Culture and the Bible

See the source image
Code of Hammurabi on the Louvre Stele

At one level understanding the cultural context enriches our understanding of the Bible.  It doesn’t necessarily change the gospel message since that is clear enough.  But it can add to various passages. And a fair approach to the Bible must acknowledge that in the absence of cultural context complete confidence in our understanding is impossible.

Eg knowing how Jesus is using and changing Jewish traditions provides insight into his strange parable of the Lazarus and the rich man sitting in Abraham’s bosom and hell respectively and conversing with each other – an understanding of the afterlife that no faith tradition today considers an accurate portray of the afterlife.  Having an understanding of the cultural context explains the passage better but doesn’t alter the fundamental thrust of the message to be good now!

There are a few passages of the Bible which do not make sense without the cultural background.  They are literally a blank to us – we might guess at their meaning but they are closed verses. 

Other times there are passages which reflect the culture and assumptions of the day in ways we might find problematic.  Eg I wish the Bible clearly condemned slavery rather than just regulating bits of it.

The challenging part comes when we consider the link between culture & the Bible think about how we read many passages. 

For me the exciting part of this subject is that there is more to learn and more thinking to do.  It satisfies my curiosity. It also acts as a caution.  I can be wrong due to misunderstanding the broader context. The attraction of the subject is more than just learning, it may provide a compelling answer to thorny passages (such as say parts of the Old Testament law).

Faithful Bible reading means seeking to understand not just the words – translated words – but also the context in which those words occur.  As per Osborne on screen, the incidents in the Bible occur in a specific context.  The letter to the Roman Christians was intended first for them and to address their situation.  A broader value exists and the letter was preserved but no-one hear is called Rufus or Andronicus or Junia.  Even if the letter contemplated future readers it was addressed to someone else.  We are reading their mail.. 

Understanding the context and culture of a particular passage is key to deriving the correct meaning.  God spoke to ancient people  not us. 

although the Bible is written for us (indeed, for everyone), it is not written to us. In its context, it is not communicated in our language; it is not addressed to our culture; it does not anticipate the questions about the world and its operations that stem from our modern situations and issues

John Walton  The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (p. 19). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press

Culture impacts language

The work of the translator is not to just rigidly translate word for word.  No translation does such a thing.  Translators do their work looking at the culture as well – the ways words operated within a culture. 

A simple example. 6 times in Job 1-2 we have the word for bless.  4 times it is translated curse God and 2 times bless eg

For Job thought, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s customary practice

Job 1:5

This word curse is the same word a few verses later·

You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock have increased in the land

Job 1:10

In each case the Hebrew word translated bless or curse is the same.  Why?  There are plenty of words (at least two) for cursing – and they are used in Job.  But culture dictates you can’t curse God.  So the translators – alert to this reality – translate the words differently because they understand the culture.

It is easy and dangerous to assume because we can read the Bible in our native language that no expertise is needed.  The English Bible exists because of textual scholars and language scholars – who also bring to bear an understanding of the ancient culture.

The Bible requires both language and culture translation.  In the same way we derive new cultural applications because the specific cultural application no longer applies.

When we read for example that slaves should submit to their masters as unto the Lord in Col 3:22 we are talking about a situation none of us experience.  We might translate the cultural idea to employment – be a faithful employee.  But it is NOT talking about voluntary paid employment.  The cultural translation doesn’t carry the same power.  Employees are not lifelong slaves – someone’s property – with no legal rights.  You could quit and get a new boss, and your old boss can’t hunt you down and kill you for leaving. Your boss is prohibited from random acts of physical or sexual violence against you.  Paul instructs the slave to endure a completely unjust ungodly situation and show love & loyalty to the undeserving slave owner.  We can find very loose translation of the cultural reality but the slaves in Colossea would laugh at our “bad boss” complaints with disbelief.  The cultural context makes the sacrificial submission so much more powerful.

Understanding the culture brings more powerful meaning to the text.

But the Bible is it’s own interpreter

The idea of understanding Scripture alone being our authority is not a bad one.  However this protestant catch cry – Sola Scriptura (thank you Martin Luther) –  can be extended quickly into understand the scriptures by the scriptures alone.  The Bible is its own interpreter.  Here is what one keen writer in The Christadelphian Magazine had to say:

Not many books are needed. One will be sufficient for all practical purposes speaking generally, this one, the “Lively Oracles,” will “thoroughly furnish” us, and make us “workmen that need not be ashamed.”  Very little in addition is really necessary. A good concordance is very useful to enable one to more readily “compare spiritual things with spiritual things.” A Greek and Hebrew lexicon, if obtainable, is often useful for deeper research. “Young’s Englishmen’s Concordance” is the thing. …Apart from these things little else is really necessary. Beware of commentators generally.

(2001). The Christadelphian, 31(electronic ed.), 108.

Apparently the most important thing is to compare one passage to another – that is all! The thing is we can readily test this approach of scripture interpreting scripture.  The refrain that we should interpret Scripture with Scripture has been popular from at least 1611!

Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual

1 Cor 2:13 KJV

However this translation is not widely supported.  The ESV (supported largely by the NET, NASB, NRSV, LEB and NIV) has:

interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual

1 Cor 2:13 ESV

We are speaking in spiritual language to explain spiritual concepts – not talking about Bible study

However the KJV wording has resonated with many Christians as supporting a way of reading and interpreting Scripture.  As an example of this is the following statement:

We hold from this and other scripture, that it is only by a continual meditation on the Word—and in this we have Jesus for our great example—and a diligent comparison of its contents, one part reflecting upon another, that we can become learned and stable in the truth

Paterson (1867) (2001). The Christadelphian, 4(electronic ed.), 328.

But faithful Bible reading means seeking to understand not just the words – translated words – but also the context in which those words occur.  Should we seek to understand the Bible in the context of other Bible passages?  Yes.  However this is a powerful tool rather than the absolute and only answer. 

Bro Peter Heavyside – while a fan of the scripture with scripture approach – also moderated this more than some saying:

Since scripture interacts with, and takes place within, specific cultures, a knowledge of those cultures will sometimes help sharpen our understanding of the thrust and focus of the relevant oracles in their appeal to people to turn to God, and in their polemics against their cultural frameworks. From this perspective, the application of comparative studies to the understanding of scripture can be helpful

Heavyside, P. (2018). Genesis 1-2:a harmonised and historical reading. Ascent Publications.

Again – it is possible to check the validity of these claims by looking at the Bible itself.

Examples where lost culture = lost meaning

Some Bible passages are incomprehensible to us.  Not because we can’t translate them, but because the culture context has been lost.  We know the words but not the meaning.  It meant something to one group of people but has become useless to us – because culture context is important. None of the fundamentals of the gospel are altered by these lost meanings.  But we can see in these instances that background cultural context is significant to unlocking the meaning.

a.  Weeping for Tammuz

Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the Lord’s house. I noticed women sitting there weeping for Tammuz

Ezek 8:14

While we can get the gist of the passage – there is some idol worship going on – the details cannot be determined by reading.  This is an instance where archaeology can:

supply cultural, epigraphic, and artifactual materials that provide the background for accurately interpreting the Bible

  Kaiser Jr., W. C. (2007). ? In T. Cabal, C. O. Brand, E. R. Clendenen, P. Copan, & J. P. Moreland (Eds.), The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (p. 1148). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

It seems likely but not certain Tammuz was a Mesopotamian cult – imported by Babylonian influence into Judah.  This would have been a shocking betray to those in captivity.  Possibly Tammuz was banished to the underworld every year leading to lamentation rites in June-July.  However we aren’t quite sure. 

The general gist of the passage is clear though.  So let’s go into more obscure….

b.  Cooking a kid in the mother’s milk

Exodus 23:19 contains the first of three times a clear but mysterious instruction is given: 

You must not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk

Exod 23:19

It’s repeated in Exod 34:26 and Deut 14:21.  It is why some Torah observers today will not mix meat and dairy (no cheeseburgers!).  But why was it a rule?  It’s not about animal cruelty or the rule would speak to how to slaughter animals.  Some have speculated it was to avoid copying pagan rituals (in large part due to a misreading of an Ugaritic text).

C  Baptizing for the dead

Paul’s letter to Corinth has a very peculiar verse:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they baptized for them? 

1 Cor 15:19

What does this mean?  Paul is referencing a practice which the Corinthians knew about.  Paul neither endorses nor condemns the practice.  He does use it though as part of his argument for the resurrection.  Why are you doing this is there is no resurrection he asks. 

As Christadelphians we don’t believe there is any value in being baptized for others.  What does Paul mean?  As one commentator noted:

There are up to 200 different explanations for the passage

NET notes  Biblical Studies Press. (2006).  (1 Co 15:2829). Biblical Studies Press

Bottom line comparing scripture with scripture will tell us nothing as to what Paul is saying – although many people have offered up unconvincing explanations (often twisting the grammar of the passage into the most unlikely constructs).

Now we are learning more about Corinth and in particular the conflict between the Greek and Roman communities in part over their distinct and highly significant views on death and how to treat the dead in a constrained physical environment.  While the meaning of the passage remains illusive it is likely linked to this local context.  We remain unclear of the meaning.  We haven’t found an answer in the Bible.  Perhaps more spadework will uncover the answer one day. 

d.  Who were Jannes and Jambres?

The Bible was written for all people but it wasn’t written to you or me.  Removed in time and place there are some things that made perfect sense to the first audience but are meaningless to us.  Paul provides another meaning lite verse (for us):

But they will not go much further, for their foolishness will be obvious to everyone, just like it was with Jannes and Jambres

2 Tim 3:9

His audience knew about these two characters.  They are not mentioned in the Bible, no amount of Bible reading will help identify them.  We know about them through various documents dating back to the first century (and possibly beyond) – although the date of composition remains unknown and controversial.  The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary gives a range of details about the two based on various legends.  It seems in Jewish folklore the two were the lead magicians who opposed Moses in the lead up to the Exodus.  Traditions vary as to whether they were Jewish, Egyptian or even sons of Balaam.  They feature in at least two early Jewish writings (one of which is named after them).  Paul is making reference to mythological characters who probably didn’t exist to make his general point that opposition to God doesn’t end well.  He doesn’t need to explain his reference – the audience knows but we don’t.

e.  Jude and Enoch

Jude 1:14-15

Now Enoch, the seventh in descent beginning with Adam, even prophesied of them, saying, “Look! The Lord is coming with thousands and thousands of his holy ones,  to execute judgment on all, and to convict every person of all their thoroughly ungodly deeds that they have committed, and of all the harsh words that ungodly sinners have spoken against him

Jude 1:14-15

Now this is weird.  We have no speech in the Bible by Enoch.  But when we look at some cultural context we find that Jude is quoting from 1 Enoch 1:9 – an intertestamental book seemingly very very popular with the Jews based on the number of copies found.  For many years conservative Christians objected to scholars dating Enoch before Jude but this passage has now been found in the DSS and clearly predates Jude by at least 200 years (as scholars had said all along).

This is fascinating because Jude quotes from a nonsense book and in a way that makes it seem authoritative.  And this is not the only reference by Jude to non-canonical material.

In v6 he writes the following

You also know that the angels who did not keep within their proper domain but abandoned their own place of residence, he has kept in eternal chains in utter darkness, locked up for the judgment of the great Day

Jude 1:6

Jude references the book of Enoch which imagined that in Gen 6 it was angels which engaged in sexual misconduct with human women and were therefore imprisoned in chains in Gehenna awaiting judgement – which matches to Jude’s comments.  Often this passage has been explained as Korah Dathan and Abiram the princes who rebel against Moses in Numbers 16 and were engulfed in an earthquake – but they weren’t in literal chains and it is out of chronological order.  The lack of order is even more obvious when we look at 2 Pet 2:2-6 which alludes to Jude but has three incidents the angels that sinned, Noah and Sodom & Gomorrah – which again is only chronological if the angels are the Enoch legends.  Furthermore contextually Jude 7 supports the Enoch reference by saying

So also Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighboring towns, since they indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire in a way similar to these angels, are now displayed as an example by suffering the punishment of eternal fire

Jude 1:7 NET

The KJV doesn’t translate the first comparison point rendered “so also” in the NET it has only one.  But Jude is emphasizing there are two points of comparison the sin and the judgement.  This doesn’t work for Korah Dathan and Abiram but does for the Enoch legends with their sexual misdemeanors.

Out of interest Jude also references another work

But even when Michael the archangel was arguing with the devil and debating with him concerning Moses’ body, he did not dare to bring a slanderous judgment, but said, “May the Lord rebuke you!”

Jude 1:9 NET

This is a mix of the details from “The Assumption of Moses” and Zech3:1-2.  We don’t know about the identity of the angel but Jude and his audience did.  The book the Assumption of Moses (which has a complicated history and reconstruction) is essentially the devil and Michael debating what to do with Moses body…

Fascinating that Jude – without denigrating these background myths – takes lessons from them and weaves them into his letter 

What does this mean?  Well firstly that knowing this background culture explains some of the odd bits – we don’t think angels sinned and are in hell! But implications for link between culture and Bible are interesting – the tolerance and use of culture.  It’s a little like Jesus using the language of demons rather than explaining mental health.  The approach of the Biblical writers was to use the local culture rather than correcting it.

Now our understanding of the gospel is not threatened by these inscrutable passages.  But they demonstrate that the bible alone doesn’t always interpret the Bible.

Culture shapes Scripture

This might be more challenging.  The implications can be very challenging.  But challenge is good.  No pain no gain.  Exercise is healthy.

For the record I believe the Bible is God breathed, God given and contains the essential message of salvation.  It teaches us about God in a way the silent witness of creation never can.  Now on with the show…

Did inspiration/revelation break the mold of the culture into which it came or was it somewhat shaped?  How does Scripture relate to culture?  How does Godliness work within culture?  These are big questions and I doubt anyone will read too much in one go.  So let’s scratch the surface in the interest of curiosity.

Firstly let’s give a categoric yes. Culture shapes Scripture. And we can prove it with the best proof available – the words of Jesus:

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way

Matt 19:8

Let’s unpack that. God’s intention was not divorce. Jesus uses Genesis to argue God’s intention and principle is one man one woman for life. Jesus explains the Mosaic law of divorce in Deut 24 as being an allowance for human weakness. You are hard hearted. You would divorce no matter what in your culture, so God permitted it and regulated it. The Old Testament law accommodated human limitations and wasn’t the highest and best expression of God’s intentions.

In a simpler demonstration, Scripture regularly accommodates the cultural medical misunderstandings of the initial host culture. The heart is the place of thought, the kidneys the location of emotion, the eye is a lamp, demons are the cause of self harming behaviours rather than mental disease. The capacity of the culture shaped Scripture.

This can have some very challenging manifestations.

 Slavery in the Bible is a difficult subject because there are some very unpleasant bits.

  • Hebrew slaves went free after 6 years – debt slaves in the Code of Hammurabi went free after 3 years (which would be nicer!)
  • Foreign slaves (racist?!) and children born into slavery were lifelong
  • I could hit my slave and as long as he died a few days later I faced no charges because, after all, I just lost an asset
  • If you damaged my slave you had to compensate me
  • If I fell on hard times I could sell my daughter into sexual slavery – as a concubine

None of this will hide under a few coats of whitewash

The OT worked within broad (evil) societal norms.  God didn’t demand the abolition of abuse.  At most He moderated it.

In the NT slaves are told to submit to the evil institution.  Eph 6:6, Col 3:22, 1 Tim 6:1, Tit2:9, 1 Pet 2:18

Slave owners were not condemned or told to release their slaves, just to be just because God is our master Col 4:1.  Paul says we should be slave traders 1 Tim 1:10 but that’s it. The rationale for this approach is explained:

  Those who are under the yoke as slaves must regard their own masters as deserving of full respect. This will prevent the name of God and Christian teaching from being discredited

1 Tim 6:1

So rather than change the evil institution of slavery, rather than point out it contradicted the reality of all being in God’s image, NT writers go with “don’t upset the local culture”.

How should we frame this? In a world of activism, how can we make this even close to palatable? Let me try these words and see whether we can agree  “The NT epistles choose the principle of unfair suffering & endurance in the culture rather than the principle of change to a more Godly model or arranging society.” The New Testament period was not one where free expression and social justice protest was encouraged or tolerated. Different times….

Women in the Mosaic Law 

Under the Mosaic Law there are some “unusual” provisions.  If my wife saved my life by intervening in a fight by grabbing my attacker by his genitals then her hand was to be cut off Deut 25:12  Now this is pretty nasty.  Strangely it is very very similar to the culture of the time. Middle Assyrian law had a similar rule

8: If a woman has crushed a seignior’s testicle in a brawl, they shall cut off one finger of hers, and if the other testicle has become affected along with it by catching the infection even though a physician has bound (it) up, or she has crushed the other testicle in the brawl, they shall tear out both her [eyes]

Pritchard, J. B. (Ed.). (1969). The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed. with Supplement, p. 181). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

If a woman had a child you were an unclean outcast for 40 days unless it was a girl in which case you copped 80 days because obviously you were more unclean. Why?  Similar practices are found in Hittite and other ancient cultures possibly reflecting their views that female children developed at a different pace [see Thiessen, M. (2018). The Legislation of Leviticus 12 in Light of Ancient Embryology. Brill.].

I think it’s fair to say no sane woman in the western world would want to live under the Mosaic Law.  Not just these examples but just the whole unclean thing, getting banished each month from the camp to join the other diseased folk like lepers, being unable (except in limited circumstances) to inherit, not being responsible enough to make an oath to God etc without husband having right of veto etc. 

It seems clear we have some rules which are based less on eternal principles and more on local culture, more akin to the reflection of how people saw the heart and kidneys than actual principles and facts.  Scarey thing to say…but the evidence seems pretty clear

The NT also has a careful eye on cultural norms

Being culturally appropriate in the New Testament 

The NT contains a number of very explicit commands to act in certain ways because of the surrounding culture – to behave in a way which will bring good reputation not and to the believers. The NT writers were keen that the Christians be of good reputation

  •   Col 4:5  Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities
  •   1Tim 5:14 So I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us
  •   1 Tim 6:1 Those who are under the yoke as slaves must regard their own masters as deserving of full respect. This will prevent the name of God and Christian teaching from being   discredited
  •   Titus 2:5 (old women should be) be self-controlled, pure, fulfilling their duties at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the message of God may not be discredited.
  •    Titus 2:8 9young men to have ) a sound message that cannot be criticized, so that any opponent will be at a loss, because he has nothing evil to say about us.
  •   1 Pet 2:12 maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears
  •    Rom 12:17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people
  • 1 Pet 2:18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse
  • 1 Pet 3:1  In the same way, wives, be subject to your own husbands. Then, even if some are disobedient to the word, they will be won over without a word by the way you live

The writers have an eye on cultural norms and instruct believers to behave in because it is culturally acceptable.  Seeking the approval or respect of the society does not mean approval of the cultural norms in place.  But some instructions require behaving in culturally appropriate ways despite the unjust or oppressive nature of the society. 

Slaves and wives were to operate in line with the oppressive cultural expectations.  Reasons (or perhaps better “examples”) are given to inspire endurance in these circumstances.  Endure the oppression because Jesus is coming and he will release you. 

What we need to be careful about is seeing that the instruction to a slave doesn’t justify slave ownership.  Scriptural instruction about people in a cultural situation doesn’t endorse that situation.

This concern for external cultural opinion goes further – in 1 Cor 14:23-25 when regulating the Corinthian meeting Paul clearly has an eye on the view of the outsider:

  So if the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and unbelievers or uninformed people enter, will they not say that you have lost your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or uninformed person enters, he will be convicted by all, he will be called to account by all.   The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship God, declaring, “God is really among you.”

1 Cor 14:23-25

Paul is conscious of the impression made upon an unbelieving visitor.  Just as the personal behaviour of the believers is commanded to conform to cultural norms, so too even congregational arrangements have to be made with the sensitivities of the outsider in mind.  When Paul says in v40 that everything should be done in a decent and orderly manner he wants the gifts of tongues and prophecy to be controlled – and clearly from the context with tongues at least a part of his concern is that outsider finds the service decent and orderly.

An implication – “rules” can be permanent or cultural (temporary)

I’m making an observation not entering a full scale debate here although the risk is high. Paul tells the Corinthians:

I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head.

1 Cor 11:4-5

The reason why a man shouldn’t wear a head covering appears to be based on a timeless principle rather than culture.  It’s about an order of things and headship.  Paul gives reasons so many assume the reasons must be for all time.  This is not a cultural application but unchanging facts as to why this is so.  We can’t change it right?  May not.   However it’s clearly NOT a timeless principle because God designed the headcovering for the high priest and priests in the Mosaic tabernacle and later temple.  So this is not a timeless principle but rather an appropriate arrangement in Corinth, an inappropriate one in the tabernacle and who knows in your modern context!

This example demonstrates that just because there is a “reason” doesn’t mean the instruction is exempt from the possibility of being a culturally or time bound issue. I would argue the ‘normative principle’ behind the ‘particular commands’ to women (and slaves) to be subordinate is that Christians should not cause offence to those outside the church by their behaviour in church (Col 4:5, 1Tim 5:14, 6:1; Tit 2:5, 8, etc) , in this case by subordinating women, when the culture we live in has emancipated them.

We interpret the Bible through a cultural filter sometimes – are we consistent?

We might not think we adjust what the Bible says, or alter its plain meaning because of our culture – but we do. Sometimes we interpret passages as cultural bound – even though there are not necessarily any markers to say “in your culture do something else”. I agree with these

Anointing the sick

  Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.

James 5:14

The anoint with oil is not the religious anointing but rather a smearing.  It was used as medicine – eg the parable of the Good Samaritan.  How do we read the passage?  Despite the clear message – pray and use oil when people are sick – we culturally interpret the passage to say “pray and get the best medical treatment you can access”.

Foot washing

  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet

John 13:14

In Jesus day this was not really a symbolic act, foot washing was a common thing.  We read this as a cultural direction not a specific command.  There is nothing to mark it as such but we deem that the practice commanded by Jesus shouldn’t be taken literally.  Why?  Because we have made a decision to elevate the cultural context and reinterpret the verse

Hands up in prayer

Another command which we tend not to implement but rather reinterpret through a cultural filter

  So I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute.

1 Tim 2:8

I remember years ago a believer came into a previous congregation of which I was a member and he applied this instruction.  I’m pretty sure he was talked to and told to stop being disruptive and drawing attention to himself.  But he was far more literally applying his Bible than everyone else!

We tend to not implement Paul’s instruction to men here.  We read it as “I want men to pray in every place, engaging in prayer without anger or dispute”

Holy kisses

4 times (Romans 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20 2 Cor 13:12 and 1 Thes 5:26) Paul commands his readers to great one another with a holy kiss.  We don’t do that.  This is a fascinating example.  In Greco Roman culture you only kissed close family members (usually on the same gender) [see Ehorn, S. M. (2016). . In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press].  Paul’s repeated command therefore instructs believers to treat each other as close family – and as equals.  They would not kiss each other were it not for the gospel.  This is a gospel related action/command not something they would have done anyway. 

Why do we neglect this oft repeated command?  Because we translate the practice as culturally specific and reinterpret it.  We have no specific warrant for this reinterpretation.  (I agree with the re-read but it is a significant theological break to take a specific repeated command and reimagine it).  We might want to think about the specific principles we are employing to enable us to update Paul’s command.  We would shake hands with people we meet regardless – this is a command to do MORE than the cultural norm.  But we ignore it.

In each of these cases we have made a strategic decision – with no real warrant or authority – to translate the passages culturally and do something different.  While presented as commands, we flip them to instead be broad ideas of a principle which needs reworking to be appropriate in our specific circumstances.  This is I suspect an unconscious collective decision, based on our inherited practices more than specific personal choices.


Cultural context is important to understanding the meaning of the Bible. Without cultural knowledge we can lose the meaning of scripture.

Scripture at some level reflects the culture it was given to. It takes on the language and understanding of how things work.

We unconsciously reinterpret somethings as culturally bound – “that doesn’t apply to us what it really means is….”. However such reinterpretation is often done unconsciously and without a consistent logical framework. This can lead to arbitrary adoption of ancient cultural practices which should be re-examined.

There are some challenging examples of scripture working in unpleasant cultures and not commanding change. At the time being an agent for change was not practical – certainly if you wished some sort of longevity as an individual and as a movement. Jesus told us clearly that Scripture is sometimes more pragmatic about cultural realities than we might think.

We need to be open to the possibility that some things which appear pretty definite might be more about the ancient culture. A little more nuance in our approach to the Bible is essential.

by Daniel Edgecombe

Sources consulted

 Allen, L. C. (1994). Ezekiel 1–19 (Vol. 28, p. 144). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.  

The Christadelphian Magazine (electronic ed.)  

Demaris, R. E. (1995). Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology. Journal of Biblical Literature, 114, 673.  

deSilva, D. A. (2012). Honor, patronage, kinship & purity: unlocking new testament culture (pp. 71–73). Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press   

Ehorn, S. M. (2016). . In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham

Press.  Heavyside, P. (2018). Genesis 1-2:a harmonised and historical reading. Ascent Publications.  

Kaiser Jr., W. C. (2007). How Has Archaeology Corroborated the Bible? In T. Cabal, C. O. Brand, E. R. Clendenen, P. Copan, & J. P. Moreland (Eds.), The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (p. 1148). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.  

Osborne, G. R. (2006). The hermeneutical spiral: a comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation (Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed., p. 158). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.  

Pietersma, A. (1992). Jannes and Jambres (Persons). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 3, p. 638). New York: Doubleday.

Pritchard, J. B. (Ed.). (1969). The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed. with Supplement, p. 181). Princeton: Princeton University Press  

Walton, J. H. (2015). The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (p. 19). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.  

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