[Observant readers will recall that we tackled this subject once before in When Is Paul’s Silence Golden?]
Ad hoc soup
The standard historicist response to the question of Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus relies heavily on Freudian Kettle Logic — to wit, “(1) Paul did mention Jesus quite a bit; (2) We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul didn’t mention Jesus very much at all, for the following ad hoc reasons; (3) You’re an idiot for bringing it up.”
The different ad hoc reasons given for Paul’s silence vary over time. And it’s hard to justify spending too much time refuting them, because they’re functionally equivalent to yelling “Squirrel!” in the middle of a sentence. Perhaps it’s because of the honor/shame society Paul and Jesus lived in. Maybe Paul was an egomaniac. Maybe . . . Squirrel!
Say what you will, but at least there’s plenty of variety. If you don’t feel like hopping on the current ad hoc bus, stay put; another one is coming in 15 minutes. Quote miners in the Apologia Mountains are working ’round the clock to serve you. Pardon the mixed metaphors.
A cave-in down in the quote mine
While reading Maurice Casey’s new book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, I was dismayed (but not surprised) to find that he’s still using that tired old Context Canard to explain Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus. His preferred ad hoc rescue for Paul’s silence has to do with cultural context, as described in Edward Hall’s Beyond Culture. Apologists argue that the people of the Ancient Near East (including, apparently, Asia Minor and the entire Mediterranean basin) lived in a high context culture.
What does that mean? On the high end of the Hall scale people use implicit language to express themselves. Body language, gestures, facial expressions, shared cultural memory and subtexts, along with other nonverbal modes of communication provide the full range of expression that outsiders will often miss. On the low end, people use explicit language to express themselves. They will often repeat themselves, just to be clear. They do not rely as much, if at all, on nonverbal cues or cultural subtext.
There are several things wrong with this [i.e., noticing that Paul doesn’t talk about Jesus]. One is that the social context of many scholars, especially Americans, is a low context society, in which a lot of both important and mundane information needs to be constantly repeated. This is one major reason why some scholars grossly misinterpret what Paul does not say, and imagine that it reflects what neither he nor his converts believed. The term ‘low context’ society was introduced into scholarship by the anthropologist E. T. Hall. Hall was concerned to discuss the modern world, and the application of some of his insights to the ancient world requires great care, but his discussion of modern American society can be applied directly to mythicists without much trouble or risk of distortion. (p. 46)
If you’ve carefully read Hall and studied cultural context phenomena, you should be rolling your eyes right now. Casey suggests both Jesus and Paul lived in high-context societies; consequently, they didn’t need to say much to get their points across.
Biblical Scholarship: The Art of the Perfectly Possible
People who live in low context societies behave in such specific circumstances like people who live in high context societies, and do not say more than is strictly necessary. It is perfectly possible that the circumstances in which Jesus or Paul said less than modern scholars expect were due to their situational contexts [referring to the situational frames Hall described], rather than to Jesus belonging to, or Paul forming, a high context society. (p. 47, emphasis mine)
See? It isn’t just possible; it’s perfectly possible. Moreover, Casey thinks the communities of believers that Paul founded and nurtured could have been high-context enclaves.
It is possible that when Jesus worked among, and preached to, his fellow Jews in Galilee, he effectively lived in a high context society. Similarly, it is possible that when Paul founded churches, he effectively produced another high context society. In each case, this would mean that a lot of things did not need to be explicitly stated, because they were well known to everyone. (p. 46)
But how likely is it that Paul’s churches were little high-context societies? Casey argues that whether they were or weren’t, we could view Paul’s correspondence as an example of a situational dialect (within a situational frame, as seen above). The beauty of this argument is that it fits every occasion. Why did Paul say such and such? Because he needed to. Why did Paul not say so and so? Because he didn’t need to repeat himself.
And, for pity’s sake, don’t forget how time-consuming, expensive, and messy the process was, right Maurice?
All this [where “this” refers to several preceding paragraphs] would be exacerbated by the problems of writing, another major aspect of the situational context in which the epistles were written. For this letter [1 Corinthians] to be written at all, someone, whether Paul, Sosthenes, or more likely a scribe such as Tertius (Rom. 16.22), who was in effect a professional writer, indicated by the fact that Paul merely added a greeting in ‘my hand’ (1 Cor. 16.21), would have to dip a stylus repeatedly in a disgusting black substance which we normally dignify with the name of ‘ink’, and scrawl with that on papyrus sheets. This [the process of writing] was a difficult and time-consuming process, and another good reason for Paul not to write unnecessary information in his epistles. (p. 47)
I don’t know what’s more adorable, the fact that Casey believes Paul really wrote a greeting in his own hand or that he has the nerve to imply that Paul was laconic. Paul? The Paul who rambled on for page after page in his letter to the Romans? The one who seemed far more interested in the life of Abraham than the teachings of Jesus? That Paul?
Taking cultural context seriously
Casey and the other apologists who employ Hall’s models for social interaction in the service of explaining away the enigma of the epistles rely on two things: (1) the majority of their readers will never read Hall or study the phenomena he described and (2) those same readers are receptive to any ad hoc rescue that props up their current beliefs. For Casey, of course, there’s the added joy of using knowledge as a cudgel against anyone who disagrees with him.
Having said all that, social context does have some applicability in biblical studies. For example, the Johannine epistles and some of the writings of the Qumran community often leave a great deal unsaid. Oblique references to events and frequent recourse to cryptic terms indicate a historical subtext and deeper meanings that we’ll never fully understand. These writings have their own situational frame within a closed, tightly knit sub-culture.
Back to the questions at hand. Do the concepts of situational framing and high context culture apply to Paul’s letters? Further, can they explain Paul’s silence on matters regarding Jesus’ nature and history?
What’s missing from Paul’s letters?
This apologetic argument relies on more than just ignorance and receptivity. It also benefits from less-than-honest framing of the issue. Casey mockingly writes:
Paul had, however, no need whatever to write anything such as, ‘We preach Christ crucified on earth outside the walls of Jerusalem a few years ago, after being betrayed by Judah of Kerioth [Casey’s “reconstructed” name for Judas Iscariot], and handed over to the chief priests, scribes and elders, because he cleansed the Temple, and then handed over by them to Pontius Pilatus, the governor of Judaea at the time, to be flogged and crucified.’ That is because many people in the Christian church in Corinth would know this already, and if new members turned up to a church meeting and did not know enough about the death of the historical Jesus, there would always be someone there to explain to them what they did not know. (p. 47)
Naturally, it would be nice if Paul had said something like the above, but what’s missing from the epistles is more than just a wished-for reference to some historical events in Jesus’ life.
It’s far more basic than that. For example, all historical Jesus scholars today say we can know a few things with absolute certainty about Jesus. And nearly all of them list the facts that he was a healer and an exorcist as two things we “know.” Paul never mentions these facts. Nearly all HJ scholars say that Jesus was a teacher who had disciples. Paul never calls him a teacher, never refers to his teaching, and never uses the term disciple (mathētḗs/μαθητής). Most scholars are certain that Jesus was born and grew up in Nazareth, and hence was referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Paul never mentions Nazareth. Nearly all scholars think Jesus called himself the son of man, but Paul never uses the term.
What did Paul think Jesus was?
Paul’s letters show more than a simple lack of interest in historical details; they also betray an apparent ignorance of several core identifying characteristics of the “real” historical Jesus. One could argue that Paul did not have to tell the Corinthians and the Galatians over and over that Jesus was a great teacher or a great healer. But never? We should remember that Paul did repeat his understanding of the gospel many times. Presumably, it was the first thing he taught his congregations — Christ died for their sins and defeated death through his resurrection.
Actually, it was probably the second thing Paul taught, the first being the fact that Jesus was the Christ. He never tires of repeating the term. But not once, even in passing, does he ever use “teacher,” except in reference to humans with the ability to teach others. Conversely, we find didaskalos/διδάσκαλος in the four canonical gospels nearly 50 times, nearly always with reference to Jesus, usually as a form of address or title for Jesus. For example [all from the NRSV]:
- “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” (Matt. 8:19)
- “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36)
- “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing ?” (Mark 4:38)
- “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name . . .” (Mark 9:38)
- “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one . . .” (Mark 12:14)
- “Your daughter has died; do not trouble the Teacher anymore.” (Luke 8:49)
- “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25)
- “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13)
- “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher . . .” (John 3:2)
- “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.” (John 13:13)
On the other hand, while Mark uses the term Christos/Χριστός 7 times, Paul uses it 66 times just in Romans alone. Surely, if Paul truly thought Jesus was a teacher and that it was important to know that he was a teacher he would have mentioned it at least once.
If Paul writes about Jesus, but never as a teacher, never as a healer, never as a prophet, never as an exorcist, and never as a miracle-worker, perhaps it wasn’t an accident. Perhaps he had a different conception of who or what Jesus was. In other words, Casey and the apologists say he avoided such descriptions because Paul didn’t need to. But skeptics like me say it’s more likely that he didn’t want to, while mythicists say it’s because those facets of Jesus’ life hadn’t been historicized (invented) yet.
Putting Paul back in context
What about Casey’s assertion that Paul’s communities were high context (sub-)cultures and that his letters are examples of a situational dialect arising from a situational frame? We should approach this question seriously. To do the topic justice, we need to examine the features of high and low cultures, as well as the sources of those features.
Oral vs. written language
Before we even look at cultural contexts, we must point out that Paul’s letters are written forms of communication. Yes, we all knew that, but it has important consequences when talking about high context (HC) and low context (LC) societies. People in HC societies rely a great deal on what is “not said.” Some of these unsaid, nonverbal cues rely on shared, implicit knowledge, while other cues include body language, body position, gestures, facial expressions, vocal inflections, tone, etc. The very fact that Paul used written communication already proves that he thought certain things needed to be spelled out explicitly. Hence, Casey steps up to the plate with one strike against him.
Closed vs. open societies
The typical HC society is monocultural and closed. The more open and multicultural the society, the greater the need for explicit language with less reliance on context. One could justly argue that the Qumran and Johannine communities were mono-cultural and closed. What about Paul’s? Casey says that it’s possible that Paul created little sub-cultures that had their own specific identity, and I agree. But let’s take a look at one or two of Hall’s HC example cultures from the modern world: Japan and the Navajo nation. Three prominent features stand out. The cultures are (1) old, with longstanding, internalized traditions, (2) monocultural, and (3) closed.
Paul may have created sub-cultures (i.e., his churches), but they were, as far as we can tell, (1) new, albeit with supposedly old traditions (the OT), (2) multicultural, and (3) open. If the majority of his church members were Gentiles, then even if they were former God-fearers, Old Testament traditions, while old for Paul, were new to them. They were new leaves grafted into the old tree. Paul’s letters indicate that his churches attracted rich and poor, free and slave, male and female. The mixture of people from different classes, levels of education, varying backgrounds, and so on, would militate against high context.
Consider Paul’s advice about eating meat offered to idols. He says that we all should know that false gods don’t even exist, so it doesn’t really matter. However . . .
1 Cor. 8:7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. (NRSV)
His communities have people at various levels of understanding. Paul is sensitive to these differences and argues for what we could describe as safe or “lowest-common-denominator” behavior. He says that food has nothing to do with bringing us closer to God. In fact it doesn’t matter one way or the other, except that somebody else might see us and get the wrong idea.
1 Cor. 8:10-11 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. (NRSV)
So for Paul, a wordless act could be misinterpreted by weaker members and lead to their damnation. Paul’s advice:
1 Cor. 8:13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (NRSV)
These words of advice clearly indicate a low context environment. That is, although the sub-cultures Paul created had their own vocabulary and distinctive (if not peculiar) set of beliefs, they were open, fluid, new — and populated with believers from different segments of the larger society. Those farther along the path had to be careful and explicit in word and in action.
Internalized vs. externalized rules
HC societies have lots of unwritten rules. These rules are not simply a list of dos and don’ts that people memorize; they’re embedded cultural norms. You don’t have to say or commit to paper what everyone already knows. It’s second nature.
Christianity grew out of an old, well-established, rather closed religious culture. However, the Hebrew religion had a long history of explicit, externalized rules. They celebrated the law, a written set of instructions, and they explicitly argued about exactly what those rules meant. How far can you walk on the Sabbath? If you collect an herb that you didn’t plant, is that work? If you throw seeds out the window on the seventh day, and they sprout, are you guilty of farming on the Sabbath? You can argue that the law was internalized in Second Temple Judaism and in early Rabbinic Judaism, but it was first and foremost the word of God — explicitly written, earnestly read, and hotly debated.
What about Paul’s communities? Paul’s letters place less emphasis on the aspects of the Torah that mark a person as a Jew (especially circumcision) or cause a person to become ritually unclean, but he retains respect for the moral aspect of the law (especially sexual immorality). On all these aspects, Paul is more than happy to weigh in and give advice. For example, are people allowed to get divorced?
1 Cor. 7:10-11 To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. (NRSV)
It’s one of the few times that Paul might be quoting Jesus. But is he passing on a teaching from the earthly Jesus or a command from the risen Lord? It’s curious that the supposedly laconic Paul rambles on for five more verses, suggesting that a pious man might save his pagan wife or vice versa. He could have quoted Jesus on the subject and said, “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder,” unless he was aware only of a command from the Lord but ignorant of the teaching from Jesus.
As it is, one idea of Paul’s found within this set of verses — It is to peace that God has called you — is difficult to reconcile with the synoptics, e.g.:
Luke 12:51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (ESV)
At any rate, Paul has no problem stating explicit rules and coming up with his own logic for following them. Knowledge within Paul’s churches was explicitly stated to ensure correct compliance, repeated for effect, written for posterity, shared among his churches, logically arranged for better understanding, and copied for preservation.
Paul’s explanation of ritual
What follows is conjecture that you may blissfully ignore or vehemently disagree with.
Paul’s Christianity may have grown out of a more primitive, closed, HC community wherein rituals such as baptism and the Lord’s supper had private, implicit, internalized meanings. Paul’s interpretation of baptism as an act that parallels Jesus’ resurrection differs from other parts of the NT and the Didache, which see it as an act of repentance, signifying purification or as a sign of initiation. How he interpreted the commemoration of the Lord’s last meal as the ritual eating of Christ’s body and the drinking of his blood differs from the Didache’s interpretation. But it’s possible that neither is original.
Perhaps later Christians, as they took in new converts realized they had to become more and more explicit, and were forced to historicize certain commandments as Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps new situations caused them to place explicit meaning on existing rituals that may have had little to do with their initial intent. The spread of Christianity required the change to an LC culture, and necessitated the creation of the written gospels.
But that’s just a hypothesis.
Maurice finishes up this chapter with a childish swipe at “Blogger Godfrey” that isn’t worth refuting here. Then he writes:
We must conclude that one major element in the mythicist case is total contempt for sound historical method. Mythicists refuse to make any serious attempt to understand New Testament documents in their original cultural context. The most straightforward reason for this is that they begin with their conclusions, and fit the evidence into them. (p. 49)
I hope I’ve demonstrated that it’s Casey who sifts blindly through evidence he either cannot or will not understand in order to reach his desired conclusions. It’s Casey who ignores the original cultural context of the NT. As for contempt, I am not a mythicist, but I do share their contempt for pseudo-intellectual charlatans and ego-driven scholarly bullies.
As we saw in Chapter 1, they [mythicists] are by and large former fundamentalist Christians, who begin with their faith, and fit the evidence into it. They have had a conversion experience away from Christianity, and they are no more sympathetic to critical scholarship now than they were before. In particular, as ignorant Christians they rejected Jesus’ Jewish culture, and they still do. (p.49)
I don’t know when it became normal for a respected publishing house to print vindictive tirades. I don’t understand how one can simultaneously be well known as an overconfident bombastic boor yet still be a respected scholar. And I’m not sure when it became cool to psychoanalyze people you’ve never met and infer their intentions.
I suppose that puts me at a serious disadvantage, because I have no idea what causes Mo to act the way he does, but frankly, I don’t really care.