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Bible Backgrounds: When Is It Legit to Appeal to Them?

A few months ago, a friend expressed discomfort with appealing to culture, or “backgrounds,” to explain some difficult Bible passages. “Aren’t we just explaining away what we dislike?” he asked. “Can’t an appeal to culture become a way to change obvious meanings? Isn’t that what liberals do?”

He asked great questions. Important questions. Sometimes people do use knowledge of Bible backgrounds to explain away what they dislike in the text. But that doesn’t mean all such appeals come from having a low view of Scripture.

A few weeks after that conversation, I heard a Bible expert discourage appealing to Bible backgrounds to help with understanding texts because, “the text itself provides all the clues needed.” And often it does. But…  

How do we know when to use backgrounds? Having studied Bible backgrounds in much of Italy in addition to Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Israel, I started thinking about my friend’s questions long before he raised them. So, I have a few suggestions, but first a caveat:      

Know that appeals to culture are not unique to liberals. In the debate about women in ministry leadership, for example, appeals to culture are unique neither to radical feminists nor complementarians nor egalitarians nor traditionalists. Everyone appeals to culture to some degree. Here are some examples relating to how we interpret 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul’s words about “hair as a covering”:  

“Amongst Greeks only the hetaerae [high-class prostitutes], so numerous in Corinth, went about unveiled.” —G. G. Findlay, The Expositor’s Greek Testament (1900)

“There is the local and contemporary custom that had prostitutes and the likes shave their heads.”  —From a commentary written before 1923.

These women were “cropping their hair, after the manner of the notorious Corinthian prostitutes.” —J. B. Coffman

Male authority is the issue and those with shaved heads were prostitutes. —Charles Ryrie

 “…in a way that’s becoming in the context of the culture” —Darrell Bock

Cross-dressing is in view. —Thomas Schreiner

Veils are the issue. —Ancient Roman Catholic Church/the Amish

Hair practices and their meaning for both men and women are the issue. —Philip Payne

Women’s modesty + male authority are the issues.  —Other authors

All but one of these came from the conservative end of the spectrum. And do you see how everybody is appealing to cultural practices? And that’s not a bad thing. The only bad thing is that some of the above are outdated understandings. And updated background information helps us interpret more accurately.

About fifteen years ago, my family and I visited Pompeii, one of the towns “frozen in time” by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Excavation on the site is ongoing, and the same is true of nearby Herculaneum. And what we know now that we didn’t know a few decades ago is this: Looking at first-century brothel art in Pompeii that includes price lists with accompanying frescoes of the “options” reveals that prostitutes neither shaved their heads nor cropped their hair. In fact we know of no evidence that they did so anywhere at the time the New Testament was written.

As for the so-called notorious Corinthian prostitutes, scholars have re-visited the ancient reference to temple prostitutes in Corinth and concluded that if sex workers actually were present in large numbers in Corinth, they had long since disappeared by the time of Paul. As in, probably about 500 years before Paul.

So, here’s my point: everybody was trying to figure out what shaved heads meant when Paul described them, because we have no parallel practices in the West today. Those looking to cultural practices to explain the gaps in our knowledge came from all sides. And the most conservative Bible scholars were right in there making conjectures about culture. And rightfully so. Doing so is not unique to “liberals.”

Okay, having established that everybody appeals to Bible backgrounds to interpret some passages, here are my suggestions for when to look to “culture” or “backgrounds” for legitimate help with Bible interpretation:

1. Look to backgrounds when seeking to resolve a seeming contradiction. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “To the unmarried and widows I say that it is best for them to remain as I am [i.e., single] (1 Cor 7:8). But to his protégé in Ephesus, Paul wrote, “Don’t accept young widows on the list…I want younger women to marry…” (1 Tim. 5:11). Did you catch that? He wanted Corinthian widows to stay single, but he wanted widows in Asia Minor to marry. Now, I confess I’m relying on some presuppositions here: That Paul is a smart man not given to contradicting himself; he is not confused; he does not have an undeveloped view of gender; he is not a misogynist; and he was actually the one who wrote both texts. Assuming these things, it makes sense to think that cultural factors (e.g., Corinth is kind of like “Vegas” when it comes to sex, but Ephesus is more into asceticism) played a part in Paul’s advice.  

2. When authors write in the first person about practices, they often have local situations in view. Consider that Paul, writing to the Corinthians about marriage, wrote, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is …”(1 Cor 7:12). Paul is writing words we acknowledge as Scripture. But that differs from Paul writing imperatives that are for all contexts and all situations in all places. He is saying he is not quoting Jesus; instead, he’s giving an opinion he considers wise for the context he’s addressing. Also speaking in the first person, he writes to Timothy in Ephesus, “I am not allowing a gunh (which can be translated either as “woman” or “wife”) to teach or authentein (KVJ: usurp; NASB: exercise authority over) a man (or perhaps “husband”). Paul is all for women prophesying in the Corinthian church, but apparently he isn’t allowing women (or “wives”?) to do so in Timothy’s context.

3. When customs are in view, consider pulling in background info. In the same way we must avoid relying too much on background info from the past, we must avoid reading into the biblical text our own contexts. For example, in Paul’s world, a married daughter might remain under her father’s authority. But in the West today, once a woman is married, her father cannot legally dissolve her marriage against her will to make for himself a better alliance. Also, women didn’t usually just go find husbands. Typically, families arranged marriages. Consider how knowing the latter might affect translation:

Read as “fiancé marrying a virgin”: 1 Corinthians 7:36, NIV: “If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married.”

Read as “father arranging a marriage of a virgin daughter”: KJV – “But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry.”

4. Contexts in which the words “custom” or “practice” occur probably have a local custom or practice in view. Paul writes, ”If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice/custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16). The apostle has been talking about practices that relate to hair as coverings when praying and prophesying, along with men shamefully wearing hair “down from the head.” Paul mentions customs. And a study of backgrounds suggests that women did not veil their faces except on their wedding days. Also, while some kinds of long hair for men were great—think of Samson and Nazirite vows—another kind of hair men wore “down from the head,” was unnatural and shameful in Christian contexts. If you wonder what kind of hair might be shameful, look up the picture of “Dionysus” in the Wikipedia entry for his name. Warning: It’s R-rated.

I have more than these four suggestions. But they provide a start. And they all suggest we need to immerse ourselves in the text, but it also helps to immerse ourselves in the contexts in which the human authors of Scripture lived. To help with the latter, we can benefit from interactions with biblical scholars who live in contexts that differ from our own—especially in agrarian societies and cultures with arranged marriages, as these are closer in many ways to the world of the New Testament writers. We need each other’s help to engage in faithful interpretation.

We do need to avoid explaining away difficult passages by appealing to “culture.” But we must be equally conscious that our own contexts have an effect on our understanding of the Scriptures. Thus we study both the Word and the worlds of the original audiences to better interpret and apply what is timeless.

Photo by özgür öztürk on Unsplash

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

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