I need to be clear: it's not that such history is impossible. Quite the opposite. The data is there, and so are the methods. Historians working on other times and places have spent two centuries working out the latter, and NT scholars have spent just as long working on the former. It's an embarrassment of riches. But social history, you see, is Historiography 200, and we're still struggling with Historiography 100. We're still preoccupied with semi-philosophical debates about the possibility of knowing the past. When I think about the preconditions of doing social history it seems evident to me that we cannot write such history competently until we have indeed resolved these interminable debates. How can we talk confidently about the social life of the past if we are not yet confident that we can talk confidently about the past at all?
Fortunately, debates about the possibility of knowing the past tend to resolve themselves fairly quickly, if one approaches them without prejudice. It is a matter of paying attention to data. One notes that even those who most radically declare that we cannot know the past in fact do not operate in that fashion. Rather, they cite past scholars, supposing that such persons really did exist and wrote the works attributed to them. Likewise, they talk about Jesus, and Paul, and Augustus, and Josephus as if they were real people. They reference past examples of misinterpretation of the past, thus implying that not only can we know those past examples but in fact that historical knowledge is indeed capable of progress: what we once misapprehended we now apprehend better; that in fact is a precondition of the argument from past historiographical failures. In practice, everyone agrees that we can know the past, and in many cases with great confidence. The inability of those who would argue that we cannot know the past to operate independent of such knowing is a powerful refutation of their position. It suggests that not only can we know the past, but in fact that such knowledge is basic to our existence, an inescapable desideratum for human flourishing.
So, what must happen before we can really, diligently, work on the social history of first-generation Christianity? First, we must decide that historical knowledge is possible. That's not hard to do: we need simply embrace reality. Second, we must set out to discover how best to produce historical knowledge. That takes a little more work, but we have access to many pathfinders who have already charted the way. We need only pick up and read. The personal need to work out for myself this step was in fact the origin of my second book, and ultimately this blog (the entire thing, not just this post): my own personal effort to work out an account of how we can know about the past with confidence. Third, we must actually produce historical knowledge, initially of the basic kind. We must determine who did what, when, and where. This is where I am labouring now, as are others: perhaps not many of us, but hopefully enough. Then, fourth, when those successive planks are in place adequately (but not completely: after all, with the exception of the first step but especially with the third, ongoing revision is an intrinsic part of the processes so far identified), we can expand our horizons in order to situate first-generation Christianity in broader contexts, the social included. But as long as steps one through three remain insufficiently trodden, it's difficult to imagine how step four can be taken with confidence.