As in the previous post, “The Cultural Context of Genesis”, John Walton makes the excellent point that one cannot disregard the original culture a text as written in. This goes beyond just religious texts, but can also apply to any text. How can we truly appreciate classic works of literature, without first knowing where the author was coming from? The cultural matrix of the author is key to understanding subtle nuances in the story or understand why characters acted and felt as they did or why the plot is as it is. To truly get Shakespeare, we need to understand the Elizabethan era he referred to and the popular culture. To understand Dickens, we need to look at the Victorian era. Those stories were not written for us, or in our culture but in theirs. They were written by people in a different culture, for that culture and not our own. This is especially relevant however, when any text is taken as seriously as a religious text. People literally believe that the contents of those texts are the infallible “Word of God”. The ramifications of any cultural misinterpretation then become more paramount. Sure, the respective deity may have revealed he message, but it’s up to us mere mortals to interpret the message, and apparently, since said deity did not endow us with the same culture, words mean different things to different cultures, case and point the verb “to create” as mentioned in the last post. This can easily lead to some larger blunders! How we interpret passages that are translated out of the original language, for example.
Words may be untranslatable due to the concept not being in our culture, such as the German “Zeitgeist”, or the translator is faulty and gives a looser translation. A change of one word, one adjective, one noun, one verb, can change the entire tone of the passage. For example, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not murder” have slightly different interpretations. This can pose problems for those trying to follow that rule! Words matter when it comes to interpretation. Authors carefully choose the right words to get the precise message across to their readers. You can say the same thing on the surface using different synonyms, but many synonyms have different connotations. This is actually the reason that for a while, the Bible was not allowed to be translated, and the Torah and the Quran are not translated for the most part. Keeping the original language does preserve some of the original message. However, it’s still up to one’s cultural mindset to interpret what is said.
These misunderstandings, however, pose an even bigger threat than just theological blunders. They shake the foundations of the faith itself. Why? Because it poses some uneasy questions, such as “Why would an infallible deity leave possibilities for misinterpretation in the first place?” and “If the text was written for one particular culture, then how can it claim to be universal to all of humanity?” Secular study does have some highly plausible answers, but they don’t help the theologian’s cause too much!
One explanation is all about cultural context. In our Judaeo-Christian society, we think of a god as an omniscient, omnipotent being, who is all knowing and all powerful. However, many ancient societies believed deities to be fallible, capable of mistakes, and gullible to trickery. Many were much more human-like than the Judaeo-Christian god. It is possible that to those early peoples, God originally was not all powerful and maybe could not control what people thought. Also, there is evidence that God was not the only god at one point to the ancient Israelites. They were henotheistic, that is, worshiped God exclusively, but did not deny the existence of other gods too. Also, many pagan religions are not exclusive in the sense of a one and only truth. They can accept other deities into their pantheons too. This questions our own cultural interpretation of when we think of the word “religion”. We think of a religion to be absolute truths, and an exclusive interpretation, but other cultures may see religion as being more flexible and have room for interpretation. Our conflicts with threats to the exclusivity and universality of a religious doctrine may have not been an issue in the culture that created it. “Religion” to us and “religion” to them can be like the case of the meaning of the word “creation” to us and “creation” to them illustrated by John Walton’s book. Problems arise when things are taken out of their proper contexts.
(This short video sums up what needs to be done to interpret a text from a different culture. Note it is religious in the sense that it does not use the information to debunk the validity of the text, but it makes excellent points for all secular scholars and others in order to “take a step back” if you will, and be able to study the text analytically without contemporary bias.)
That being said however, when one digs deeper into studying the texts, one may start to realize that the Judaeo-Christian texts are not so far off from other near eastern mythology! Many parallels can be drawn with other near eastern literature and many themes in the texts come from there as well as common cultural motifs. One can also see through studying the history of the religion, how it evolved and changed over time. Context does change with time, and so can interpretations of official doctrine. All of this produces surmounting evidence that most likely, the religion itself was created by that culture! In a religion that must be interpreted through one culture and was written for that particular culture, most likely was specifically tailored to their needs since they created it! This obviously flies in the face of a universalist religion with absolute truths, revealed to humanity by the deity itself. The more one studies the cultural context of the Bible (or any other religious text for that matter), more likely they will unearth more questions than answer them!
This is a full lecture by John Walton on the importance of knowing the proper cultural context. It is extensive, but there are some good tidbits that highlight my points.