Hey friends! This is the third of three posts about understanding the Bible in the proper context. You can go back and look at historical context or literary context if you missed them. Cultural context, which is sometimes categorized in historical context is our topic in this post.
Cultural context or some times known as social context, includes topics like; social traditions, economics, political systems, and other customs that were common during the time the book was written. Darrell Bock describes it as two-fold, “By studying the cultural context we are trying to find out what life was like for the ancient people who wrote the Bible and who were written about in the Bible.1”
Under social traditions you might find different topics like Jewish weddings, arranged marriages, local customs and celebrations, or how knowledge was passed on from generation to generation. One example of this is in John 2, when Jesus is at the wedding in Cana and Mary, Jesus mother is there. In the first couple of verses we learn that the wine for the wedding is gone and Mary comes to Jesus to ask Him to intervene. Jesus responds with “Woman, why do you involve me?” This response might seem crass and insensitive to us in modern times by not calling her by her name or even by “mother” but in the first century calling a lady “woman” was a common informal address. Some translations like the NIV 1984 and NLT attempt to soften the language barrier by adding the word “dear” making it more palatable to our contemporary ears. The 2011 NIV translation took it back out. See the Translation comparison below.
Under economics you can understand money and the standard currencies of the ancient world. When you read about denarii, shekels, or talents the cultural context asks what does that relate to in our modern economic standards combined with their weights? Coins made in the Roman empire were often stamped with the image of the emperor’s likeness and can be used to date archeological finds because of their unique images. Likewise weights and measures are equally important. Knowing the approximate values of a mina or a shekel versus a talent in gold and silver. The cubit is probably the most well known length that measured from the tip of the finger to the elbow or about 18 inches. There is also the span, hand breadth, finger breadth as well as other descriptive distances like “a day’s journey” (about 21 miles) and a “roman mile” which is about nine tenths of a English mile today.
Click here for a link to a conversion table that you can use.
A few other cultural examples to point out would be the traditional greeting of a kiss in the Bible. Some people will try to make something out of 1 Samuel 20:41 between David and Jonathan saying that they were gay. “After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most.” This was nothing more than a common greeting between close friends.
Finally, the length of men and women’s hair in the Bible will sometimes get brought up by contemporary readers. Some will balk, “The Bible says women shouldn’t have short hair” or that “men shouldn’t have long hair” Some preachers throughout history like Jonathan Edwards have preached this, but is that really what the Bible says? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 11:11-15.
“In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.”
Paul does not actually say anything about women having short hair, he just mentions that her long hair is given for her glory. It adds to her beauty and at the same time Paul warns women not to lose sight of their modesty in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and Peter similarly in 1 Peter 3:3. These issues have to deal more with cultural norms than a prescription for believers today. One common way that prostitutes would identify themselves to Roman soldiers who traveled through the towns was to cut their hair short or leave their hair uncovered. Perhaps Paul wanted women to avoid any appearance of this behavior by complementing the beauty of long hair.
The cultural context is rich with so many things to learn about the culture in the Bible. If you are studying a passage and want to make sure you understand it best I would advise you not to skip the cultural context and jump straight to the meaning of a passage. Often commentaries will give a considerable amount of pages at the outset of the commentary that is dedicated to the author, date, purpose of the book, and the context in which it is written. Take some time and read a bit about the cultural context and it will easily enrich your teachings, sermons, or simply the enjoyment of the text as well as answer many questions you might have about a passage.
1. Logos Pro Team, LT271 Study the Bible with Logos: Jonah 1, Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).