Jesus Always Existed

a place for the best evidence of the historical Jesus

The Wonderful World Of Widowfield

In looking for responses to the argument of high context, one searches in vain for anything intelligible or coherent. Efforts by one Tim Widowfield are alleged to be the absolute death knell for the argument, but in the end, amount to little better than might have been expected by stopping at some random gas station along I-13 and asking Earl the mechanic what he thought of it.

Who is Tim Widowfield? No one really bothers to explain, least of all Widowfield himself. He presents himself as one addicted to random exclamations with the substance and sense of a rancid energy drink. In responding to Maurice Casey’s version of the argument, Widowfield presents much in the way of snide sarcasm but little in the way of actual argument. For example, he quotes Casey:

People who live in low context societies behave in such specific circumstances like people who live in high context societies, and do not say more than is strictly necessary. It is perfectly possible that the circumstances in which Jesus or Paul said less than modern scholars expect were due to their situational contexts [referring to the situational frames Hall described], rather than to Jesus belonging to, or Paul forming, a high context society. (p. 47, emphasis mine)

And then says:

See? It isn’t just possible; it’s perfectly possible. Moreover, Casey thinks the communities of believers that Paul founded and nurtured could have been high-context enclaves.

The whole process of reply from Widowfield brings to mind Swift’s scene of excrement-tossing Yahoos. Even his best “arguments” are, at best, the sort of thing we’d expect to hear from Homer Simpson from around the fringes of a donut rather than anything a scholar would say. This is not to say that I find all that Casey said agreeable. For example, although it was indeed a hard reality that writing in that period, as Casey says, was a “difficult and time-consuming process,” I don’t think this is particularly relevant to the issue of why Paul didn’t mention things like Jesus living in Nazareth. On the other hand, it’s hardly any sort of intelligible answer for Widowfield to say things like, “The Paul who rambled on for page after page in his letter to the Romans? The one who seemed far more interested in the life of Abraham than the teachings of Jesus? That Paul?” Well, yes. For one thing, Paul didn’t “ramble” in Romans, Widowfield’s trailer-park ADHD notwithstanding. Romans was a tightly argued and presented work in line with the principles of rhetoric, and it had a specific purpose and a specific issue to deal with. And as far as “more interested in the life of Abraham,” really? I must have missed the statistics Widowfield offered proving that. And the part in Paul’s letters where he tells us where Abraham was born. Maybe the dog ate it. Maybe Widowfield ate it.

Widowfield implies that those who actually read Hall won’t reach the same conclusions Casey did, but again, if you’re seeing actual answers that prove a misapplication, you will be sadly disappointed. Casey notes that i.e., people in Corinth would already have known details like that Jesus was crucified by Pilate; and I would add, would have known about them for more than a decade. Widowfield doesn’t ever actually answer this point; instead, he just lists a few more things Paul didn’t mention which would also have been covered in Corinth a decade or more before, and then acts flabbergasted that they are not mentioned – as if multiplication by example, followed by displaying his jaw unhinged and wide open as flies buzz in and out, argues for anything and proves that Paul wasn’t a resident of a high context society after all. Thus for example: “One could argue that Paul did not have to tell the Corinthians and the Galatians over and over that Jesus was a great teacher or a great healer. But never?” Umm, yes. Never is just fine, thank you. How many times would we have to tell Widowfield that Neil Godfrey is a “blogger”? Even as a low context Neanderthal, this is a basic fact we would hope Widowfield would not ever need to be told, period. While it is our low context habit to casually mention such factoids to no real purpose, the point of high context is: It wasn’t their habit.

Notably, Widowfield cuts off his face to spite his neck with such remarks as these:

We should remember that Paul did repeat his understanding of the gospel many times. Presumably, it was the first thing he taught his congregations — Christ died for their sins and defeated death through his resurrection.

Wait, what’s that? Presumably? The rub here is the same as might be noted against Earl Doherty: This would have to be prefaced by some explanation of who “Christ” was. Presumably not even Widowfield is Yahoo enough to think that Paul just started talking about some figure named “Christ” with no background at all. Even in Doherty’s wonderworld, there is a background unspoken in Paul of Christ as crucified in the nether-nether regions of some heavenly sphere; and even that heavenly hill must have had a name of some sort, and even this heavenly “Christ” must have been crucified by someone or something, even if it was Hubert the Heavenly Horse as opposed to Pontius Pilate. Widowfield is a high context believer in Christ, also – he just doesn’t get that he is a high context hypocrite as well.

He makes much, as well, of the fact that the Gospels call Jesus a Teacher some 50 times while Paul refers to Jesus as a Teacher zero times. Well, golly: Might that have something to do with the fact that at the time Paul is writing, Jesus’ teaching career had been over for, like, 25 years or more? Notably, the examples Widowfield offers from the Gospel come from people addressing Jesus personally and respectfully using “Teacher” as an honorific title, not noting “Jesus was a teacher” as a factoid, which is what is being demanded of Paul. At the same time, as we have asked Doherty, and to which he had no answer, what prevents saying that Paul in calling Jesus a “teacher” refers to a heavenly Jesus who also had the same profession?

“Surely,” Widowfield moans, “if Paul truly thought Jesus was a teacher and that it was important to know that he was a teacher he would have mentioned it at least once.” Well now, how many times does Widowfield need to be told something like that about someone for it to stick? Is he that forgetful? Come to that, if it was indeed important, once ought to be enough to be told; and such a basic factoid, as we say (but to which Widowfield never answers, any more than Doherty does) would have been related within Paul’s first week in Corinth. By 55 AD, the time of the Corinthian correspondence, you’d have to have triple Alzheimer’s to be a member of the Corinthian church and need to have this mentioned, high context or not.

That seems possible, for as Widowfield digs more deeply into high context details, he becomes even less intelligible, as for example where he says:

People in HC societies rely a great deal on what is “not said.” Some of these unsaid, nonverbal cues rely on shared, implicit knowledge, while other cues include body language, body position, gestures, facial expressions, vocal inflections, tone, etc. The very fact that Paul used written communication already proves that he thought certain things needed to be spelled out explicitly. Hence, Casey steps up to the plate with one strike against him.

Sorry, but that’s not quite all there is to it. There was a version of “cues” for written high context documents as well. As noted earlier in this volume:


Put another way, using Hall’s template: Doherty makes much, for example, of references to the crucifixion lacking such components as the name Calvary. For the first century Christian, the words “cross” or “crucified,” however, would be a “high-context communication” in which the information “this happened at Calvary” is internalized in that Christian, while lacking in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message, that is, Paul’s sentence. “Cross” or “crucified” will bring back to mind all of those details Wells and Doherty find lacking – such as the location of that event at Calvary. Thus, the NTE authors would surely not mention these things at all – unless some strong, definite purpose was attached, such as evangelism to new possible converts, or correcting an error.

Thus when Wells finds such omissions “striking,” it is because he is speaking as a low-context reader expecting a repetition of details already known. He asks the question, if Paul’s readers were already familiar with such details as the location of Calvary as well as the crucifixion, then why is the crucifixion mentioned at all, since readers would be “equally familiar” with that event?17 The answer, we now see, is that “crucifixion” became, as it were, a code word that created a primary association with all of the other details Wells believes are missing. So likewise would “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4) carry with it all of the accessory allusions to the location of Bethlehem and the circumstances of the angelic visitations.


Still not quite done with missing the point, Widowfield notes that whereas high context societies were (1) old, with longstanding, internalized traditions, (2) monocultural, and (3) closed, Paul’s churches, “as far as we can tell, (1) new, albeit with supposedly old traditions (the OT), (2) multicultural, and (3) open.” Well, I’m glad he added the qualifier, because indeed, Widowfield missing the point so broadly that the broad side of a barn could hit it. Not old? Paul’s churches were at least 15-20 years old. How long does it take to create a “society” with distinctive features? Not long at all – especially when the features come by way of a radical belief system. Moreover, how many times do you need to hear, “Jesus lived in Nazareth” before it gets ”old”? Notably, Widowfield didn’t get these criteria from social science scholars who said these were the qualifications for a high context society. He just pulled these criteria out of thin air and decided they were defining.

What about “multicultural”? Widowfield blithely says, “The mixture of people from different classes, levels of education, varying backgrounds, and so on, would militate against high context.” Well yes, in many senses, but not in one very important sense: religious. The congregations were all Christian. In that context, we may apply something I noted regarding the Gospel of John in another context:

Aside from the issue of supplementation noted already, Malina and Rohrbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on John [9ff] argue that John serves a special purpose as a manifesto for the Christian "antisociety" which has been labelled as deviant by others, notably Judeans.

Such documents make use of "antilanguage," a sort of jargon used by a group with a different view of the way things are and ought to be. A modern comparison may be street gangs, prison inmates, or minority groups who consider themselves oppressed, adopting their own slang terms…

John's Gospel is therefore found to be a "resocializing" document intended to establish ties between the convert and his new "ingroup." To this end it features primarily conversations and monologue, the "main form of discourse used in socialization and reality maintenance" -- thus explaining as well why John does not follow the Synoptics in featuring public teachings and parables. A Sermon on the Mount would not serve John's purpose. The reader is intended to be a "conversation partner" with Jesus and there is nothing at all strange about John's non-usage of parables, which were clearly meant to be consumed by "outsiders".

Paul’s churches were every bit as much “antisocieties” (as was the broader Christian movement as a whole) and so had the purpose and motives to develop their own “antilanguage” (read: high context set of meanings). Widowfield’s focus is not narrow enough. And of course, following that, they were not in fact “open” in the sense Widowfield needs. They did not admit non-Christians.

Widowfield’s further declarations along these lines – that Paul’s “communities have people at various levels of understanding” – likewise miss the point. This is as pointless as noting that in a specific high context society (such as Japan), there are some people who are good at math and some who aren’t, and some will need a “low context” version of math tutoring while some will need a high context style of tutoring. To that extent, yes, one may suppose that new Christians would be on the “lower context” end of the movement – but here again, Paul is addressing people who had been Christians, overall, for 15-20 years. And they would have known things like “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” or “Jesus was a teacher” for that same amount of time.

The fact that Widowfield will never be satisfied with any answer is shown in that in one place where he agrees Paul might be quoting Jesus (1 Cor. 7:10-11), he 1) throws out the begged question speculation that it could be a saying from the Risen Lord, and 2) complains that Paul could have quoted him more. Of course, even in the latter terms, he’s not quite on point: Quoting Jesus on, “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder” with respect to what were originally pagan marriages that would have invoked, if anything a pagan deity might have been a little out of place. Just as insensate is his complaint that Paul’s statement (Col. 3:15), “It is to peace that God has called you” is “difficult to reconcile with” Luke 12:51, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” It would never occur to a fundamentalist reader like Widowfield that Paul’s advice refers to peace within the body of Christ, while Jesus refers to division between families composed of believers and unbelievers. As usual, mythicists and those who support them achieve their lunacy by not paying attention.

In another article, Widowfield plays the role of wide-eyed ignoramus and declares, “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.” The complaint is childish in the extreme, as scholars are not obliged to rehash all the facts from Day 1 simply to satisfy an ornery complainer looking for problems. That this is the case is further shown in that he clumsily tries to resolve the high context dilemma by applying a different social factor, “power distance.” In his words: “The research shows that Paul would be very direct and very explicit with his congregations, because of the high power distance index. Paul was their leader. Paul was their father in faith.” From this we are apparently to conclude that Paul would be “very explicit” and suddenly become low context with his parishioners on each and every matter at hand. But like the example of Luke 12:51 above, Widowfield is tossing oranges at apples. Paul’s use of power relates to points of discipline and disagreement, and there is no reason to think anyone needed discipline over the matter of Jesus living in Nazareth, or that anyone disagreed that Jesus was crucified outside the actual Jerusalem. Sure, “Paul was writing to instruct and often correct his readers” – when there was something to instruct and correct about. The missing links Widowfield, Doherty, etc. are belaboring over would have been instructed about and corrected concerning more than 10-15 years before Paul wrote his letters. That battle, if it took place at all, was long over. Further, as shown earlier in this volume, few if any quotes of Jesus would have had any bearing on the issues Paul addressed; but even if not, a merely allusive reference to such quotes – as we may indeed find – would easily retain a high context form of expression while also maintaining the high power they had as original words of Jesus. Widowfield confuses format with ideological content.

For someone who condemns scholars who “would rather skim their sources than read for understanding,” this lack of depth evinces a remarkable hypocrisy.