John J. Pilch is visiting professor in the Odyssey Program at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and author of A Cultural Handbook to the Bible.
In this post, he introduces us to a few of the biblical insights supplied by his deep study into the cultural anthropology of ancient Mediterranean societies.
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- Did you know that “salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13) refers to “salt of the earth-oven”? Salt helps the camel and donkey dung (common and plentiful fuel in the Middle East and many parts of the world) to burn in ovens made of earth/dirt/clay (Job 28:5; Ps 12:6).
- Did you know that the Hebrew word commonly translated as “virgin” in the Bible bears no reference to physical integrity or virginity as understood in the modern, Western world? It refers primarily to a stage of life, the onset of puberty and the stage of life after puberty.
- Did you know that there is no word in the Hebrew Bible for “marry” or “marriage?” The common reference is to “take” a woman as wife (Gen 19:14; etc.)
- Did you know that what English translations report as “rape” in the Bible (e.g., Gen 34:2) is literally “humbled” or “humiliated”?
- Did you know that there is no word in the Hebrew or Greek Bible that can be translated as “hell”? The Hebrew Bible refers to sheol (e.g., Job 14:13), while the Greek Bible refers to hades. The concept in general refers to the abode of the dead where there is neither fire nor suffering nor punishment. The New Testament reference to gehenna (Hebrew Ge-Hinnom), the garbage dump of ancient Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom which was always smoldering, hence the notion of fire and flames. Subsequent theological interpretations throughout the centuries added elements familiar to many but never mentioned in the Bible.
I could go on and on.
The use of the social sciences (e.g., cultural anthropology, Mediterranean anthropology, medical anthropology, etc.) to interpret the Bible can help those of us from Western cultures better appreciate how vastly different our understanding is from that of our ancestors in faith in Middle Eastern culture. Their understanding of “salt of the earth,” “virgin,” “rape,” “hell” and many other similar concepts in our ethnocentric biblical (mis)translations is rooted in their Middle Eastern culture — a culture which in many ways differs dramatically from modern Western culture. Daily contemporary reports of events in the Middle East in our newspapers and television make this painfully clear.
Free speech is valued in both biblical and Western cultures. The consequences, however, are different. In the West, specifically the United States, free speech permits and defends insulting and denigrating speech — even if it is deplored — with no serious consequences. In the Middle East, Jesus, the master of insult, routinely refers in Matthew’s gospel to Pharisees – his principal opponents — as “hypocrites,” (literally in Greek: “actors”; Matt 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51). His point is that Scripture may be the lines they recite, but it is not the script by which they live (Matt 23:1-3). Yet very early in Jesus’ ministry, “the Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). In the Middle East, insults are not necessarily “free speech.” They can be “fatal speech.” They certainly were for Jesus.
During my more than forty years as a biblical scholar, I have focused on understanding the Middle Eastern culture and values of my ancestors in faith as essential to a respectful reading of and appreciation for the documents they produced — even as they often clash with my own culture and values.
A Cultural Handbook to the Bible is my latest attempt to help build a bridge between my culture and that of my ancestors.