High-Low context cultures — catching up with the fundamentals

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s about time I tied up one loose end from my earlier remarks on Professor Maurice Casey’s “frightful”™ and “hopelessly unlearned”™ diatribe against “mythicism” generally and Earl Doherty in particular. In his inaugural essay for The Jesus Process© he wrote:

. . . [H]opelssly unlearned . . . Doherty’s ‘original’ work on Paul is . . . frightful. . . . 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 [Footnote here to Beyond Culture]. Paul’s epistles were written in a high context culture, which was homogeneous enough for people not to have to repeat everything all the time, whereas American, European and many other scholars belong to a low context culture, which gives them quite unrealistic expectations of what the authors of the epistles ought to have written.

This is one basic reason why Paul says so little about the life and teaching of Jesus. To some extent, his Gentile Christians had been taught about Jesus already, so he could take such knowledge for granted. He therefore had no reason to mention places such as Nazareth, or the site of the crucifixion, nor to remind his congregations that Jesus was crucified on earth recently.

According to this critique we can conclude that Paul forgot to mention anything about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – or even that Jesus Christ was exalted subsequently to a heavenly role as our Saviour — to his Gentile converts since he clearly does not take such knowledge for granted but repeats it scores of times throughout his epistles.

Shamed into an acute embarrassment for having no knowledge of any “fundamental work”, I immediately purchased a second hand copy of E. T. Hall’s book, Beyond Culture. It arrived as a Harvard University Library discard, very good condition though, complete with Harvard University Library stamps including one warning of a 25 cent fine for every hour it failed to be returned to Harvard’s Social Relations Library after 10 A.M.

Since our evidence for Christian origins is, of course, entirely literary, I was particularly keen to see what Hall had to say about what we could glean about a culture from literature alone. On pages 99-100 (in chapter 7, titled “Contexts, High and Low”) I found my answer (my formatting):

Moving . . . to literature, one again finds a tremendous resource—a stockpile of cultural data—albeit raw data which must be mined and refined before their meaning is clear.

Japa­nese novels are interesting and sometimes puzzling for Western­ers to read. To the uninitiated, much of the richness as well as great depths of meaning pass unnoticed, because the nuances of Japanese culture are not known.

Nobelist Yasunari Kawabata provides some excellent examples. In SNOW COUNTRY, the cen­tral character, Shimamura, has sought retreat from the pressures of life in a remote country inn, where he meets Komako, a prostitute. Even though Komako never declares her love to Shimamura, she doesn’t have to. Only the Western reader might miss the intense passion of her love. In one scene, Komako, mumbling incomprehensible phrases about a party she has left, staggers drunkenly into Shimamura’s room, gulps down some water, and staggers back to the party. To the Japanese, the scene is unforgettable, because Kawabata manages to make the reader sense that behind the curtain of Komako’s incoherent mumbling lies feelings of a blazing, soul-consuming intensity.

Discussing another of Kawabata’s works, “Sleeping Beau­ties,” Donald Keene, a leading authority on Japan, makes a culture-contrasting point that captures the essence of high-context experiences. A portion of his description follows:

A man named Egochi visits a house of pleasure reserved for men in their 6o’s and 70’s. The men are provided with naked virgins who are drugged so heavily they cannot be awakened from sleep, and are warned by the proprietors of the establish­ment not to attempt any “mischief.” Eguchi spends six nights lying beside six different girls. It is a triumph of Kawabata’s vir­tuosity that he managed to make each of Eguchi’s experiences entirely different, even though the six women do not utter a word or reveal anything about themselves but their nakedness. His thoughts as he lies beside these sleeping beauties take in all his life, especially his attachment to the young loveliness of women.

The Western mind boggles at the notion of a man seeking physically passive experiences night after night using the six beautiful, naked virgins only to release a succession of thoughts and memories. Again, in high-context situations, less is required to release the message. It is a sign of Kawabata’s genius to use the drugged nakedness of woman to expose all that is in a man.

Anthropologist Weston La Barre has made significant con­tributions to our knowledge of man, not only by calling our at­tention to the fact that man evolves his extensions rather than his body, but in his observations of the “human animal” in his natural habitat. One of these is quoted below because it aptly illustrates how much we take for granted even in the most mun­dane acts, such as “dunking” doughnuts.

During the last War [WW II] there appeared in the North African edition of Stars and Stripes a news picture, purporting to portray an American GI teaching an Arab the gentle art of dunking doughnuts. The American is obviously much self-amused, and the whole context of the picture is “See how good Americans make friends with anybody in the world!” by teaching the foreigner a homely aspect of the American’s own culture. But, protests the cultural anthropologist, is this what is actually happening here? Is the GI really teaching . . . the Arab all there is to know about doughnut-dunking? For doughnut-dunking also evokes Emily Post, a male vacation from females striving for vertical social mobility, Jiggs and Maggie, the revolt of the American he-man from “Mom” as the introject-source for manners in a neomatriarchate—and much else besides. Underlying it all is the classless American society —in which everyone is restlessly struggling to change his social status, by persuading others that he is a “good guy” and a good average nonconformist-conformist. Doughnut-dunking is all this–and more!

La Barre’s commentary on one of the minor culture patterns of U.S. males is an excellent illustration of the fact that behind such apparently inconsequential acts as doughnut dunking, one finds the seeds of social unrest. High context actions such as these could have been used to predict at least some of the energy and emotional power that lay behind the explosive rebellion of our youth a generation later, not only against Momism but all that they considered to be repressive of the individual’s impulses. A generation ago, father figuratively thumbed his nose at his mom by dunking a doughnut. Today, his children overthrow the whole system of parental controls. Today, the dunking example seems ridiculously ineffectual and even timid. However, La Barre’s point still hold, that one has to be properly contexted to interpret everyday customs. The soldier who gets a secret bang out of soaking a common piece of pastry in his morning coffee can’t tell you why he finds this simple act so psychologically gratifying. The more that lies behind his actions (the higher the context), the less he can tell you.

It seems clear to me that the high/low context question in literature is all about how we understand the fullness of what IS said.

It strikes me as a frightful and hopelessly unlearned interpretation of E. T. Hall’s analysis to think that it can salvage scholarly hypotheses of New Testament scholars that argue Buddha never mentions anything to his Western readers about Jesus’ healings, miracles and teachings of right religion and life eternal because he (Buddha) had taught them all that stuff already.

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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “High-Low context cultures — catching up with the fundamentals”

  1. It seems this ‘high context culture’ stuff is being used to magically transform the ‘absence of evidence’ into the ‘presence of evidence’. The weakness is, as you point out, that using this principle we can no longer tell whether someone is ignorant of something or well-versed in something as the ‘evidence’ is exactly the same: no mention of it at all.

  2. Casey’s risible argument that Paul did not provide any evidence of knowledge of Jesus Christ because it was already assumed does not cohere with the evidence. The alternatives are that Paul failed to provide any proof that Jesus was the founder of Christianity either because (a) it was obvious or (b) it was false. These are the contrasting scientific hypotheses of orthodoxy and mythicism. The mythicist explanation (falsity) is parsimonious and elegant, while the orthodox view (obviousity) is a desperate scramble to salvage an incoherent mess. Ockham’s Razor says take the simpler explanation, mythicism. Jesus did not exist.

    Earl Doherty is doing a fine job of demonstrating Erhman’s utter incoherence. The argument from silence in Paul is far far better explained by the hypothesis that an originally imaginary spiritual Jesus was subsequently enfleshed through fiction by Mark.

    By the way, your use of ‘TM’ against Casey’s derogatory phrase “hopelessly unlearned” suggests intriguing insinuations of scholarly idiocy and bullying. I’m not sure when ‘scholars’ started to trademark their terms of cultured abuse, but the acollegiality of such methods is appalling.

    1. Selfishly, I hope Casey doesn’t stop using his “tells.” When he descends into mudslinging, I know he has no idea what he’s talking about and is drawing upon nothing but personal animosity. Similarly, when he uses the word “perfectly,” I know he’s trying to pass off an opinion or a dubious conclusion as a cold, hard fact.

      It’s unfortunate to see scholars like Casey or scholars-in-training like Steph use the word “incompetent” so freely. You know, it is possible for competent people with lots of experience and training to reach — gasp! — different conclusions. It’s also sad to see formerly respectable scholars psychoanalyze total strangers, presuming that they disagree with them because of some mental defect (e.g., “once a fundie always a fundie”).

      Just how big does your ego have to be to assume that your scholarship is so great, your arguments are so unassailable, your prose is so polished, that anyone who disagrees with you is stupid, insane, malicious, or some combination of the three?

    2. Given Paul preached mostly in places far away from Palestine, it might be safe to assume that the news of Jesus had not yet reached that area. Perhaps he failed to remind them about Jesus, because they were both actually talking about the saviour God myth that many cultures and religions in the area shared in some form or other. We see many solarisms in the gospels and pauline text. Could it be that this shared knowledge was the stuff already known and Paul was not required to repeat the story but only update minor components ?

  3. You can bet a million bucks that if Paul’s letters taught that Jesus was a preacher and was crucified under Pilate, Casey would not start shrieking that they must be forgeries because the real Paul had lived in a high context society and so would never have written such things.

  4. Vinny JH and others have noted a problem with the “high context” argument.

    That is, suppose you turn it around; the corollary of “high context” theory would be that if Paul for example is saying a LOT about something, that means that it was not wellknown to those around him.

    So if Paul mentions the “crucifixion” over and over, say? Then “high context” theory would insist that proves that none of those around Paul knew of the crucifixion.

  5. As an Australian who lived for a number of years in Japan (hence my moniker “Gakusei”, which means “student”), it is both humbling and enlightening to be immersed in a culture where the “normal” rules of communication — or at least those rules you grew up with and considered “normal” — do not necessarily apply. I doubt no-one disagrees that it makes sense to view early writings against the cultural norms of the times, whether you want to call the norms “high context culture” or something else. What I find interesting is that if you look at the writings in the NT, there is not just little historical information about Jesus, but there is little historical information about anything. And this pattern extends well beyond the First Century CE writings. Even the Gospels exhibit this pattern. When you get to writings that are presented as historical accounts the situation is better; but if you look at the occasional letters, the picture of the early church and the main figures involved in its rise are as shadowy as its Jesus.

    1. Which is exactly what one would expect if those writings were the products of theological-philosophical evolutions and mutations, and not the products of a distinct set of defining events performed by significant actants. In such a situation we would expect the first narratives to impart the faith with a history would be creative narratives with clear plot and narrative debts to other literature rather than “history”.

    2. GDon explains, once again, why the epistle writers tell us about Abraham, Moses, Sarah, Enoch, Job, Isaac, etc etc but not very much about Jesus.

      Paul quotes the Old Testament 93 times, but people assure us that if the letters had quoted Jesus 93 times, they could be dismissed out of hand as forgeries, because Paul lived in a high-context society and so would never have quoted Jesus as much as he quoted the Old Testament.

    3. You only have to be married to know about different styles of communication. My spouse is Japanese, so I don’t know how much of my incomprehension to attribute to culture, and how much to overall male-female differences.

  6. If the churches he was writing already knew about Jesus, then why did he have to remind them of all the other things ? Why did Paul even need to write in his letters about Christ saving them, surely that is redundant as well.

  7. Every Sunday that I attended church as a youth I was constantly being reminded of the many teachings and deeds of Jesus.

    Apparently I was living in a “low context” culture all those years.

    1. Apparently the gospels themselves were written in low-context communities. Apparently the whole of Christianity _today_ is a low-context culture. Apparently the only high-context Christianity _ever_ was pre-gospel Pauline Christianity, which leads to questions of how did they get to that high-context state in the first place without any writings and why did they revert back to a low-context state once the gospels came out.

  8. I think that what Professor Casey is trying to say is that when Paul says God appointed apostles, everybody knew that Jesus had appointed apostles.

    And that when Paul says the Law and the Prophets had testified to this new righteousness, everybody knew that Jesus had testified to this new righteousness.

    And when Paul says the advantage the Jews had had was that they had been given the scriptures, everybody knew that the advantage the Jews had was that Jesus had lived among them.

    This enables Casey to declare Paul ‘silent’, as Casey needs to place a muffler over Paul whenever Paul talks about who appointed apostles, who testified to this new righteousness, what advantage the Jews had had etc.

  9. Casey emailed me once, to explain that in this ‘high culture society’, Jesus would have told Jews that there had been an Exodus.

    ‘Like Gamaliel, who will have been leading a Passover group elsewhere in Jerusalem, he will have said something to the effect that ‘we eat bitter herbs because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our fathers in Egypt’. Similarly, over the Passover offering, he will have said something to the effect that ‘this is the Passover, for our Father in heaven passed over the houses of our fathers in Egypt’. He may have quoted Exodus 12.27: ‘It is the sacrifice of the Passover for the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians and spared our houses’.’

    Doesn’t Casey know that in a high-context society, Jesus would not have had to repeat everything all the time – Jews knew perfectly well that there had been a Passover, because the Lord had passed over the houses of the children of Israel?

    How come in such a ‘high context’ society, Jews had to continually tell each other why they were celebrating Passover?

    Because Casey is just erecting ad hoc confabulations to ‘refute’ Doherty. It doesn’t matter if his answer is just made up on the spot, and not backed up by any data or evidence. It is an answer, and so Doherty has been answered.

  10. JW:
    From a common sense standpoint the general level of communication was exponentially lower back than so the average person would have exponentially less background information about a subject than the average person of our time.

    Paul indicates that he is not interested in Jesus’ supposed life, not that it was common knowledge, so Casey ignores what Paul says and promotes what he does not say.

    Casey’s credibility has been impeached and he can not be considered an expert witness.


  11. Joe, Nice comment. I am pleased to be on your page. I want to acknowledge a particularly thoughtful reply you made to a comment I posted on Only Scholars can Know Jesus Existed. The comment was judged to violate Rules of Comment and removed to include Replies. I want to acknowledge your thoughtful Response: “Smartest thing I have read yet.” I have reposted the comment, it is 39. Comment to Only Scholars can Know – .

    1. Ed – You misread that thread. I have a copy of the deleted comments if anyone is interested. What happened was that I commented on your misreading of Neil’s comparison between Jesus Studies and the evidence for Neptune, and P W made the comment you mention in response to me. He was not supporting you. Neil deleted your reply and the responses to it, I assume because he objects to you repeating the baseless argument that faith and apostolic witness constitute evidence for the Historical Jesus. Sorry to disappoint.

  12. Robert, I only have my comment which was removed with Joe Wallock’s comment and yours. For some reason I do not now find Neil’s comment making the “comparison between Jesus Studies and the evidence for Neptune”. My reference to the comparison was my 11. Comment using Doherty’s quote to make the point that mythicists as “lay” outsiders, without knowledge of essential areas of the discipline, show no concern for taking account of present understanding of top NT Studies, – it being as nonsensical as for some lay person attempting a critical deconstruction of the discipline of Quantum Relativity Physics, say without a background in math. Whatever Neil was saying about the comparison, I was using the words only to say that the evidence for the Guild’s evidence for Jesus is straight forward and simple, not dependent on either “esoteric wisdom”, nor like “evidence for the existence of Neptune”. That is all I can say.

  13. “It seems clear to me that the high/low context question in literature is all about how we understand the fullness of what IS said.”

    That does appear to be Hall’s point, thus it’s a huge irony (but hardly unique in this regard) that a New Testament scholar would advance the opposite view. Their repeated inability to grasp basic concepts that don’t support what they’re supposedly arguing for is an amusing embarrassment. The scholar has no clothes.

    1. So true, certainly of some of those scholars. The classic case is our good friend Dr James McGrath who in exchanges has repeatedly shown an inability to comprehend the simplest points of historical methodology even when explicitly set out and illustrated with examples by historians such as Howell and Prevenier in a text for graduate students of history, and by publications of oral historian Jan Vansina, and as applied by Eric Hobsbawm in his “Bandits”. His only recourse when pointed out each time that he either failed to read the passages in question or had a serious problem with comprehension was, of course, personal abuse.

  14. Each of Paul’s letters seems to have a major intention of settling disputes that had become troublesome in the addressed church.

    Therefore the absence of information about Jesus’ actions and teachings in these letters is strange for at least a couple of reasons:

    1) Such information surely could have settled some of the disputes. Paul could have written that a particular side of the dispute was correct, because of what Jesus did or said.

    2) It seems impossible that there never were any disputes about what Jesus did or said — especially since the Gospels still had not been written.

    We know from Paul’s letters that there were many disputes — about circumcision, eating with Gentiles, etc. — which indicates that the leadership was not able to exercise totalitarian mind control of the ordinary members.

    Furthermore, we know from Paul’s letters and also from the later-written Gospels that Peter and other leaders could be and indeed were criticized. Peter and all his fellow disciples were criticized for misunderstanding much of what Jesus did and said.

    In this supposed situation, there should have been, when Paul was writing his letters, many disputes about what Jesus really did do and say. The supposed authorities — Peter and his fellow leaders — were unreliable and were unable to suppress all disagreements.

    The high-context explanation does at least respond to a recognition that information about Jesus’ actions and teachings is absent from Paul’s letters.

    I suppose that indeed Paul did not have to mention that Jesus fed a multitude of people with a small amount of food on one occasion if everyone in the addressed church already knew that story. Even so, Paul might have used such a well-know story in his response to the dispute about eating with Gentiles. Did the multitude include some Gentiles, and did Jesus feed them too? Did the Jews and the Gentiles in the multitude eat together on that occasion?

    And then the story’s details would have become more important. Where did the feeding of the multitude take place? Was it a place where a lot of Gentiles lived? Were there Gentiles in the multitude? Did Jesus feed them? If so, then did Jesus remark about the Jews and Gentiles eating together?

    When Paul responds in his letters to disputes, he never uses such information and details about what Jesus did and said, and he never addresses any disagreements about what Jesus did and said.

  15. This episode shows how “Biblical scholarship” ultimately comes down to apologetics. When G.A. Wells repeatedly pointed out what should have been obvious to scholars (but wasn’t) — that Paul’s letters are virtually silent on the life and words of a historical Jesus, and therefore this is a huge problem — the response wasn’t to acknowledge Wells’s point and further examine the problem, but to instead marshall counter-arguments by desperately searching the contemporary literature and hoping to find something persuasive. Edward T. Hall’s “high context” paradigm was thus pressed into service as a sophisticated-sounding explanation for the silence, even though they missed Hall’s main point. From this insecure vantage point, they could then reassert the oh-so-predictable “mythicism has been refuted and debunked” mantra for the 1,000th time.

  16. The whole “high context” idea that Paul was not teaching details of Jesus’ life because they were well known already, does not match what we actually see in Paul’s many writings. Where first, 1) we see Paul travelling around, teaching Christianity: why would Paul teach about Christianity … to people who already knew about it?

    Indeed 2) if you accept the Book of Acts as being to any degree historical, in Acts Paul is a) usually shown meeting people who don’t know about Jesus, who are not in well-established churches, but possibly synagogues and pagan temples, only. In Acts it seems lik, Paul is b) having to set up churches for the first time, and is c) meeting people who are not just ignorant, but are quite antagonistic to even the barest outline of Christianity. People who d) even oppose major Christian doctrines.

    While 3) outside of Acts, later on, Paul is finding sins and errors in the doctrines of countless groups. Groups of people who are not even obviously congregations; who know of “Apollo,” or “John,” but not the “holy spirit” and so forth.

    4) John also notes many false ideas, lack of knowledge in congregations, as late as c. 90 AD. In Rev. 2-3 (2.4,2.14, 2.0,3.2, 3.15). John noting doctrinal errors, pockets of ignorance, even in some churches apparently earlier established by Paul, (like Ephesus?).

    Paul is constantly meeting people who don’t know anything about Christianity; for all the world as if no one has heard about Christianity … until Paul taught it.

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