Cultural Differences and Biblical Interpretation

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

One of the biggest challenges for those studying the Bible involves reading and interpreting the scriptures in a manner consistent with their original context. Modern readers are distanced from the earliest written messages of the Christian tradition not only by time and space, but also by key cultural differences. In their book Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, Dietmar Neufeld and Rochard E. DeMaris compile a number of sources from scholars concerned with discovering the cultural understanding and context of the social world from which the writings of the New Testament came.[1] In this post, we outline some of the most important differences between ancient Mediterranean culture and the modern North American life, as well as some examples of how this cultural understanding can contribute to the interpretation of the New Testament.

The modern North American cultural model places a high level of importance on independence and the individual person, both in terms of personal identity and community affiliation. In contrast, Bruce Malina argues that the ancient Mediterranean culture placed a much higher level of importance on “collectivism,” a term which indicates that “persons think of themselves primarily as part of a group.”[2] This cultural understanding not only impacts the way that people within a group view themselves, but also plays an important role in determining the social values and characteristics of the collective people. This does not mean that those within collectivist cultures are completely uniform, as many individuals do demonstrate individualistic characteristics, but that the general identification and understanding of the world came primarily from the collectivist group and not the individual.[3] Applying this lens to Biblical exegesis, one can see how early Christian use of rituals, such as the baptism of the Philippians jailer and his “entire household,”[4] or partaking of the Lord’s Supper,[5] reflected the ideals and participation of those involved within the understanding of the collectivist culture.

When asked to identify oneself, most North Americans will primarily provide their first name and perhaps a last name as a source of self-identification. In the Mediterranean context, however, the role of kinship and family held a much more prominent position. Margaret MacDonald writes that “kinship refers to the imposition of ‘…cultural order of biological universals of sexual relations and continuous human reproduction through birth.’”[6] MacDonald suggests that in much of the Mediterranean world, kinship was the “primary structuring agent of family life”.[7] This orientation toward the family included a high level of respect and obedience to the pater (father) of the family.[8] This traditional view of family structure and the order may be found throughout the history of the early Church and writings of the New Testament, but especially in terms such as Jesus’ calling YHWH the personal and respectful “Abba” (father), the use of terms like “brother” and “sister,” and in Pauline appeals to order. This form of the family structure and the importance of maintaining familial relations extended to the formation of marital theology, the relationship between men and women within the church,[9] the proper place of children, and the distinctions and proper role of slaves and masters within the Church.[10] This cultural understanding remains vital to properly understanding the various instructions and commands of the New Testament that interact with the understanding of kinship.

330px-Roman_marriage_vowsThere are a number of other important social differences which should be considered when reading and interpreting a New Testament written for the ancient Mediterranean culture. Modern cultural analysts often comment on the issue of class[11] and, though a form of class stratification still exists within North American culture, it has by-and-large ceased to define those who live within our culture in the manner many of those within the ancient Mediterranean world were defined. Eric C. Stewart writes on the importance of understanding the class system in the context of the New Testament as a highly stratified system that had a few elite clearly on top, with a small number of intermediaries (such as  merchants) between the elite and the masses of poor peasants.[12] This stratification assisted in the development of the patronage system, where the wealth would support a number of those lower of lower classes in exchange for a non-material good, generally a form of honor. Understanding this type of class and patronage system helps the North American reader better understand why Jesus would have a number of people (the gospels mention several women, for example) who supported his public ministry. Perhaps the best cultural explanation for the crowds of people which followed Jesus around involves ancient Mediterranean brokerage. While most Americans seek to remove the broker or proverbial ‘middleman’ from business transactions, in the ancient Greco-Roman world brokers served as important links between those who had power and those who had none. Batten writes that one potential interpretation of Jesus’ understanding of himself (and of many others, due to his popularity) was as ‘power broker’ for God.[13]

Very rarely do North American cultures plan cities around the wealthiest people’s homes, view hospitals and medicinal use as overtly political acts, or see other people as somehow ‘unclean’ and unworthy of association because of something they have done (though there are, sadly, exceptions to this). In the ancient Mediterranean world however, each of these factors played a role in culture and society. Ritva Williams speaks of the importance of ritual purity in the ancient world, especially within Jesus’ Jewish culture,[14] which has implications for how many of Jesus’ action and parables would be interpreted in his context. John Pilch writes on the ancient understanding of healing, and how exhibiting a knack for healing and doing miracles was often seen as politically and culturally subversive in many ways,[15] a factor that must be remembered when considering the problems that Jewish and Roman authorities may have had with Jesus which led to his unpopularity, eventual arrest, and crucifixion. Peter Oakes submits that the issue of patronage and honor within a society played such a role in the ancient world that even urban structure was devoted to honoring patrons,[16] a factor that should be considered by readers and interpreters of the life and letters of Paul, especially those engaged in the integration of archaeology and literature in a locale like ancient Corinth.[17]

Socrates and Plato

Socrates and Plato

Perhaps the greatest difference between ancient Mediterranean and North American cultures we save until last (though it has been alluded to already), and that is the role of honor and shame. North American culture, especially in light of its individualism, tends to be a highly guilt-based culture, where people (children and students especially) are culturally conditioned to do things based on a guilt system that encourages feeling good about ourselves for our own sake. Conversely, the ancient Mediterranean culture have a far more refined and complex system of honor and shame that pervaded the meaning and context of nearly every situation. Richard L. Rohrbaugh emphasizes ‘Honor’ (defined as one’s reputation in the eyes of the public) as the core value of the Ancient World, the “passion and hope of all who aspired to excel.”[18] Ancient Greek and Roman writers considered the acquisition of honor to be one of the top pursuits of the elite and peasantry, the social backbone of culture that determined everything from the proper way to approach people to the way one conducted oneself in the marketplace. We see ample evidence of this form of honor being paid to Jesus in the gospel narratives, as people are constantly falling at his feet, a sign of paying Jesus honor and placing oneself in a subservient position.

Adding to the complexity of the honor and shame situation (for it would be far too simple to characterize the cultural mindset as pro-honor and anti-shame) were the apparently continual honor challenges that occurred in the ancient world and New Testament.[19] There were multiple forms of honor: ascribed honor, which came with birth and the position of one’s family and collective, and acquired honor, which was accrued as a direct result of winning honor challenges within the ancient context. Asking questions was on form of honor challenge, a challenge that had to be dealt with properly in order to avoid losing face, and indeed, providing oneself with the opportunity to gain honor in the eyes of society. Rohrbaugh uses the early chapters of Luke to demonstrate the importance of understanding the importance of the honor and shame cultural model for understanding the actions of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament.[20] Especially beginning with the genealogy in chapter three, Rohrbaugh reads Luke as building a case for the honoring of Jesus. The genealogy itself points to Jesus’ ascribed honor, as not only is he a son of the king (David), but also a son of God, a claim of honor that in the ancient Mediterranean culture was general reserved for the Caesars. Luke builds on this honor claim at Jesus’ baptism, where the voice of God from heaven affirms that Jesus is indeed his Son. In Luke four, Jesus has his honored challenged by the people of his hometown upon his reading of Isaiah. He is challenged with an insult and question (Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?), and responds in turn with two challenging (and insulting) queries of his own. The people of the city then respond poorly and try to kill Jesus—clearly not a proper response to an honor challenge— an indication that Jesus has acquired honor and won the challenge. This interpretation of the early chapters of Luke through the honor and shame lens leaves a reader of Luke in the ancient world, at least presumably, with the perspective that Jesus is an honorable character, one worthy of following.

Clearly there are a plethora of differences in culture and understanding between the ancient Mediterranean which gave rise to the New Testament and the North American culture in which we live. As we have seen, a proper understanding of the culture that produced the New Testament can assist with Biblical interpretation today. Future work in cultural studies will undoubtedly produce further considerations and models for reading and interpreting the New Testament writings, to which Christians and interpreters must remain aware. Modern readers, in order to remain as faithful to the original content, context, and meaning of the New Testament as possible, must consider these cultural differences and interpret and apply them accordingly.


[1] Neufeld, Deitmar and Richard E. DeMaris. Understanding the Social World of the New Testament. Routledge, London and New York. 2010. [2] Ibid., 17. [3] Ibid., 17-28. [4] Acts 16:33-34, ESV. [5] 1 Corinthians 11: 20-34, ESV. [6] Neufeld and DeMaris, 29. [7] Ibid., 29. [8] Ibid., 29-43. [9] Though some would argue (at least in the original context) that part of the Christian message was the abolition of the traditional roles of men and women within society and the family structure. [10] Ibid., 34-43. [11] More so in the Northern European cultural family than in specifically North American culture, but there is still talk of class within North America, especially with regard to the political arena. [12] Ibid., 156-166. [13] Ibid., 167-177. [14] Ibid., 207-219. [15] Ibid., 147-155. [16] Ibid., 178-193. [17] Richard E. DeMaris. Valparaiso University. March 19/21, 2012. Lecture. [18] Neufeld and DeMaris, 109. [19] Ibid., 109-125. [20] Ibid., 121-123.

This essay was originally written at Valparaiso University.

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