohrbaugh, 1998, p. 1)

[7] (Green & McDonald, 2013, Kindle Loc. 915-922)

[8] (King & Stager, 2001, p. 56)

[9] (Green & McDonald, 2013, Kindle Loc. 4644)

[10] (King & Stager, 2001, p. 55)

[11] ibid

[12] (King & Stager, 2001, p. 289)

[13] (Ehrman, 2004, pp. 62-65)

[14] (Sloyan, 1988, 2009, p. 2)

[15] ibid

[16] (Martin & Wright IV, 2015, p. 18)

[17] (Ehrman, 2004, pp. 171-175)

[18] ibid

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