Books: A Cultural Handbook to the Bible

I first learned of John Pilch’s research into cultural aspects of the Bible when I was looking for resources to help me understand Luke 12:49. What did Jesus mean about wanting to “cast fire on the earth”? Is this the fire of divine wrath? Is it talking about the work of the Holy Spirit (associated with fire in verses such as Matthew 3:11 and Acts 2:3)? John J. Pilch explains that a better translation would be “light the earth-oven” , and that Jesus is referring to himself as a catalyst for conflict, much as salt acts as a catalyst in the earth-oven.

Pilch’s explanation gives a new meaning to Jesus’ teaching about his followers being the “salt of the earth,” which in the past I had always heard interpreted to refer to salt’s use either as a seasoning or a preservative. I was curious what insights on other passages I could gain from his work, and I decided his A Cultural Handbook to the Bible and decided it would be a good resource to have.

As Pilch points out in his preface, it is a reference work, not a book to read from beginning to end, and certainly not to read through at one sitting. Being curious to learn about every topic he discusses, I did read it from beginning to end, but only a few pages at a time usually, over the course of several months. It is fascinating, and contains so many insights that I can hardly do them justice in a blog post.

The book covers topics I would never have thought to even wonder about. That’s the thing about a culturally based understanding of things – we are each so much a part of our own cultures that it doesn’t even occur to us to think that our views are not shared by everyone, until we hear of those alternate perspectives.

Probably most of us are already aware of cultural differences in family and gender roles, and its hardly surprising to learn that there are different views about the spirit world, or different types of entertainment. But how many people realize that “Thank you” conveys a different meaning to Americans than it does to people in many other cultures? Or how easily can we entertain the idea that stereotypes could be seen as positive and useful?

Since I’ve long taken an interest in cross-cultural communication in general (as a teenager I planned on being a missionary/Bible translator, then while in college decided I wanted to teach Spanish), as well as reading books to help me understand the Bible better, I already knew some of the cultural differences Pilch brings up. He discusses them in more detail than most of what I had read previously, though.

Two areas that I think are particularly helpful in understanding Scripture are the idea of “honor-shame” cultures (as opposed to a “guilt culture”) and the collectivistic society (as opposed to the individualistic society). Neither of these ideas were new to me, but Pilch goes into them in considerably more depth. One thing that did surprise me is that Pilch refers to collectivistic vs individualistic personalities, not just cultures.

According to research cited by Pilch, “the collectivistic personality type is represented among 80 percent of the current population of this planet” (and he points out that the percentage was probably even higher in Bible times). I had always thought of it as a characteristic of a culture, passed on to everyone within the culture as are other cultural attitudes, so that exposure to individualistic societies would tend to reduce that tendency. (Naturally as part of an individualistic society I tend to think of it as the way people would prefer to act, given the freedom to do so.)

But if it is an aspect of one’s personality, collectivistic cultures are not imposing that value on people but rather expressing their true values and aspirations. (I have read recently that personality is more malleable than previously thought, but still, such changes are probably relatively minor for most people.) And we individualists are apparently in the minority by a very large margin.

I’m sure what to think of some of Pilch’s assertions, however. He discusses at length the idea of alternate states of consciousness, which he says are readily experienced by most of the world’s cultures, although our Western culture tends to view such experiences as abnormal. The dreams and visions recorded in the Bible certainly fall under the category of altered states of consciousness, but Pilch also classes the resurrection appearances and the story of Jesus walking on water as other experiences of altered states of consciousness.

The Scriptures passages describing these events do not seem to me to be describing altered states of consciousness. But is that just because of my cultural biases, or because of my training to understand the Bible literally and distrust “spiritualized” interpretations? Early in the book, Pilch points out that the Bible was written to people who shared its culture, therefore it lacks certain details that would be common knowledge to people of that culture but completely foreign to us. He points out facets of these particular experiences that fit the pattern of altered states of consciousness, so that they would be instantly recognizable as such to people of that culture although they do not appear that way to us.

One area where Pilch’s interpretation simply does not make sense to me is his assertion that the apostle Paul’s ministry was to Israelites living outside of Palestine, rather than to Gentiles. As for these non-Israelites, Pilch claims that “Paul did not think highly of them, nor was he much concerned about them.” As evidence he points to Romans 11:24, which he claims is an insult to the Gentiles, since “a wild branch grafted onto a cultivated tree would produce bitter and inedible fruit.” Yet from the text of Romans it seems clear to me that he is writing to these “wild branches” and he is quite concerned about them.

One concept I was not very familiar with but which I think helps a lot in understanding not only people and events in the Bible but also how people viewed God is that of the patron-client society. “A patron is essentially a person of means or a person with surplus who is able to satisfy needs that another person is unable to fulfill by personal effort or when it is needed.” The person who has so much has a social obligation to share with the less fortunate; the patron is not obligated to share equally with all who have need, however, but may choose those whom he wishes to help.

That goes against our Western sense of fairness, but it is fits with what we see in the Bible. God chooses some people but does not choose others. In a blog post like this I cannot do the subject justice, but this article provides a good introduction to the patron-client relationship.

Some parts of the book certainly give deeper insights than others. Sections such as the one on mirrors and glass, or the one on swamps and marshes, provide interesting background information but does not greatly enhance my understanding of Scriptures that reference such things. On the whole, however, I consider the book a valuable addition to my Bible study resources.

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