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The Significance of the Cultural Distance between Biblical Times and the Present

Info: 9380 words (38 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Cultural StudiesReligion

The Significance of the Cultural Distance between Biblical Times and the Present


Abstract: A claim exists that the cultural distance between biblical times and the present makes words and values in the Bible mean something different between the two epochs. This is a view promoted by the social scientific school of biblical interpretation. An example is that “hospitality” is taken to have a dissimilar sense in first-century Palestine from its meaning in present day USA. This paper explores these contentions by representatives of the school, Pilch and Malina (PM), and Malina, for a number of words and values they specify. The words are hospitality, being and doing, efficient, compassion, and limited good. Also explored is the assertion that people in the two societies have different views of human nature.




Given the cultural distance between the world of first-century Palestine and the present day, the view exists that words in the Bible with normative intent apply mainly to the world of Jesus’ time than today. The critics argue that this is because the “communications” and “meanings” of biblical texts “are not readily intelligible to modern readers today.”[1] In this belief, the meaning of terms in first-century Palestine is sufficiently dissimilar from their sense in advanced societies today as to erect a barrier between understandings of the same word or text then and now. Members of the social scientific school of biblical interpretation hold this view, like Pilch and Malina (PM), and Malina, whose work is used here to illustrate the thesis. The meanings of selected words they specify are assessed, comparing their first-century Palestinian interpretations, and their contemporary interpretations in the United States, also as presented by the authors above. The objective of this paper is to explore whether interpretations of human behavior, given in biblical texts, do actually present problems for relating readings of the Bible to the contemporary world.

The words or values examined here, from PM, and Malina, include hospitality, being and doing, efficient, compassion, and limited good. As illustration, limited good is examined in greater detail from Malina. Also explored is the contention that people in the two societies had and have different beliefs about human nature, attitudes to nature, and views concerning wealth accumulation. From comparing how these words/terms then and now are and were understood (at least as PM, and Malina see them), the conclusion here is that their meanings and practice are not greatly dissimilar between the two epochs. While shades of dissimilarity do exist, they are not sufficiently significant to alter the import of Jesus’ teachings between then and now. The case for a discontinuity in meaning from the cultural gulf is not sustained. This judgment does not overlook the cultural, social and economic differences between the society of Jesus’ time, and the present. What it does claim, however, is that the biblical writers, Jesus, and people then and today understand words or values in the Bible to yield similar meaning.


There is no doubt that “every culture colors the way its members perceive and interpret reality. Though reality is always the same, cultural interpretations of it differ.”[2] Only reality outside human response remains the same that is a precept applying to the present day, as to different epochs. Dissimilar cultures in the modern world see the same aspect of reality differently, and attach distinct significance to it. Whether interpretations of reality between divergent cultures differ so widely today that understandings of one culture cannot be rendered accessible to another is a moot point. How this problem arises in interpreting biblical texts, and whether it gets in the way of making them comprehensible to the modern world is the subject here.


Interpreting Words in Biblical Times and the Present



To PM, behaviors embodying some attributes may have a different significance in biblical times from the present. The problem is that “what is considered important in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean culture may be considered quite unimportant in the prevailing culture of the United States.” PM suggest this is because the cultures have a different “understanding” of the same word.[3] One example PM give is the word, “hospitality.”[4] Are behaviors demonstrating hospitality so different between the two epochs, that its content conveys a different understanding from one to the other?

In the United States, PM suggest that “hospitality is reserved almost exclusively for friends.”[5] This does not seem to be an accurate depiction of US reality. Hospitality nowadays can be extended to relatives little known to the host, perhaps even to those she does not wish to offer hospitality. Travellers may experience hospitality, including billeting guests, entertaining clients, conference delegates, or other official visitors. Modern synonyms for hospitality include welcoming, friendliness, warmth, kindness, generosity, cordiality, geniality, sociability, conviviality, liberality, neighbourliness, helpfulness, congeniality, and openness. Consistently with these qualities, The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines hospitality as “giving, disposed to give, welcome and entertainment to strangers or guests.” Likewise, The Macquarie Dictionary repeats this understanding, adding “a generous welcome… favourably receptive”.[6] Understood in these terms, hospitality can reach far beyond friends, extending to those we meet in the course of our daily activities, including strangers. It is true, as PM point out, that nowadays “strangers” may be directed to “motels or hotels, and those in need are sent to social service agencies,”[7] but this does not preclude them receiving hospitality in these places, as understood above.

In contradistinction to the present US, “in the world of the Bible, hospitality is never about entertaining family and friends.”[8] PM interpret hospitality in Biblical times from biblical texts. One is Mt 10:14-23, where Jesus instructs his disciples for their mission to find a house in which worthy people live, “and stay there until you leave” (v. 11). In all probability, these worthy people might have become friends of the disciples. Mission in the contemporary world can occur on the same basis. Where a preacher, Christian singer or choir goes on tour, they may well stay at the homes of “worthy” people, moving from one to another. Hospitality is provided. In all probability, Jesus moved around sometimes on this basis, staying at the homes of supporters, who could be classified as “friends.” Mt. 8:14 has Jesus entering Peter’s home; in 9:10, Jesus sits at dinner with some people he probably knew as friends, including Matthew; in 13:1, Jesus went out of the house, probably his parents; in 26:6, Jesus was in the house of Simon the leper, presumably a friend. This pattern is repeated in the other gospels. The distinction between strangers and friends in Jesus’ activities becomes blurred as more and more strangers committed themselves to him. Perhaps a proportion of those whom Jesus healed, starting as strangers, became his friends.

Since family and friends are ruled out as recipients of hospitality in first-century Palestine, PM’s discussion of hospitality is all about its provision to strangers. They note that strangers must be vetted in a community, so that “the stranger takes on the role of guest.”[9] Their emphasis is on what the host, and stranger/guest must do. The latter must “refrain from insulting the host,” from usurping the role of the host, from giving orders to dependents of the host, from refusing what is offered. PM then list what the host should do.[10] All these dos and don’ts can just as well apply to hospitality today; for example, the host must refrain from insulting her guests.

Biblical and contemporary understandings of hospitality show distinct similarities. Just looking at meals/accommodation behavior suggests that hospitality in biblical times was extended to friends individually and in community, as it is today. Indeed, the whole mission of the church post-resurrection depended on hospitality between believing communities. However, hospitality has less formal attributes. In both eras, it involves encouraging qualities in interpersonal relations characterized by the synonyms given above for hospitality. These are demonstrated clearly in Jesus’ behavior. He practiced the required attributes, including host/guest relationships. Jesus’ healings of people unknown to him (humanly speaking) were predicated on, among other qualities, his kindness, helpfulness, welcoming, friendliness, warmth, generosity, and openness to the needs of others. Just looking at host/stranger relationships in an institutionalized setting, such as meal/accommodation behavior, overlooks these less formal and more common attributes of hospitality, such as Jesus practiced. Jesus is the host who invited strangers to come to him and be healed, spiritually and physically, then and now. No greater demonstration of hospitality to his friends and to strangers could be envisaged.


Being and Doing


As a second example, consider how Pilch and Malina discuss the issue of being.[11] Luke is taken to interpret reality dualistically, that “all of Jesus’ preaching serves to bring to light the being of people, where they stand and on which side of the line they are.” Yet Jesus’ preaching establishes being as a prerequisite for doing. Much of his teaching called people to behave differently from before their conversion, say to give more alms than they were to the poor. As Jn 14:21 puts it, those who love Jesus — in their being — will obey his commandments that call people to change their behavior — in their doing.

To infer that Jesus’ teachings do not make this same call to people today is unwarranted. People are still called by Jesus to make a commitment to him who will show people how to behave, that is, how to engage in doing. This required behavior involves the necessity of regular prayer, Bible reading, and church participation. Those who make no commitment to Jesus run the high risk of being influenced by personal and social sin, that can be encapsulated by the word, Satan. Even if Americans today are more oriented to doing than being — as though doing can be dissociated from being — does not mean that Jesus intended his words to fall on their deaf ears. Americans have certain states of being that govern their doing. Jesus calls on peoples’ state of being to change thereby altering their behavior — their doing. To posit being and doing as polar extremities, as Pilch and Malina do,[12] does not accord with how humans go about making decisions, or with how Jesus expects them to change.




A third example concerns the word, efficient. To suggest that “most Americans pride themselves on being efficient”[13] has no clear meaning. “Efficient” is not a natural kind, but a socially constructed one, and is not susceptible to definition separate from the value judgments required to construct its meaning. As PM show, efficiency can be constituted by a range of behaviors      that may differ between individuals. PM give some flesh to their case by asserting that Americans carry out “tasks with a maximum of practical sense and a minimum of wasted effort.” People in first-century Palestine might have done the same. They are no more likely than Americans to have dug “up a garden with a spoon.”[14]

An additional problem is that no evidence exists in PM that most Americans do pride themselves on being efficient, however defined. Americans are supposed to “constantly evaluate what they perceive in terms of its efficiency quality,” but this does not clarify the meaning of efficiency. That nearly 40% of Americans regularly attend religious services does not necessarily indicate that they evaluate their attendance in terms of “instrumental mastery,” as PM put it. They may attend for a range of reasons, from their awareness of a spiritual dimension to life, from their need to draw closer to God, to sustaining friendships. None of these need have anything to do with efficiency. Only in a very attenuated way do they reflect Americans as wanting “to control persons and things so as to maximize… [their] individual wellbeing.”[15] Probably, everyone wants to maximize their “individual wellbeing,” first-century Palestinians and Americans. But it can be done in ways other than controlling “persons and things.” It could be pursued by seeking to work cooperatively with God and other people.

PM draw unlikely contrasts between the two societies, because assumptions underlying their judgments are unlikely to describe the real situation. For example, “the Mediterranean native” is held to value “interpersonal relationships and cares little about how much time is spent on this aspect of life.” This is implausible. The native could not sit around all day chatting with his kin and friends, not worrying about how much time he spent with them. If he did, he would soon starve, by leaving his farm work unattended. Like the hypothetical American, he probably budgeted time to fraternize, with farm tasks taking “a predetermined period” “to accomplish goals.”[16]




Consider the next example of the value of compassion. PM claim that “in the Mediterranean world, compassion is an example of a peripheral value because it is expected only in situations guided and governed by kinship considerations.”[17] Leaving aside the definition of kinship, an alternative view is that the Bible specifies compassion as a core value. Zechariah 7:9-10 is cited by PM to substantiate their classification of compassion as “peripheral.” Here, God says to Zechariah “show kindness and mercy to another,” specifying how this should be done. The specific requirements date as far back as the Mosaic Law, were reiterated by many of the prophets other than Zechariah, and are promulgated by Jesus, all embodying the details that God states to Zechariah. If this theme has so much importance throughout so many books of the Bible, it cannot be “peripheral.”

PM might think that because God “and not a human being is the most common subject of the verb ‘to show compassion’,” it does not apply one person to another. This is to ignore that this is how God wants people to behave, evident in the claim above. PM make the same category mistake when they claim that “in the Hebrew Bible compassion is most commonly ascribed to or desired from conquerors or other powerful figures.”[18] As the discussion above held, the need for compassion is a common dominant trajectory running throughout the whole Bible.

Jesus reinforces this orientation. His compassion is extended to all people, including the sick. Jesus directs people to behave in this same way to all, not just to those having kinship relations with each other. Jesus offers people salvation in exchange for their accepting his words. This is the supreme example of Jesus treating people with compassion, showing that it becomes a core value not a peripheral one. Take the evidence for this just from the first nine chapters of Matthew. In 4:24, Jesus cured all manner of ill people. In the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:27), he offered people compassion and hope, such as the poor in spirit who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.He translated the Lex Talionis doctrine into one of compassionate and loving response to others (5:43). In 7:7, Jesus offered compassionate hope to those who seek him. In 8:1-3, the leper is healed, as is the centurion’s servant in 8: 5-13, and Peter’s mother-in-law in 8:14-17. In 8:28, Jesus heals the demoniacs, the paralyzed man in 9:2-8, and the synagogue leader’s daughter in 9:18-26. Blind men receive their sight in 9:27-31, the mute demoniac is cured in 9: 32-34. In 9:35-38, Jesus was “curing every disease and every sickness,” and he had “compassion” on the crowds. There is nothing “peripheral” to all these actions. They are central to Jesus’ mission. So much so, that PM are forced to admit that “for Christians, compassion is rooted in love and modelled in Christ.”[19] It is to be extended to all people who collectively are representative fictive kin.

Jesus’ demand for compassion from one person to another extended far beyond almsgiving, that he demanded nevertheless. To suggest that “culturally, compassion is related to almsgiving or altruism”[20] unnecessarily restricts the gambit of compassion that can be extended one to another without almsgiving. For example, the Golden Rule of Mt 7:12 can only work if people treat others with compassion.

The Parables of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the Debtors show Jesus’ concern for people to treat each other compassionately. To suggest, as PM do, that all these instances are based on kinship considerations, is to render the term “kinship” so wide as to encompass fictive kin, which is how modern cultural anthropologists interpret it anyway. But in so doing, PM’s case is flawed. They do not seem able to distinguish between the actual behavior of people Jesus described, and the required behavior to which Jesus points. The Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) does describe kinship compassion, but it is arguable that its implications extend far beyond this. In the Good Samaritan (Lk 10: 29-37), Jesus is calling on people to be compassionate to one another, not just to their fictive kin. Jesus’ normative message in the Debtors (Mt 18:23-35) was to more than just a required “magnanimity” from the “powerful ruler” (PM 32). Fellow slaves were to be compassionate to each other.

In mainstream American culture, according to PM, compassion is an aspect of pity, it “is pity”, accompanied by “an urge to help” others in need “‘through no personal fault’.” “Victims of floods” etc. are “unquestioned recipients of American compassion,”[21] but the poor are not because they have got where they are through their own fault. Even if this were true for the US, compassion on this basis is not greatly different from how it might have been exercised in Palestine. To the extent that they described actual situations, the recipients of aid in the Prodigal Son, the Debtors, and the Good Samaritan were all assisted out of pity, by the urge somebody had to help them. Jesus extended the gambit of necessary compassion further, espousing the need to help all people, irrespective of personal fault. In Jesus’ demand, givers of compassion are to help others as they themselves would want to be helped if they were in comparable situations as the recipients of aid. Whether people have got into bad situations through their own fault is not the issue, that is the need for repentance and rebirth.

PM’s depiction of US compassion is one-sided. It is true that victims of floods are helped unquestionably, but these are intermittent occurrences. Regular compassionate giving occurs. No breakdown exists of US assistance to the poor within the US or internationally, but private donations as a whole were over five times official public aid, most of it directed to religious organizations in 2008. Individual giving made up nearly ¾ of total giving, with Americans contributing more to charity than any other country. Compassion is not confined to “no fault” giving.

Compassion is defined currently as “pity inclining one to spare or help.” The Macquarie Dictionary defines compassion as “a feeling of sorrow or pity for the sufferings or misfortunes of another.”[22] Other dictionary specifications of compassion embody these qualities. Compassion is awareness of the suffering of others together with the desire to alleviate it. These meanings are close to how compassion was understood in the New Testament and by Jesus. For Christians, Jesus’ word usage and behavior is the criterion by which any word in the New Testament is to be understood. A further conclusion from the discussion above is that an understanding of compassion does not greatly differ between first-century Palestine, and the present United States.


Limited Good


Limited good concerns the way in which first-century Palestinians viewed the availability of goods. Malina situates the concept of limited good by looking at the 98% of persons “living in the first century world [who] would find themselves subject to the demands and sanctions of power-holders outside their social realm.”[23] Once again, this is the lot of peasant farmers in the less developed world today. In developed societies, as well, sanctions and demands authorize certain behaviors, such as paying taxes, and obeying the rules of the land. These behaviors are imposed on the majority of population by minorities partly existing outside the social realm of the majority, such as the judiciary. Whether the 98% in Biblical times sought to imitate cultural mores of the elite, or whether they resisted them cannot be determined, even though the 98% lived with an uneasy acceptance of their lot. In all probability, the majority of population today do not seek to imitate cultures of the elite, but some do.

Malina makes the assertion that “the people presented in the pages of the New Testament would see their existence as determined and limited by the natural and social resources of their village, their preindustrial city, their immediate area and world.”[24] This is a description of how peasant farmers today in the present developing world would see their existence. It can also encompass people who live in the developed world. Both then and now, all are likely to have a “perception that all goods available to a person are, in fact, limited,” as Malina puts it. Today, one’s resources are finite and not all goods on offer are within one’s reach. The goods available to us are limited, for all goods “exist in finite, limited quantity,”[25] that is another label for the concept of scarcity, compatible with workers expecting “an ever-rising standard of living.”[26] Of course, the degree of limitation depends on where one is situated in the social hierarchy. Those with more resources face less limitation on the goods available to them than those with fewer resources. Again, this phenomenon applies both to ancient times and the present.

Malina wants to extend the notion of limited goods to diverse qualities making up human existence, such as honor, land, wealth, semen, friendship and love, power and influence.[27] Again, these apply to the present as much as to ancient times. The availability to a person of friendship and love cannot readily be augmented. No matter what one did in ancient times, or in the present, the supply of semen cannot be increased from any one male. That technology can help counter this situation (semen banks) does not alter its limited supply from any one male. Even Malina recognizes “there is no way directly within a person’s power to increase the available quantities” of “all conceivable good things in life.” The ‘good things’ in life include “persons, relationships and events of your life.”[28] Again, finite limits apply to all of these today, just as they did in first-century Palestine.

The category error Malina makes is to assert that because limits are placed on a person’s ability to obtain “all conceivable good things in life,” their supply in the economy-wide cannot increase. That a person faces a limited availability of goods (say, because of limitations in purchasing power) is compatible with the society’s supply of goods increasing, even in first-century Palestine. The aggregate of goods in the society can grow. Contrary to PM,[29] in neither era did the world have to be viewed as “a zero-sum game.” Suppose the wealthy elite purchases the increment of goods. To them, supply has become less limited. But the majority of the population do not purchase more, they still face limited goods. The gap between the wealthy elite and the rest widens, even though some outside the elite enjoy more goods. Unlike Malina’s assertion, this does not mean that wealthy persons “can improve their social positions only at the expense of others.”[30] The wealthy have bettered their economic position, while the position of the majority remains the same. The majority may not see the rich’s increase in wealth, and therefore would not regard the rich’s increase “as a threat to the entire community.” This differs from Malina’s interpretation. He believes that in first-century Palestine, the only way the wealthy could improve their position was by taking from the rest, although he does not provide evidence to validate this assertion.

Most people in the world today would not believe there is a limitless supply of goods available to them. Even most Americans nowadays probably do not consider that “all goods in life are limitless.”[31] In the first (1981) edition of his book, The New Testament World, Malina had described this supposed contemporary belief in limitless goods as “our basic cultural difficulty.”[32] Although this phrase had been dropped by the third edition, its inference remains. Aside from the minority rich in the US (say, 20% of the population), the remaining 80% have limited incomes, and even more restricted assets, that they can call on to aspire to ‘limitless good’. The idea of ‘limitless good’ for American society ignores the wide (and rising) gap between the haves and have-nots.[33] In all probability, limits are more dominant in the minds of people today than believing goods are limitless. In the same way, people today may be as much concerned as those in the past “in maintaining things just the way they are.” This is not to decry the importance of technological change and innovation. Rather, it means that people then and now do not relish adverse changes that can be brought about by innovation. For example, people in all epochs want to maintain their livelihoods, compared with the prospect of being rendered redundant. In all likelihood, this was far more important to people in the ancient world and today than trying to preserve “status,” “a person’s social position relative to other human beings in the same social system.”[34]

Malina holds that “for our ideal first-century person, what was basic to human living was the maintenance and defense of one’s valuable self-image … its honor.” Yet, in the paragraph before, Malina admits that the ideal first-century man was preoccupied with maintaining his subsistence. The “only time” non-elites will rebel “is when their subsistence is taken away.”[35] It cannot be suggested that subsistence is made up of efforts to preserve one’s honor. Subsistence is maintenance of the material conditions for the man and his family’s survival, what is necessary for his existence. There is no biblical or other evidence that one’s “self-image” or “honor” could substitute or masquerade for material subsistence. Again, the honorable man in first century Palestine “seeks nothing that might even remotely belong to another.” This is not vastly different from how most people behave today. In all likelihood, “cultural humility”[36] is still a concept held in esteem by modern man.


Limited Good and Accumulation of Wealth


A further sub-heading in Malina’s chapter three is “Limited Good and Accumulation of Wealth.” This starts by Malina asserting that no “program of ‘social action’ aimed at the redistribution of wealth or anything of the sort” is found in the New Testament.[37] This is supposed to occur only in the Zealot movement. Yet, Jesus gives many instructions for the rich to share their wealth with the poor. Elsewhere, Malina explicitly calls these “redistribution of wealth.” He recognizes that “Jesus’ injunction to give one’s goods to the poor is not about self-impoverishment but about redistribution of wealth.” This sounds like a “program of ‘social action’,” for it is more than “self-satisfying charity.” It is a “God-ordained socially required restitution.”[38] All this can only be interpreted as a “program of ‘social action’.” The ‘redistribution of wealth’ that Jesus called for is still as relevant today as it was in first-century Palestine.

Malina returns to his assertion that wealthy persons “can improve their social positions only at the expense of others,” that “a person could not accumulate wealth except through the loss and injury suffered by another.”[39] This contention is invalid, as argued above. If wealth in the economy-wide increased, the rich/elite could gain a greater increment of it than the poor. In this circumstance, the wealth of all would increase, with the rich improving their position relatively. On this basis, the rich “could accumulate wealth with impunity,” while those who gained the lesser increment, if any, might be grateful that they had gained some increase. Of course, there were also those who gained no increase. Aside from the rich elite, the majority was hit by debt via money lending and tax collection. “Defrauding” and “extortion” were the order of the day, just as it is in contemporary peasant societies. In ancient Palestine, “profit and gain normally refer to something that accrue to a person by fraud or extortion other than wages, customary rent, reciprocal lending, or direct sale from producer to consumer.”[40] Yet, in today’s less developed world, these circumstances still apply. Wage earners are not immune from fraud, profit can accrue by laborers being paid less than subsistence wages, being charged exorbitant interest rates etc. Even in the US, for example, people paid less than the minimum or living wage are more likely to be in poverty than people paid above those wages.[41]

The question is posed ‘who in fact are the poor in a limited-good society?’ Malina makes the assertion that “being ‘poor’ is not primarily an expression of ‘class’ or economic rank at all.”[42] Since ‘class’ is not defined by Malina we might disregard it. But how valid is to suggest that ‘poor’ in the Bible is not an economic condition? A consensus of biblical scholars and commentators think that it is an economic state, as per the summaries by Pleins, and Hanks, usually accompanied by other personal disadvantage that can be the reason for a person’s poverty.[43] This is entirely consistent with modern definitions of poverty.

Social Values Then and Now


As distinct from examining the meaning of words or behavior in first-century Palestine compared with the present, this section focuses on what PM believe are representative viewpoints of whole societies, first-century Mediterranean and contemporary American. The differences they report stress that the cultural distance between the past and present society is so great as to render each viewpoint unintelligible to the other. This idea is introduced by a chart in PM taken from Pilch.[44] Each of five attributes of social behavior is classified against three “solutions” to each, although, more precisely, the “solutions” could be called responses to each social behavioral attribute. Just two of the social qualities are discussed below.

A first social characteristic concerns how people then and now saw and see the relationships of human beings to nature. How did people respond to their view of the human-nature relationship? For PM, “first-century Palestinians felt there was little a human being could do to counteract the forces of nature.” Therefore, they accepted their “subordination to nature over mastery of it.”[45] These are exaggerations of how Palestinians dealt with nature, for every aspect of their lives showed some limited sway over it. Examples are wells, cisterns, aqueducts, irrigated farming, dry farming techniques, the use of animals for power, as in ox-drawn ploughs, and hand tools, such as scythes, axes, hammers and saws. Fishing methods, using wind-powered boats, nets rather than hooks, and preserving fish for long distance transport are further instances of lessening the forces of nature.[46] All these are examples of how either Palestinians sought to offset the adverse effects of nature, or to live in harmony with it. They did not sit back and suffer nature as it presented to them.

There is no evidence in PM that Americans today think and act differently from this. The only implied assertion depicting American thought today is that Americans attempt to “master” nature.[47] What this means is unclear. Probably, like the Palestinians, Americans are in the business of trying to mitigate adverse effects of nature. In agriculture, this is reflected in mechanized farming, extensive use of fertilizers, and use of fast transport to markets. A major difference between ancient Palestinian and modern American society is the use of more complicated technologies in America to achieve these ends. The greater the level of technology in society, the greater its means of mitigating the adverse effects of nature. This is probably the prevailing view held by most people nowadays, including those in the developing world. What this view does not realize are the adverse effects of technology, associated with environmental damage. Nevertheless, we conclude from PM’s treatment of the human-nature relationship that there is no conceptual difference between how first-century Palestinians and Americans today see the issue. What does differ are the technological means to cope with nature’s adverse effects, that has a marked bearing on the respective people’s appreciation of the matter.

A second social attribute concerns how each people saw and see human nature. Palestinians are described as having “a view of human nature as a mixture of good and bad elements.” Inferred is that Americans view human nature as “good.”[48] The depiction of the Palestinian view of human nature as a mix of good and bad is probably more to the point for both societies. PM substantiate their view with two biblical citations, Gal 5:19-23, and Mk 7:20-22. In the first, Paul points to the sins of the flesh; in the second, Jesus explains what defiles a person. Jesus’ mission was to cure human nature of the bad by people’s commitment to him. PM provide no evidence that Americans view human nature as “good.” It is just as likely that modern Americans see human nature as a mixture of good and bad, but not “neutral” as PM introduce the term.[49]


Listing Differences between Societies


Part of the exercise stressing the import of the cultural distance between first-century Palestine and contemporary USA is to construct lists of differences between them. As Horrell noted, “contrasts between Mediterranean and American society are often explicitly detailed or tabulated.”[50] Twenty-six features of US and Mediterranean society are compared in a list by PM. Other tabular contrasts are in Malina, and Van Voorst.[51] These lists infer different interpretations of similar words/attitudes rendering them incommensurable between the two vastly different societies. Two comments are made about this approach. First, the significance that can be attached to this type of comparison between countries/societies can be questioned. Second, one entry in PM’s list is explored.

Although PM present the list, implications of the differences between the societies for understanding biblical texts in the modern day idiom are not explored. Certainly, “a summary set of contrasts between individualistic U. S. persons (not all are such) and traditional group-embedded, dyadic Mediterraneans” can be constructed.[52] But so can contrasts of characteristics of any two societies or more in the same and different historical eras. These differences do not provide justification for imagining that words have a different meaning from one society to another. If this were true, it could be difficult to know what other cultures were talking about.

Consider an example of differences between three societies today, all at comparable levels of advanced development compared with world norms — USA, Sweden, and Japan. The data are taken from Wilkinson and Pickett,[53] based on 2002 World Bank data, and tabulated from their graphs into Table 1 below. All manner of comments on the twenty-two contrasts can be made. For example, why are incarceration rates so much higher in USA than Japan and Sweden? The answer may lie in various directions. Wilkinson and Pickett suggest that the basic ingredient is different levels of inequality — the USA high, the other two low. Other reasons may emerge, such as laws that diverge in terms of offences leading to imprisonment. Whatever the reasons, the relevance here is to note that despite variability in the range of indicators, people in these societies are able to talk to each other intelligibly, and to understand the nature of the others. Presenting such lists, as PM, and Malina do, as though they conveyed incommensurable understanding between the societies, is unwarranted.

Table 1: Contrasting Socio-economic Indicators, USA, Sweden and Japan, 2002

USA       Sweden Japan

1. Years average life expectancy  77     80  82

2. $000 national income per head  43     33  30

3. %‘very/quite happy’      91     93  87

4. Ratio between richest and

poorest 20%      8.5       4  3.5

5. Index of health and social

problems      40               12 8

6. Index of child wellbeing  14      40  20

7. % agreeing that most people

can be trusted          18      31  22

8. Index of women’s status         20      35  14

9. % national income on foreign

aid         0.22      0.91 0.25

10. % with any mental illness   25.4             nd                8

11. Index of illegal drug use      30   10   8

12. Infant deaths

per 1000 live births    6.9                 3.2     3.2

13. % obese   30                10   3

14. Index maths/literacy scores of

15 year-olds 19         27          29

15. Births per 1000

15-19 year-olds          52           6            4

16. Homicides

per million                  64         19            6

17. Prisoners

per 100,000               576                     70                40

18. Index of children’s experience

of conflict                                              21               2               nd

19. Index of social mobility                     4  32          nd

20. Index of annual work hours       1.2    1          nd

21. Index carbon dioxide emissions         5               1         1

22. Index of not recycling                         8.2           2.5           2.5     Source: Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level (London: Allen Lane, 2009).      

Second, consider just one feature in PM’s list of their twenty-six differences between first-century Palestine and modern USA — wealth and power. Although no citation or background data are provided to substantiate their material, wealth and power are really two features, each of which has many dimensions, such as how wealth is accumulated, how it is distributed, how it is applied etc. Consider only how the accumulation of wealth might have been regarded.

In US, the contention is that “different levels and degrees of wealth and power derive from competition and achievement assessed as amoral.”[54] It depends on who is making the “amoral” judgment. As owners of most wealth, the elite are unlikely to judge their wealth accumulation as “amoral.” This is all that is said about US attitudes to wealth. Why wealth accumulation should be regarded as “amoral” could be teased out. If Americans today regard wealth accumulation in first-century Palestine as due to “exploitation and oppression,” to what extent do these features influence US wealth accumulation? Otherwise, it is unclear why Americans regard wealth accumulation as “amoral.”

How does this compare with attitudes to wealth accumulation in the Mediterranean, as Pilch and Malina see it. They assert that “for elites, different levels and degrees of wealth and power… have positive moral meaning.”[55] This is probably little different from how elites in the contemporary US see and justify the disproportionate share of wealth accruing to them. Both sets of elites were and are concerned to maintain their honor and status to which they ascribe(d) positive moral meaning.

Mediterranean non-elites are asserted to see wealth accumulation by the elites as due to “inequalities of moral probity with the wealthier and more powerful perceived as more corrupt.”[56] Hanson and Oakman put it that there was “general peasant disaffection,” although the peasants usually did not “even voice their feelings of hostility and oppression against elites.”[57] Clearly, the peasants were dissatisfied, probably aware they were being oppressed and exploited by the elites. Perhaps the social banditry exhibited by small sections of the peasantry was evidence of their judgment of the amorality of the form of wealth accumulation. The mode of wealth accumulation by the elite — the dynasties of hereditary rulers, their officials, and the Roman occupiers, as Hanson and Oakman express it — involved exploitation, in which tribute and taxes were collected only for the benefit of the elite. It was an aristocratic empire “in which aristocrats (defined as a nonlaboring, privileged ruling class) rule agrarian peasants and live from the peasants’ labor,” “peasants have little say in the control of production.”[58]

However Americans today see it, wealth inequality is a significant modern phenomenon in the US, just as it was in first-century Palestine. For example, in the US currently, the richest 20% of households owned 95% of non-home wealth in 2010, up from 91% in 1983.[59] The figures for both societies may well be comparable. If this is true, that is, a valid depiction of contemporary US reality, it might well have characterized Jesus’ Palestine also. As quoted above, there was general peasant disaffection, with feelings of hostility and oppression toward the elites. Peasants could well have made a moral judgment on this situation, interpreting this as exploitation and corruption on the part of the elites. The sum of the discussion concerning attitudes to wealth is that they did not differ markedly between first-century Palestinians and residents of the contemporary United States.

Irrespective of differences in attitudes to wealth generation between first-century Palestinians and modern Americans, Jesus’ words on how he regarded the issue are clear enough to relate to both epochs. Consider how one biblical exegete interprets a few of Jesus’ texts on the matter, starting with Luke’s Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21) and extending up to verse 34. For Witherington III,[60] “what Jesus suggests is that if one gives up the search or striving for material things, at least the necessities will be provided as one seeks the kingdom.” Lk 12:32-34 means that “like God, disciples are to be generous: they are to sell their possessions (it does not say all of them) and give alms to the poor,” that “instead of setting your heart on material possessions, you should set your heart on God and his kingdom above all other treasures.” Other of Jesus’ teachings such as the Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21), and the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Lk 16:1-9) contain the same message. To Witherington III[61], “the bottom line of Jesus’ teaching about wealth and prosperity is that wealth is potentially a great danger because it can so easily cause one to place one’s ultimate trust in material resources rather than in God.” These are meanings readily understandable by everyone, past and present.  



Different socio-economic systems undoubtedly existed between first-century Palestine and the United States today. Dissimilar attitudes about human relationships occurred and occur within them, such as attaching greater importance to honor and shame in the past than the present. Whether differences from, or even antonyms to, these postulated behaviors steer modern Western culture is debatable. For example, it seems improbable that “guilt” drives “human behavior” in the West today, as PM assert.[62] Guilt may be internal, but public apologies for guilt are still made. If guilt means feelings of remorse, fault, responsibility, blame, and culpability, there is no evidence that these sorts of moods drive human behavior in modern Western societies. Guilt is an emotion occurring when a person believes s/he has compromised or contravened a moral value that s/he herself believes in. It could just as well be claimed that in the West today, guilt is associated with mental illness, more than otherwise.

A lengthy list of dissimilarities could be constructed between first-century Palestine and the United States today, manifested in cultural, social and economic organization, and in geographical and environmental condition confronting the societies in question. One claim is that these are so great as to render the meaning of biblical texts not “readily intelligible” today. Against this view, evangelicals believe that the Bible is the word of God, however this might have been transmitted to construct the biblical text. This view is compatible with recognizing that God’s word was conveyed to particular cultures and historical epochs, but there need be no contradiction between the theological and social dimension of the texts. The lack of contradiction is compatible also with believing that God’s word is relevant to today, requiring modern Bible readers to understand the meaning of biblical texts when they were first penned. As well, they have to derive normative implications from these texts that are trans-cultural, and can relate to the present. Examples of theologians engaged in this task include evangelicals, Grudem (2010), Witherington (2010), and Blomberg (2013).[63] Other strains in biblical analysis, such as social scientific interpretation, that stresses the gulf between first-century Palestine and contemporary US, do not make the link between past and the present. They remain anchored in first-century Palestine, so that the modern pertinence of the Bible is disregarded.

7572 words

[1] John Elliott, Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1995), 10.

[2] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, xv.

[3] Ibid., xv.

[4] Ibid., 115-118.

[5] Ibid., 118.

[6] The Concise Oxford Dictionary 4th ed. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1951), 576; The Macquarie Dictionary (Sydney: NSW: Macquarie University, 1990); 449.

[7] Pilch and Malina, 118.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Ibid., 116.

[10] Ibid., 116, 117.

[11] Ibid., xxvi.

[12] Ibid., xxv.

[13] Ibid., xv.

[14] Ibid., xv-xvi,

[15] Ibid., xvi.

[16] Ibid., xviii.

[17] Ibid., xix.

[18] Ibid., 31.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] Ibid., 32.

[21] Ibid., 32, 33.

[22] Oxford Dictionary, 242; Macquarie Dictionary, 189.

[23] Malina, NTW, 89.

[24] Ibid., 89.

[25] Ibid., 75, 89.

[26] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, 122.

[27] Malina, NTW, 89.

[28] Ibid., 75, 89, 76.

[29] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, 122.

[30] Malina, NTW, 89.

[31] Ibid., 90.

[32] Malina, NTW 1st ed., 76.

[33] Edward Wolff,  “Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze — An Update to 2007,” Working Paper No. 589, The Levy Institute (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 2010), 44, 46.

[34] Malina, NTW, 90, 76.

[35] Ibid., 91.

[36] Ibid., 92, 78.

[37] Ibid., 97.

[38] Bruce Malina, “Wealth and Poverty in the New Testament and Its World,” Interpretation,41, no. 4 (1987): 366.

[39] Malina, NTW, 89, 97.

[40] Ibid., 98.

[41] Bradley Schiller, The Economics of Poverty and Discrimination 10th ed(Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004), 98.

[42] Malina, NTW, 99.

[43] David Pleins, “Poor, Poverty. Old Testament,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 5,  eds. D. Freeman, G. Herion, D. Graf, D. Pleins, (Sydney: Doubleday, 1992), 402-414; Thomas Hanks, “Poor, Poverty. New Testament,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 5, 414-424

[44] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, xxv; John Pilch, Introducing the Cultural Context of the New Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 244.

[45] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, xxviii, xxiv.

[46] K. Hanson and Douglas Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 95-103.

[47] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, xxv.

[48] Ibid., xxiv, xxviii-xxix.

[49] Ibid., xxxi.

[50] David Horrell, “Introduction: Social-Scientific Interpretation of the New Testament: Retrospect and Prospect,” in Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation (ed. David Horrell; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 13.

[51] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, xxxii-xxxix; Malina, 76-78; Robert Van Voorst, Reading the New Testament Today (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), 39-40.

[52] Malina, NTW, 76.

[53] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level (London: Allen Lane, 2009), passim.

[54] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, xxxviii.

[55] Ibid., xxxviii-xxxix.

[56] Ibid., xxxix.

[57] Hanson and Oakman, Palestine, 82, 85.

[58] Ibid., 61, 63, 64.

[59] Wolff, Recent Trends, 43.

[60] Ben Witherington III, Jesus and Money (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), 65.

[61] Witherington III, 70.

[62] Pilch and Malina, Handbook, 114.

[63] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010); Witherington III, Jesus and Money; Craig Blomberg, Christians in an Age of Wealth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013).

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