Have you ever figured out halfway through a conversation that you and another person were on totally different pages? Reading the Bible can feel like this at times. We’re all products of our cultures, families, and environments, and it affects how we understand others. In this episode, Tim, Jon, and Carissa prepare us for a cross-cultural conversation with the Bible by discussing the cultural values of the biblical authors.
Words, in another language, embody another culture’s way of seeing the world. So if single words do that, then of course whole books of the Bible, whole concepts in the Bible, or ideas that transcend just words [are] saturated with other cultural assumptions from the ancient biblical authors that are going to be really different from ours. … The way the biblical authors talk about Heaven and Earth, about the structure of the cosmos, about what is spiritual and what is material, about groups and individuals, about honor or shame—these are bigger cultural concepts that the biblical authors take for granted. That means they don’t ever talk about them—they just think through them.
Whether we realize it or not, we make assumptions about everything in life—from screwdrivers, to books, to other people. Those assumptions form the basis for how we understand and interact with the world around us. That’s why we’ve devoted this series to dialing in the paradigm with which we engage the Bible, to align our assumptions about the Bible as closely as possible to what the Bible says about itself: that the Bible is one unified story that leads to Jesus. Throughout this series, we’ve been breaking down that paradigm into its various parts.
In part one (00:00-13:20), Tim, Jon, and Carissa introduce the next pillar of the paradigm: the Bible is contextually rooted literature written by people from an ancient Near Eastern culture. If single words communicate differently in different contexts, then ideas and themes do too, which is why this episode will focus on the widely accepted cultural values of the biblical authors.
In part two (13:20-25:30), the team begins to examine five cultural assumptions that were common to the biblical authors and often cause friction for modern readers of the Bible. The first of those assumptions is ancient cosmology.
The biblical authors understood the origins and ordering of the cosmos in a very different way from how we understand the cosmos today. (We talked about this at length in our Ancient Cosmology podcast series.) Instead of trying to “translate” the cosmology of the biblical authors into our modern cosmology, we can read the Bible and let the cultural differences stand out to us. If we take the time to understand those differences and try to look through their lens, we will understand the biblical text at a far deeper level.
It’s important to remember that while scientific research has changed modern cosmology, it does not mean the realities to which the biblical authors pointed (using the cosmology they were familiar with) are any less true.
In part three (25:30-41:15), Tim, Jon, and Carissa discuss the biblical authors’ view of the sacramental and spiritual nature of reality.
The modern conception of reality is that it is primarily material in nature and able to be accounted for in objective, scientifically verifiable ways. Because of that emphasis, the modern view of reality (or what we would call “real”) is that the material is all there is.
Even in Western Christianity, while we may cognitively and theologically embrace that there is a spiritual dimension to the cosmos, we tend to see it as separate or distinct from the material world, as if material and spiritual are opposites.
The biblical authors never saw spiritual and material as opposites, but rather as overlapping spaces. In fact, ancient people, including the biblical authors, saw the divine—that which flows from God—as what was most real. In their minds, spiritual didn’t always mean non-material, but that which is ultimate. The way we encounter that ultimacy of the divine life and presence is through material things.
For instance, a modern material worldview sees the act of breathing as a natural process of taking an element, oxygen, into our bodies so that we can live. The biblical authors knew breathing was necessary for living, but they also saw it as participating in the divine life by taking in breath (spirit). There’s a profound truth to this line of thinking because every material thing we see is also spiritual—created, ordered, energized, and maintained by God’s life-giving Spirit.
For the biblical authors, living outside Eden is sub-spiritual, meaning everything is still spiritual but less spiritual than what is ideal. In biblical cosmology, to be highest (closest to the sky) and inside (like in the center of the garden) is to be closest to the divine. That’s why sacred spaces were always at the tops of mountains and contained a central, inner holy place.
In part four (41:15-48:00), the team discusses the collectivist sociology of the biblical authors, which is the opposite of the individualistic philosophy of the modern West.
People shaped by individualistic cultures assume that only an individual can be held responsible for their own choices. In the biblical world, an individual’s choices implicate the entire group/family/tribe/nation to which they belong.
In part five (48:00-59:45), Tim, Jon, and Carissa explore the next major difference between the culture of the biblical authors and our own. The biblical authors lived in an honor and shame culture. Simply put, all of life was centered around the acquisition of esteem and honor, and that honor translates into a clear ranking within society. An individual’s status implicates the status of the group in which they participate.
Every Disney movie tells the story of a hero who determines their own destiny and identity. This would be unusual in an honor and shame culture because someone who started at the bottom rungs of a societal hierarchy would never climb to a high-ranking position of honor on their own.
In part six (59:45-1:10:33), the team concludes by looking at the last two major biblical cultural elements, the first of which is purity and pollution.
You may recognize this value for the number of words in the Bible that refer to it (e.g., holy, clean, pure, undefiled, unblemished, sanctified, saints, unholy, impure, defiled, profane, common, etc.). Purity and impurity have to do with items being in their “proper place.” For instance, food belongs on the plate and not on the floor.
The authors of the Bible also wrote in the midst of a patriarchal society—the final cultural element we must keep in mind as we read Scripture. Women are mentioned far less in the Bible than we would consider normal. This also makes it highly significant when women are mentioned, especially in positions of honor—like being the first people to encounter the resurrected Jesus.
Recognizing these five (and other) cultural assumptions that were so common to the biblical authors is crucial to our interpretation of Scripture. It’s important to remember that ancient culture is the vehicle of the Bible’s message, but that doesn’t mean we were ever expected to impose their cultural norms on ourselves.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel, Zach McKinley, and Frank Garza. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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