The Bible is God’s revelation in time, place, and culture. The Bible represents the cultural world and worldviews of its authors and their audiences. The cultural world of the Old Testament is that of ancient Israel within the broader context of the Ancient Near East. In the New Testament, it is the cultural world of ancient Judaism within the broader context of the Greco-Roman world.
Thus, the Bible does not represent a single culture, but multiple cultures. Culture evolves through time. As events transpire within the history of a people, the culture changes and adapts; thus, the cultural world of the Old Testament is not that of the New Testament.
Modern students of the Bible often struggle reading the Bible within its cultural contexts. We tend to import our culture into the Bible rather than understanding the Bible within its cultures.
Language represents one of the clearest communications of culture. Through language, people communicate their ideas, values, perceptions of reality and the world, hopes, and understanding. Language is culture. It is also the most sanative part of a culture to historical events and processes. The history of a people leaves its fingerprints within its language from period to period. Thus, when we read the Bible, even if we read it in our language, we must remember that words and the ideas they communicate likely did not mean the same thing to them as it did us.
Culture also pertains to things like marriage, birth and child rearing, inheritance practices, death and burial, tribal and family structure, economic life, village life, shepherding and farming, laws, justice, and judgement, weapons and warfare. People express their beliefs, values, and worldviews through culture. Whenever we read the Bible, we must be cognizant of the cultures it contains. Often the authors do not explain culture and its nuances to us because they could assume their primary audience understood them.
The two primary means we have to engage the cultural context of the Bible are ancient written sources contemporary with the Bible and archaeology. Ancient written sources provide windows into the cultural world of the Bible. They often explain cultural details or provide greater background than we find in the Bible. They offer a broader repository of language, vocabulary, and ideas, which help us understand the words of the Bible within their cultural context.
Archaeology offers a window into the material cultural of the people who lived in the world of the Bible. It uncovers the daily existence and tools people used during their lives within the world of the Bible. It can illuminate passages within the Bible and enables us to touch the world of the Bible in a way which can aide our ability to read and understand the Bible.
If we want to understand what the writers of the Bible meant, to better understand what the Bible means for us today, then we must study the cultural world of the Bible.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.