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Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach (1988)

Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach (1988)

Thesis: In Roman Palestine, the Pharisees and scribes were low-level bureaucrats (members of the retainer class, not the middle class, which did not exist in antiquity), and the Sadducees were members of the governing class (though not all members of the governing class were Sadducees).

Chapter 1, “The Problem of Jewish Groups in Palestine,” situates Saldarini’s work among other scholarly reconstructions of the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees. He argues that previous work has been misled by the assumption that people in antiquity saw religion and politics as two separate spheres of life (they did not) and that ancient societies had an upper, middle, and lower class like modern industrial societies (they had an upper class and a lower class; most people lived within the lower classes).

Chapter 2, “A Sociological Approach,” outlines Saldarini’s methodology. He uses social functionalism as his theoretical framework, though he acknowledges its faults. He then examines the nature of class and power in ancient society, adapting Weber’s triad of class, status, and power to Roman society, where classes were “legally defined categor[ies] which possessed clearly defined privileges and disabilities and which stood in hierarchical relationship to other orders” (27), though they declined in importance over time.

Chapter 3, “Social Classes in Palestinian Jewish Society and the Roman Empire,” summarizes Gerhard Lenski’s model of the social classes of agrarian empires (like the Roman Empire). Lenski sees nine classes in agrarian imperial societies, which Saldarini uses as a guide to Palestinian society under the Romans:

  1. The ruler, who “had far reaching power and was sometimes considered to be the owner of all the land” (40).
  2. The governing class: 1-2% of the population; “made up of both hereditary aristocrats and appointed bureaucrats” (40). The Sadducees were members of this group.
  3. The retainer class: “perhaps 5% of the population” (41) who served the elites but were not elites themselves. The Pharisees and scribes belonged to this class, as did low-level officials like tax collectors.
  4. The merchant class, which was somewhat liminal; merchants were not landowners (and, thus, were not elites), but were not under the direct authority of the elites, like peasants were.
  5. The priestly class, which was landless, but which controlled significant wealth and had power independently of the governing class.
  6. The peasants: “the bulk of the population” (43), who were very strictly controlled by the governing class. Their main role was to produce food for the high-ranked members of society, who taxed their food production “typically at the rate of 30-70% of the crop” (43).
  7. The artisan class, about 3-7% of the population, were not a middle class (as in industrial societies), but rather earned low wages and enjoyed very little power. Jesus, Paul, Peter, Andrew, James, and John were from this class.
  8. The unclean class: essentially artisans who performed “noxious but necessary tasks” (44) like tanning or mining.
  9. The expandable class (5-10% of the population): people who had been forced off their land and who lived as outlaws on the fringes of society. Most messianic claimants and their followers were from this class.

Chapter 4, “Social Relations and Groups in Palestine,” examines the nature and origins of social groups in Hellenistic/Roman Palestine. Saldarini gleans from social network theory to show how honor-shame and patron-client relationships were at work both within and between social groups. He also argues that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes probably formed in the same way as Hellenistic voluntary associations—though, after they formed, they also had sectarian features. Saldarini explains Palestinian groups via Bryan Wilson’s typology of sects:

  1. The conversionist seeks emotional transformation now, with salvation presumed to follow in the future after evil has been endured. Because of alienation from society a new community is formed. Early Christians fit this type.
  2. The revolutionist awaits the destruction of the social order by divine forces. Apocalyptic groups fit this type.
  3. The introversionist withdraws from the world into a purified community. The Essenes fit this type.
  4. The manipulationist seeks happiness by a transformed subjective orientation which will control evil. The gnostics fit this type.
  5. The thaumaturgical response seeks relief from specific ills by special, not general dispensation. Magicians and healers with their followers fit this type.
  6. The reformist seeks gradual, divinely revealed alterations in society. The Pharisees and Jesus with his disciples probably fit this type.
  7. The utopian seeks to reconstruct the world according to divine principles without revolution (72; emphasis original; list formatted for readability).

Chapter 5, “The Pharisees and Sadducees as Political Interest Groups in Josephus”: Saldarini begins with Josephus’ biography, before surveying Josephus’ treatment of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the War, Antiquities, and Life. He concludes that the Pharisees and Sadducees were both small political interest groups, and that the Pharisees belonged to the retainer class, while the Saducees were from the governing class. Not all retainers were Pharisees, however, nor were all governors Sadducees.

Chapter 6, “Josephus’ Descriptions of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” builds off of the previous chapter’s argument, giving further information about the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ roles as political action groups. This chapter also argues, contra Neusner, that Josephus did not have a pro-Pharisaic bias in the Antiquities.

Chapter 7, “Paul the Pharisee”: This brief (10-page) chapter complements the picture of the Pharisees drawn from Josephus. Paul’s identity as a Pharisee shows that Pharisaism was present in the Diaspora, whereas Josephus only places the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Paul also mentions Pharisaism in conjunction with disputes about purity laws, showing that the Pharisees probably made purity regulations one of their defining boundary markers. Paul’s letters show him to be a decently well-educated member of the artisan class with some connections to the upper classes; Acts moves him up to the retainer class.

Chapter 8, “The Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Mark and Matthew”: In Mark, the Pharisees are located almost exclusively in Galilee (as opposed to Josephus’ portrait of them living exclusively in Jerusalem) and have connections with other groups, like the Herodians. They are a politically active group, and are concerned with purity regulations. The scribes appear both in Jerusalem and in Galilee, but are more often located in Jerusalem; they were teachers who were known and esteemed among the people in both places, and their disputes with Jesus mostly concerned Jesus’ authority to teach. The Sadducees appear once, as members of a controversy over the doctrine of resurrection. In Matthew, the Pharisees are present both in Judea and the Galilee. The scribes, as in Mark, are teachers who are concerned with Jesus’ authority to teach; however, as “spokesmen for Judaism” (160) rather than for specific Jewish groups, the scribes are less politically active than in Mark.

Chapter 9, “The Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Luke-Acts and John”: In Luke, the Pharisees are a Galilean group that is disconnected from other Jewish political groups; the scribes have no clearly defined role; and he introduces a new Jewish group, the lawyers. In Acts, Pharisees appear as members of the Sanhedrin, where they argue with Sadducees over the concept of resurrection. The scribes again have no clearly defined role other than opposing the apostles. The Sadducees are leaders in Jerusalem. In John, “the Pharisees function both as government officials and as the learned doctors of the law who are interested in Jesus’ teaching and dispute its truth” (188). They are located in both Jerusalem and Galilee. The scribes and Sadducees do not appear in John.

Chapter 10, “The Pharisees and Sadducees in Rabbinic Literature,” critiques using rabbinic sources to describe the historical Pharisees and Sadducees, because the rabbinic authors use those groups for their own polemical purposes. Nevertheless, some information can be gleaned from these texts, for instance that Pharisaic leaders, like Hillel and Gamaliel, very probably existed, though they did not have the wide-reaching power that has been ascribed to them. Next, Saldarini discusses the origins and meanings of the names Pharisee and Sadducee, arguing that the typical etymologies do not sufficiently explain how the groups got their names. He also briefly discusses the Boethusians, who were probably a priestly group.

Chapter 11, “The Social Roles of Scribes in Jewish Society,” gives a history of scribes in Egypt and Israel, as well as how scribal activity shaped the Hebrew Bible. Scribes appear throughout Jewish literature filling various roles and occupying different social positions. Saldarini argues that, in Roman Palestine, a “scribe” was not a member of a unified political group, but was simply a literate individual in the service of a community leader. In the gospels, most scribes belong to the retainer class.

Chapter 12, “The Place of the Pharisees in Jewish Society,” argues that the Pharisees filled many social roles in Roman Palestine, including:

  • A political action group.
  • A reform movement.
  • A network of people mostly from the retainer class, struggling for power and influence.
  • A religious sect focused on ritual purity, using written texts and oral traditions as the basis of their beliefs.
  • A Greek-style philosophical school.

As a whole, they held beliefs that were distinct from other Jewish groups of the time, like the Sadducees and Essenes. However, they were also divided into factions—for example, the houses of Hillel and Shammai. It is also likely, contra Josephus, that some Pharisees lived in Galilee.

Chapter 13, “The Sadducees and Jewish Leadership,” argues that “the Sadducees were an established and well recognized group of first century Jews” (302) who were members of the governing class. However, not all governors were Sadducees. The Sadducees held to tradition more tightly than the Pharisees, using only the Torah as their sacred text and rejecting doctrinal innovations from the Persian and Hellenistic periods, like the doctrine of resurrection. The Sadducees’ history is “obscure” (305), and the sources available do not permit definite conclusions about the group’s origins.

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The Sociology of Biblioblogging

The following is an excerpt from my paper “Biblioblogging: Confessions of a Newcomer,” presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Chicago, IL.


Traffic Distribution Among Biblioblogs

The first observation I’d like to make about the biblioblogosphere is that in it, like in the larger blogosphere, popularity follows a power law distribution — that is, the top handful of blogs receive the majority of hits. Clay Shirky, an Internet theorist, describes this phenomenon nicely:

The basic shape is simple – in any system sorted by rank, the value for the Nth position will be 1/N. For whatever is being ranked — income, links, traffic — the value of second place will be half that of first place, and tenth place will be one-tenth of first place. (Shirky 2003: n.p.)

For example, looking at the Biblioblog Top 50 from September 2011 [1] (which is, from what I can tell, the last accurate and uncontested list of hits for a set of biblioblogs): the top-ranked blog in the data set (Jesus Creed) got 109,647 hits, or 21.3% — over a fifth — of the total hits for the blogs listed. The top four blogs (Jesus Creed, Debunking Christianity, Exploring Our Matrix, and Unsettled Christianity) received 51% of the total hits, and the top 11 blogs (the above mentioned, plus Zwinglius Redivivus, Near Emmaus, Ancient Hebrew Poetry, Scotteriology, Better Bibles Blog, Gentle Wisdom, and NT Blog) received 75.6% of all the hits in the top biblioblogs. At the end of the rankings, the last two blogs (The Biblioblog Reference Librarian’s Desk and The Poetry of Christ) each received only a few hundredths of a percent of the total traffic. Thus, it is clear that traffic to biblioblogs follows a power law distribution.

The real question to be answered, though, is not what the traffic patterns are like, but why they follow the pattern they do. Several factors are at play. It is typically the case, for example, that older blogs receive more traffic than younger ones. Blogs that attracted traffic early in the history of biblioblogging will continue to attract traffic, following the iterative pattern of “more traffic, much celebrity; much celebrity, more traffic” (Guo et al. 2009: 113). This rule is not absolute, though, as some younger blogs (like Unsettled Christianity or XKV8R) garner a high level of traffic. A better predictor of a blog’s traffic levels is frequency and regularity of posting. Bloggers who post at least once a day typically have more traffic than bloggers who post irregularly, and for good reason — more material published on a blog means more chances for someone to click through to that blog, or to discover it through a Google search. Finally, content plays a strong role in driving traffic to a blog. Timely posts about newsworthy events receive more traffic than posts that don’t deal with such events (Guo et al. 2009: 116-117). Likewise, posts about controversial subjects, which are more likely to be shared and discussed throughout the biblioblogosphere, attract a good deal of traffic, while non-controversial posts are likely to be passed over without even a single comment.

Structure of Conversations About Newsworthy Events

Another similarity between biblioblogs and the larger blogosphere is the way conversations take place about newsworthy events. In general, blogs follow a specific pattern when discussing a given story. As Elwin Jenkins, an Internet researcher, describes it,

Blogosphere stories most often start with an opinion type blog, usually reacting to something in mainstream media. Then, almost within hours several voters point to those original opinions giving either a negative or positive vote. Other opinion writers then add more to the story with reaction posts giving more than just a vote. Reaction posts react to an opinion post, or to the voters. After some time, a blogger will summarize what the story is about and draw together some of the opinions, reactions, and note the voters. Voters then react to the summary and create another round of voting, reaction, and opinion. A story usually ends with an online personality providing a summary of the story, reasonably even-handedly. However, some stories die without a final summation occurring (Jenkins 2003, cited in de Moor, Efimova 2004: 199-200).

I find Jenkins’ schema to be a very good description of how bibliobloggers do scholarship relating to newsworthy events (e.g. the Jonah Ossuary or the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife). The scholarship process begins with a blog (or blogs, but no more than a few) breaking the story to the biblioblogosphere — Jenkins’ instigators. Then, very quickly, several voices chime in, sharing the story and adding their own commentary, with a few of those voices making substantial observations about the subject at hand — Jenkins’ voters and reactions. As the conversation speeds up and more voices join in, a blogger or two will provide an overview of the discussion so far as it has unfolded across the biblioblogosphere as a whole — Jenkins’ summaries. Bloggers then read the summaries, vote on and react to the posts contained therein, and the process repeats itself until the question has been solved, until the controversial stimulus is removed, until everyone loses interest, or a combination of any of the three.

What is interesting is that, despite the flurry of activity surrounding these sorts of noteworthy happenings, comparatively few bloggers make discoveries that significantly advance the conversation; they are usually the bloggers who have spent the most time on the subject, whether before or during the conversation, showing some evidence that blogged scholarship may not be as democratic as it is sometimes made out to be. However, once a blogger makes a significant discovery, their insights are quickly assimilated by the other bloggers engaging with the problem, who then set to work analyzing the problem in light of the new insights, until the next major discovery is made and assimilated, or until the problem is solved.

Speed of Blogging

Another noteworthy facet of blogging is the speed at which blog conversation occurs, especially in regards to controversial and newsworthy events in the field. Biblioblog conversations happen at a fast pace. This pace has the benefit of moving quickly enough to keep up with the news media, giving them timely counter-commentary to whatever claim is being made. However, the speed of blog conversation also runs the risk of concluding a conversation before the question at hand has been solved absolutely, thereby deciding matters too hastily.

The blogosphere reacts to a newsworthy story with a flurry of activity centered around that story, followed soon thereafter by a drop in attention: what information scientist Xitong Guo and his team call “storming.” As an example of this phenomenon, they describe the blogosphere’s reaction to the news that the US government was taking over the AIG insurance group:

At the macro level, the blogosphere usually exhibits “storming” accompanied with social events. For example, Figure 4 [not included in the present paper] shows the dynamics of the “Financial & Crisis” blog posts during September and October 2008. Noteworthy is the sudden “jump” of “Financial & Crisis” posts around September 17. . . . The blogosphere sustained very high interest in “Financial & Crisis” (about 1.2 percent of all blog posts) around September 17. However, the temporal high interest began to wane around September 19 (Guo et al. 2009: 112-113).

Biblioblogs, because they are a subset of the blogosphere and show the same characteristics as the blogosphere as a whole (Guo et al. 2009: 116-117), also exhibit storming in reaction to newsworthy events. To take the most recent example: After the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus was announced and the story broke in the blogosphere, bibliobloggers devoted a massive amount of energy to discussing the papyrus, analyzing it, and trying to determine if it is authentic, an ancient forgery, or a modern forgery. To the bibliobloggers’ credit, their attention spans are much longer than the rest of the blogosphere; conversation was roiling three days after the papyrus was initially announced on September 18, 2012, and was still garnering attention (though less frequently) on October 8.

The benefit of this “storming” behavior is that bloggers respond to the newsworthy events quickly, forcefully, and vociferously; indeed, quickly enough for their commentary to keep pace with the news, and forcefully and vociferously enough even to be featured themselves in the news, like Bob Cargill’s live CNN interview regarding the Jonah Ossuary.

The downside to blogging storms is that matters can potentially be decided before all of the evidence has been collected. A clear example of this phenomenon is the very early labeling of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife as a modern forgery. For example, James McGrath says:

Some are already pronouncing the issue resolved. I would like to suggest that that judgment is premature. . . .

. . . I would like to suggest that nothing that Watson presents in his article indicates that the work is a modern forgery, or even that calling it an ancient “fake” will usefully contribute to our understanding of the text. Chemical analysis may hopefully settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction, and it may be worth the damage to the fragment that would be involved, in order to achieve that higher degree of certainty. Until then, the discussion should continue, and any pronouncement of the matter as settled is at best premature.

(I should like to note briefly that I have no dog in this fight, and I do not much care whether the text is authentic or a forgery ancient or modern. I include this example solely because it is a quick decision that has garnered controversy for its quickness.)

I see three reasons why bibliobloggers would risk substantial controversy in order to make quick judgments about a matter. The first reason is that the biblioblogging community places a high value on responding to newsworthy events quickly enough to keep pace with the news media. The second is that it rewards quick answers to questions, because the success of a blog and its relative importance in the conversation depend both on reacting to an event in a timely fashion and on frequent posts, as shown above. The third reason is that the biblioblogging community does not place as high a value on posts that are the result of longer periods of investigation, since these sorts of posts usually come after a story has died down and the interest has waned. In general, in discussions of newsworthy events, the biblioblogging community rewards quick responses more than slower ones, providing a strong incentive for scholars to make quick judgments and to stick with them.


So, in sum, I have shown that the world of biblioblogging exhibits three specific behaviors, all of which are similar to behaviors seen in the larger blogosphere: first, a power law distribution of blog traffic, which is itself dependent on factors like a blog’s age, how frequently it is updated, and the content written about in it; second, blog conversations about newsworthy events follow a specific pattern, that is, with instigation, votes, reactions, and summaries being written in turn; third, these blog conversations take place at a rapid pace and with a high volume, resulting in blogosphere “storming.”


[1] Note: In order to have the most representative sample possible, I have only included the 40 blogs for which tracker data was available.



Scholarly Analyses

Blood, Rebecca. “How Blogging Software Reshapes the Online Community.” Communications of the ACM 47 (2004): 53-55.

Davila, James R. “Enter the Bibliobloggers.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Philadelphia, PA, November 20, 2005.

_____. “What Just Happened: The Rise of ‘Biblioblogging’ in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Atlanta, GA, November 22, 2010.

de Moor, Aldo and Lilia Efimova. “An Argumentation Analysis of Weblog Conversations.” Pages 197-212 in Proceedings of the 9th International Working Conference on the Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling (LAP 2004). Edited by M. Aakhus and M. Lind. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2004.

Du, Helen S. and Christian Wagner. “Weblog Success: Exploring the Role of Technology.” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 64 (2006): 789–798.

Gregg, Melissa. “Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 20 (2006): 147-160.

Guo Xitong, Doug Vogel, Zhongyun Zhou, Xi Zhang, and Huaping Chen. “Chaos Theory as a Lens for Interpreting Blogging.” Journal of Management Information Systems 26 (2009): 101–127.

Herring, Susan C., Lois Ann Scheidt, Sabrina Bonus, and Elijah Wright. “Bridging the Gap: A Genre Analysis of Weblogs.” Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (2004): 1-11.

Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Future. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Luzón, María José. “‘Interesting Post, But I Disagree’: Social Presence and Antisocial Behaviour in Academic Weblogs.” Applied Linguistics 32 (2011): 517-540.

Powell, Douglas A., Casey J. Jacob, and Benjamin J. Chapman. “Using Blogs and New Media in Academic Practice: Potential Roles in Research, Teaching, Learning, and Extension.” Innovative Higher Education 37 (2012): 271-282.

Shirky, Clay. “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.” Feb 8, 2003.

Bloggers’ Posts

Cargill, Robert R. “Sins of Commission and Omission: Digitally Generated Marginal ‘Fishes’ and Overlooked Handles on the So-called ‘Jonah Ossuary.’” March 13, 2012.

Goodacre, Mark. “SBL CARG Biblioblog Session.” November 12, 2005.

_____. “Disintegration of the Biblioblogging Community?” April 20, 2006.

_____. “Vertical Blogs vs. Horizontal Blogs.” August 8, 2012.

_____. “Jesus’ Wife Fragment: Further Evidence of Modern Forgery.” October 11, 2012.

Heiser, Michael S. “Just in Time for Easter Cash Flow: The Tomb of Jesus’ Disciples.” February 27, 2012.

Lombatti, Antonio. “Never seen a fish depicted upside-down.” March 1, 2012.

McGrath, James. “Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?” September 21, 2012.

_____. “Lessons from Jesus’ Wife.” October 8, 2012.

Watts, Joel L. “$imcha Gives a Prime Example of the Theory of Motivated Reasoning.” March 6, 2012.

West, Jim. “The Dis-Integration of the ‘Biblioblogging’ Community.” April 17, 2006. (Accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.)

_____. “It’s The August Biblioblog Carnival! The ‘Look, There’s a List of Biblioblog Twitterers’ Edition.” September 1, 2012.


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