Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: A Review

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World by E. Randolph Richards and Richard James. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020. Paperback. 304pp. $32.00.

E. Randolph Richards and Richard James’s Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World (abbreviated MSIE below) is a thematic sequel to Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, co-written by the same Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012). The tone and methods of the two books are similar: they bring theory and insights from anthropology, social history, and sociology to bear upon interpretations of the Bible. The terms, examples, and discussions are not overly technical, and they make an effort to illustrate theory that may be unfamiliar to most readers. The focus is on how the ancient cultural context in which the Bible was first written and interpreted was—or is presumed to have been—different from our own. The constant theme sounds something like this: “You might have thought x about this biblical text, but the social historian reveals that it’s really y.” More specifically in MSIE, Richards and James speak of an “understanding gap” between “individualist societies” like those of the present-day “West” and “collectivist societies,” which are not only in the “East” but are by far the majority of societies globally, in both past and present (ix–x). This understanding gap can cause severe distortion in biblical interpretation, and that distortion can be remedied in part by a knowledge of the cultural and social “ingredients” that are presupposed by the human writers of the Bible and often not explicitly stated in the biblical texts (ix). The ingredients—six in number, despite the rather imprecise subtitle of the book—are “kinship, patronage, brokerage, honor, shame, and boundaries” (ix). Richards and James are convinced that knowledge of these collectivistic ingredients “helps us to be better readers of the Bible, and crucially, better able to apply it to our lives and to help each other apply the Scriptures to our lives” (20, emphasis original). MSIE is supposed to provide “a few pieces of ancient culture” so that present-day readers can fill in “cultural gaps” that exist between themselves and the world of the biblical subject-matter, writers, and first hearers/readers (5).

In the introduction, Richards and James state a few of their principles and try to nuance their approach. One principle is that “the most important things in a culture usually go without being said” (2). Not addressed is how social historians come to know about these “most important things” apart from the ancient texts that supposedly do not state them; a discussion of mirror-reading and historical probability would have been appropriate here.

This problem of discovery is tied to another problem relating to illustration. Several times, Richards and James bring up examples of things that supposedly should have gone “without being said.” But the fact that there is an example of such a thing disproves the principle. If, say, the principles and practices of patronage went “without being said,” then why did Pliny remind his client of obligations (72)? The writers are right to distinguish between the current “etic” jargon and Pliny’s “emic” understanding (72), but they undermine the principle that what was common to a culture is what goes unmentioned; Pliny did mention patronage explicitly, albeit in different terms. My point here is heightened in cases when an ancient person confronts these “most important things” that are supposed to “go without being said,” as when Jesus critiques the self-serving patronage- and friendship-system of “the Gentiles” (Matt 5:47). Jesus states plainly the way things work in the Greco-Roman world as he teaches his disciples to do otherwise.

Another principle stated in the introduction is that “generalizations are always wrong and usually helpful” (2). Richards and James seem to chuckle about this principle being a generalization itself, but they do not tease out the epistemological conundrum. Here they also introduce the distinction in anthropology between “low-context” cultures and “high-context” ones. “Low-context” would be the individualist societies of the present-day West, where we state things explicitly and assume that people do not have too much shared knowledge. “High-context” would be the collectivist cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, where writers assume much in common with their hearers/readers and often leave common things unstated (8–9). This distinction is helpful, and it should be heeded by proponents of rhetorical criticism in biblical studies, since effective/persuasive communication in a low-context culture is not necessarily effective/persuasive in a high-context one.

A third principle stated in the introduction is the one that I find most problematic: Richards and James say, “Deep down inside is where people are the most different” (6). Maybe that principle keeps anthropologists in the job, but it is not corroborated by current cognitive science, nor does it jive well with the most ancient wisdom traditions, including the biblical ones. If we “deep down” do not share common capacities for cognition with the ancient writers who wrote the biblical texts, and if we “deep down” do not have the capacity to be shaped by the text, but only ever shape the text according to the structures of our own culture and language, then there is no such thing as tradition, learning, or translation. Even the principle of divine accommodation in special revelation is undermined.

Here I am speaking of extremes, so let me put things in balance. On the one hand, it is healthy to recognize differences and estrangement between cultures, to acknowledge the distance between ourselves and biblical texts, and to approach what is ancient warily—suspicious not of the ancient text and writer but rather of our own acuity. We can make use of social history to humble our pride, to drive us to the principle of love in interpretation, to make our study of the Bible prayerful and communal, to understand additional applications in diverse cultural settings. On the other hand, it is deleterious to suggest that we have little in common with the ancient saints, as if the Holy Spirit cannot make us of one mind together in Christ. Furthermore, it is fallacious to suppose that ancient hearers/readers are necessarily going to understand the ancient message better than anyone else. Are the biblical texts themselves not full of ancient persons sharing a common culture yet misunderstanding Moses, Jeremiah, Paul, and even Jesus? The problem of “misreading” God’s message through his apostles and prophets seems to come irrespective of whether one inhabits a collectivist or individualist culture. Richards and James seem to acknowledge this very point in their conclusion, with a surprising focus on the sinfulness of individuals who make collectivistic systems good or bad, helpful or harmful. In the conclusion, with love being proposed as the answer to all problems (280–81), it seems that maybe the writers do not hold consistently to the third principle about “deep down” difference. If “the problem is sin” and “the solution is the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ” and the command to love each other (281), then maybe filling in the “understanding gap” between individualists and collectivists is not as important to biblical interpretation as the introduction makes it seem.

With these problematic and inconsistently held principles in place, Richards and James proceed. In Part 1, “Social Structures of the Biblical World,” they introduce the basic contours of the distinction between individualism and collectivism, and then they discuss the first three “ingredients” of collectivism: kinship, patronage, and brokerage. In some cases, these ingredients can provide key insights into some features of the Bible that might seem alien to people, such as genealogical thinking and a sense of corporate solidarity with past generations within a covenant. In other cases, the ingredients amount to a kind of renaming of traditional terminology, as when Richards and James reject (an overly technical sense of the word) “advocate” as a translation for παράκλητος in 1 John 2:1–2 and prefer to call Jesus “the perfect broker” instead (125–26).

In other cases, the concepts obscure more than they elucidate. A few examples are in order. When Jesus says that the Samaritan woman’s husband is not her husband (John 4:18), do we think that he is commenting on the woman’s family’s incompetence for acquiring the correct “marriage papers” (57)? If Jesus’s recommendation to give the cloak as well as the tunic (Matt 5:40) is about obligating someone to friendship/patronage through reciprocal gift-giving (82), then what about letting someone slap both sides of the face in the sentence just before it (Matt 5:39)? If God, like a good Greco-Roman patron, “helps those who depend on him” (83–84), then why exactly does he send rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:45)? If “understanding patronage tones down a common evangelical emphasis on needing to underscore our unworthiness” (109), then how does God as Greco-Roman Patron square with the reconciliation wrought by Christ’s dying for weak, ungodly sinners and enemies who are neither righteous nor good (Rom 5:6–11)? I could go on. In sum, MSIE’s pattern “You might have thought x about this biblical text, but the social historian reveals that it’s really y” leads sometimes to helpful illustration, sometimes to pedantic term-wrangling, sometimes to suppressing narrative context, and sometimes to undermining the good news as good news.

That mixed-bag pattern holds for Part 2, “Social Tools: Enforcing and Reinforcing Our Values.” The authors begin with a helpful discussion of multiperspectivalism and the difficulty of matching terms and concepts across languages (128–32). This introduces seven chapters relating to honor, shame, and boundaries. In general, maybe because Richards and James are getting away from Part 1’s speculations about “structures,” Part 2 is more helpful for biblical interpretation. The admission that conceptions of honor and how to acquire it varies widely from group to group (156) seems like a helpful antidote to some of the problematic generalizations introduced in Part 1. The description of an honor contest generates much insight into Jesus’s rhetorical choices in dealing with different oppositional audiences. The use of shame to pull people into the group rather than push them away leads to some thought-provoking analyses of prophetic indictments throughout the Bible and some helpful guards for church discipline. Recognizing that boundaries are inherent to any community with values leads to good questions about what makes Israel Israel in the OT, what makes the church the church, how to understand the ritual purity laws from both OT and NT perspectives, etc. But as with Part 1, Richard and James sometimes go astray when they try to use these social tools to re-interpret particular passages.

In Part 3, “Why Does Collectivism Really Matter to Me?,” Richards and James assert not only that the language of the Bible is steeped in collectivistic thinking but also that the Bible’s message of salvation cannot be properly understood apart from collectivistic thinking. They emphasize that the “deeply personal” (=individual) matter of salvation is also a communal one: “the Bible teaches I’m saved—into a community” (238). They stress the familial and communal aspects of the church, including the boundaries that make the church-family distinct from the world. So far, so good. More problematic is the way that they describe God’s patronage. Both here and in Part 1, Richards and James collapse the metaphors of God as Shepherd, King, and Father into the arch-metaphor of God as Patron, and the reduction in metaphors generates a net loss in understanding who God is and what he does for his people. Furthermore, here as in Part 1, the focus on patronage obscures some important aspects of Paul’s proclamation and teaching. Saying that Paul presents God as “a wronged patron” (257) is not altogether false, but it does obscure the fact that honor and thanks are due to God not first and foremost because of his gifts but first and foremost because he is God (cf. Rom 1:21). And largely left out of the discussion is God’s preferred way of talking about his own relationship with his people—namely, covenant, which Richards and James acknowledge to be a narrower relationship than patronage (86–88). There is a question here that MSIE should have addressed: Why and in what circumstances should one privilege patronage over covenant in biblical interpretation?

As mentioned already, the volume ends with a Conclusion that recommends love as the antidote to misunderstanding among Christians from different cultural backgrounds. Richards and James decry attempts from Western missionaries to purge collectivistic thinking from newly formed churches. The call is a good one, though a few steps removed from the ostensible subject-matter of the book.

In sum, MSIE’s attempt to bridge the “understanding gap” between the individualism of the assumed reader and the collectivistic cultural context of the biblical text is successful at times. Richards and James introduce several difficult-to-grasp concepts and terms with good illustration and elaboration. But their attempt is largely unsuccessful, in my view. The unexpected weakness of MSIE is its handling of Scripture. A few examples have been given throughout this review, but there are many more. Sometimes, Richards and James misread Scripture by making unverifiable assumptions about the collectivism of a biblical writer. Sometimes, they overlooked the formulations of Christian tradition in favor of novelties that either add nothing or cut against Scripture itself. And sometimes, alas, Richards and James have not paid sufficient attention to the details of the biblical text. On the whole, this book is not one that I would assign to my students in seminary, nor to my students in Sunday School. For me, it is thought-provoking mostly because it is frustrating.

Philip Thomas Mohr is a doctoral candidate at the Catholic University of America, a licentiate in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and an online instructor at Westminster Theological Seminary.


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