The Context Group Essentials

I’m often asked for the best work of the Context Group. It’s one thing to read the theory presented in Malina’s New Testament World, Hanson & Oakman’s Palestine in the Time of Jesus, and Pilch’s Cultural Dictionary of the Bible, but where do we see all of this business in action? Where’s the real payoff in applying honor-shame models to the bible? This list is my answer. If you read everything on it, then you’re well empowered to understand the bible on its own terms.

1. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler. As the only Old Testament work featured on this list, it’s fitting that it hold pride of place. It was Jesus’ bible, after all, and offers an even sharper lens onto the honor-shame world than the New Testament, by the sheer abundance of stories with rural settings. The beauty to Esler’s approach is that he writes for all readers of the bible — scholars, laypeople, believers, infidels, filmmakers — with an eye towards artistic instinct as much as scholarly debate. And the book is a friend to both maximalists and minimalists, since its doesn’t address what really happened or who really existed, only how the ancients would have understood the bible in its final form. While Esler underscores the alien culture of the Israelites to the extent that their world seems unbridgable with ours, he is able to link the Old Testament stories to archetypal patterns found in myths and folktales across the world. They storm with new life as the cultural cues are filled in: vicious relationships between co-wives (Hannah and Peninnah), madness stemming from anxiety disorders (Saul), social vs. mafia-type banditry (David), the devastating power of rape (Amnon and Tamar), honorable lies and deceptions (Judith), and the way God vindicates those who are lowly and despised (David and Judith). More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors is able to lay bare the disturbing world of the bible without apology, and yet make us feel deeply connected to it whether we’re religious or not.

2. Galatians and Conflict and Identity in Romans, Philip Esler. The apostle’s two famous letters never got a decent context until Sanders, and even after him, the revving up of the New Perspective made new monsters. The introspective Lutheran Paul was supplanted by an anti-apartheidist Paul, and nationalism became as intrusive as legalism. Esler pretty much keeps Paul where Sanders had him before scholars like Dunn and Wright tried “improving” on him in misguided ways. Against Dunn, Paul wasn’t opposed merely to works as boundary markers or covenant badges; he believed that the very best the law could provide, love of one’s neighbor, was now available by an entirely different route (the spirit), and as such the fulfilment of the law meant that its moral demands were completely obsolete. Against Wright, there was no sense for Paul that Christ was the “goal” or “climax” of anything to do with the law and covenant; he was its replacement and termination. The figure of Abraham is radically reinterpreted to prove this: since Abraham’s seed are those who are righteous by the faith he had prior to circumcision, and since no one (except Abraham himself) fit this category until the possibility arose of faith in Christ, the centuries between Moses and Christ were a period of unrelieved gloom, where the “promise” was de futuro only. The Gentile issue, to be sure, is what triggered Paul’s attack on the law (not introspective despair: Saul the Pharisee had lived by the law with no difficulty), but that attack had demolition in mind, not just knocking down a few walls to accommodate both parties. The Paul of Galatians is an outright supersessionist favoring Gentiles and denying value to Jewish identity, while the apostle of Romans revises his strategy, insisting that in Christ there is Jew and Greek after all, and putting both ethnic groups on the same salvific playing field in unique ways — and even allowing that Israel is superior in an important way. A formula like Gal 3:27-28 was doomed to fail in the ancient Mediterranean; attempts to eliminate distinctions in honor-shame societies only encouraged groups to re-assert their identities in aggressive ways. That’s why, in the end, there is Jew and Greek in Christ, and Romans the winning letter.

3. “A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors”, Richard Rohrbaugh. This article is from a group of otherwise mediocre essays, but worth a book itself, and overturns everything we think we know about Jesus’ famous parable. It isn’t about a prodigal son, but a beleaguered father with two equally lousy sons. Nor is it a repentance story: the younger son comes home because he has no choice, is starving, and a classic case of naive peasants who migrate to cities and blow all their money. The older son is no help at all, cooking up false accusations against his brother (that he spent money on harlots) and heaping insults on his father. And the father acts as one feebleminded from start to finish, not only by allowing his younger son to declare him dead and take his share of the inheritance (which is village as much as family property), but by actually accepting him back into the community. Embracing and kissing him isn’t an exemplary sign of compassion, but a public sign of protection against village hostility, as is the follow-up party to appease the entire village. Jesus thus affirms reponsibility to both kin and village, but in a bizarre way, with a father who counters shamelessness (disloyalty from both sons) with shamelessness (foolishness) of his own. By rights, he should have beat the daylights out of the younger son and given the elder a tongue-lashing. Every paragraph of Rohrbaugh’s article is packed with amazing cultural insight, and it’s as exciting to read as a modern short story.

4. Jesus was not a Jew or an Egalitarian, Jack Elliott. The two separate essays are actually called, “Jesus the Israelite Was Neither a ‘Jew’ Nor a ‘Christian'” and “Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian”, and they tie at fourth place as wonderful examples of negative scholarship. It’s a lot easier to say what Jesus wasn’t than what he was, and Elliott is at his best demolishing what people think he was. That the messiah wasn’t Jewish might seem an outrageous claim, but Jesus is never in fact called Ἰουδαῖος in the New Testament, save on three occasions, and only by outsiders. He identifies himself as an Israelite, just as he and his associates are identified by insiders as Israelites (or Galileans, or Nazarenes). The term Ἰουδαῖος should in any case be translated as “Judean”, not “Jew”, and was understood in either a narrow regional (southern) sense or broader ethnic sense (to include Galileans and Pereans), the broader use particularly by outsiders. As for egalitarian fantasies, the idea of social equality between human beings originated with the 18th-century Enlightenment and was first put into (very rough) practice with the American and French revolutions. Jesus wasn’t Enlightened. He was a messianic boss who chose twelve male disciples as his closest confidants. That he provided for the weak and vulnerable, and promised a reversal of fortune in the kingdom of God, doesn’t make him egalitarian; nor did his reciprocity in common table-fellowship promote a message of equality. The wisdom of the first essay has yet to catch on: even though I fully agree with Elliott that “Jew” is a mistranslation in the bible, I still use it to speak the common academic language.

5. Social Science Commentaries on the Gospels, Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh. These commentaries cover all the subtleties of biblical culture which tend to go over our heads when we read the bible. Perhaps the most important lesson is that in Jesus’ world, honorable men didn’t defend themselves or answer questions directly when challenged, because that would only concede ground to their opponents. They counterattacked with insults, counterquestions, or clever evasions. So when temple authorities confront Jesus and demand to know by what authority he makes prophetic demonstrations in the temple, Jesus responds with a counterquestion and then ends up insulting them by refusing to reveal anything at all. Or when Herodians and Pharisees try snaring him by getting him to admit having revolutionary sentiments about paying taxes, Jesus deflects their question by having them produce a coin for him, and then, holding it up for all to see, he shames them with a nasty counterquestion and tricks them into identifying themselves as idolaters before concluding with a cryptic remark (which could just as well mean, “Give Caesar nothing and God everything”). Another important lesson concerns identity, which was provided by one’s peers, not by oneself. So when Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say I am?”, and Peter replies, “You are the messiah”, most of us think that Jesus knows who he is and is simply testing his disciples to see if they know. But Jesus is genuinely trying to find out his public status, and his followers are literally giving him his messianic identity. Only when public support has grown substantially will he finally be comfortable identifying himself as the messiah (at the end, in Mk. 14:61-62). To begin with, he is terrified of the title, and thus “sternly orders Peter not to tell anyone about it” (Mk. 8:30). The commentary on John follows the same approach as the synoptics, and shows that the Christian community of this gospel was an alternative society consisting of exiles, rebels, or ostracized deviants. As such, it had developed its own “anti-language”, or resistance language used to maintain its sectarian religious reality opposed to “this world”, the members of which, of course (especially the Judeans) lay outside the scope of redemption and were beyond the pale. Basically, Malina and Rohrbaugh have described all the important behavioral cues and cultural scripts behind the four gospels — how ancient gossip networks functioned, why all rich people were considered thieves, the nature of patron-client relationships, and a lot more.

6. Parables as Subversive Speech, William Herzog. Like Esler’s Old Testament book, this one is a blazing march through some tough stories. Herzog is famous for quipping that Jesus’ parables weren’t “earthly stories with heavenly meanings”, but “earthy stories with heavy meanings”, which is to say they only hinted about the coming kingdom of God by spotlighting the gory details of the here and now. The key is to resist equating masters and landowners with God (as the gospel writers sometimes do), since these figures are often the villains. When a servant buries money as commended by Jewish law, instead of participating in rapacious investment schemes, he’s the hero of the story. When a messianic king forgives an astonomical debt but then turns ruthless, he’s not a divine cipher of limitless forgiveness (for he plainly doesn’t believe in that); he’s a grim example of messianic pretenders who promise sabbaticals and jubilees: this is what they’ll become if they win the crown. When a steward, caught between an elitist rock and a peasant hard place, cuts into his master’s wealth for the debtors’ benefit, the master eats crow and commends his strategy, since his short-term loss will be offset by a long-term gain on account of his new reputation as a peasant benefactor; the steward hasn’t really cheated the master, only put new cards in his hands. While I have reservations about Herzog’s minimizing the apocalyptic edge to at least some of Jesus’ parables, and while I would maintain that some parables talked directly about the kingdom of God, for the most part this book is right on track about the way honorable peasants would have identified with these tales.

7. Honor Among Christians, David Watson. “Secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into the Markan text,” once wrote a scholar, and Watson finally puts the specter of Wrede to rest. With an acumen that makes the rest of academia look almost incompetent, Watson shows that the “secrecy” passages in Mark wouldn’t have been understood as such by the ancients. In silencing those he healed, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep his identity or healing ability secret (as if that would be possible in a world of rampant gossip networks), but rather to resist achieved honor. In patron-client cultures, recipients of benefaction are expected to repay their benefactor through public praise, and it’s this kind of honor which Jesus resists. In silencing demons, likewise, Jesus is resisting ascribed honor, since a demon calling him “the Holy One of God” would be issuing a positive challenge and staking a claim on him; Jesus refuses to become indebted to demons and drawn into the laws of reciprocation. While the Markan Jesus doesn’t do away with the honor-shame system altogether (no one in antiquity could do that an survive), he does offer a new vision in its place, by claiming that the persecuted and suffering will be honored, and the great and powerful will be shamed. Watson also puts to bed the so-called inconsistency between the “secrecy” and “publicity” passages in Mark — properly speaking, the passages where Jesus resists honor, and those where he allows it or is indifferent to it — which are no more inconsistent than passages from The Life of Aesop, which upend the conventions of ancient slavery while upholding them too. Basically, Mark portrays Jesus as authoritative and deserving of honor even as he reshapes the way that honor was coventionally assigned. So the secret’s out: there never was a messianic secret, whether from Jesus’ life or pre-Markan traditions.

8. Reconceptualizing Conversion, Zeba Crook. If the messianic secret was the gospel puzzle of the 20th century, conversion has been the hard concept in Paul, and the key to it is benefaction (“what’s in it for me?”) as opposed to introspective soul-searching. People in antiquity converted or chose gods for the same reason they chose patrons, based on the benefits they stood to gain. Crook delves into this “balance-sheet” psychology, which features an unexpected gracious call, at which point the client was expected to proseltyze and publicize his patron’s generosity in order to increase his honor. As Paul puts it, “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” He wasn’t trying to save souls as much as gain converts to increase Christ’s honor. Of particular interest is the way converts felt compelled to compare their inferior past to the superior present, to the credit of their patron; but in cases like Paul where the patron didn’t change (God = Christ), the client raised the stakes dramatically, by improving upon an already excellent past (Philip 3:4b-6) which in comparison to the present is actually worse than worthless (Philip 3:7-11). That’s why Paul says that his Jewish heritage is so awesome, but in comparison to Christ is shit. While some scholars prefer that Paul was “called” rather than “converted”, Crook points out the false dichotomy: by the time of Hellenistic Judaism it was possible to be called and thus converted. Paul was invoking the Greco-Roman example of the call of the divine patron-benefactor (“conversion”) and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time.

9. “Paul Did Not Teach ‘Stay in Slavery,'” S. Scott Bartchy. This recent essay reinforces arguments from the author’s older book which refutes the common mistranslation of κλῆσις in 1 Corinthians 7. That word means “calling” (or “invitation”, or “summons”), and was translated correctly for centuries until Martin Luther. The Latin Vulgate rightly supplied “vocatione”, and the King James and American Standard versions have “calling”. But most English bibles follow Luther’s crime, with “condition” (NRSV, New American Standard), “state” (RSV, New American), “station” (Goodspeed), or “situation” (NIV). Luther, of course, wanted to keep peasants in their place, and also assure the laity that they didn’t need to become monks or priests to please God. Bartchy returns us to Paul. He doesn’t argue that Paul was condemning slavery per se — there are no egalitarian fantasies here — for no one in antiquity could have imagined a functional world without slaves; nor was the apostle calling for social revolution. But he did encourage believers to remain in their newfound calling (not their present social condition), where being “in Christ” trumped other definers: women thus didn’t have to get married and have children, and slaves could and should pursue manumission oportunities. It’s amusing that while Jesus is fancied an egalitarian hero (see #4 on this list), Paul apparently needs to be seen as a demon who shut the door on all possible changes in the status quo. Both are equally wrong.

10. The Life of a Galilean Shaman, Pieter Craffert. Here’s the Context-Group take on the historical Jesus: a shaman who became spirit-possessed and ascended to heaven in order to heal and prophesy. Craffert shows that across cultures, shamans have assumed the multiple roles of prophets, healers, and sages, and their exalted roles owed to personal intimacy and encounters (as they understood them) with their deities, and were not a mark of egocentrism. He follows the Dale Allison trend of gleaning Jesus from recurring themes and patterns in the gospels rather than specific sayings and deeds hammered out by the classic criteria — as he puts it, Jesus is found not so much “underneath” the gospel traditions as “in” them. Rumor, gossip, and oral legends left us with an overall faithfulness if not actual accuracy. Also as from Allison, we get a terrific solution to the Son of Man puzzle: the title was a modest way of referring to the self in Jewish culture, but also a modest way of relaying a heavenly journey or encounter, and in some cases (like in the Book of Similitudes) a heavenly son of man figure seen in a vision turned out to be the visionary himself. This sits so close to Allison’s proposal that Jesus’ earthly and angelic identities were twin components which couldn’t be neatly separated, and that Jesus in fact thought he had a heavenly twin or doppelganger.

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10 thoughts on “The Context Group Essentials

  1. Loren, Jesus chose 12 people to travel with him and to go out to the villages in twos. You seem to make inferences from the fact that all 12 were men, but I doubt that it would have been possible for a woman to take that role. Would not the villagers have been scandalized? I suspect that it would have been dangerous. Thecla (fictional or otherwise) travelled with Paul and was subjected to sexual harassment as a result. Can you think of any woman (apart from Thecla) in the ancient world who traveled without being accompanied by male members of he own household? If not, that might be a good question to put to the context group. I have put this question to a number of people now, and no-one has found an example.

  2. Richard, you're right that it would be incredibly difficult for women to take that role without being harassed, but that doesn't really effect the conclusion at hand.

    No one is likely to find an example besides Thecla. Zeba Crook wrote an article about women who participated in public life, gained honor, acted as benefactors, and acted in “manly ways” (Thecla being one example). It's called “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited” (JBL 128, no. 3, 2009: 591-611). Crook basically challenges Malina's sweeping assumptions that challenge-ripostes could not take place between social unequals and that women didn't challenge men publicly. I think he's only partly successful, for the examples he finds are exceptional and also mostly involve elites. But it's the closest examination of the sort of thing you're asking about which I know of.

  3. Thanks for the reference to article by Crook, which I have now read.

    I don't understand your comment: “that doesn't really effect the conclusion at hand”. If Jesus chose 12 men because women could not travel freely, then we cannot conclude that Jesus was not egalitarian. The fact that all 12 were men cannot be used as evidence that Jesus was not egalitarian, can it? It may merely reflect the fact that the wider society was patriarchal.

  4. Richard, what you seem to be saying is that perhaps Jesus wished to be an egalitarian despite what his world made him. That's a pretty useless speculation, and in any case too unlikely to be taken seriously. Again, egalitarianism is a construct of the Enlightenment and completely alien to the ancients' thought process. To practice egalitarianism in any meaningful way, or to establish an egalitarian movement/church/community, would have required impossible social-structure changes.

    Jesus certainly promised reversals of status (for women and others), but that presumes the existence of status to begin with. Likewise, his prohibition against divorce wasn't an assertion for “equal rights” in marriage, though it would have protected women from hardship, and more importantly, protected the entire families of both spouses from feuding and social shame. That Jesus chose 12 men, at least as his closest disciples, most certainly does point to non-egalitarianism, and this is precisely why scholars promoting the “egalitarian Jesus” have denied an historical basis to the twelve.

  5. One other thing, Richard. You seem to think that Jesus' choice of the 12 was grounded in travel purposes more than anything, but I think the chief reason for calling the 12 was to appoint them future rulers in the kingdom. Obviously, that's not an egalitarian vision. It's of course possible that Mt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30 is unhistorical, but I think it passes the criteria as good as most and better than many: the symbolism of the 12 tribes coheres with Jesus' apocalyptic thought, the embarrassing promise that Judas would be one of these rulers (unlikely to have been invented after the fact), etc.

  6. Loren, I am not saying what you say I am saying.

    In the present discussion it does not matters whether “the chief reason for calling the 12 was to appoint them future rulers in the kingdom”. The question is whether whether freedom to travel was a necessary pre-requisite for any prospective member of the 12. Would Jesus have appointed a man who was not free to travel? I can think of no evidence that he did. Indeed, didn't he require that they drop everything and follow him?

  7. Richard, you are in all probability right, and once again, that has no bearing on my original point. That Jesus appointed the twelve to be rulers in the kingdom certainly does bear on this discussion, because it's part of the whole picture, a big part of it in fact, not just travel issues (which you brought up, not me).

    I'm delighted that you're not saying what I thought.

  8. Hi Jonathan,

    They're good too, especially Neyrey whose Paul in Other Words was one of the first CG works I cut my teeth on back in the 90s. They didn't make my top 10, but they've done important work.

  9. John Meier in his book, a Marginal Jew vol. 3 (or was it 4?) discussed the issue of eglitarianism rather nicely. Loren is right, eglitarianism is a rather modern concept. This does not mean that Jesus was a women hating jerk or anything. He provided for the vulnerable and was an all around decent guy, but he still internalized certain social structures such as heiarchy. And if it makes you feel any better, he did say that leadership should be based on service.

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