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Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien explain in their book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes that it’s easy to miss the nuances of other cultures when reading the Bible; “When a passage of Scripture appears to leave out a piece of the puzzle because something went without being said, we instinctively fill in the gap with a piece from our own culture.” Thus, we can easily misinterpret scripture in misunderstanding its context and idioms. God speaks through scripture, no matter how much time has passed since it was written. However, we need to make sure that we are wise in our interpretation and research the cultural implications that we may be missing. 

Christopher Hall writes in “How Does Culture Affect the Way We Understand Scripture?” about how Western culture influences the way we read scripture. He points out that we often do not pick up on certain truths because we latch onto other things that we find relatable. For example, he cites a study of 100 Students from North America and 50 people from Russia who read the parable of the Prodigal Son. Only 6 of the North American students discussed the famine that took place in the story, whereas 42 of the Russians wrote about the famine. Hall points out that North Americans tend to be “famine-forgetters;” rather than focusing on the context within the passage, we tend to focus on the human subjects of the story and how we relate to them. 

Hall reminds us to think about common Bible study questions. One such question is “What does this scripture mean to me?” Although he admits that it is healthy to ask how passages impact our lives, he also argues that we should be wary if we only ask this question. He warns that we may miss vital truths of the Bible if we are only looking for scriptures that immediately apply to us. Even more importantly, we risk missing the number one meaning of the Bible, which is Jesus.

There are many accounts in the Bible in which analyzing the cultural context is key in understanding the messages. One passage that could be interpreted in multiple ways is Matthew 16:18. After the Apostle Peter declares that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus states “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” According to the ESV Reformation Study Bible, the phrase “gates of hell” may be a reference to death. The Transformation Study Bible explains that gates represented a place of authority and that the city gate was similar to a city hall. The phrase “gates of hell” could also be translated as the “gates of Hades” which would represent the “organized power of death and Satan.” These commentaries all represent ways that the Western culture would understand this passage. 

However, according to discoveries documented in “Archaeological Sites in Israel-Banyas- Cult Center of the God Pan,” the pagan city called Caesarea Philippi was established by Herod Philip. Shrines were built there and were dedicated to the pagan god Pan. In the article “That The World May Know,” the author writes that “[t]o the pagan mind, the cave at Caesarea Philippi created a gate to the underworld, where fertility gods lived during the winter. They committed detestable acts to worship these false gods.” Jesus spoke the words from Matthew 16 outside this cave used for the rituals practiced in the Pan sanctuary. 

Remains of the temple of Pan, and the cave in which its sacrifices were offered. Caesarea Philippi, by Bible Land Passages. https://biblelandpassages.org.

 

A strictly Western perspective to this passage may make us think of hell primarily as a place that comes only after death. If we do not recognize Jesus’ cultural reference, we could think that he was talking about a future victory over hell. However, their proximity to the pagan gate at Caesarea Philippi suggests that Jesus may have been commanding his disciples to share the Gospel and follow him to all parts of the world, including areas deemed the gates to the underworld. Jesus does not only have power after death, he has power over spiritual battles that are happening right now. If we do not explore the cultural contexts of scripture, we could be missing certain declarations and examples of Jesus’ power and commands.

Reading the Bible personally is vital for spiritual growth. However, we should make sure we are humble when we read and acknowledge that our culture and worldview impacts our interpretation. Let us pray for wisdom and seek out the meaning of the context and words we read, so that we reduce the risk of misunderstanding. The Bible is a gift full of truths, so it is imperative that we effectively seek out all that Jesus is teaching us. 

 

Learn more:

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. by Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.

“How Does Culture Affect the Way We Understand Scripture?” by Christopher Hall. https://www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/bible-answers/theology/how-does-culture-affect-way-we-understand-scripture.html

ESV Reformation Study Bible, by Ligonier Ministries.

The Transformation Study Bible, by W. W. Wiersbe.

“Archaeological Sites in Israel-Banyas- Cult Center of the God Pan”, by Israel Experience. https://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/history/pages/archaeological%20sites%20in%20israel%20-%20banyas-%20cult%20cent.aspx

ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version, by Crossway Bibles.

“Gates of Hell”, by Ray Vander Laan. https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/gates-of-hell-article

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