The Cultural Component of Bible Study

As Christians, we understand the importance of Bible reading and study. But inevitably, there will always be something that trips us up primarily because we don’t understand the context of what is being said or happening in a story. We’ve all been there; we grab a commentary, look up a word, or search the internet for an answer to whatever our question happens to be. If you take a moment to think about the types of questions you tend to have about the Bible, is it fair to say that most of them have to do with culture and customs, or could be answered if you had a better understanding of the culture and customs of the Bible?

The Bible is a Jewish book written from a Jewish (Hebraic mindset). When we approach the Bible with an “American” or a Western worldview, we are removing the Bible from its cultural context and understanding from the mindset of its author, God. When God called Abraham away from his family to go to a place he would be shown, God began the process of forming a nation for Himself. The Old Testament and even the New Testament is the story of the people of God. When we understand the Jewish context of both Testaments, we will better understand the Bible.

Even the New Testament Epistles primarily written to gentiles are written from a Hebraic way of thinking. When we think of the debates that Jesus had with Pharisees, we tend to see them as the bad guys and Jesus as the good guy. The reality is, Jesus is seen as a Pharisee by Jewish scholars. The Pharisees asking Jesus questions and inviting Him to participate in debate was a sign they recognized Him as a teacher of the law. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who recognized Jesus for who He was. The disciples were Jewish men who followed Jesus as their Rabbi.

The debates between Jesus and certain Pharisees were expected, not scandalous. There were two primary schools of thought in Jesus’s day: Rabbi Hillel (which Jesus primarily aligned with) and Rabbi Shammai. When we consider the New Testament, we can view it this way; the Apostles followed their Rabbi Jesus, whose teachings clarified the Torah1. Understanding the cultural background of the Bible and acknowledging the Jewish roots of the Christian faith is not a denial of Jesus but an embrace of who He is. When we understand His crucifixion in light of Passover, it has a deeper meaning.

Christians have missed so much by not understanding the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees and the fact He was not challenging Scripture but traditions outside the written Word. Think about it this way; Baptists and Presbyterians will debate baptism, but we recognize they both love Jesus. So likewise, we need to approach the New Testament understanding that the Jews love God, many accepted the claims of Jesus, and some Jewish leaders were appointed by the Roman Government and not serving the interest of the people. Digging into the cultural background of the Bible and understanding the Jewish roots of our faith will bring a new dimension to your Bible reading and study and deepen your relationship with God.

In Luke 24:27, Scripture says that Jesus expounded on the Scriptures concerning Himself. Talk about expository preaching! Can you imagine hearing Jesus go from Genesis to Malachi saying that is Me, this is about Me, I fulfilled this? The entire Bible points to Jesus. Yes, he fulfills the sacrificial system, and the same grace that saves us empowers us to keep the moral commands of God given in all of Scripture. If you’ve ever had the feeling that Easter seems empty, could it be, celebrating Passover would give you a deeper connection to the death and resurrection of Jesus? There is so much in the old testament to encourage us and help us in our walk with God. How often have you said you were tired, overworked, and just need to rest. God gave us a day each week to rest and remember Jesus dealt with the legalistic observance that stole rest from the sabbath. There is a joy to be found in understanding the Jewish roots of the faith, don’t let legalism or misinterpretation steal the truth and joy from the Scripture.

In wrapping up this post, I must acknowledge that some will say this is Judaizing and that by talking about Jewish roots, I deny salvation by grace. That belief in and of itself shows a misunderstanding of Galatians. Acknowledging the Jewish roots of the faith and even celebrating Passover in light of Jesus’s sacrifice does nothing to negate the grace of God. The Galatian controversy was about those who said circumcision is necessary for salvation. I believe we are saved by grace alone in Christ alone; understanding the Jewish roots, teaching holiness, or any number of other things does not automatically equal trying to maintain salvation by works. Paul wrote, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.2” Works, in general, do not negate grace; James makes this clear3.

Jesus is Jewish, the disciples are Jewish, and they wrote and taught with a Hebraic mindset, not a Greek or Roman one. The simple fact is, if we want to understand the Bible better, we need to take off American lenses and even, to some extent, certain Christian understandings that undermine the Jewishness of the New Testament. When we understand the Jewish culture of Jesus, we will know Jesus better.

  1. Matthew 5:17-20
  2. Ephesians 2:10
  3. James 2:14-26

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