11 Principles for Studying Biblical Culture
My son, if you receive my words,
And treasure my commands within you,
So that you incline your ear to wisdom,
And apply your heart to understanding…
Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
And find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding
The study of cultural backgrounds is important because grasping the original audiences perspective helps us understand the setting to which the inspired authors communicated their message. Information may show contrasts as well as similarities between our own culture and that of the ancient world. Therefore there are some principles to consider when comparing Biblical text with ancient contexts:
- Both cultural similarities and cultural differences must be considered.
- Similarities may suggest a common cultural heritage rather than borrowing from a specific piece of literature.
- It is common to find similarities at the surface but differences at the conceptual level or vice versa.
- All elements of the text must be understood in their own context as accurately as possible before cross-cultural comparisons are made.
- Proximity in time, geography and spheres of cultural contact all increase the possibility of interaction leading to influence.
- A case for literary borrowing can rarely be made and requires identification of likely channels of transmission.
- Similar functions may be performed by different genres in different cultures.
- When literary or cultural elements are borrowed they may in turn be transformed into something quite different.
- A single culture will rarely be monolithic, either in a contemporary cross-section or in consideration of a passage of time.
- Specificity in marking dates for events in the ancient world is inherently debatable. There was no universal cultural reference point with which the ancients could mark time (such as our dates of BC and AD). Different cultures used different historical reference points when marking time, so that even when researchers find recorded dates in ancient cultural literature or on artifacts, these can rarely be cited as definitive. The differences in dates for specific events in the Old Testament notes reflect this reality as various contributors reflect their own assessments. The earlier the time period, the more tenuous the dating becomes.
- Cultural terms in the text of the notes (e.g., use of the term “Palestine” in the Old Testament, which refers to the larger region in which the Hebrew people lived), do not refer to current political realities unless the notes indicate such.