Have you ever realized halfway through a conversation that you and another person are on totally different pages? Misunderstanding happens when we attempt to communicate across cultural differences and language barriers. We process our conversations and other information with our own perspectives and presuppositions. Do we approach the Bible like this too?
Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek authors, most of whom were Israelites, wrote the Bible with unique cultural perspectives and assumptions. So how can we get on their page in order to read with more understanding?
Reading the Bible Is a Cross-Cultural Experience
We can become so familiar with modern translations of the Bible that we forget it’s actually ancient Jewish literature. Many Bible translators took the time to consider what the biblical authors meant in their ancient language and culture so they could find an equivalent way of communicating the message to us. That’s a big assignment! But even when a translated text is complete, the work of reading and interpreting remains challenging. Modern translations still convey ancient cultural assumptions about cosmology (the story about the world’s beginning), community, and customs. How do contemporary readers like you and I make sense of it all?
The biblical authors are ancient foreign citizens, speaking another language. Our modern translations are bilingual translators. And we are learners, having a cross-cultural experience as we read. We have a guide (the translation) who speaks our native language, but there are still things we will need to pay attention to. When a modern translator gives us the word “heart,” we want to know if they are talking about emotions, a cardiac muscle, or a figure of speech referring to a whole person. We want to hear the word in its own context—informed by ancient cultural cues—to understand the biblical author’s intended meaning and respond properly.
So what are some of the ancient ideas that shaped the biblical authors’ literary context and cultural lens?
Understanding the Cultural Lens of Biblical Authors
We do not need to adopt (or reject) an Eastern or Jewish culture to respond to a biblical author’s message. However, recognizing the cultural backdrop can help us understand the author’s message. Let’s take a quick look.
Biblical authors view spiritual reality as the foundation for all material (e.g., Gen. 1:2, 2:4-9; Ps. 104; Heb. 11:3).
Biblical authors share a collectivist paradigm, viewing the individual as such an intricate part of the whole that one person has the power to affect generations of people—for better (e.g., Dan. 9:3-19; Isa. 53:3-6) or for worse (Josh. 7:6-21; 2 Sam. 24:10-17).
Biblical authors also live in an honor-shame culture that elevates men, the rich, and certain ethnicities and religions while often exploiting the rest (e.g., Exod. 1:8-14, 3:15; Jas. 2:5-7; John 4:9).
Biblical authors share a paradigm for understanding ritual purity. Words such as holy, unholy, clean, unclean, pure, impure, undefiled, unblemished, sanctified, saints, defiled, profane, and common describe what they consider proper and improper (e.g., Num. 19:2; Ezek. 22:25-26; Eph. 5:27; 1 Pet. 1:19).
We might have some things in common with these cultural worldviews. One might say, “I get that! My church also says spiritual reality is the foundation for all material.” Another might say, “My coach makes us all run laps when just one is late, so I sort of understand the collectivist mentality.” Or maybe, “The honor-shame culture makes sense to me. I grew up in a patriarchal family structure where my esteem depended on the wealth of my father’s business and how quickly my sister and I got married.”
We might empathize with aspects of the biblical authors’ culture, but we are living today, while they lived thousands of years ago. The ancient context of their assumptions differs from our modern index of understanding, and by acknowledging this we can hear biblical authors more clearly.
Addressing Our Cultural Blind Spots
If you get in a car accident by making a hasty lane change, you will probably remember your driving instructor telling you: “Always check the blind spot before you turn!” Words of wisdom.
We might read a phrase like “the Kingdom of Heaven” in the Bible and, based on our perspectives and presuppositions, assume it refers to a place people go when they die. But when we check our cultural blind spots and respect the way biblical authors use “the Kingdom of Heaven,” we quickly see that it is a place, but it’s more than we assumed. This Kingdom also represents a way of living—a life of loving God and people. And we can live within this Kingdom anytime and any place that we honor Jesus as King by living in his way of love for God and others. This reality changes everything, and we could easily miss it because of our cultural blind spots!
To hear the Bible’s message (instead of our own), we want to read its letters, poems, and stories within their literary and ancient cultural context. If we keep the author’s culture in mind, we can appreciate when authors show how Yahweh’s laws challenged social norms or how Jesus’ teachings inverted the honor-shame and social status hierarchies of his day (e.g., Matt. 18:4; Luke 22:26; John 4:7-30; 1 Pet. 4:12-16). Almost certainly, we will miss these revealing truths if we only read with the expectations of our own modern cultures.
The ancient shepherds, farmers, and fishermen (among others) who wrote the Bible were speaking another language from another world. Modern translations then become bilingual translators who take us back to where it all began. But even as we “go back” to see and hear, we still have our cultural blind spots. And that’s okay. We just have to pay attention to them, honestly and humbly, because doing so helps us appreciate the surprising ways God is loving and healing all of our cultures—modern and ancient—as he continues bringing his Kingdom to Earth.
This is the fifth article in our series The Paradigm, which summarizes the core ideas that shape the way biblical authors intended for us to read the Bible. To dive deeper into this topic, listen to the podcast episodes “The Bible Wasn’t Written in English" and "What the Bible’s Authors Took for Granted." For an overview of all the pillars of how to read the Bible as its authors intended, check out The Paradigm Study Notes.