In an earlier post — Casey: Taking Context out of Context — we discussed the disturbing habit in NT scholarship of explaining away textual difficulties by playing the high-context card. For example, in What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? John H. Elliott of the Context Group writes:
Further, the New Testament, like the Old Testament and other writings of antiquity, consists of documents written in what anthropologists call a “high context” society where the communicators presume a broadly shared acquaintance with and knowledge of the social context of matters referred to in conversation or writing. Accordingly, it is presumed in such societies that contemporary readers will be able to “fill in the gaps” and “read between the lines.” (John H Elliott. Kindle Locations 125-128)
Similarly, Bruce Malina explains why Paul’s writings are often “misunderstood”:
The New Testament was written in what anthropologists call a “high context” culture. People who communicate with each other in high context societies presume a broadly shared, generally well-understood knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing. (Bruce J. Malina; John J. Pilch. Social-science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (p. 5). Kindle Edition.)
Hoping to explain away the messianic secret, David F. Watson says:
The necessity of protective secrecy was exacerbated in the ancient Mediterranean context by the “high-context” nature of the culture. A high-context culture is one in which people are deeply involved in the everyday activities of those around them and in which information is widely shared. . . . Within the high-context setting, secrecy would be an important and necessary means of protection. (Watson, Honor among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, p. 25)
Useful but misused
I want to be clear up front. I would never argue that social-scientific criticism is in itself a misguided approach, but I do wish to point out a few observations that indicate a pattern of misuse. We continually read that the people in Jesus’ and Paul’s time lived in a high-context culture, with little in the way of demonstration.
However, a scientific approach demands that scholars provide evidence for their assertions. Besides proving that NT writers lived in high-context cultures, scholars must also prove it follows that their writings will always reflect that high context. Because it is stated flatly as a “known fact,” we miss out on important points of the discussion. For example:
- Cultural context occurs along a continuum. In other words, a culture that is either 100% low or 100% high context is a caricature. The fact that we can (arguably) understand Paul’s epistles today shows that not everything he wrote required a special understanding of his context. So we have to ask, to what degree were early Christian cultures high context?
- People adapt to situations and adjust their degree of explicitness accordingly. How might that phenomenon affect the way the fourth evangelist wrote compared to Mark or Paul? What factors might contribute to an author’s deviation from a cultural predisposition toward high-context behavior?
- According to cultural anthropologists, cultural context is just one of several ways we can describe a society, and they all interact with one another. What are the other dimensions? Do any of them have a bearing on whether a person in a high-context society might engage in low-context communication?
- Anthropologists and sociologists also tell us that besides culture, human nature and our distinct personalities have a bearing on our behavior. We are not merely the products of our cultures. Geert Hofstede puts it this way:
Culture is learned, not innate. It derives from one’s social environment rather than from one’s genes. Culture should be distinguished from human nature on one side and from an individual’s personality on the other, although exactly where the borders lie between nature and culture, and between culture and personality, is a matter of discussion among social scientists. (Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition, p. 22)
Power distance: the relationship between Paul and his churches
In a peaceful revolution—the last revolution in Swedish history—the nobles of Sweden in 1809 deposed King Gustav IV, whom they considered incompetent, and surprisingly invited Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, a French general who served under their enemy Napoleon, to become king of Sweden. Bernadotte accepted and became King Charles XIV John; his descendants have occupied the Swedish throne to this day. When the new king was installed, he addressed the Swedish parliament in their language. His broken Swedish amused the Swedes, and they roared with laughter. The Frenchman who had become king was so upset that he never tried to speak Swedish again.
In this incident Bernadotte was a victim of culture shock: never in his French upbringing and military career had he experienced subordinates who laughed at the mistakes of their superior. Historians tell us he had more problems adapting to the egalitarian Swedish and Norwegian mentality (he later became king of Norway as well) and to his subordinates’ constitutional rights. He was a good learner, however (except for language), and he ruled the country as a highly respected constitutional monarch until 1844. (Hofstede, p. 69)
Above, I mentioned the existence other cultural value dimensions and the importance of considering them if we wish to gain some insights on the social background to NT writings. One such dimension is power distance.
The dominant culture in the United States has what Hofstede calls a “low power distance” structure. Power distance has to do with the level of inequality in a society. For example, in the U.S., you might call your boss by his first name and freely offer your opinions about the best way to do things. He’s above you in the org chart, but not so far above you that you can’t speak your mind. On the other hand, in high power distance societies, your boss might never ask your opinion. At lunch, you’ll probably never sit with him, but instead eat with your peers. You show him deference and would never think of calling him by his first name.
U.S. society is not completely egalitarian, of course. Inequality is a fact of life in any human society. It’s a question of degree. Hence, the power distance scale simply measures the amount of inequality that people in a given society are comfortable with.
Power distance can therefore be defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. Institutions are the basic elements of society, such as the family, the school, and the community; organizations are the places where people work.
Power distance is thus described based on the value system of the less powerful members. The way power is distributed is usually explained from the behavior of the more powerful members, the leaders rather than those led. (Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition, p. 61, italics original)
How should we assess the power distance between Paul and his converts in Galatia and Corinth? Remember the tone Paul took in Galatians 3:1-4.
1. You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!
2. The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?
3. Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?
4. Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. (NRSV)
Paul is figuratively (and literally!) writing in all caps here. His harsh tone and explicit language show that he views himself as an authority figure over the Galatians and that he expects the Galatians to accept their subordinate position. He is not offering advice; he is dictating instructions.
Likewise, when addressing the Corinthians, Paul is appalled that they would follow different factions. How can there be any factions within the body of Christ? It’s inconceivable. He takes them to task in chapters three and four, concluding with:
4:14. I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.
4:15 For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. (NRSV)
He then finishes the chapter with this zinger:
4:21. What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? (NRSV)
We conclude that Paul would prefer to change their minds with fatherly exhortation, but he would maintain that applying a fatherly spanking is not out of the question. The fact that these letters were copied and shared with other churches would tend to prove that the Galatians and Corinthians were comfortable with this relationship. In Hofstede’s lingo, Paul’s churches accepted and expected a high degree of inequality, which indicates a high power distance index.
How does power distance affect cultural context?
The research shows that Paul would be very direct and very explicit with his congregations, because of the high power distance index. Paul was their leader. Paul was their father in faith.
Recently, I was listening to a series of lectures by David Livermore, entitled Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. If you are an Audible subscriber, check it out.
Livermore doesn’t discuss high- and low-context cultures until lecture 8, “Communication: Direct versus Indirect,” and with good reason. In earlier lectures he talks about other dimensions of culture, including individualist vs. collectivist, high vs. low power distance, low vs. high uncertainty avoidance, etc. So by the time we get to the subject of high and low context we’re prepared to think of it with respect to other dimensions.
High power distance cultures are usually high context, but keep in mind that the other cultural dimensions keep influencing behavior at the same time.
Here’s what I mean by that. Peers in a high power distance culture would typically be quite indirect in the communication with each other, as an expression of their high-context orientation. However, a boss is likely be very direct with a subordinate in a high-context culture and high power distance. Or a parent is likely to be very direct with a child.
So in this case status and authority trump being indirect. That is to say, power distance trumps where a culture is on context.
[The italicized text in the above quoted material represents Livermore’s vocal inflection. The bold text reflects my emphasis, because it’s a refutation of the high-context apology for Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus.]
Could somebody please read that last paragraph to Casey? Steph, if you’re out there, let him know that power distance trumps culture. The research shows that Paul would be very direct and very explicit with his congregations, because of the high power distance index. Paul was their leader. Paul was their father in faith.
Moreover, as I pointed out in the previous post on cultural context, Paul was writing to instruct and often correct his readers. In this situation, it is unthinkable that Paul would be coy, indirect, or implicit. And finally, Paul, at least as he comes across in his letters, was the sort of person who would not shy away from telling us exactly what he thought.
What can we take away from the preceding analysis? Earlier, I alluded to a pattern of misuse. Unfortunately, it appears many scholars who flirt with the social sciences or dabble in history would rather skim their sources than read for understanding. Worse, they tend to find evidence that supports their hypotheses, and then stop looking. That isn’t how the scientific approach is supposed to work.
We saw the same truncated process in James McGrath’s misapplication of Jan Vansina’s oral tradition research. McGrath found what he was looking for — a reference to embarrassment as an indicator of veracity — liked what he found, and stopped looking.
When we read through the references to high and low context in New Testament research, we see obvious signs of skimming. The authors consistently proclaim the “fact” that all ancient near east societies were high-context cultures and that all documents produced by such cultures are necessarily high-context documents. Subsequent authors are content with citing Malina’s original assertions, showing absolutely no interest in any deeper implications.
Current research that shows different situations have a profound effect on a person’s directness of communication. How could anyone reasonably familiar with cultural anthropology be unaware of that research?
Considered within the framework of situational social dynamics and high power distance, Paul’s writings look like what they are: explicit, low-context communications from a strong leader to his subordinates. He explains what he wants the readers to do or not to do. He reinforces the exhortation with a philosophical argument or a midrash on the OT. Finally, he caps it off with a quotation from the Tanakh, as the authoritative last word. Paul must have had a reason for not quoting Jesus, but that reason cannot have anything to do with his membership in high-context society.
After the recent debate on biological evolution between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, I happened upon “22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In [sic] Evolution” at BuzzFeed. Number 4 (see also number 6) in the list always amuses me: “Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?” It’s a question that shows a lack of knowledge in science, as well as a lack of curiosity in the question itself. You know full well that this person knows nothing about any other law of thermodynamics. And you know that he must never have googled the question, because it’s easily debunked. Finally, you know that even if you explained it to him, it would have absolutely no effect on his belief in creationism.
Unfortunately, we see the same kind of behavior in biblical scholarship. Instead of carefully studying research from other disciplines to find applications within the study of the Bible, scholars tend to skim to find an “explainer” — a mined nugget that will explain away a given problem or set of problems.
On my bookshelf, I have a small stack of works on memory research and how it applies to the NT. They’re in my reading queue, and I’m still in the process of figuring out what the authors are getting at. Yet I’m already beginning to suspect many of these writers are basing their conclusions on unexamined assumptions about what the NT is and a misapplication of a discipline they don’t fully comprehend. In much the same way, scholars have misunderstood and misapplied oral tradition research, content to find a handful of plausible explainers that prove their points.
We can tell there’s little real interest in the basic research, because subsequent authors tend to quote the first couple of NT scholars who made the original assertions. They’ll even engage in “quoting quotes.” That is, if you know the original research as well as the excerpts that, say, James Dunn used in Jesus Remembered, you may find that later authors will use the same quote. See, for example, Eddy and Boyd’s reference to Vansina about the oral tradents as a “walking reference library” in The Jesus Legend (Kindle Locations 4592-4593). They cite Vansina from page 37 of Oral Tradition as History. But Dunn has used “walking reference library” in several books. It’s one of his pet phrases.
So the question arises: Are they quoting the original from Vansina? Are they familiar with his work? Have they really read Parry and Lord? Or have they never read the original texts, merely quoting the quotes? (Secondary quote-mining is a poor substitute for scholarship.)
It matters, because if scholarly consensus has any real weight, then scholars need to have a true understanding of the issues. It isn’t enough for them to be convinced by Dunn’s arguments, if they don’t know the work that went behind it. If you read Malina’s proclamations about high-context culture and think to yourself, “Yeah, that makes sense,” that’s not a scholarly conclusion; it’s an uninformed opinion. Is it really all that different from the creationists who read something on a web site and think, “Yeah, why are there still monkeys?” (See question number 22) or “Yeah, evolution does violate the law of entropy“?
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24 thoughts on “What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed”
“Besides proving that NT writers lived in high-context cultures,…”
It’s all perfectly simple.
Why didn’t Paul write about (e.g.) details of Jesus’ life?
Because he lived in a high-context culture, so he would regard it unnecessary to repeat what everyone knew.
But how do we know that Paul lived in a high-context culture?
Because he didn’t write about details of Jesus’ life, which would have been repeating what everyone knew.
See! It all fits together.
What could be clearer than that?
It’s a perfect circle.
Does a circle which is not perfect exist?
Does perfection exist in the material world?
Just my wife, Tim. Or so she tells me.
The deeper point is that a society can be low-context about one thing and high-context about another, and this varies by group, social status and individually as well. When a physician speaks to another physician about Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, he may simply abbreviate it as SLE and move on to a discussion of various TNF-alpha blocking medications that a various physician has tried in a given patient (with the context that TNF stands for Tumor Necrosis Factor being understood by both of them), but he will vary that considerably when explaining it to his patient depending on the patient’s age and education level, and he would explain it even differently if he were being interviewed on a TV talk show.
Very few Americans need to be told that Starbucks is the name of a coffee shop, but a majority probably don’t catch the Moby Dick reference in the name.
To suggest that we can know anything about what the congregations that Paul was writing to would know, when there is an open debate in academia as to whether there even was such a thing is to beg the question.
That’s correct. (See the previous post on context.)
And besides high power distance as a factor for driving low-context behavior, I think scholars haven’t considered the effect of stratified societies in an empire setting and the likelihood of multiculturalism in urban settings, even in ancient times.
Even in typically low-context societies, as you point out, there are high-context subcultures. We often slide into “inside jokes” without even realizing it.
I’m reminded of a story I read recently in a book about translating German into English. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque made an oblique reference to a line from Goethe that most Germans would know, but remains cryptic to English speakers.
A bullying NCO tries to intimidate a some soldiers. The text says that Tjaden (one of the soldiers) refused to back down and shows him his butt. The first English translation looked like this: “Tjaden replies, without knowing it, in the well-known classical phrase. At the same time, he ventilates his backside.”
What the first translator missed was a coy reference to a work by Goethe, in which Götz von Berlichingen declines to surrender, saying: “Sag deinem Hauptmann [. . .], er kann mich im Arsch lecken’” — i.e., “Tell your captain . . he can kiss my ass.”
After 1774 most publishers were too respectable to print the last three words of that sentence, so they replaced them with dashes. Germans knew what they meant, but nobody else did. Hence the first translator of AQotWF into English had no idea what Remarque was getting at. Readers were left in the dark.
Later translations got closer to the meaning by being more explicit, e.g.:
“Tjaden gives an unworried and conclusive reply, quoting (although he doesn’t know he’s doing so) one of Goethe’s best-known lines, the one about kissing a specific part of his anatomy. At the same time he sticks his backside up in the air” (Remarque 1994: 59).
The authors comment:
In recent months, I’ve been trying to translate some German books on the NT, and I continually worry that the author might be using a colorful allusion that’s going right over my American head.
But anyhow, as for using low-context culture as an excuse for Paul’s silence, well . . . what Goethe said.
Aside from the authority context for a moment, a recent moment on a discussion forum brought to mind what might be another illustration of the problem with explaining Paul’s relative silence on Jesus in terms of high-context culture.
On that discussion forum I read someone suggesting an interesting piece of evidence that suggested some sort of link between the Gospel of Mark and 3 John. I responded, “That is potentially interesting — (one swallow and all that) . . .” Was my swallow reference an instance of “high context” communication? I expect others to know I am referring to the proverb that one swallow does not make a summer. But if I had left out the swallow keyword altogether, no-one would have had any reason to bring that specific proverb to mind.
What I’m asking is this. In written communication don’t we at least need some cue words to make “high culture communication” work? If so, then in Paul’s letters the problem remains: Paul will talk of visions, of Abraham, of Scripture texts, and sometimes in ways that these will prompt a wealth of “high context” associations. For example, when he says that some Jews were “without faith” we know and expect his readers to know he is referring to the entire saga of the failure of Israel in the wilderness, in the time of Judges, then under the Kings. But we don’t see similar keywords that might bring to mind admonitions by Jesus himself or his healings or directives to the apostles, etc.
Or am I distorting something here with this comment? Correction/feedback welcome.
No, you’re onto something important.
Much of the research around low- and high-context focuses on face-to-face communication, in which facial expressions and gestures help provide context. But, of course, a shared cultural base allows even written communication to rely on context, i.e., to use implicit, indirect language that we expect readers will understand.
Back when more people were familiar with the KJV Bible, you could say things like “the way of all flesh” and everyone would know what you meant. Today, among friends, I might use a quote from Seinfeld, and expect everyone to get the subtext. For example:
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
“I was in the pool!”
But in order for subtext to exist, we need text. More specifically, without any communicated cue (verbal or nonverbal), we have silence.
That reminds me of my favorite scene from Barcelona.
I am curious about Casey’s claim that “it is possible that when Paul founded churches, he effectively produced another high context society.”
How does one “produce” a high context society? Does Casey engage with any scholarship concerning how such societies come into being? If I had to guess, I would think that such societies evolve over many generations rather than being produced by individuals in a short period of time.
He begs the question on Paul founding churches, as well.
Here’s the thing though: We know from ancient sources there was considerable divergence of opinion regarding the nature of Jesus Christ. We know from writings attributed to Paul (see 2 Cor 11, for example) that there were different Gospels and different teachings about Jesus and who Jesus was. Knowing this, it is absolutely a stretch to claim for this subculture a “high context” status. This was, as vinny suggests, an early stage of developing beliefs and teachings. It makes no sense to claim here existed a “high context” situation. This was a context where teachings about Jesus Christ were in flux. It is more likely that such teachings would be repeated over and over again. This was a period of spreading a NEW message to NEW congregations of people who were just developing a sense of a separate identity, many of whom would have heard the story of Jesus many years after the events were said to take place as a NEW story.
How does Casey salvage this situation? Thanks, Tim, for the link to Casey’s previous book
Geoff: How does Casey salvage this situation?
I suppose if you drew his attention to it, he’d politely withdraw his assertion . . . .
Naw, just kidding. He’d salvage it by doing what he always does, by stomping his little feet and accusing you of being incompetent. Funny how everyone who disagrees with him is incompetent.
Vinny: How does one “produce” a high context society?
I assume Casey means that the churches Paul founded almost immediately became homogeneous, high-context enclaves. It’s possible that in private meetings among themselves they were able to communicate implicitly with lots of subtext. However, he does not explain:
1. Given the influx of new converts from different strata of society, how can we justifiably assume they always engaged in high-context behavior?
2. Given the competition between rival gospels (see Geoff’s comment), shouldn’t we assume explicit communication as to “correct” belief? The creeds — a natural reaction to the situation — surely came out of this rivalry.
3. Even if we concede Paul “produced” high-context cultures, how does it follow that Casey has explained Paul’s silence on Jesus’ earthly life? I suggest that Casey is a “step-skipper”!
Vinny: Does Casey engage with any scholarship concerning how such societies come into being?
You’d have to ask him. Maybe Steph can tell us. From what I can see, he skimmed Hall and found his explainer. Or perhaps he read that dreadful little book by J.P. Holding. Similarly, I once read “I Am Joe’s Prostate” in The Reader’s Digest, which makes me qualified to offer expert advice on urology. Cough, please.
What also needs to be factored in is that at least one of Paul’s letters was addressed to a church he had never visited (Rome), and others were expected to be circulated more widely among other groups.
Moreover we are not just talking about Paul, either, but about all the letter writers, both canonical and non-canonical.
That surely adds further complications to the “high-context” hypothesis.
I found this in a discussion of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club so I’m not certain that it constitutes a rigorous academic definition, but it certainly seems to fit with everything else I can find about high context cultures. Can Casey have any possible basis for thinking that Paul’s communities constituted high context societies other than the fact that Paul’s letters don’t include information that Casey is sure Paul knew?
Thanks once again for bringing more methodological information to the discussion (this time “social-scientific criticism”). In terms of “higher context,” I was on my way to reinventing it, albeit on very simplified terms. I was trying to imagine what it was like to be in a society where at most 5-10% of the populace was literate and where those who could read did so aloud for those who could not . The reader was the radio broadcasting social norms to the masses.
The closest analogy I could come to was based on the realization that the Bible was “literature for the illiterate” or “books for people who can’t read.” Disney-Pixar films are aimed at children but contain subtexts that only grown-ups will understand and appreciate, and that’s true of a lot of “children’s” programming here in the U.S. The higher, grown-up, context is not meant to be understood by the children, and I don’t imagine the higher, literate, context of the Bible was meant to be understood by the masses who could only listen.
No matter what, though, it seems to me that if you accept the concept of “higher context,” you cannot accept the Bible as being susceptible to a strictly literal interpretation. And also, given that we don’t have the same context, how exactly are we supposed to interpret it?
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
Yes, and it is possible that I visited Tyndale House while at Cambridge.
But I didn’t, despite Casey-speculation that I did.
Can’t Casey produce actual facts?
Doesn’t he have anything other than his high-powered imagination, which can come up with an endless stream of ‘possibilities’ and ‘plausibilities’ – all of which Casey seems to have great trouble separating from ‘realities’ and ‘actualities’?
I have finally seen a bit of Casey’s book and I see that he claims I argue for points I actually argue against; claims I did not explain my journey towards atheism when I spent several hundreds of words explaining in detail just that on the same page he must have read in order to alert readers to what my marital status was fifteen years ago; has absolutely no idea what my argument about historical method is and goes to town over a lot of completely irrelevant data about names of ground-breaking historians he clearly had never heard of until he came to find ways to denounce them. Presumably he had to find “dirt” on them solely because I had mentioned their actual methods — the very methods he avoided mentioning. (I thought McGrath made a fool of himself by suggesting Hobsbawm’s explanation of his methods was probably designed to undermine Western society because he was a communist. Casey repeats the same amplified a hundred times over!)
But read the Preface. He virtually admits that his entire tirade against mythicists was penned as a channel for Stephanie Fisher. How else could one explain why he spends so much time on me, even pulling out snippets not from my posts but from comment exchanges with Steph!!, and still gets so much wrong. — Who on earth am I? I know of no mythicist who even argues anything like the way I do, probably because my arguments on historical method are about method and not mythicism. They apply to any historical enterprise (except biblical studies). Who cares what I argue about this or that detail in Mark’s gospel especially when it is irrelevant to the question of mythicism anyway?
Bizarre, bizarre. I really have a lot more interesting things to read and write than to take much time on a book ghost written for Stephanie, our Steph who never once stopped to understand what anyone else was saying before she cried foul.
“Doesn’t he have anything other than his high-powered imagination …”
it stands to reason (of a sort) that, perched on the shoulders of centuries of scarcely-questioned tradition, obedience, etc., such apologists are unlikely to take the implications of rigorous investigation [of their cherished tales] either seriously (if they can’t/won’t imagine investigation being a threat to anyone’s faith) or soberly (if they can/will).
While not commenting on the main content of this article (I haven’t read through it yet), I MUST point out a real blooper by Hofstede concerning Swedish 1809 affairs.
It is true that Gustaf IV was deposed, but it was his childless uncle Charles XIII who was made new (puppet) king. He also had to formally adopt a new “son”, i.e, an heir apparent, this being the Danish prince Charles August. However, in 1810, Charles August died, so a new son had to be adopted, this being the future Charles XIV John.
Charles XIII lived as king until 1818.
My suggestion is that you RETAIN, Hofstede’s account, but make a warning note that Hofstede has bungled the actual succession history, in that Charles XIV John was not made new king in 1809, but in 1818.