Cultural picture

The Cultural Hermeneutic in Biblical Studies

The study of ancient culture can be very enlightening and beneficial for students of the Bible. We can define the cultural hermeneutic as the use of ancient culture to help in our understanding and interpreting of Scripture. While the tool of culture is helpful and valuable, it can be used in a negative and destructive way.

Positive Use of Cultural Studies

A good example of a positive use of cultural studies to help in our understanding and interpretation of Scripture is illustrated in our study of Exodus 23:19, “You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother.” On the basis of this verse Jews have established strict dietary rules requiring the separation of milk and meat dishes. A kosher kitchen keeps a separate set of dishes and pots for each. According to this interpretation, cheeseburgers are forbidden by biblical law. However, a study of ancient culture reveals that boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was an ancient fertility ritual. In this light, we understand the text to forbid the ritual which was used to worship false gods. Our study of ancient culture helps us to understand the original intent of the law and realize that it has nothing to do with cheeseburgers!

Cultural studies help us to understand why God chose circumcision as the sign of the covenant rather than something else. Since Israel was entering into a land where the Canaanites used sexual rights to worship and serve their gods, Yahweh wanted the Israelites to know and remember that their bodies were set apart to Him and should not be used in sexual rituals honoring Baal, Asherah, and Anat. The study of culture does not lead us to abandon the sign simply because we do not live in a Canaanite culture. Rather it helps us to understand why this particular sign was chosen.

Negative Use of Cultural Studies

The tool of cultural backgrounds can also be used to undermine biblical teaching and truths that have a historical and theological basis. The cultural hermeneutic has led some scholars to do away with much of Israel’s history, arguing that the stories of Israel’s exodus, conquest and kingdom arose out of a need to justify the existence of Jewish people living in the Persian period (see T. L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives and The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel). This same cultural hermeneutic has led Robert Gundry to argue that many of the gospel stories about Jesus are “embellishments of tradition as fulfillments of the OT” (Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art). He argues that many of the gospel stories have no basis in fact or history but arose out of the Gospel writer’s cultural understanding and use of religious literature during the first century. Liberal scholars have long denied the virgin birth and deity of Christ on the basis that such “myths” of miraculous birth and deity incarnate were commonly used in ancient times to elevate individuals to particular prominence.

Cultural Studies in Biblical Interpretation

The dangers associated with the cultural hermeneutic have led some biblical scholars to conclude that it is destructive to biblical studies and should not be used in the interpretation of Scripture. It is argued that the Scripture should be studied and applied as text apart from cultural, geographical and historical background studies. I believe that such background studies have an important place in biblical research, but should be used with care and caution. Biblical backgrounds should be studied to help us understand Scripture, but not as a basis for dismissing biblical commands which have a historical and theological basis.

Take the “holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20) for example. It is helpful to know something about first century greetings when studying and teaching this text. A kiss was a common greeting in the ancient world as it still is in many cultures today. The fact that Paul calls it a “holy kiss” means that this greeting is different than a romantic kiss and is a distinctively Christian greeting. Rather than dismiss the “holy kiss” as culturally conditioned and irrelevant, it would be appropriate to teach its meaning and seek for a careful application. Some might conclude that the “holy kiss” should be given today as an expression of Christian agape and affection. Others might decide on another form of a distinctively Christian greeting that communicates the spirit of what Paul intended when commanding the holy kiss. In either case, the text is honored by careful study and sincere application.

Some biblical interpreters have dismissed certain biblical commands as cultural and therefore irrelevant for Christians today. This is frequently evidenced in the gender specific commands regarding worship and public ministry. Some will say, “That’s cultural and doesn’t apply to us today.” Quite often the very issues being considered are presented in Scripture on the basis of biblical theology, creation order and circumstances surrounding the fall–not culture! At this point, we are in danger of using the cultural hermeneutic in precisely the same way that many liberal scholars have used it to remove from their Bibles what many would regard as essential truths.

Embrace the study of biblical backgrounds and ancient culture. Read Ancient Israel by Roland de Vaux and John Beck’s Everyday Life in Bible Times. Dig into Sketches of Jewish Social Life by Edersheim and Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus by Jeremias. You will find great NT background material in Bruce’s New Testament History and Jones’ The Herods of Judaea. And if you are really serious about cultural backgrounds, read the original sources including Josephus’ Antiquities and Wars of the Jews, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, and the Mishnah.

Then with your enriched background you will be able to better understand and apply many of the Bible’s teachings. But remember that this tool which can so enliven our study of Scripture can also be used as scissors to cut away material thought to be no longer relevant.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).