Updated: Apr 24
“The only way the word of God, both in the New Testament writings and in the person of Jesus can make sense to us today is by studying within the larger frame of first-century A.D. Palestinian and Mediterranean culture. For along with learning the who, what, when, where, and how of the New Testament, the study of the culture of the period and region will offer insights into the whys of the behavior pictured in our documents.”
This quote from Bruce J. Malina's book The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology highlights his belief that by ignoring the culture of the original audience we can miss out on the true meaning of scriptures.
Read this other quote by Bruce J. Malina:
"Perhaps the first and largest step that a contemporary American can take toward understanding the Bible is to realize that in reading the Bible in Engish (or even Greek), we are in fact listening to the words of a transplanted group of foreigners. It takes only the ability to read to find out what these foreigners are saying, but it takes far more to find out what they really mean."
The impact on culture on our everyday lives and religious beliefs
Every culture has its own belief systems that influence their everyday lives. Take for example how in first-century Israel, the people believed in "limited good". This meant that they believed there was a limited amount of resources to go around and that men only got wealthy by making others poor. Wealth, to many first-century groups, equaled greed. Knowing this helps us understand the animosity towards tax collectors and Jesus' dealings with them.
Put the knowledge of culture and history together, and we can see certain scriptures in a whole new light. I saw this in action when I was reading Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels edited by Barry J. Beitzel. This book takes the gospels and places them in their historical and geographical context in an incredibly fascinating way, such as with the story of the nobleman and his money.
Reading ancient history with a modern cultural lens can lead to confusion
Our North American views on power and wealth and can color how we read this parable in Luke 19:11-27. This parable is similar to a parable in Matthew 25:14-30, but there are some big differences that may lead us to see these as two totally separate parables with very different meanings. I was taught that this parable was about not wasting what God has given me to work with, the same way a boss wants me to be diligent with the business's time and resources. Reading it through this filter, this scripture is confusing because the nobleman seems harsh and hated and he then kills those who were opposed to his rule. Is parable supposed to represent Jesus and the kingdom of heaven?
Or, does the nobleman represent a cruel ruler the people were familiar with, like Archelaus the son of Herod?
The importance of understanding location and time in biblical parables
Jesus told this parable when he heading to Jerusalem, the place where Archelaus came after securing his right to rule from Rome, who then murdered 3000 Jews in Jerusalem who had opposed him. The similarities between Archelaus and the nobleman are hard to ignore. (This history of Archelaus was recorded by the first-century historian Josephus.) If this is the background to the parable, one that the people knew as recent history, then this parable isn't about using the various gifts God has given us wisely at all.
The servants in this story have made incredible profits (1000% and 500%) in a culture of "limited good" and in an economy that built wealth by exploiting the poor through debts, taxes, and seizing their property. Knowing the culture and history of the original audience, who would they see as the hero? It would be the servant who did nothing!
The idea made me sit back in surprise. Is that really the case? Is that how Jesus' original audience felt about the story? If we consider the story in this cultural light, different details jump out at us.
The servant gave his master back his money, which kept him legally protected, but he defied his master's greed through peaceful protest. He lived to tell the tale, unlike the delegation. As the people are nearing Jerusalem and dreaming of overthrowing the evil men in power, Jesus tells them a parable of a seemingly powerless slave who manages to resist evil. In this mood of revolution, is Jesus teaching about using honorable resistance instead of violence to defeat evil? Considering the culture and history, what do you think?
Can you see how knowing the culture and history of the Bible helps us interpret scripture as it was first understood?
It is this exploration of history and culture in the first-century world that I can't get enough of. I'm like a crazy Tolkien fan who studies the maps and learns elvish and reads all the historical background and debates the theories. Only for me, I am digging into something real! Cultural and historical scholars are anchoring the Bible in history and places that can be proven and examined. For me, studies on culture and history truly bring the Bible alive!
I have a whole series of posts that explore daily life for women in the first century—the time of Jesus. The aim is to understand the amazing women Jesus encounters in his life and in the early church, and hopefully to understand the culture behind some of the more challenging statements in the letters to the churches.
I carry my love of first-century history and culture into my novel, Dividing Sword, where I explore the gospel of Matthew through the eyes of a woman and a Pharisee. With fictional elements and characters interwoven in Matthew's gospel, I immerse twenty-first-century readers in the tinder-box that was ancient Isreal.
Have you ever learned a historical or cultural fact about the Bible-era that made you go “aha"? I'd love it if you'd share with me in the comments!