Is Jesus a Sociologist?

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Perhaps this question is inappropriate because Sociology as a social science discipline was only established in the late 19th century and Jesus was already preaching in Galilee some 2,000 years ago. Besides, Jesus as our Lord and founder of Christianity had no formal training in sociology and is never considered by many as a social scientist during His time.

But Jesus, believed by many Christians as both man and divine, must have known the human heart and behavior better than any scientist who can theorize people’s actions.

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He may not have known sociology during His time but His words and preaching were full of sociological insights. Theologians and sociologists may have overlooked that there are many passages in the Gospel attributed to Jesus that are full of sociological theories and insights.

Body of Christ

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The New Testament too in the letters of St. Paul, especially Romans 12:5,1 Corinthians 12:12–27, Ephesians 3:6 and 5:23, Colossians 1:18 and Colossians 1:24 describing the Church as the Body of Christ, is also very sociological! Describing the early Church as one system or a human body with different interdependent parts obviously illustrates the sociological theory of functionalism. Functionalism as established by the French founder of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim, views society as one system like a human body, with different interdependent functions.

Here are 2 similarities between Jesus’s perspectives and sociology as illustrated by some biblical passages below:

1. Jesus’ Teaching on Understanding People’s actions: Judge not just the external acts but the motive behind them is similar to Max Weber’s concept of “Verstehen” (interpretive understanding).

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The following words of Jesus against hypocrisy and rash judgment highlight the importance of understanding people’s motives behind their actions and not just their external acts. In hypocrisy, the public can only see the people’s appearance or what Max Weber calls as “stereotypes”. The scribes and Pharisees appear very religious and pious in front of the Jews or worshipers, but their motives are not religious–these leaders would only want to appear religious in order that the Israelites would praise and respect them.

Max Weber

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The German sociologist Max Weber uses the concept “verstehen” (interpretive understanding) or understanding social action from the actor’s point of view in studying the true meaning of human behavior. In this case, the sociologist must put himself into the shoes of the person performing the external act or stereotype and understand his/her motive. Applying “verstehen” implies research, interviewing, triangulation, and knowing the true meaning of the external action as well as the intention of the individual performing it, thus making the behavioral assessment holistic.

In this case, Jesus saw a discrepancy between what the Pharisees and Scribes showed publicly in their stereotypes, i.e., appearing very religious in the temple, and the motives behind their piety. Before Weber recommended “verstehen” to sociologists in studying behavior, Jesus was already applying it during His lifetime:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity” (Matthew 23:27).

“In the same way, you appear to be righteous on the outside, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:28).

 2. Jesus Teaching against discrimination and marginalization of  the poor in Jewish society resembles the conflict theory in Sociology. 

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The conflict sociologists who are inspired by Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism view the oppression of the poor or working class by the elite or rich capitalists as a byproduct of an economic system wherein the means of production of goods are owned and controlled by the private sector or rich capitalists and motivated by profit. Conflict theorists see the unequal distribution of goods as the root cause of economic injustice in society.

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But before Karl Marx and conflict sociologists saw the unequal distribution of goods in society as the root cause of society’s conflict, Jesus already condemned any form of economic and social discrimination of the weak and inequality during His time. The economic control of the rich and religious elite led by the Pharisees and Scribes of the Jewish society is viewed by Jesus as causing a great injustice and the marginalization of the poor, the sick, and the afflicted: “But if anyone has the world’s good and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in you” (1 John 3:17-18)?

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Jesus’ pronouncement on the Last Judgment clearly illustrates His awareness of economic conflict and condemnation of social inequality that marginalizes the poor who imitate Him:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25: 34-36).

Conclusion

Is Jesus a sociologist? Well, formally Jesus may not be a sociologist and social scientist since He did not receive any formal sociological training. Moreover, the primary focus of His teaching is spiritual and religious. But obviously His words and perspectives are full of sociological insights! Theologians and Bible scholars may not have given much attention to the sociological underpinnings of Jesus’ teachings. But to those who have been academically trained in both Sociology and Theology, it is fairly obvious that Jesus is a “sociologist”, that his perspective of reality is holistic, and, thus, using the “sociological imagination.” Of course Jesus is more than just a sociologist. For many Christians, Jesus is the Christ who is both true man and true God. As divine, He knows human behavior more what professional sociologists understand about human agency!

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