A. What is culture?

  • The word “culture” is a somewhat fluid term that is difficult to define precisely.
    • Specifically, it includes the elements that make up everyday life: food, clothing, housing, customs, habits, creative activities (art, music, literature), products, institutions, education, tools, etiquette - and anything else that is part of daily living.
  • We speak about these areas separately, but culture is the totality that arises out of the individual elements.
    • The cultural setting reveals how people lived, the values they stressed, and why they did or did not prosper.
    • We study the culture to discover why people thought and acted the way that they did.

1. Environmental Factors

  • When we enter the world of the Bible, we encounter a culture that is not familiar to us, particularly if we come from a western country.
  • In Mark 2:1-12, we read of four men who carried a paralysed man on a bed to where Jesus was.
    • When they could not come near to Jesus because of the crowd, the Bible tells us that “they uncovered the roof where He was” and “when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying.”
    • Homes in colder countries with pointed roofs so that the snow will not pile up on the roof would not be accessible to these men, although undoubtedly men of such persistence would find another way.
    • Still we might wonder how these men accomplished their task even with a flat-roofed house.
    • Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah discusses Palestinian homes (pp.501, 502). He suggests that Jesus was standing in the covered gallery that would run around the courtyard of the house of a middle class family and would open into various apartments.
    • The men may have ascended to the roof by stairs, or they may have passed from roof to roof of the adjoining houses.
    • The roof of the house itself would be very hard to break through, but the roof of the covered gallery would be relatively easy to “unroof.” -Edersheim’s information gives us insight into this amazing event.
  • Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper,” shows Jesus and the disciples sitting upright along the table, an effective artistic arrangement, but not very realistic.
    • In the time of Jesus, the Jews usually ate in a reclining position.
    • The table was most likely u-shaped.
    • This explains how John could lean back on Jesus’ breast and ask him who it was that was going to betray Him (John 13:25).
    • It also explains how the woman could wash Jesus’ feet with her tears while he was at the meal.

2. Socio-Religious Situation

  • When we read about the birth of Jesus Christ in Luke 2, we are aware that Jesus was born into a Jewish culture that had its foundation in the laws given to Moses and the Israelites in the Pentateuch (the first 5 Books of the Bible).
    • Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21; Lev.12:3).
    • When the days of Mary’s purification were completed, they brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22-24; Lev. 12:4-8).
    • Mary and Joseph were careful to perform everything according to the Law of the Lord (Luke 2:39).
  • The Scribes and Pharisees tried to keep standards of ritual cleanliness only required for the priets in the temple
    • For this reason they regarded people who worked with animals as unclean
    • In our culture, we have a romantic view of shepherds, but they regarded them as disgusting
    • This gives us a new insights into why God announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds
    • It shows the increased stigma of Jesus being born in an animal house

3. Economic Factors

  • Employment
    • Most people worked in “family businesses”, e.g. fishing or farming
    • Farming was extremely hard work and they would usually have to work 7 days a week in the summer months
      • so to take a Sabbath day of rest required real faith in God the provider
    • There was very little to stop wealthy men exploiting the poor
    • There was absolutely no welfare system, so if you were too sick to work then you starved
      • except of course for the extended family, which might be able to help
  • Retirement
    • The more children you had, the more care and honour you would receive in your old age
    • Generally the old were given respect by their children
    • But you would never actually stop working
    • This sheds light on the man who wanted to follow Jesus, but first “bury his father”
      • not literally—it means fulfill his obligation as a son and look after him till he died
  • Women and children
    • We would be shocked and horrified by societies valuation of women and children
    • The Pharisees would sometimes see them as almost worthless
    • Jesus and Christians were radically counter-cultural in their attitudes to women
    • e.g. Jesus and the woman of Sameria broke several taboos at once.

B. Purpose for Studying Cultural Elements

  • Sometimes a piece of information can significantly help us to understand a passage
  • e.g. Mat 22:18-22
    1. But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?
    2. Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
    3. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
    4. They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
    5. When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
  • We can better understand the second half of v.21 if we know that the inscription would have suggested that Caesar was a god.

Credit: Much of this page makes use of material from Sheila Evans

Updated 2009-10-09 (build:9) by Andrew Fountain