“The message of the Bible may be timeless, but the form of that message is not. In order to accomplish his self-revelation in history, God necessarily had to embed that revelation in the historical and cultural context of its original readers” (G. M. Burge, et al., NT in Antiquity 16-17). The challenge for Bible students is to distinguish between situation-specific information and the enduring principles God conveys through these writings.
As modern-day westerners, we approach the scriptures as foreigners engaged in a cross-cultural exchange. Ancient documents make only indirect reference to contemporary social conventions, naturally assuming that readers live in the same world and know what is meant. B. J. Malina reminds us that “meaning, then as well as now, ultimately resides in the social system shared by persons who regularly interact with each other. The problems bound up with understanding another group’s social system so as to interact meaningfully with members of that group are at the root of the problems that surround New Testament interpretation” (Social World of Jesus and the Gospels xi).
Bible students unconsciously bring to the interpretive enterprise any number of preconceptions shaped by their own experiences, historical backgrounds, traditional values, and personal agendas. It is not realistic to view a 1st-century middle-eastern or Greco-Roman composition through 21st-century westernized lenses with a reasonable expectation of apprehension. The social and cultural environment of New Testament authors and their targeted audiences is far removed from ours. To be unaware and uninformed and lax in our investigation is to almost guarantee that biblical texts are misconstrued. “The further one stands from the original situation of a document, the more discipline one needs to bridge the gaps” (K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 2). At the same time, we must avoid broad generalizations and not assume that understanding the social context of a biblical author is “a substitute for examining the direct evidence about that life itself” (B. Witherington III, Paul Quest 50).
Over the next few weeks posts will be focusing on various aspects of the New Testament’s sociocultural context to supplement our studies and teaching. We want to understand God’s revelation in its original setting so we can be in a better position to interpret it correctly and make application to our own environment.
--Kevin L. Moore
Related Posts: Part 2: Honor & Shame, Part 3: Patronage, Part 4: Individualism vs Collectivism, Part 5: Households & Slavery, Part 6: House Churches, Part 7: Hospitality, Part 8: Public Reading, Part 8: Kiss Greeting & Feet Washing