The Bible in its High Context Setting

One fundamental aspect of biblical exegesis and interpretation that needs to be remembered is that the Bible is the product of high context Semitic cultures. What this means is that the Bible was produced by people who shared common cultural assumptions and tended to not explain or go into detail about shared cultural, ideological, and epistemic beliefs – high context authors tend to assume that their primary audience shares these beliefs. In this sense, it can be said that to a high context culture, knowledge is as much relational as it is propositional, and members share a core value of oral communication.

The issue that comes into play in biblical interpretation is that Western interpreters tend to belong to low context cultures. Low context cultures make little or no assumptions about their audience, and will very often explain background information and ideas in great detail. Low context cultures tend to treat knowledge as purely propositional and aim to make knowledge easily transferable, primarily through written communication.

John Walton explains further in The Lost World of Scripture:

We propose that God accommodated the communicator and immediate audience as he employed the communicator in high context communication to his audience. So, for example, a prophet and his audience share a history, a culture, a language and the experiences of their contemporary lives. We enter the context of that communication as low context readers, outsiders who need to use all of our inferential tools to discern the nature of the communicator’s illocution and meaning. We have to use research to fill in all that would not have been said among insiders in the high context communication.

We believe that God has inspired the locutions (words, spoken and written) that the communicator has used to accomplish with God their join illocutions (which lead to an understanding of intentions, claims, and meaning) but that those locutions are tied to the communicator’s world. 1The Lost World of Scripture, p. 44

R. Simpkins also shares a similar explanation, available in the NIV Application Commentary:

The Bible was produced by a high context society for high context readers. It assumes a rich culture that the biblical writers felt no need to describe. It is not surprising, then, that the Bible lacks any explicit articulation of the Israelites’ worldview and values toward the natural world. Their worldview and values were simply assumed by all members of the society; they formed the presupposition of the biblical writers rather than the subject of their discourse. Consequently, we cannot expect to discover their worldview and values from a low context reading of the biblical texts.

If we hope to glean their unexpressed worldview and values from the biblical texts, then we must become acquainted with the ancient Israelite culture that is assumed by the texts. In other words, we must read the Bible from the high context perspective in which it was written.

One thing this means to us is that when we do the hard work of biblical interpretation, we need to arm ourselves with good questions. Did the author share any aspect of my cultural point of view? Did the original audience share any aspect of our philosophical view of the world? How did that culture consider things we may take for granted, everyday things such as knowledge, relationships, and economics? We need to make sure we’re doing the hard work of digging into that original context so we don’t make the mistake of assuming our Western point of view onto the text. Such assumptions bring with them the risk of significant interpretive error.

References   [ + ]

1. The Lost World of Scripture, p. 44

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *