Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall

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by Tim Widowfield

At some point in the not-too-distant future (we hope), you’ll be able to buy a new book, an anthology of papers related to Jesus mythicism. In it, you’ll find essays from the usual suspects, including Neil and me.

While neither of us would characterize himself as a mythicist (I still think of myself as an agnostic on the matter), we still hold that it’s a viable option that needs more research. Further, we’ve both been fairly outspoken on the poor scholarship and bad faith continually demonstrated by many anti-mythicists. Good theologians often make poor historians.

My paper is entitled: “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey.” Just to whet your appetite, here’s a small excerpt.

I would call your attention to perhaps the most common error in NT studies: confirmation bias. Our minds are wired to seek data that proves our arguments, which helps explain why Casey and many other scholars have discovered concepts like high-context culture, but have not followed through with due diligence.

If they had, they would have discovered that modern scholars have called Hall’s framework into question, and for good reason. It turns out that despite widespread approval from armchair sociologists, business gurus, and human resource directors, we lack the sort of research that definitively shows Hall was correct. A closer examination shows that he often relied on intuition and anecdotal evidence. In his writings, he neither described nor mentioned his methodology. Peter Cardon writes:   Continue reading “Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall”


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”