Sometimes a little context is needed to discover the rich meaning behind the stories of Scripture. Reading the Bible could be compared to traveling in a foreign country. Having a faithful guide who reveals the surrounding culture offers a more complete understanding. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (website) provides expert insight into the customs, culture, and literature of Bible times to help readers see behind-the-scenes of the ancient world and discover new dimensions to even the most familiar Bible passages.
Even though people buy the Bible, research studies say they tend not to read it. Is that because of its ancient cultural perspective?
Craig Keener: The ancient cultural perspective is not the whole problem—we’re a less text-oriented culture now—but it’s a major problem. The Bible seems a foreign book to many readers because of the great cultural gaps between then and now. Even if we translate it into modern language, we still need to explain some of the culture and customs that throw modern readers off.
How can we know with certainty what the Bible’s ancient culture was like?
John Walton: We have over a million cuneiform texts, as well as uncounted reliefs, tomb paintings, and papyri that reveal the ancient world to us. They give us windows to that world. When the spaceship Voyager was launched, people put a lot of thinking into providing digital material that would convey the essence of life on earth to any intelligent species who encountered the spacecraft. These were intended to provide windows that would allow others to know what our culture and thinking were like. The ancient texts do the same for us, even though what we find is more based on chance rather than intentional preservation.
How do you respond to critics who say it’s wrong to include in the Bible such extra-biblical content as the explanation of Egyptian idol worship, Sumerian legal texts, Akkadian epic stories, Mesopotamian genealogies, Canaanite deities, and Roman antiquities?
John Walton: The Bible itself talks about some of these things and we need to know how to enter the conversation. We can understand what the Bible is saying best when we recognize its cultural context, and all of those things are part of the cultural context. This is not imposing anything on the Bible any more than going to the Hebrew or Greek imposes something on the text. If we don’t read in light of the ancient world, we’re likely to impose our modern thinking on the text just like a translation imposes English on a text. Reading instinctively can be unreliable.
Craig Keener: Biblical writers supplied such information when they knew their audiences were unfamiliar with it. Thus Mark explains a Jewish custom for his audience in Mark 7:3-4 that Matthew does not need to explain for his audience. The plagues were judgments against the gods of Egypt (Exod 12:12; Num 33:4), so we get more of a feel for what the Israelites felt if we know something about those gods.
How was Israelite culture shaped by its surrounding culture?
John Walton: We shouldn’t think of Israel being shaped by surrounding cultures; Israel is fully embedded in the ancient world, even though every once in a while God gave them information that distinguished them from those around them. They think like people from the ancient world in the same way that Americans intrinsically value human rights, individualism, freedom, empiricism, and capitalism. For Israelites, as for the rest of the ancient world, there were certain “givens”: community identity, the continual and pervasive activity of the gods, the reality of magic and the spirit world, etc. Israel did not have to learn these things—it’s simply what was natural for them.
How do you explain the intersection of God’s inspiration and human culture in the writing of the Bible?
Craig Keener: If God speaks in a cosmic wind, we won’t understand him. God graciously communicates to us in the languages we understand, concretely addressing real human circumstances. God spoke in the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; he spoke also about Canaanites, Philistines, and Romans. God was addressing relevant issues, and understanding the cultures addressed helps us understand how to reapply that message in relevant ways today.
What was the process in creating the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible?
Craig Keener: Our insights build on decades of research; indeed, I already had 100,000 index cards of data before I transitioned to electronic files about 20 years ago. I tended to exclude material that was less well-attested, less certain to be early, and less directly relevant to the text. Now I type my new data directly into electronic files, but the research and writing together have usually consumed about 40-60 hours a week for decades. I worked through most of the Loeb Classical Library (Greek and Roman literature), ancient Jewish literature, a number of archaeological reports, and so forth.
Give an example of a Bible passage that may be misinterpreted and misapplied by modern readers who aren’t taking its original context into perspective.
John Walton: One of the best Old Testament examples is the Tower of Babel, where we learn that people are not building it to go up to heaven, but are building it for God to come down to re-establish his presence as it was in Eden.
Craig Keener: Headcoverings (1 Cor 11:2-16) communicated sexual modesty, and holy kisses (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14) a sort of familial greeting. Not knowing that, we might think to make them mandatory today. Many 19th-century readers tried to use Paul to support slavery, despite the cultural and literary differences (Eph 6:5-9). Christians today have different views of gender, but almost no churches today require of women absolute silence (e.g., no singing in church), so it helps all of us to understand what Paul was addressing in 1 Cor 14:34-35. The symbols used in Revelation had definite ancient meanings, so turning them into helicopters or space aliens misses their point (however much it may continue their “scare” value!).
How does cultural understanding affect doctrinal positions? (For example, head covering, holy kisses, and church leadership?)
Craig Keener: In the particular examples you give, it might show that some of these are not doctrinal positions, but cultural ways of expressing something. We should still practice modesty today, but not all cultures require one do this by head coverings (in antiquity, normally covering all the hair). We should still greet our brothers and sisters as members of our family in Christ, but this need not be in the form of kisses (in antiquity, normally a light kiss on the lips). Early Christians borrowed particular leadership titles and models from the culture yet rejected others; that may show us more about the principles of Christian leadership than about particulars that must be followed in all churches (certain offices seem to have developed over time even in the New Testament).
John Walton: Cultural understanding helps us to recognize elements that are simply reflections of the culture surrounding the biblical authors. That does not automatically mean that those elements are no longer relevant, but it gives us more information on which to make decisions.
Between the abundant charts, maps, photographs, diagrams, articles, and book introductions, how should a person begin to read the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible to get the most out of it?
Craig Keener: It depends on what the reader needs. Some readers will want to study new material in detail, soaking in each note. Others will want to just read Bible passages and sections straight through, looking at the notes only when they wonder what’s going on. Because I wrote most of the New Testament notes, I plan to read the OT notes so I can better understand features that I don’t know yet. The life, of course, is in the Bible itself. The notes are meant to serve studying the Bible by helping readers understand it better.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Craig Keener: All the Bible is for all time, but not everything in the Bible is for all circumstances. Understanding the kinds of circumstances addressed—for example, the sort of culture where covering one’s hair reflects sexual modesty—helps us understand the transcultural principles the Bible conveys and how better to apply them.
Bio: Dr. John H. Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, where he’s been a professor since 2001. Dr. Walton came to Wheaton after a 20-year career as a professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He’s written extensively on the backgrounds of the Old Testament and has travelled the world lecturing about this field of study.
His publications include The Lost World of Adam and Eve (IVP, 2015); The Lost World of Scripture (IVP, 2013) with Brent Sandy; Job: NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2012); Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns, 2011); Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Old Testament (General Editor, Zondervan, 2009); The Lost World of Genesis One (IVP, 2009); Jonah: Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan: 2008); Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker, 2006); and Old Testament Today (Zondervan, 2004).
Dr. Craig S. Keener is the F.M. and Ada Thompson professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Seminary, Wilmore, KY. Before coming to Asbury in July 2011, Dr. Keener was professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, where he taught for 15 years; before that time he was professor at Hood Theological Seminary. Craig is a sought-after speaker, writer, and lecturer on the subject of New Testament cultural backgrounds.
Craig has authored 20 books, four of which have won Christianity Today Book Awards. His IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (IVP, 1993), now in its 2nd revised edition (2014), has sold more than half a million copies (including editions in several languages, including more than 50,000 copies in Korean). His recent books include Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker Academic, 2012–2015); Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011); The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2009); The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 2009); Romans: New Covenant Commentary Series (Cascade, 2009); 1 & 2 Corinthians (Cambridge, 2005); The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Hendrickson/Baker Academic, 2003).
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