Blogger Casey (of The Jesus Process ®©™ blog series now published on the internet) expresses regret and shock at the “frightful” work of Earl Doherty, notably because
with a regrettable lack of information about conventional scholarship, he shows no knowledge of the fundamental work of the anthropologist E. T. Hall, who introduced the terms ‘high context culture’ and ‘low context culture’ into scholarship — with his 1976 publication, Beyond Culture.
Truly regrettable. Simply frightful.
Paul and High Context Culture
But there is one New Testament scholar who has done his homework and that’s Professor Bruce J. Malina. In 1996 (twenty years after Hall’s book appeared) he discussed Beyond Culture as if his scholarly peers needed to have Hall’s argument explained to them for the first time (The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels). To my knowledge he has never blogged a post or essay on the internet, though.
Maybe Malina’s absence from the web explains why Blogger Casey has shown absolutely no knowledge of this anthropologist’s 1976 work in any of his books, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God (1991, 2001), Is John’s Gospel True (1996), Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (1998), An Aramaic Approach to Q (2002), Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem (2007, 2009), Jesus of Nazareth (2010), even when he was discussing various ancient and modern cultures. Or perhaps someone can jog my memory if it is failing me here.
Now this is a serious deficiency for Blogger Casey since he clearly struggles with self-contradictory arguments when he attempts to weave Hall’s concepts into his criticism of mythicism. Casey argues that the reason no epistle writer in the New Testament, in particular Paul, mentioned any details of the life of an earthly Jesus was simply because the story was so well known and in a “high context culture” such as Paul’s anything so well-known would simply never be mentioned.
But if Casey’s understanding and application of Hall’s thesis is valid, then we must also imagine all the members of the churches to whom Paul wrote never mentioning the life of Jesus among themselves, either. Not even in their weekly sermons. Christianity would be a strange religion indeed where no-one ever needed to speak about the life of their founder.
No gospel would ever need to be written for such a church!
The sort of thing Hall means by leaving things unspoken in such a culture is, say, if someone rescues you from a dire predicament. There would be no need to say it, but it would simply be understood that you were in debt to that person for the remainder of your life. Just the mention of that someone having saved you in the past would bring with it the unspoken understanding of your perpetual debt to that person. Such societies are the product of generations, or certainly many years, of social stability. How old and established in the details of the life of Jesus were the churches addressed by Paul in his letters?
No, Blogger Casey has an upside-down understanding of Hall’s argument. (Internet authors can be so “hopelessly unlearned” sometimes.) If Blogger Casey understood what is meant by the ancient Mediterranean being a “high context culture” then he would have understood that Earl Doherty’s analysis of Paul’s letters makes far more sense than anything anti-mythicists have argued. Doherty addresses the stable cultural and philosophical background to the expressions and thoughts of Paul and the other epistle writers — the sorts of things that really do not need explicit elaboration each time they are hinted at.
So when Paul wrote that “the rulers of this age” crucified the Lord of glory, he did not need to spell out that he meant the archons in heavenly realms, as a good many scholars also acknowledge. That is an example of the sort of cryptic or unexplained reference that we expect in a “high context culture”. The way to understand this is to study the term and concept as it is found in other writings of the age and to study the way the early readers and commentators on Paul understood him.
A modern reader bringing his own cultural understanding into Paul’s world (e.g. earthly rulers killed Christ) only causes misunderstanding and confusion. That is what Hall’s work, Beyond Culture, warns us what happens when outsiders enter a new culture without understanding it. We can’t just assume Paul meant “earthly rulers” if that is not supported by our wider cultural study of the words Paul used.
But this is what Blogger Casey does. He explains away Paul’s failure to ever mention anything of the details of Jesus’ last days by saying none of it needed to be even mentioned because Paul was writing in the context of a ‘high context culture’. No, as Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey would say, “everything is wrong with this.” In a high context culture one does not need to explain what is said or acted upon; it does not mean one does not need to say anything at all. Hall’s thesis explains what Paul DOES say, not what he does NOT say.
Blogger Casey scoffs at Doherty’s explanation of the thought-world of Paul and how this elucidates so much of what Paul himself understood by Jesus Christ and the gospel. But that is the very sort of explanation that is needed given Paul’s many assumptions that he left unspoken in his writings. Blogger Casey appeals to “high context culture” as an escape clause to explain why Paul nowhere addresses or even alludes to the life and last days of Jesus as we understand them in the Gospels.
Blogger Casey spotlights the narrowness of his perspective when he writes:
Doherty draws on ideas some of which are found in some Neoplatonic texts, but not in the New Testament nor in the Judaism from which early Christianity emerged.
For Casey, there can only be one cultural matrix for Christianity: Judaism alone. And Judaism as if it were quarantined from the rest of the world, despite the Diaspora, despite Philo, despite Josephus, despite the Hellenistic influences upon the Second Temple literature, despite scholarly discoveries of “JudaismS“, not “a/the Judaism”.
More to the point of the question of “high context culture”, Casey appears not to have read Doherty’s book for himself. Perhaps he is relying on notes or reading guides from Blogger Fisher. If he had read Jesus: Neither God Nor Man he would know that Doherty demonstrates the way several turns of phrase in Paul are most aptly understood when they are read against the wider thought world of ancient Hellenistic and Hellenistic-Jewish cosmology and myth as well as the Jewish sacred-text based religion and cults. They cannot be explained by reference to an historical Jesus.
Before addressing this point let me back up a little. . . .
To understand the writings produced in high-context cultures one needs to acquaint oneself with the wider cultural concepts of the day. This requires some learning since most people today who read the New Testament are not aware of many of the world-views and values of the societies from which they emerged. This is why Doherty has repeatedly said that his thesis is so difficult to grasp chiefly because so few people today know how the ancients thought. Even New Testament scholars, by and large, study only aspects of ancient society that they feel are directly relevant to the New Testament writings. In reaction to this an increasing number of NT scholars (e.g. Ronald Hock in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative) have attempted to encourage their peers to read more widely the literary works of the Greeks and Romans since even if they do not at first appear relevant to the Gospels or epistles, they do nonetheless bring out so much more understanding of the world of the authors of the NT. What Doherty does in his works is to explain the long-term stable cultural background thinking and understandings among Mediterranean peoples at the time of early Christianity in order to better understand many of the otherwise cryptic allusions in Paul’s and other NT authors’ letters.
That’s not to say that NT scholars don’t do the same sorts of things themselves. Of course they do. And that’s why I love reading so many of their works. They help me understand the background and context of what I’m reading and the many allusions that would otherwise escape me. So what’s different about what Doherty writes? Doherty reads the NT epistles against the backgrounds of
- the Jewish sacred-text based religion and cults unmediated by the Luke-Acts-Eusebian (historical Jesus–12 apostles) model of Christian origins;
- and the wider Hellenistic thought-world from which Christianity sprang.
A disturbing development in the guild
The Jewish background of Paul was important but scholars since the Second World War have tended to stress the Jewish contribution to Christianity to the neglect of other influences. Jewish thought of the day was also infiltrated by Greek views (e.g. Philo) and Jacob Neusner has argued there was no such thing as Second Temple Judaism but Judaisms. Casey appears to be able only to recognize the Jewish influences (i.e. Jewish influences “undiluted” by Hellenism).
But we do need to keep in mind that since the Second World War there has been a general shift among NT scholars to emphasize the Jewishness of Christian origins to the exclusion of other cultural factors of the day. (And Christianity did first emerge as Christianity in the world of the Diaspora, not Palestine.) See We Need a Good Judas and Political Context of the Current Testamonium Flavianum Consensus. Compare what Matthew Novenson writes in Christ Among the Messiahs:
Pauline studies has whole-heartedly embraced the post-World War II turn to the Jewish Paul . . . . (p. 175)
This development should be evaluated against a major cultural shift — in many ways a very positive shift — towards Jews and things Jewish since the Holocaust. See more on some of these shifts in my earlier post, Christian Zionism: Assumptions and a Humanist’s Critique. Anything that has served to strike a death blow to anti-semitism is a good thing, obviously, but in the pursuit of intellectual honesty, and without any prejudice, we also need to be able to recognize when and if our interpretations of evidence tell us more about ourselves and our times than they do about the past we are attempting to understand. It is not wrong, and it is not anti-semitic (as some scholars and others have claimed), to dispassionately consider the possibility of non-Jewish influences upon the development of Christianity, too. Blogger Casey and Blogger Fisher (and Blogger McGrath, too) have done themselves no credit by introducing innuendo of anti-semitism or blatantly raising accusations of anti-semitism against those who would honestly argue for Hellenistic origins to some aspects of Christianity that other scholars have since World War 2 attributed to Jewish roots.
Deceptions of an internet blogger
What The Jesus Process ®©™ Bloggers would realize if they ever one day read Doherty’s book is that Doherty at no point argues (as Casey baldly asserts)
that Paul did not believe anything that he does not mention.
That is a false assertion and I am surprised Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey would write it since he says elsewhere
Lack of honesty is sufficient to mean that a person is not a proper scholar.
What Doherty does, of course, is demonstrate that passages in Paul that are sometimes said to be tangential allusions to an historical Jesus make no sense as such when closely analysed, but do make a lot of sense against the wider world of Hellenistic and Hellenistic-Jewish cosmology, myth, mystery cults, and the uniqueness of the Jewish religion being focussed on sacred texts as sources of divine revelation. (See, for example, Doherty’s discussions of Paul’s references to Jesus in his response to Ehrman.)
Blogger Casey then follows with some mischievous attempts at deception for his despised “hopelessly unlearned” internet audience. (Or has he never read Doherty’s book himself, relying instead on summaries from a less than capable and “hopelessly biased” research assistant?)
Hypostasis of the Archons
Firstly he falsely presents Doherty as using a gnostic text from the third century “to interpret the historical Paul”.
It should be obvious that [the Hypostasis of the Archons] is too late and unPauline to be used to interpret Paul. . . . I hope it is clear from this . . . that Doherty, despite being thought of as one of the most important of the mythicists, is unqualified, incompetent and hopelessly biased.
Anyone who reads these words of Blogger Casey and has also read how Doherty does write about the Hypostasis of the Archons will be wondering who it was who said, “Lack of honesty is sufficient to mean that a person is not a proper scholar.”
On pages 104 to 109 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man Doherty establishes his case (not really “his” case — indeed, a view shared by a good number of scholars, too) that Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 to “rulers of this age” is a reference to demon rulers. Doherty establishes this case without any reference to the gnostic text. The interpretation of Paul is not at any point made through the Hypostasis of the Archons. Doherty introduces the Hypostasis in the last paragraph as a text that shows the same interpretation of Paul’s “rulers of the age” as the second century Marcion held. The Hypostasis of the Archons is introduced at the end of a five-page discussion as a legacy of an earlier gnostic belief but it is at no point used by Doherty to interpret Paul as Blogger Casey falsely posts on his despised internet.
Testament of Solomon
Next Casey mocks Doherty for dating the Testament of Solomon to the first century. But Emeritus Professor Casey must know that this was the date assigned this text by Conybeare. Even if Casey and others disagree with Conybeare’s date Blogger Casey is dishonestly playing on the “hopeless ignorance” of the “internet” audience by writing as if Doherty is a “ludicrous” loner for allocating the TOS to the first century. Casey adds to his mischievousness when he calls on Schurer to support his claim that the first-century date is “much too early.” Schurer in fact said no such thing: he assigned it no date at all because he found it too difficult to decide. Another scholar, McCown (not named by Casey), dated the nucleus of what became the TOS to the early third century. Blogger Hoffmann comes to Blogger Casey’s defence in a discussion of Casey’s abuse of Doherty’s text by declaring the TOS possibly did not even exist till the 6th century!
But the real falsehood (or ignorance of what Doherty wrote) comes when Casey writes:
This means that it is quite ludicrous of Doherty to conclude on the basis of this evidence that ‘by Paul’s time they [i.e. the demons] have become vast powers that infest the heavens.’
Contrary to what Casey is implying here, the basis of the view that demons “infest the heavens” is far more than simply the Testament of Solomon (or 1 Enoch). See, for example, Ancient Beliefs About Heavenly Realms, Demons and the End of the World and Demonology: The Basics of Middle Platonic Beliefs as a Background to Early Christianity. When Paul speaks of the evil Prince of the Power of the Air he does not spell it all out (“high context culture” and all that) but when we know how ancients thought about the need for space to be occupied by something, and that the air was therefore the abode of invisible demons, we know that there is more support for Doherty’s account than the TOS — and Doherty himself makes this clear.
The Ascension of Isaiah
This is where Casey tries his smoke and mirrors trick. Try to look through the word-wall and spot anything of relevance to the dating of the original text:
The next document to which Doherty turns is the Ascension of Isaiah. This is a composite work. In its present form it is a Christian work, which appears to have been written in Greek, only fragments of which survive. It utilised an older Jewish work, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, which was still known to Origen and the Apostolic Constitutions, but which has not survived except as used in the Christian Ascension of Isaiah. The whole text of this composite work survives only in Ethiopic. This translation was probably made sometime in the 4th-6th centuries. The oldest ms is however from the 15th century. A similar textual tradition is found in the first Latin translation, which survives only in fragments. A different textual tradition is found in the second Latin translation and in the Slavonic version, which contain only chs 6–11, generally known as the Vision of Isaiah, so they attest to its independent existence. The second Latin translation was first published in 1522, on the basis of a ms which is no longer known. The Slavonic translation exists in two forms, of which the second is a shorter version of the first. The earliest ms of the first version dates from the 12th century, and the translation was apparently made in the tenth or eleventh century.
Blogger Casey feigns ignorance of how the contents of texts are dated and asks his “hopelessly ignorant” internet audience to draw the “right conclusion”:
It should be obvious from this that the date of anything resembling the text of what we can now read is difficult to determine.
Is it so hard to date the plays of Euripides or the histories of Tacitus? No, manuscript history is by no means necessarily the primary factor in dating the original compositions of works. And his next sentence makes a mockery of Casey’s efforts to lead the reader to imagine the Asc. Isa. must be terribly much later than Paul’s writings.
Knibb makes the entirely reasonable suggestion that the Vision of Isaiah ‘comes from the second century CE . . . .
After the introduction I am floundering to try to understand how Casey leapt from the 12th century to the second and how this can be explained as an “entirely reasonable” leap! Clearly all the discussion on manuscript dating was a smokescreen to condition the “internet audience” to mock Doherty’s use of this work in his argument.
and [Knibb] gives correct reasons for disputing attempts to date it any earlier.
Ah, it is good to be assured by Blogger Casey that one scholar has given “the correct” arguments somewhere. One wonders why we need so many scholars when it only takes one to get things right. Blogger Casey gives no hint to his internet readers that there has been any debate on the date of the Asc. Isa. or that it is possible to legitimately disagree with Knibb’s reasons. Only Emeritus Professors would be so honest with their audiences. For anyone interested in the range of views on the date of the Asc. Isa. there are several posts in this blog’s Ascension of Isaiah archive. Scroll down to the February 2011 posts. There is one dedicated to Knibb’s arguments, too.
Casey concludes his treatment of Doherty with:
I hope it is clear from this brief account that Doherty, despite being thought of as one of the most important of the mythicists, is unqualified, incompetent and hopelessly biased.
I will conclude with:
I hope it is clear from this brief account that Blogger Casey, despite being thought of as one of the most important of the historicists, is unqualified [“Lack of honesty is sufficient to mean that a person is not a proper scholar”], incompetent and hopelessly biased.
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