What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Social-Scientific Criticism

What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

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:

Continue reading “What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed”


The Book of Revelation, its original meaning and modern misunderstandings

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Professor Bruce J. Malina has had a special interest in understanding what was in the minds of the those who wrote, read (and heard being read) the New Testament literature, and in recent posts I have glimpsed a couple of sections of his On the Genre and Message of Revelation where he guides readers to understand this book the way its original audience may have understood it. This post looks at Malina’s explanation and history of the name and genre of the book, and why Malina believes it has been misunderstood and misread because of ignorance of the literary and religious culture that produced it.

Professor Malina’s words are also applicable to the challenge by mythicists to professional scholars and nonprofessional students of New Testament interpretation in general. (Malina is not a mythicist, and the association is my own. Note Thomas L. Thompson’s observation that HJ scholars have always begun with the assumption that there is a historical Jesus to talk about.)

The approach to the book of Revelation adopted in this book in terms of the Hellenistic conception of the sky is a radically historical one. The goal is to understand the document in terms that would have made sense to a first-century A.D. audience. Only such a historical approach can be considered fair and adequate to the prophet’s concern about “anyone taking away from the utterances of the scroll of this prophecy” (21:19).

The task of helping a modern audience understand the book of Revelation, however, faces numerous obstacles. As is the case when working with all ancient documents, the obstacles derive not from the book of Revelation itself, but from both nonprofessional and professional students of the Bible who bring their own scenarios to their reading of the book (see Malina 1991). On the other hand, the historically minded interpreter must overcome  the nonprofessional’s uncritical acceptance of spurious information both about the genre or type of the work and about the experience it purportedly describes. For many nonprofessionals the book of Revelation has become a repository of predictions concerning the end of the world. This has been a quite common perspective ever since Pharisees and Christians sought to determine the “true” age of creation to determine the beginning of the seventh millennium — the Sabbath of the cosmos (see Landes 1988). (p. 10, my emphasis and paragraphing, links are to the Google-book previews.) Continue reading “The Book of Revelation, its original meaning and modern misunderstandings”