Why Understanding Cultural Context Precedes Application

Although everyone knows that the Bible was written in a different time and culture, and most people take that fact into account when they read particular passages, not everyone is consistent in using cultural background. Of course, not all passages in the Bible require much background; our culture still has some features in common with the culture of the Bible. But if we do not know anything about the original culture, we may sometimes assume that we do not need any background for a passage when in fact it would dramatically affect the way we read the text.Even though most people recognize the need to pay attention to cultural background, some people become nervous at the suggestion that they need it.

Some Christians occasionally object that using cultural and historical background is dangerous. “After all,” they complain, “you can use culture to twist the Bible around to mean anything.” People who raise this objection could cite the popular idea that the “eye of a needle” through which a camel must pass was a gate in ancient Jerusalem. Unfortunately, no gate with this title existed in first-century Jerusalem; convenient as it would be for us, this is a case of invented background. (Happily, some other background is relevant: the use of hyperbole, or rhetorical overstatement, was common among ancient Jewish teachers.) Although this example is a good argument against making up cultural background, it is no reason not to use genuine cultural background. A good bit of invented cultural background circulates on the market today, but that is all the more reason for readers to seek background based on genuine, solid research.

One might keep in mind that people have been twisting the Bible quite ably for a long time without using any cultural background; it is doubtful that a little historical study would make matters any worse. Ignoring the original culture and so reading it in light of our own is a far graver threat to most of us. (For example, the “Aryan Christians” under the Nazis “demythologized” biblical history to make it non-Jewish and hence more palatable to Nazi tastes. This is an extreme example of ignoring original historical context and reinterpreting the Bible to fit one’s own culture. It differs from most reinterpretations today only in that the Nazis did it intentionally.)

A more common objection, which I raised myself as a young Christian, is that assuming the importance of cultural background might take the Bible out of the hands of non scholars. At that time I rejected the use of cultural information so thoroughly that I insisted that women should wear head coverings in church, and I even tried to get up enough nerve to engage in some of Paul’s “holy kissing.” Reading the Bible forced me to come to grips with the way it is written, however, and the more I studied the world of the Bible, the more I have come to realize that God was being relevant in communicating his Word the way he did. He gave us concrete examples of how his ways address real human situations, not just abstract principles that we could memorize without pondering how to apply them to our lives. If we wish to follow God’s example of being relevant, we need to understand what these teachings meant in their original culture before we try applying them to our own.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more on Bible background commentary, please read The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.

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