The Need for Understanding Biblical Cultures

As I talk to college students and hear the questions that come to us from our home page, one of the things that becomes obvious is that many of the questions that people have about the integrity of the Bible are rooted in a failure to understand the culture that is responsible for bringing us the Bible. It is important to understand that the Bible is not an American book, written in English, and steeped in our vocabulary and culture. People seem to forget that the Bible is not just written for one time or one group of people. In order for Moses to make sense to the shepherd of his day, he had to write things in a certain way. God knew, however, that this same writing would have to make sense to people living in the twenty-first century.

Do you know how hard this is to do? Recently I came across a paper I had written in high school in 1954. In the process of the paper I had written about how hard it was not to like a classmate whom I described as "the most gay person I had ever known." Writing in 1954, the word gay was associated with being happy and carefree. The word used to describe a homosexual was the word fairy which had mostly a negative connotation. Imagine writing something today that people in a different part of the world would be able to understand in the year 5,202. I am not sure that anyone in his right mind would even attempt it. The Bible has accomplished that feat, but not without problems if the reader is not willing to look at who has written the passage, to whom it was written, where they were, and what the purpose was in writing the passage. The problems associated with this are not restricted to atheists and skeptics. Many erroneous biblical teachings are rooted in a denomination or individual who is a believer, but is not recognizing this fact and thus is using the Bible incorrectly.

What we propose to do in this discussion is to try to show some common examples of misunderstandings that come about because modern readers do not understand the cultural implications of Bible passages. We will group these into areas that give general direction to the concepts that we are trying to convey. In each of these areas there are copious examples, but we will confine ourselves to a few basic ones just because of time and space limitations.

We need to understand writing styles and literary styles. There are many different styles of writing in the Bible. How you interpret a passage is radically affected by what kind of writing it is. An example of this is apocalyptic writing. This is a style of writing in which symbols are used that a particular group of people would uniquely understand, but others might not. The classic example is the book of Revelation. John is writing something that he wanted the first century Christians to understand, but hoped that the Romans would not. You did not want to talk about the overthrow of Rome and the demise of the Emperor and then give it to the Romans to read. Much of the confusion in the denominational world over the book of Revelation has come about because people ignore the style of writing, and assume that 666, dragons, and dark horses are literal descriptions of things going on today or in the near future. It is not taking the Bible literally to take a passage and apply it to something it was not intended to be applied to.

We must connect the Old Testament with the New Testament. Another source of confusion is the failure to understand the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament and how they relate to each other. When man was first placed on this earth he was very primitive. Genesis talks about the first man to forge metals, the first man to create a musical instrument, and the like. Because of man's primitive nature, there was a necessity to give man a system to live by that was also primitive. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is a primitive system, but when you are dealing with people that have not developed spiritually or socially it is the only way for society to function. The Old Testament functioned at a time when man's weakness was tolerated by God, and in the words of the Bible "God winked at"(Acts 17:30).

When Christ came to Earth He moved mankind up a notch. The entire Sermon on the Mount details a higher level to which man is called. Jesus says "you have heard." and then He says "but I say to you.." In each case man's capacity has raised the bar. Instead of just avoiding murder, we are to avoid hate. Instead of just not committing sexual sin, we are to not allow our minds to drift into thinking about that sin. Polygamy is portrayed as something God winked at because of the hardness of man's heart, but something God does not want us to do.

In the Old Testament God commanded people to destroy their enemies. This unpleasant judgment was pronounced for a variety of reasons. The diseases that had been contracted by the rejection of God's moral system were rampant in these societies. Destroying the STD carrying organisms including animals and burning the entire infected area was essential to stopping the disease. Certain food restrictions were essential in a society that had no way to avoid certain diseases carried by poorly prepared food such as pork. When Jesus came he "nailed" the old law to his cross (Colossians 2:14). A specific command from God freed man from his food restrictions (Acts 11:4-10). The New Testament gave man a higher calling and moved him into a new relationship with God. We are told that the old law exists as a teacher to us today to show us the consequences of actions that we are not to engage in. When a man makes a rash vow (something God did not tell us to do), he finds himself committed to something awful that no man wants to do (Judges 11:30-40). We are not looking at something God commanded, but at something a man created when he made a hasty vow God had not required. The biblical writers could have excluded the story, but it stands as a lesson for us.

We must understand cultural practices and uses of words. We have already stated that the Bible is not an American book written for Americans and using American terms. Many misunderstandings come about because of the failure of people to understand things in the Bible that are cultural and unique to the societies in which the Bible had its origins. An example is the use of the term father in genealogical sequences. If you ask me who my father is, I am very likely to identify one individual man. Father to an American is the person who was involved in conception. To the ancient Jew, father was any blood relative who was a hero. In Matthew 1:1 the writer tells us "Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." Does this mean that Jesus was the grandson of Abraham? Just reading the rest of the chapter tells you that this is not the case. A Jew regarded father to be a term that indicated descendancy, but not that the person listed was actually involved in his conception.

American Atheist (Winter, 1999-2000), page 33 gave a comparison of the genealogies in Matthew with the genealogies in Luke, in which 42 generations are recorded in Matthew and 55 are recorded in Luke for the same genealogical sequence. Why a 13-generation difference? It is not because Matthew was ignorant about the people in the family tree that Luke mentions. It is simply a clear demonstration that cultures record things in different ways, and trying to apply an American system to a ancient Jewish document is a major error. People whose denominational tradition demands a particular age to the earth or to mankind get caught up in this kind of mistake, and it creates massive problems for their young people, because the evidence clearly does not support the denominational tradition that they have been taught.

Certain phrases in the Bible can be misunderstood if one does not know the context in which they were written. Jesus' teaching to "go the second mile," for example, is rooted in Roman law. The Romans had a law that said that if a Roman soldier came by with a load, that he could demand that any Jew he came in contact with should carry the load he was carrying one mile. The Jew had to do this or he was in violation of the law of the land. Jesus simply told his followers to reach out to the Roman soldier by going the second mile free. That was unheard of to the ancient Jews, so that teaching has a special significance to people who understand what the context was in which it was written.

Individual words can have different meanings. The word for create (bara in Hebrew) was a word that could only be used in reference to God. When Genesis says "In the beginning, God created (bara) the heaven and the earth,"the significance is lost if one does not understand that the statement could only be used in reference to God. If it was an ordinary process that perhaps even man could do, the word that was used was asah (to make). The word for kind in Hebrew was a broad word defined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:39 and used the same way in Genesis 1 and Genesis 6. Species, the modern scientific word, is not the same word and does not mean the same thing.

The point is that understanding the basics of the culture and what they understand the words and phrases to mean is critically important if a person is to know what the Bible teaches. When someone says he takes the Bible literally and does not look at the cultural meanings, the style of literature, what the people who wrote it would have understood the words to mean, or what the purpose was in writing, he is not taking the Bible literally. The result of not taking the Bible literally is to follow man-made tradition and to lose the essence and meaning of the scriptures.

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, MayJun04.