Starting With the Culture

If anyone wants to try and understand what the writers of the Bible were saying, they have to understand the culture that it was written in. This is complicated slightly by the fact that the Bible was not written at one time, in one culture, but over a very long period of time and in several cultures. If we don’t have at least a shallow knowledge of such cultures, then we’ll miss the importance of what’s happening. I’m not an expert of this, but I do have some experience in literature from different cultures because I study Classical Civilisations. I know that you lose a crucial aspect of ancient texts if you ignore their cultural context. Take the Aeneid, a Roman epic poem by Virgil. If you do not understand the Roman’s obsession with their own glory, you will not understand why the story of Aeneas is so important to them. Furthermore, if you don’t understand that the Romans held the Classical Greeks in such high esteem, you might find it strange that Virgil seemed to imitate a lot of techniques and even plotlines from Homer, the great epic poet from the Dark Ages of Ancient Greece.

I don’t want this to be a long post because I don’t want the message to be lost in unnecessary words, so I’ll provide some brief examples of where cultural awareness is needed to understand the true message of the Bible in the hope that I’ll encourage you to look into it more yourself.

1) Jesus radical claims – I’ve heard it said that Christianity grew because people wanted to believe in a divine, resurrected saviour and would be easily fooled by illusion and ‘magic tricks’ (a way of ‘explaining’ Jesus’ miracles). This is a stupid theory, and you realise this if you understand Jewish belief. First, a major Jewish sect (the Sadducees) denied the possibility of resurrection from the dead. Second, the Jews were, in general, expecting a warrior Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans; Jesus’ message of loving your enemies was not what they wanted to hear. Third, a human claiming to be God was blasphemous. Jesus indicated to the Pharisees that the Messiah was something more than a human son of David at the end of Matthew 22, which indicates that they believed that the Messiah was a human, chosen by God, but essentially the same as then. The message of Jesus was not exactly what people wanted to hear.

2) Jesus believed himself to be God – Some people have tried to argue that Jesus didn’t believe he was God. This is also stupid. Jesus used language about himself that was very significant in the Jewish culture of the time. When he said things like ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ not only was he giving himself some grandiose titles, he was using the divine name ‘I AM’ which is used by God in the Old Testament. We lose this in our English understanding and translations, but to the first Jewish believers, this would have been very significant and a clear indication that Jesus believed that he was God. Here are some of his ‘I AM’ statements, read them and see if it seems to you whether or not Jesus believed himself to be God: ‘I AM the bread of life’; ‘I AM the light of the world; ‘I AM the good shepherd’; ‘I AM the true vine’…you get the idea. What’s more, Jesus’ claims that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12) and other actions such as his forgiveness of sins (Mark 2) show that he considered himself divine. Note that I have used examples from gospels other than John here, as I have heard the theory that Jesus’ divinity is only present in John.

3) Rituals of the Old Testament – The 4 books of law that come after Genesis contain lots of information for the Israelites about how to worship God and how to create places of worship. These are great evidence for the uniqueness of that early Jewish religion. There were many similarities between those rituals and the pagan rituals around them, such as coloured cloth in the tabernacles and coloured robes for the priests, but there were key differences. One that stands out for me is that in pagan temples, the priests were required to purify the place so that the gods would consent to visit them, whereas in the Hebrew tabernacle alone, God himself purified the temple and made it holy. Subtle differences like this can only be seen if the culture is looked at in detail and the rewards of such analysis are great.

4) Literary style – This is the last one for this post. Like any work of literature, we have to understand how the writers were constructing their pieces. Let me go through a few. The Psalms are clearly poems, in all cultures, this means that NOT EVERYTHING SHOULD BE TAKEN LITERALLY. Also, common in the ancient world, symbolism and metaphor were common devices. This should be kept in mind when reading books that are not obviously literal, such as Genesis, Song of Solomon, the prophets and Revelation. The use of repetition for emphasis is common, this also occurs in Genesis and helps us to learn the importance of some events, like Pharaoh’s dreams. Exact chronology is not always a feature, this is seen in the gospels. Paul’s letters, whilst relevant in many ways to us, were addressing specific issues in churches that had grown up in a pagan culture. We have to bear all this in mind when reading the Bible and many good study Bibles help with this.

Well this was longer than I originally planned, but I really hope that I’ve encouraged you to look beyond the basic English words that appear in our Bibles. If we ignore the culture that the books were written in, we can never understand the true message. For the record, I believe that there is a true message in the Bible, however many ways we twist and interpret it.

But please, don’t be daunted, dive in with an open mind and let the Word of God blow your mind.

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