Everyone lives in a particular culture. Within that culture there are certain things that are simply “understood” without being stated, and there are other things that may be stated and believed without being questioned. When a person moves into a different culture (or reads literature from a different culture), it is inevitable that he will be tempted to interpret what he sees or reads through his own cultural lens.
If you are driving down the highway and see a billboard that says, “M 5 Minutes Ahead” you know far more than what is stated on the sign because of your familiarity with the culture. Because the M is in the form of golden arches, you know that it refers to a McDonald’s restaurant, and you know that you can order fast food burgers, fries, shakes, chicken nuggets, coffee, and all-day breakfast items. You also know, intuitively, that, if you are looking for pizza, tacos, or chicken fried rice, then this is not the place to stop. In contrast, a visitor from another culture may be puzzled about what the M means. Or, if he’s familiar with McDonald’s in his own culture, he may wrongly assume that he can get tortillas in five minutes because McDonald’s serves them in his country. He would be assuming something about American McDonald’s based on his knowledge of a different culture.
If that same billboard were discovered in 1,000 years, an archeologist might be able to read the words on the sign, but, unless he has some knowledge of 20th- or 21st-century American culture, the sign would convey very little knowledge. If, in 1,000 years, McDonald’s is the name of a chain of space ship parts stores, and there are no fast food restaurants, a “literal reading” of the sign, based on the current cultural situation, would lead to a completely wrong understanding. The billboard would not be evidence that space ships were owned by most people in the United States in the 21st century.
Furthermore, the sign says that McDonald’s is “5 Minutes Ahead.” This wording assumes that the reader is in a car traveling a certain speed. It would be wrongheaded for a pedestrian walking on the side of the road to take the “clear, literal” meaning of the sign and expect to get to McDonald’s in the next five minutes. Likewise, it would be ridiculous for the walker to say that the sign was inaccurate because he had walked for over five minutes and there was still no McDonald’s in sight.
The Bible was written in a time and culture very different from our own. Although it was written for us, it was not written directly to us. Therefore, we need to resist the temptation to read the Bible through our own cultural lens, and we also need to become as familiar as possible with the culture of the Bible so that we can understand the Bible as the original hearers would have understood it.
Some translations of the Bible attempt to put as much meaning as possible into the translation itself. Rather than simply translating the words, these translations attempt to impart the full meaning of the text as it would have been understood by the original hearers/readers. These translations are often called “dynamic equivalence” translations and include the NIV and NLT, among others.
A common example of a cultural translation is found in James 2:1, translated in the ESV this way: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” In our modern culture, many people see the word brothers to be needlessly exclusionary, and this has led some modern translations of James 2:1 to say “brothers and sisters” (NIV) or “friends” (CEV) rather than “brothers.” It’s not a literal translation (the Greek specifically says “brothers”), but it’s a cultural translation. The idea of “all believers, male and female,” is certainly what the original readers of James’ epistle would have understood.
Bible translators also struggle with how to best translate the Bible into languages and cultures that have no equivalent concepts. For instance, how should a verse like Psalm 51:7, “Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow,” be translated for a remote tribe in the tropics who have never seen or heard of snow? Would it be appropriate to substitute another term for “snow”? A cultural translation of Psalm 51:7 might be “Wash me, and I will be whiter than the inside of a coconut.” Some who argue for dynamic equivalence would say the “coconut” wording is justified because it conveys the meaning of the verse more readily to that particular culture.
Other translators would disagree, saying that the job of the translator is to faithfully translate the words of Scripture, and it is the job of the Bible teacher or missionary to explain the words in a way that people can understand. Furthermore, in developed countries with vast academic resources, it is the responsibility of the Bible student (the average Christian) to avail himself of all the reference materials and commentaries that are available to help bring the cultural background to light. This research goes beyond mere definitions of words and includes literary genre and thought patterns that may be obscure to modern readers. Often, modern readers will attempt to find answers to questions that are simply not addressed in the ancient text, and the modern reader must resist the urge to find answers that are not there. The search for modern, scientific accuracy to prove the veracity of Scripture is one such misguided attempt.
An understanding of ancient culture is absolutely necessary to properly understand and apply Scripture on its own terms. We also need to recognize that, due to the time span involved, there are a number of ancient cultures involved. For example, Ancient Israelite culture is different from the Roman culture of the New Testament. This takes study on the part of those who would teach the Scriptures and those who want to study them on their own. Having said that, there is plenty of Scripture that can be understood without much background knowledge at all. A person can read the Bible, come to faith in Christ, and have a good understanding of the basics of the faith without knowing anything about the ancient Jewish use of sackcloth and ashes, for example. But, as that believer grows in faith and wants to share the Bible with others, he or she should not be content with simply reading the Bible in English and interpreting it in light of his or her own cultural experience. The growing Christian should want to delve more deeply, and gaining an understanding of the ancient cultures out of which the Bible came is a necessary step for doing this.