Overcoming the Culture Gap

Written by Michael Vlach.

“Cultural matters are not niceties we may search out if we have the time but which we may ignore under the pressure of time and circumstances. They are indispensable for the accurate understanding of Holy Scripture.” –Roy B. Zuck

I.   Defining Culture   Culture refers to “the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social groups learn, create, and share. Culture distinguishes one human group from another. . . . A people’s culture includes their beliefs, rules of behavior, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic systems.” (“Culture” Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005 http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2005 Microsoft Corporation)

II.  Importance of Studying Culture  Since the Bible writers and characters lived in different cultures from ours, we must do some work to understand how their environment affected what they believed, said, and did. The more we understand their culture, the more we will understand the writings of Scripture. If we fail to do this, we could become guilty of interpreting the Bible through the lenses of our twenty-first century world. When it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible we must leave our culture and transport ourselves into the culture of Bible times.

III. Examples Where Knowledge of Culture Contributes to Proper Interpretation

A.    Political, International, and Civil

1.   Ex. Why didn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh?  When reading the Book of Jonah one may be surprised at Jonah’s reluctance to see the people of Nineveh repent.  But in Jonah’s day the people of Assyriatreated people in barbaric and cruel ways. It may be that Jonah believed that Nineveh deserved God’s wrath—not His mercy.

2. Ex. The Samaritans   Understanding who the Samaritans were will help one’s understanding of the gospels. The Samaritans were descendants of the Jews who remained in Palestine after the Assyrians defeated Israel. They came from mixed marriages between Jews and Assyrian settlers who entered the Promised Land. They also set up their own worship system where they built their own temple and sacrificed animals. Because of their mixed heritage and worship system, they were despised by the Jews. Understanding Jewish hatred for Samaritans helps us understand the significance of Jesus’ willingness to speak to a Samaritan woman (John 4), the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the account of the Samaritan leper who returned to give Jesus thanks (Luke 17:11-19) (see J. I. Packer, Merrill Tenney, and William White, eds., The Bible Almanac, 509-10).

3.  Ex. Third position in Babylon (Daniel 5:7, 16)  Why did King Belshazzar offer Daniel the third position in his kingdom and not the second? Belshazzar was only second in command himself. His father, Nabonidus, was actually first in command though he was temporarily out of the country.

            B.  Religious

1. Ex. Corban in Mark 7 "In Mark 7. . . Jesus upbraids the Pharisees soundly for their concept of corban. In the practice of corban a man could declare that all his money would go to the temple treasury when he died, and that, since his money belonged to God, he was therefore no longer responsible for maintaining his aging parents. Jesus argues that men were using the Pharisaic tradition to render God's command (the fifth commandment) of no account. Without a knowledge of the cultural practice of corban, we would be unable to understand this passage." (Virkler, p. 79)

2.  Ex.  Meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor. 8  “What was the point of meat being sacrificed to idols which Paul discussed in 1 Corinthians 8? No one today sits down to a meal in the home of a guest and asks if the meat had been sacrificed to idols. Obviously this custom pertained to a cultural setting different from today. The point is that people in Corinthwould buy meat in the marketplace, offer some of it to pagan idols in one of several temples, and then take the rest of it home for dinner. Therefore some Christians felt that eating such meat involved them in idol worship" (Zuck, 84).

3. Ex.  Elijah, Baal and Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18) Why did Elijah choose Mount Carmel as the place for his showdown with the 450 prophets of Baal? The followers of Baal believed that Mount Carmel was the home of Baal. Showing the supremacy of Yahweh on Baal's home turf would be devastating to the followers of Baal.

 

            C. Economic

 

1. Ex.   Giving of sandal "Why did Elimelech's closest relative give his sandal to Boaz? (Ruth 4:8, 17) According to the Nuzi tablets, discovered in present-day Iraq, in excavations from 1925-1931, such an action symbolized releasing one's right to land he walked on. This was done when a sale of land was completed" (Zuck, p. 84).

 

2. Ex. How much is a "denarius"? (Rev. 6:6) A denarius is one day's wage. In Revelation 6:6 famine conditions will be so bad that a full day of work will barely be enough for a man to feed his family.

 

 

D. Legal 

 

1. Ex. The Stolen Blessing  In Genesis 27, Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, and receives the blessing that was supposed to be for Esau. When the plot was discovered, Isaac could not change the result. Why? It might seem strange to us that such importance was placed on an oral blessing. However, recent discoveries have verified that an oral benediction (in those days) was legally as valid as a written last will and testament.

 

2. Ex. Daniel, Darius and the lion's den (Daniel 6) When King Darius of Medo-Persia was tricked into making a decree that would send Daniel to the lion's den, why didn't he simply revoke his former decree since he wanted Daniel to live (Dan. 6:14)? Once a decree was made in this empire, no one, not even the king, could revoke it (see Esther 8:8).

 

E. Agricultural "The Jewish involvement with the land was reflected in the teachings of Jesus Christ. His imagery and illustrations gave His listeners vivid pictures, such as a sower, pouch at his side, flinging seed across a newly plowed field. He frequently used metaphors about rich ripe grapes and fruitful vines" (Coleman, 145).

 

1. Ex. The Fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) "Why did Jesus denounce a fig tree for having no fruit when it was not even the season for figs? In March fig trees in Israel normally produce small buds followed by large green leaves in April. The small buds were edible 'fruit.' The time when Jesus 'cursed' the fig tree was the Passover, that is, April. Since the tree had no buds it would bear no fruit that year. But 'the season for figs' was late May and June, when the normal crops of figs ripened. Jesus' denouncing of the tree symbolized Israel's absence of spiritual vitality (like the absence of the buds) in spite of her outward religiosity (like green leaves) (Zuck, p. 86).

 

2. Ex. Vines and the Vineyard "The vine was of great importance in the religion of Israel. It was used as a symbol of the religious life of Israelitself, and a carving of a bunch of grapes often adorned the front exterior of the synagogue. The symbolism was based upon passages such as Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5:1-5 where Israel is God's vine. The importance of the vine is why the Pharisees took the point so angrily when Jesus told the story of the wicked tenants in the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-41, 45-46)" (Ralph Gower, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times, p. 111).

 

F. Architecture "How could four men let a paralytic man down through a roof? (Mark 2:1-12) Most houses in the Western world are built with slanted roofs, but in Bible times roofs were flat and often were made of tiles. Therefore it would be no problem for these men to stand on the roof, remove some of the tiles, and let the man down" (Zuck, p. 86).

 

G.  Clothing.  Girding loins "What is meant by the command 'Gird up your loins' in Job 38:3; 40:7; and 1 Peter 1:13? When a man ran, worked, or was in battle, he would tuck his robe under a wide sash at his waist so that he could move about more easily. The command thus means to be alert and capable of responding quickly" (Zuck, p. 87).

 

H. Domestic

 

1. Ex. Burying the Father  In Luke 9:59 a man who wanted to be Jesus' disciple wanted to first bury his father. Was Jesus' denial of this request insensitive? To bury one's father meant to wait until one's father died (which could take years) so one could receive the inheritance. Thus Jesus' denial stressed the urgency of following Him immediately.

 

2. Ex. John's leaning on Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:23) Back then people did not sit in chairs at meals as we do today. They were either on the floor or on couches. To lean on someone, then, was not considered rude.

 

I. Geographical

 

1. Ex. Passing through Samaria  What was significant about Jesus passing through Samaria (John 4)? The Jews would not defile themselves by walking through the land of the Samaritans, whom the Jews considered half-breeds. Jesus would not partake in this prejudice.

 

2. Ex. Lukewarm water In Revelation 3:16 the church at Laodicea was referred to as "lukewarm." This undoubtedly is a play on the lukewarm water the people had in that city. The water in Laodicea was channeled six miles from Hieropolis. When the water left Hieropolis it was hot, but by the time it reached Laodicea it was lukewarm.

 

3. Ex. Going down from Jerusalem "Why did Jesus speak of a man going 'down' from Jerusalem to Jericho when Jericho is located northeast of Jerusalem? (Luke 10:30) The elevation drop in the 14 miles fromJerusalem to Jericho is more than 2,000 feet. Obviously going fromJerusalem to Jericho then was to go down in elevation" (Zuck, 88).

 

J. Social

 

1. Ex. Mourners Why were there flute-players and a noisy crowd at the house of the little girl who had died (see Matt. 9:23)? It was the custom then that when a person died, the family would hire professional mourners to show how much they cared for their lost loved one.

 

2. Ex. Sackcloth and ashes "The Israelites used sackcloth as a ritual sign of repentance or a token of mourning. . . .The New Testament also associated sackcloth with repentance (see Matt. 11:21). The sorrowful Israelite would clothe himself in sackcloth, place ashes upon his head, and then sit in the ashes. Our modern Western custom of wearing dark colors to funerals corresponds to the Israelites' gesture of wearing sackcloth" (Packer, The Bible Almanac, 477).

 

IV.   Tools for Overcoming the Culture Gap

 

            A.  The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times by Ralph Gower

 

            B. Today's Handbook of Bible Times and Customs by William Coleman  

 

C. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts by J. I. Packer, Merrill Tenney and William White

 

D. The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times by Fred White

 

E. Commentaries

 

V. Cultural Practices and Present Day Application

 

A.    Applying culturally conditioned passages  One of the more tricky issues in Bible interpretation is knowing how and when to apply culturally-conditioned passages.

 

B.       The options Below are guidelines for understanding when to apply culturally-conditioned passage to today.

 

1. If an experience, situation, or command in the Bible pertains to a person’s specific non-repeatable circumstances, it is not transferable to us.

 

a. Paul's instruction to Timothy to bring his cloak and scrolls is not transferable to us today (see 2 Tim. 4:11-13).

 

b. Paul telling Timothy to take some wine for his stomach is not transferable to today (see 1 Tim 5:23).

 

c.       God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, but this does not mean that Christian fathers are called to literally sacrifice their sons (see Genesis 22).

 

d.      Solomon had many wives at one time but this does not mean that men today should have more than one wife.

 

e.       In Matthew 10:5–15 the twelve apostles were told to preach only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This command was a unique command at a unique time in which Christ’s ministry was focused primarily on Israel. It is not a mandate that we should never preach the Gospel outside of Israel.

 

f.        Paul’s experience of being caught up to the third heaven is not a guarantee that all of us will have such an experience (2 Corinthians 12).

 

g.      Jeremiah was told not to seek a wife or have children (Jeremiah 16:1-2), but this is not a call for college-age men to do the same.

 

2.      If a situation or command is never revoked and/or it is repeated in Scripture and/or it pertains to a moral/theological subject, it is permanent and transferable to us.

 

"When the Bible clearly gives a command and nowhere else nullifies that command, it must be accepted as the revealed will of God" (Zuck, 93).

 

a.      The command to love God will all your heart, soul, and might is a moral command that is applicable to today (Deut. 6:5). Not only is this command never revoked, it is repeated in other parts of Scripture as well.

 

b.      The commands to love each other, pray for each other, and admonish each other are repeated many times in Scripture and are applicable to today.

 

c.       While the subject of capital punishment is controversial, Genesis 9:6 establishes this practice: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” This command is never revoked in later Scripture.

 

d.      The commands to love and seek wisdom in Proverbs are applicable to today.

 

e.       The commands to practice the Lord’s Supper are applicable to today (see 1 Corinthians 11:24).

 

f.        The commands to be baptized are applicable to today (Acts 2:38).

 

3.      If newer revelation revokes or changes older revelation then the older command or principle is not applicable to today.

 

a.      Because of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the Old Testament sacrificial system is no longer to be practiced (see Hebrews 10).

 

b.      Leviticus 11 states that certain foods could not be eaten by God’s people, but in Acts 10:15 God declared that all foods are now holy.

 

c.       At the time of the events of Matthew 10 the disciples were told to only go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. After Jesus’ resurrection, though, they were told to go to all nations (see Matthew 28:19).

 

d.      According to the Old Testament, incest was punishable by stoning (see Leviticus 20:11). In the church, today, unrepentant incest by a person leads to excommunication (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5).

 

4.      If a timeless principle is expressed in a cultural way that is different from today, apply the principle in a way that is culturally relevant to today.

 

Henry Virkler says, "Since a behavior in one culture may have a different meaning in another culture, it may be necessary to change the behavioral expression of a scriptural command in order to translate the principle behind that command from one culture and time to another" (Henry A. Virkler, "A Proposal for the Transcultural Problem," in Rightly Divided, ed. Roy B. Zuck, 240).

 

a.      Five times the Scripture says to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20, etc.) Since kissing non-family members is often not acceptable today, it is probably not wise to practice this. The principle behind this practice is that we should show friendliness and love to other believers. In our culture, handshakes and hugs are probably a better way to show this.

 

b.       1 Timothy 2:1-2 tells us to pray for kings. But what about believers who do not live under a king? The principle is that we pray for our leaders. For us that would involve our president and other elected leaders.

 

c.       1 Corinthians 8 says we should avoid eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols if it means a weaker brother would stumble over our doing this. Since eating meat sacrificed to idols does not happen today, how do we apply this? The principle here is that some activities are neither right nor wrong but can become wrong if they cause a fellow believer to stumble. Examples today may be smoking a cigar or taking a drink of wine. The Bible does not say these things are wrong, but participating in these things could make a fellow believer stumble and thus should be avoided if the opportunity for offending a fellow believer exists.

 

d.      James 2:1-9 condemns showing partiality to the rich. In James' day that was expressed by giving the rich special seats while the poor often sat on the floor. Today partiality for the rich may be shown in other ways. Thus, the principle of not showing partiality to the rich may take different forms today than it did in James' day.

 

C.  Principles for Determining Whether Bible Commands Are Culture-bound or Transcultural (Principles below taken from Virkler, Rightly Divided, 242-43)

 

1.      Discern as accurately as possible the principle behind the given behavioral command.

 

2.      Discern whether the principle is timeless or time-bound. Since most biblical principles are rooted in God's unchanging nature, it seems to follow that a principle should be considered to be transcultural unless there is evidence to the contrary.

 

3.      If a principle is transcultural, study the nature of its behavioral application within our culture. Will the behavioral application given be appropriate now, or will it be perceived as out-of-date or odd? However, remember that the criterion for whether a behavioral command should be applied in our culture is not whether it conforms to modern cultural practices but whether or not it adequately and accurately expresses the God-given principle that was intended.

 

4.      If the behavioral expression of a principle should be changed, suggest a cultural equivalent that would adequately express the God-given principle behind the original command. For example, a handshake in place of a holy kiss.

 

5.      If after careful study the nature of the biblical principle and its attendant command remain in question, apply the biblical principle of humility. There may be occasions when even after careful study of a given principle and its behavioral expression, we still may remain uncertain about whether it should be considered transcultural or culture-bound. If we must decide to treat the command one way or the other but have no conclusive means to make the decision, the biblical principle of humility can be helpful. After all, would it be better to treat a principle as transcultural and be guilty of being overscrupulous in our desire to obey God? Or would it be better to treat a transcultural principle as culture-bound and be guilty of breaking a transcendent requirement of God? The answer should be obvious.

facebook_32twitter_32rss_32podcast_icon