This series is dedicated to protecting god’s sheep against biblical misinterpretation by contrasting the true truth. If you’re not diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman, you’ll be ashamed, therefore be rightly dividing His word.
Many times, like you I suppose, I’ve run into a “someone” who’s a “I’ve got Jesus in my heart so I really know the Bible” type who make bold faced, goofy statements about the Bible as obvious fact. And then they refuse to discuss it with “anyone.” End of conversation, they declare. It’s “clear” they proclaim.
Even if the Holy Spirit has led that “anyone” a bit further than that “someone” in the learned art of Biblical exegesis (discovering the original, intended meaning) and hermeneutics (seeking the contemporary relevance) with the sacred scriptures, it’s an unloving, dishonorable, disrespectful act to cast off the others opinion.
Next time any “someone” pulls that on you, I suggest popping these two questions:
“You certainty seemed convinced. If the Holy Spirit of Jesus would bring you a new truth that completely contradicts your cherished beliefs, what would you do?”
“You know, in His Word is says ‘And they crucified Him.’ No explanation, and no description of this heinous act. If not for our modern day commentaries, we’d be clueless on what it meant. Why do you suppose God wrote it that way?”
Hopefully, they’re be full of grace when responding. Often, they resemble a deer caught in the headlights. But it does get them thinking, and trustfully under the conviction of the Spirit that there’s two sides to any coin!
Is this important? Well, in James 3.1 our brother states teachers will receive the greater judgment-condemnation. Sounds important to God to warn us in this fashion.
Our dear brothers Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh have labored long and hard in His vineyard by providing excellent resources for us to proclaim the true truth. Their work Social Science Commentary on The Synoptic Gospels ought to be in everybody’s library. Yes, and I mean everybody. Without tools like this, you’ll stay trapped in American Christianity, as I was for the first few years of my walk with God. But I escaped! With the help of Jesus, He opened a whole new vista to His meaning and purpose.
This piece is from the Introduction and is vital to us living in a low context, fiercely independent, individualistic society. Enjoy…but also act on it by proclaiming these truths to others.
High and Low Context Societies by Malina and Rohrbaugh
…..The New Testament was written in what anthropologists call a “high-context” society. People who communicate with each other in high-context societies presume a broadly shared, well-understood knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing. For example, everyone in ancient Mediterranean villages would have had a clear and concrete knowledge of what sowing entailed, largely because the skills involved were shared by most (male) members of that society. No writer would need to explain.
Thus writers in such societies usually produce sketchy and impressionistic writings, leaving much to the reader’s or hearer’s imagination. They also encode much information in widely known symbolic or stereotypical statements. In this way, they require the reader to fill in large gaps in the unwritten portion of the writing. All readers are expected to know the context and therefore to understand the references in question.
In this way, the Bible, like most documents written in the high-context Mediterranean world, presumes readers to have a broad and adequate knowledge of its social context. It offers little by way of extended explanation. When Luke writes that Elizabeth was “called barren” (1:36), for example, he feels no necessity to explain for the reader the critical imperatives of ancient kinship, or the position of barren women in the village life of agrarian societies, or the function of the gossip networks in an honor-shame context, even though little of this information is known to modern readers of his story. All of this, however, is critical to understanding his statement about Elizabeth’s being barren. Luke simply assumed his readers would understand.
By contrast, “low-context” societies are those that produce highly specific and detailed documents that leave little for the reader to fill in or supply. The United States and northern Europe are typical low-context societies. Accordingly, Americans and northern Europeans expect writers to give the necessary background if they refer to something unusual or atypical. A computer operator, for example, learns a certain jargon and certain types of logic (e.g., Boolean) that are not widely understood outside the circle of computer initiates.
Within that circle these concepts can be used without explanation because the explanations are easily supplied by any competent reader of technical computer manuals. They can remain a part of the “unwritten” text that the writer expects a reader to supply. But since they are not yet part of the experience of the general public, when writing for a nontechnical audience a writer must explain the computer jargon and the technical information at some length if he or she wants to be understood.
A moment’s reflection will make clear why modern industrial societies are low context and ancient agrarian ones were high-context. The difficulties a general American audience has with computer jargon alluded to immediately above are all too common an experience in modern life. Life today has complexified into a thousand spheres of experience that the general public does not share in common.
There are small worlds of experience in every corner of our society that the rest of us know nothing about. Granted, there is much in our writing that needs no explanation because it relates to experience all Americans can understand. But nowadays the worlds of the engineer, the plumber, the insurance salesman, and the farmer are in large measure self-contained. Should anyone of these people write for “the layperson” who is not an engineer, plumber, insurance salesman, or farmer, he or she would have much to explain.
It was very different in antiquity, however, where change was slow and where the vast majority of the population had the common experience of farming the land and dealing with landlords, traders, merchants, and tax collectors. People had more in common and experience was far less discrepant. Thus writers could more nearly count on readers to fill in the gaps from behaviors socialized in a common world.
The obvious problem this creates for reading the Bible today is that low-context readers in the United States frequently mistake the Bible for a low-context document and erroneously assume the author has provided all of the contextual information needed to understand it. Consider how many U.S. and northern European people believe the Bible is a perfectly adequate and thorough statement of Christian life and behavior!
Such people assume they are free to fill in the gaps from their own experience because, if that were not the case, the New Testament writers, like any considerate low-context authors, would have provided the unfamiliar background a reader requires. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case because expectations of what an author will provide (or has provided) are markedly different in modern and agrarian societies.
Thinking about American readers reading Mediterranean writings requires us to clarify the situation one step further. We have already suggested that each time a writing is read by a new reader, the fields of reference tend to shift and multiply because of the reader’s cultural location. Among some literary theorists this latter phenomenon is called “Recontextualization.”
This term refers to the multiple ways different readers may “complete” a text as a result of reading it over against their different social contexts. (Written documents may also be “decontextualized” when read a historically for their aesthetic or formal characteristics.)
Of course, such Recontextualization is a familiar phenomenon to students of the Synoptic Gospels. A simple reading of Luke 1:1-4 will make it clear that the Gospel documents contain what the author says that people before him said that Jesus said and did. Obviously, the actions and teachings of Jesus were remembered, reappropriated, and reapplied for some fifty years in the life of the Hellenistic church before the author of Luke wrote down his version of the story. Thus each point between Jesus and Luke at which the story was told anew was a new step in the process of Recontextualization.
This same thing can be seen in the work of redaction critics who have shown us how shifts in the settings of the parables of Jesus in various Gospels have altered their emphasis and/or meaning (e.g., the parable of the Lost Sheep in Matt 18: 12-13; Luke 15:4-6; Thomas 98:22-27). In whatever measure these Synoptic Recontextualization of the Jesus story “complete” the text differently than an original hearer of Jesus might have done, an interpretative step of significant proportions has been taken.
The same is true for Recontextualization into the world of the modern reader. Indeed, the concern of our entire commentary is exactly this phenomenon of moving the text from the Mediterranean culture-continent in which it was written to the new setting in the Western, industrialized societies where it is now read. The outcome will be another Recontextualization. Our thesis is that this particular Recontextualization, this modernization of the text, is profoundly social in character, and that readers socialized in the industrial world are unlikely to complete the text of the New Testament in ways the ancient authors could have imagined.
In sum, we insist that meanings realized in reading written documents inevitably derive from a social system. Reading is always a social act. If both reader and writer share the same social system, the same experience, adequate communication is highly probable. But if either reader or writer come from mutually alien social systems, then as a rule, nonunderstanding, or at best misunderstanding, will be the rule.
Because this is so, understanding the range of meanings that would have been plausible to a first-century reader of the Synoptic Gospels requires the contemporary reader to seek access to the social system(s) available to the original audience.
Moreover, to recover these social systems, in whatever measure possible, we believe it essential to employ adequate, explicit, social-science models that have been drawn especially from circum-Mediterranean studies. Only so can we complete the written texts as considerate readers who, for better or worse, have imported them into an alien world.
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Your friend and brother in fighting the good fight,
Saints, we’re one day closer to Home, and Him! Love Him wholeheartedly!
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