“We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience. To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages.We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviours are considered rude or polite. And yet we hardly notice… we tend to read Scripture in our own ‘when’ and ‘where’, in a way that makes sense on our terms.” (1)
Those who have had the opportunity to travel overseas understand the need to learn about local culture in the places they are going to visit. It could be dangerous not to! You might behave quite differently in Dubai compared to how you would in London or New York. Yet we can be so familiar with the Bible that we forget that opening its pages is an experience of different languages and cultures to our own. The Bible is written in Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic. At the time each Biblical book was written, these were the most relevant and accessible languages to the original audience. Thousands of years later, the Bible is now translated into the native languages of millions of people around the world(2).
The cultures of the Biblical world were very different to our own. One of the most significant differences being the ‘collectivist’ mindset that is entirely different to our Western ‘individualist’ mindset. There was less emphasis on individuality and more emphasis on the whole group. In a collectivist society it might be considered cruel to let individual young people make important life decisions on their own. A decision like choosing who to marry would require the help and advice of parents and the local community. Why would you leave a young person to muddle through something so important on their own? In a collectivist culture this might be seen as thoughtless and unkind whilst in our Western individualist culture we might feel that such an approach encroaches too much on our individual freedoms.
We often read our own cultural values into Biblical passages. We may instinctively think that when Paul exhorts women to dress “with modesty and self-control” he is telling them to be sexually modest, to cover up. We gloss over the rest of the verse that adds, “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” which indicates Paul is talking about ‘economic modesty’. He is saying women should not flaunt their wealth to others. This is not to say that sexual modesty is unimportant (Paul is probably referring to sexual modesty when he mentions “respectable apparel”) but it is not the main focus of Paul’s comments. Peter makes the same point in very similar words in 1 Peter 3:3-4. Sexual modesty clearly wasn’t as much of a problem as economic modesty for the original audience of Paul and Peter’s words.
We need to make sure that we take time to carefully understand the Biblical culture of the passage at hand and do not unconsciously impose our own cultural values on the text regardless of whether those values are right or wrong in themselves.
Once again we have listed some resources below that can help you develop an understanding of the Biblical cultures and how they differ from our own. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes is especially helpful for highlighting small cultural characteristics Westerners have that we are often entirely unaware of.
(1) Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 11.
(2) See the United Bible Societies’ website at http://www.unitedbiblesocieties.org/what-we-do/translation/global-scripture-access/
Books and Book Excerpts
- The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy
- Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
- Check out the Society of Biblical Literature’s new informative web project at http://www.bibleodyssey.org/
- Biblical Studies Online has a wealth of useful material. Relevant to this post is the category for Historical and Literary Context at https://biblicalstudiesonline.wordpress.com/category/historical-and-literary-contexts/
Note: we have not repeated resources from the previous post although many of them are still relevant here. Instead, we will soon be setting up a separate ‘Resources’ page (next to the About link at the top of the page) that lists all of these recommendations and more.