The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming e-book Who Ever Heard of Jesus?: Jesus Beyond the Gospels. In this section, I discuss the “high context” nature of the writings of Paul’s Epistles.
Jesus mythicists often use the lack of details about Jesus’ life in Paul’s letters to argue that Jesus did not exist. Some even go so far as to say it proves Paul did not believe Jesus was a real person. This has also been used by supporters of Earl Doherty’s “land of myth” theory as evidence that Paul believed Jesus to have lived and died in an ethereal sublunar existence.
The first problem is that Paul does mention some of the details of Jesus’ earthly life and gives him blood relatives. His insistence on faith in the the death and the resurrection of Jesus to guarantee our own future glory easily puts to rest any idea he believed Jesus was purely mythical. As for Doherty’s thesis, it is invalid on two counts: there is no point where he or anyone else ever suggests anything resembling Doherty’s “land of myth”; and Paul places Jesus and his life firmly on the earth. Doherty’s exegesis of passages are easily shown to be quotemines that lose any resemblance to Paul’s ideas when placed in context.
More importantly, Jesus mythicists have little proper understanding of the context of Paul’s letters. There are five different types of contextual issues at work that must be considered when interpreting Paul. First of all, there is the linguistic context – the basic meaning of the surrounding words. Some Jesus mythicists take a specific sentence in the New Testament and import a meaning into it that makes absolutely no sense when placed within the surrounding passage.
The second type of context is the cultural context of the Mediterranean world in antiquity. The backdrop of the Roman world where Paul wrote shared the cultural norms of a collectivist, agrarian society that are very different from our own. These norms fostered a shared set of assumptions due to the nature of the society remaining static over long periods of time. Such societies are labeled by sociologists and anthropologists as “high context” since many assumptions are just left unsaid.
The problems occur when those in modernity anachronistically project their low context world back upon the world of antiquity. In attempting to decide what Paul or other New Testament writers should have written, Jesus mythicists are crudely equating the backdrop of their own existence to that of the early Christians. As Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch explained:
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. For example, all ancient Mediterranean farmers used the same implements, in the same way, for the same purposes, and at the same season of the year. An ancient might say, “I farmed this plot last year,” and all would know that the person was a tenant farmer in debt to a patron for seed, using a similar shallow plow, planting right before rainy season (beginning in October in the Eastern Mediterranean), then plowing the field after the seeds were sown. Obviously all of this could not be understood by a modern US City dweller, and much of it would be mysterious even to modern US farmers, who do not plant seeds before plowing. The point here is that cultures differ in the degree to which people are required to fill in the blanks for the persons with whom they communicate. Thus writers in such high context cultures usually produce sketchy and impressionistic writings, leaving much to the reader’s or hearer’s socially attuned imagination in rather static societies. Documents from high context cultures encode much information in widely known and understood symbolic or stereotypical statements. For this reason, these documents require the reader to fill in large gaps in what is left unwritten. All readers are expected to know the context and therefore to understand what is only implicit in the writing.
Thus the culture in which we are raised greatly affects the presuppositions we read into the written text. These our shaped not only by our immediate environment, but also by the stability of both that environment and the general population. In our culture, with its rapidly advancing technology and mobile population, we find ourselves in what is much more of a low context situation.
Yet, even within the low context environment of modernity, we can find certain things that have “high context” values. When my parents’ and others spoke of “the Great Depression” and “Pearl Harbor,” there were shared experiences and assumptions that need not be explicitly stated to each other but were lost on their children without some explanation. For my own “baby boom” generation, terms such as “Cuban Missile Crisis”, “March on Washington”, “Kennedy Assassination”, “Beatlemania”, “Summer of Love”, “Vietnam War”, “Woodstock”, “moon landing,” and “Watergate”, evoke images and assumptions that are completely alien to the experience of children of the last few decades. In a similar fashion, the terms “9/11” and “Katrina” will likely be etched on their minds. Each of these terms, within its own time, had its own set of assumptions. When politicians of the day referred to Vietnam or Katrina or 9/11, they need not articulate the details of those events. The term itself carried its own context to those hearing the message.
The third type of context is very much related to the second in that it involves a “high context” environment but it is focused upon a subculture rather than the culture as a whole. In this case, it is the subculture of first century Christians. Paul wrote his letters for a community with shared values and a shared history where broad ideas could be communicated with references that implied a greater context and need not be explained in full detail. Thus, when Paul writes of the resurrection, his use of this word implicitly assumes his audience knows the details of the event of which he writes. Similarly, when he wrote of those events on “the night that [Jesus] was betrayed”, he need not explain who it was that had betrayed Jesus, why they did it, and what was the result.
Something analogous can be seen with papers in an academic journal in a specific discipline. This is a “high context” situation and references to established results are usually brief as those reading the paper are assumed to already know how to “connect the dots.” If the audience is expanded to include those in a related field, more details need to be provided; for other academics, more still. When geared to a lay audience, it has reached much more of a “low context” environment.
The fourth type of contextual issue at work is the audience’s experience with Paul. Many of these letters were written to communities where Paul had spend time preaching and some that he founded. When he mentions the Gospel he preached among them, he does not need to detail each point of his message since they knew his message. Jesus mythicists frequently overlook the fact that many of Paul’s letters followed an extensive time preaching and teaching in these churches and were not written as full catechetical statements.
The final contextual issue is the topical nature of Paul’s letters. It was not the details of Jesus’ life that was at issue but rather the letters were addressing matters of disagreement and discipline within the Church. Thus, the specific details of Jesus’ life was neither needed nor appropriate to the nature of these letters and Paul need only mention those details that might have some bearing on the nature of the disagreement.
For example, Paul constantly wrote of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the resurrection of Christ as it was upon those events that he based his presentation of the Gospels. Yet he wrote little to Christians on specific matters of the passion as these were not in dispute among his audience. Similarly, when he discussed the Last Supper, he focused upon its unitive aspects as he was addressing the divisions then taking place among the Christians at Corinth.
Thus, we have five contextual areas to consider in interpreting Paul: the direct linguistic context, the cultural context, the Christian subcultural context, the Pauline context, and the topical context. Yet, despite this, many mythicists seem to think that the meaning of a passage will be the same for Paul’s readers as assumed by a twenty-first century anti-Christian polemicist who ignores the intent of the letter containing the passage. It should go without saying that such a crude methodology produces quite absurd results.