Cultural bias refers to “interpreting and judging phenomena by standards inherent to one’s own culture” (wikipedia). Whether we like it or not. Whether we realize it or not. We see the world through a lens that is colored by where, and with whom, we live. Cultural background is designed to help remove that lens when looking at the Scriptures.
My husband tells a story of meeting with a group of IT contractors who were not from the US and their being asked to put together a ballpark figure of what their services would cost based on the discussion. The lead contractor had never heard that term and showed complete bewilderment as to what that could mean.
It is a reminder that we use words or phrases daily that don’t mean what they literally say (i.e. cold feet, green thumb, backseat driver). And if those of us living in the same era have challenges in communication, we can expect it to be challenging to understand what was written to a specific audience in the past that lived in a culture that is not familiar to most of us.
According to Craig Keener, author of the IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament:
“Knowing ancient culture is critical to understanding the Bible, especially the passages most foreign to us. Our need to recognize the setting of the biblical writers does not deny that biblical passages are valid for all time; the point is that they are not valid for all circumstances. Different texts in the Bible address different situations. (For instance, some texts address how to be saved, some address Christ’s call to missions, some address his concern for the poor, and so on.) Before we can determine the sorts of circumstances to which those passages most directly apply, we need to understand what circumstances they originally addressed.”
Cultural background attempts to put you in the place or time where the text was written. To give you insight as to how the events and words would have been understood by those who were there.
In John 4, Jesus talks to the Samaritan women at the well. We understand this is unusual because it says that right in the text: Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. But with the help of the IVP Bible Background Commentary, our understanding of this can be expanded:
“That this Samaritan woman comes to the well alone rather than in the company of other women (and at the hottest hour of the day, when she would not run into them) probably indicates that the rest of the women of Sychar did not like her, in this case because of her marital history (cf. comment on 4:18). Although many Jewish teachers warned against talking much with women in general, they would have especially avoided Samaritan women, who, they declared, were unclean from birth. Other ancient accounts show that sometimes even asking water of a woman could be interpreted as flirting with her; this might be especially the case if she had come alone at an unusual time. Jesus breaks various conventions of his culture here. In addition, Isaac (through his agent, Ge 24:17), Jacob (Ge 29:10) and Moses (Ex 2:16-21) met their wives at wells; such precedent created the sort of potential ambiguity at this well that religious people wished to avoid.” – comment on John 4:7 (IVP Bible Background Commentary NT)
Compare this to what an expository commentary like Bible Knowledge Commentary has to say on this same verse:
“With His disciples in the city buying food, Jesus did a surprising thing: He spoke to a Samaritan woman, whom He had never met. She was of the region of Samaria, not the town of Samaria. The woman was shocked to hear a Jewish man ask for a drink from her. The normal prejudices of the day prohibited public conversation between men and women, between Jews and Samaritans, and especially between strangers. A Jewish Rabbi would rather go thirsty than violate these proprieties.”
Background commentary is not meant to replace expository or explanatory commentary. Rather, you’ll want to use it in conjunction with your other commentaries so you get the meaning of the Bible text in light of what the original reader would have known or understood. While most commentaries sprinkle background in where needed, a background commentary provides greater depth on culture and history while leaving interpretation and application to the traditional commentaries.
Having this type of background information in a commentary format is especially helpful because you have pertinent information available for the verse or passage as you are studying.
We offer two background commentaries for use with PocketBible:
- IVP Bible Background Commentaries – two volume bundle covering the Old and New Testaments
- Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (New Testament) – four volume set covering the New Testament. Hundreds of full-color photographs, color illustrations, and line drawings to accompany commentary.
Another good source of cultural and historical background for the Bible are Bible dictionaries. For more in-depth treatment of the type of information mentioned in background commentaries, consider the following specialized dictionaries:
- Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery – explains the meaning and significance of the imagery found in the biblical text.
- IVP Dictionary of New Testament Background – up-to-date, scholarly information on the cultural cradle of early Christianity.
Finally, another good source for Bible culture is the New Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible.