Cultural Interpretation

Is Bible Interpretation to Be Culturally Based?

Some time ago I received a question about how we should deal with the Bible's teaching in light of the fact that our culture is so different from that of ancient times. It's not an easy one to answer. There are dangers in trying either to impose our own culture on Bible times, or in interpreting the commands of God as being merely culturally based.

I would not say the latter is never necessary, but it must be done with great caution. The danger is that we will do as the Pharisees did. The Lord Jesus accused them, saying, "You...transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition....You have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition [or could we say "by your culture"?]" (Matt. 15:3, 6). That we must avoid!

Properly interpreting Scripture certainly requires that we research the historical setting and cultural context of what happened. Then, as we move to a current application, we are able to identify the biblical principles behind what we find there. Sometimes, the principles will be applied differently today.

Some things we find in Scripture show clearly that they are not applicable now, because one or more of the following pertains to them.

1) They were canceled at a later time, or succeeding events have rendered them inoperative.

2) Only one Scripture passage supports them. Of course God only has to say something once. But most of His key commands are found in the Bible a number of times, or we have a record of people obeying them later on.

3) The reason behind the command is limited by culture or customs peculiar to ancient times.

4) The message or impression sent today by following the behaviour would not be the same as back then?

Now, a few examples.

1. Animal Sacrifices & Sabbath Keeping
There are many commands in the Old Testament to offer animal sacrifices. But the death of Christ fulfilled their symbolism and there is no need for animal sacrifices now. Similarly, because we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, most Christians do not keep the Jewish Sabbath today. And we are specifically told not to be judgmental of others who choose to keep any or all days in a special way (Rom. 14:4-5; Col. 2:16-17).

The Jewish Sabbath fell on the seventh day of the week. The Christian Lord's Day comes on the first day. The meaning and practical observance of the two days is quite different. However, the principle of setting aside a day to specially honour the Lord, and the need to balance work and rest in our lives, these things are as applicable today as ever.

2. A Holy Kiss
The Bible speaks several times about the need to greet one another with a holy kiss (e.g. Rom. 16:16). It was a traditional form of greeting in that day. But if we went around kissing everyone we met in most modern settings, it would send an entirely different message! However, the principle of showing welcome and friendship remains, even though we are more likely to express it with a handshake, a pat on the back, or an occasional hug.

3. Capital Punishment
Capital punishment is introduced in Genesis 9:6. God does not revoke the command later. And other Scriptures support it. In the Mosaic Law, capital punishment was commanded (e.g. Exod. 21:12). And see the reference to government's authority to wield "the sword" in Romans 13:1-4. Also, the reason given for it in Genesis is that man is made in the image of God–which is not a cultural thing. Therefore, we can safely conclude that capital punishment is for today as well.

4. Meat Offered to Idols
What about the meat offered to idols problem in First Corinthians 8? It seems to have been acceptable to some Christians to buy and eat it, but not to others. Understanding that ancient debate will point the way to a proper application of the principles involved.

Since the practice of ceremonially offering meat to idols, then taking it down to the marketplace to sell, is not followed in our North American culture, that would seem to limit any direct application. However, the principle Paul discusses in the context–that we should not force our Christian liberty on others, when it would violate their conscience to do as we do–that is not culturally limited.

5. Head Coverings for Women
An understanding of first century Greco-Roman culture helps with the head covering issue too. In that day, wearing a head covering in public was a sign of a woman's submission to her husband. Not to wear it was an indication of her insubordination or rebellion. (We know this was the thinking back then from various extra-biblical writings.)

In society today–and in the vast majority of our churches–the practice of wearing a scarf or hat on the head is not given that significance. In fact, when I was young, the hats women wore in church tended to be more of a fashion statement, and could become a matter of pride!

On the other hand, the biblical principle of a wife's submission to her husband has not been revoked. And there are a number of Scriptures that support it. Therefore, the principle remains, though the way women show their acceptance of it has changed.

That being said, if my wife and I were to attend a service in a church where head coverings for women were expected, I'm sure she would wear a scarf or shawl over her head. It would avoid offense, and doing so in that setting would certainly not violate any biblical principle of our own. Rather, it would be a demonstration of love and respect.

6. Long Hair on Men
As to long hair on a man, the Bible says, "Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a dishonour [a shame and a disgrace] to him?" (I Cor. 11:14). Nothing is said about a particular style of haircut being acceptable or unacceptable. How short men's hair is to be is not the point.

It would seem that the point in the context is that there are certain differences in the appearance of men and women, and those distinctions should be observed. That it is wrong for men to alter their appearance or purposely dress to look like women (and vice versa). For a man to intentionally look effeminate is offensive.

Some think "nature itself" has to do with the fact that the male hormone testosterone tends to speed up hair loss in men, while estrogen enables women to grow longer hair for a longer time. There are relatively few bald women, but many bald men.

So, again, there are gender differences, and God wants us to accept what we are and honour our own sex, not try to look like what we are not. In most cultures in Paul's day, and in our own, men trying to look like women (other than in a skit, or something like that) is generally frowned upon.

It is interesting that the exception to this was the Nazirite vow under the Mosaic Law, which required an Israelite man to allow his hair to grow as an outward sign of his vow of dedication (Num. 6:5). Possibly it was a purposeful humiliation, showing his willingness to do whatever God asked, even if it brought him ridicule.

7. Foot Washing
At the Passover supper Jesus ate with His disciples, John records that the Lord washed His disciples' feet (Jn. 13:2-15). Then He tells them, "I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (vs. 15).

Some take this to mean that Christians today should wash one another's feet. I certainly have no problem with those who teach and do that. However, this is a case where there was a definite need and cultural practice that does not usually pertain today.

In that time, most wore open sandals, and they walked over many dusty, unpaved paths and roads. There was a practical reason for the courtesy that developed. When you entered a home, water was provided for you to wash your feet--usually assisted in this by a slave. Today, we most often wear shoes or boots and, at least in urban areas, we walk on cement sidewalks.

Not only is there this difference, but there was a contextual problem Christ was addressing by His "example." The disciples were arguing over which of them was the greatest (Lk. 22:24). And the Lord demonstrated the kind of attitude they should have by taking the place of a slave and serving them. I believe that is the example we are to follow. To be ready and willing to engage in acts of humble service.

In Conclusion
One important key to all this is motivation. Are we, as the Pharisees were, seeking to evade and avoid obeying God's Word? Or are we sincerely trying to understand what He wants us to do, and do it? There will be times when we differ on the particulars. But let's each seek, humbly, to honour the Lord in all we do and say. If we disagree with others on some things, we can still recognize their sincerity in wanting to do God's will.

There are many good books that can help us with this whole area, providing further reading on the subject. In his book Basic Bible Interpretation, Roy B. Zuck suggests some guidelines for dealing with the important hermeneutical issue of how culture affects the interpretation and application of the Bible.