How to Study the Culture of the Bible | Bible Study Blueprint

How to Study the Culture of the Bible

Introduction

Welcome to our 5th post in our series entitled the 7 Rules of Bible Interpretation EVERY Christian Should Know.

In this post I want to introduce you to Technique #5 – Culture Shock.

Culture Shock – Teaches you to identify and explain the different cultural elements in a Bible passage in order to clarify or add meaning to that passage.

Let’s be honest.  The Bible’s strange and unusual customs represent a unique challenge to any student who wishes to understand its relevance for today’s world.  After all, what do we make of holy wars, animals with split-hooves, head coverings or the patriarchal structure of the Mediterranean world?

Technique #5 – Culture Shock, tackles this challenge and gives you a step-by-step process to help you understand the different cultural elements in any passage.

Steps for Studying the Bible’s Cultural Context

Step #1 – Identity all of the cultural elements in your passage that may require further study

Your first step in understanding the cultural elements is to identity them.  Allow me to use Mark 14:3 as an example of how this would work:

“While he [Jesus] was in Bethany…and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over his head.”

Here are some of the “cultural” elements we identified in this passage.

  • The city of Bethany
  • Reclining at the table
  • The breaking of the vial
  • The costly vial of pure nard

These represent geographic, economic or social elements that we could study further to give us greater insights into this passage.  Later on, I’ll give you a list of the different types of elements that you might identity.

Step #2 – Look up the relevant elements in a Bible dictionary

Once you have identified each cultural element, your next step is to look up the ones that are relevant in a Bible dictionary. If you want my recommendation on which one to buy, check out my Bible study tools page.

As you read each article for the different cultural elements jot down any details that are pertinent.  Each article will provide you with a wealth of information and insights into your passage.

Step #3 – Select the details from your notes that provide clarity, understanding or greater insight to your passage.

Once you have taken notes for each element, your next step is to review them carefully.  Highlight information and details that give you a greater understanding of the passage.

Which Elements Do You Study?

Now that you have a simple process for studying the cultural elements of the Bible, your next step is to identify which elements you will study.

We suggest looking up any of the following elements or factors in your passage:

Geographic elements

This includes the history and physical features of biblical cities, places, routes and regions.

  • Mark 14 speaks of the anointing at Bethany, an important city in Jesus’ ministry.
  • 1 Corinthians 6 speaks of the sexual immorality of the Corinthians, a wealthy city located along an important trade route.
Political elements

This includes any elements connected to the Roman empire in the New Testament or the Babylonian, Assyrian or Persian empires in the Old Testament.

  • Israel longed for a Messiah-king who would overthrow Roman oppression (A simple carpenter who dies was not in the vision).
  • In the Babylonian exile (2 Kings, Jeremiah), what was the process that Babylon used when it conquered other peoples? Hint: It wasn’t pretty.
Economic elements

Everything having to do with money, wealth, poverty, taxation, work and wages, etc.

  • Mark 14:5 speaks of a bottle of perfume costing 300 denarii or about 10 month’s worth of salary for a day laborer
  • In the Book of Ruth, what does it mean for Boaz to redeem Ruth, first in economic terms, then in theological terms?
Religious elements

Factors connected to Israel’s religious system (temple, worship, leaders, etc.) or the religions of other peoples and countries.

  • What exactly is circumcision and what did it accomplish among the Israelites?
  • Who were the other “gods” of the other nations (Baal, Marduk, etc.) and what kind of worship was offered to them?
  • Who were the Samaritans and why were they so hated by their Israelite counterparts?
Philosophical elements

Factors connected to the worldview and philosophy of particular groups in the Old or New Testaments.

  • The word logos was a Hebrew concept (the creative power of the Word of God) and also had a strong Greek component. John 1:1-4 reformulated this term to speak of Christ.
  • Paul fought with the Corinthians over the nature of the body. Your body is God’s temple and it will be resurrected.
  • The Epicureans did not believe that God intervened in the affairs of human beings. In his speech in Athens in Acts 17, Paul directly contradicted this belief by stating that God was not far from each person.
Social elements

Factors connected to the social life of biblical figures and events (weddings, funerals, births, domestic life, etc.)

  • In marriage, being engaged was as good as being married. Hence Joseph’s willingness not to shame Mary when she became pregnant during their engagement.
  • A man usually did not speak in public with a woman, much less a Samaritan woman as Jesus did in John 4.
  • The work of washing someone’s feet after coming indoors was relegated to slaves. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet in the upper room was thus an exercise in humility and served as an example of how the disciples were to serve one another.
Other cultural elements / artifacts

Any element that remains that would give insight into a text

  • The work of a fisherman or shepherd.
  • The construction of a house, its courtyard and roof.

An Example of Technique #5

It’s time to see this lesson in action.  We’ll use Mark 14:1-10 as an example.  Before proceeding, allow me to give you a brief background of the story.

Brief Context of the Story

The gist of Mark 14:1-10 is that Jesus is dining in Bethany when a woman enters and disrupts the scenery by pouring an entire bottle of perfume on Jesus’ head.

The result is a scandal of major proportions as those who are present indignantly condemn the woman’s actions as a huge waste of money (not to mention the fact that she stunk up the whole house with the smell of sweet perfume).

Jesus, however, comes to the woman’s defense and declares, “she has done this act to prepare my body for burial.”

Step #1 – Identify all the cultural elements in the passage that may require further study

In order for you to see this step in action, I’m going to reprint the full text of Mark 14:1-10.  I think it’s important that you see the process in full.  I am showing you exactly how I would approach a text like this.

For starters, I would like for you to take a moment to read the passage.  As you read, notice the words I have underlined.  These are the different cultural elements that I have already identified for you (Step #1 above).

Can you guess the type of element each one represents based on our earlier categories (geographic, economic, social, etc.):

1 Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.

The above underlined words represent each of the cultural elements to which we could apply Rule #5 – Culture Shock.  You would of course select the elements that are most relevant or you are most interested in studying.

For the sake of this post, I’ll highlight just one element, the bottle of pure nard.

The Small Bottle With a Big Role

Allow me to finish this lesson with looking at just one cultural element in the story, one that plays an incredibly important role in the story.

This is the bottle of pure nard, which the woman poured on Jesus’ head.

NOTE: All of the details from this lesson are derived from reading of a brief article in a Bible dictionary.

The Cost of Pure Nard

We know the perfume was very costly, 300 denaius in the KJV or “more than a year’s wages” for a day laborer.

I don’t know about you, but if I came home with a bottle of perfume for my wife that costs me nearly 10 months of minimum wages, I’d be in big trouble.

We’re talking in the thousands of dollars at today’s rates. This was no ordinary gift.

Rather, it was a gift fit for a king (like Jesus) and this woman poured the entire bottle on Jesus’ head.  Wow! If that isn’t extravagant worship, then I don’t know what is.

The Difficulty of Cultivating Nard

No doubt the cost of this little bottle was likely due to the difficulty of its cultivation. The plant from which the liquid was extracted only grew high up on the slopes of the Himalayas in India or Nepal.

Upon reaching Palestine, it would have been packed in alabaster jars (i.e. somewhat fragile) and would have formed part of a commercial expedition across 2,700 miles of road, through climates and environments that would have posed great risks to its merchants.

The Nature of Pure Nard

Furthermore, pure nard resembled more of a thick oil than a liquid perfume.

It was said that one drop behind the ear could still be smelled up to a week later. This woman poured the entire bottle on Jesus’ head!

Do you realize what this means?

It would have run down Jesus’ face (and beard?), down his neck, into his pores and it would have mixed with the oils of his own skin.  Given its concentration, it is my contention that the scent of pure nard would still have been there at the cross only a few days after this incident took place.

This would certainly add new depth to Ephesians 5:2 wherein “Christ gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God, as a fragrant aroma.”

What Does This Study Add to Our Text?

Our cultural and historical study of just one element in this passage has given us a richer and deeper understanding of this text.

Apart from the many wonderful details that can add color to any sermon or bible study, we also discovered that:

  • The thickness and concentration of the oil adds a potential detail to the portrait of the crucifixion and Christ as a fragrant offering.
  • This gift is extravagant in the extreme. It is over the top, but is more than adequate given the occasion and the meaning which Christ applies to the act. “She has prepared my body for burial.” It is also, as we know, a gift fit for a king.
  • In terms of application, the cost of the nard is also a symbolic portrait of the wonder, the splendor and the inestimable cost of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
  • The worship of Christ in this scene is extravagant in the extreme and reflects the type of worship that Christ deserves. Indeed, no gift is too great, even that of our very own lives.

Conclusion

As you can see in this post on Rule #5 – Culture Shock, studying the Bible’s cultural elements will add depth and richness to any passage.  You must simply identity the relevant elements to study and then look up each one in a Bible dictionary.

God bless your reading of his word!

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