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  • Brian Chilcote

Unwritten Rules and the Bible- Hermeneutics 4

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Don't expect your meeting at a Venezuelan coffee shop to start on time. It's rude to expect anything less than 15 minutes past the appointed time.

Don't sit next to anyone on the bus in Oslo. Personal space in Scandinavian countries is much, much bigger than almost anywhere.

Line the streets in Castrillo de Murcia, Spain for El Colacho. People dressed as demons leap over the latest newborns to guarantee absolution of their sins. It's just a different way to throw a baby shower.

In ancient Rome, it was standard practice for the local laundry to use a traditional cleaning product that got your toga whiter and brighter. Too bad it smelled like urine, because that's what they used… gallons of it.

The Egyptians are known for their enthusiasm for the afterlife. If you were an elite-level citizen, your corpse got a lot of attention at great expense to make sure existence after death was as pleasurable as the one that just ended. They would be appalled at the thought of cremation.

Local customs can be mysterious, even when you're only a few hours or miles away from home. This regardless of sharing extensive national mass media, legal systems and transportation networks. We Americans travel a lot… and yet ask a rural South Carolinian what they think of the Yankees passing through and they'll respond with annoyed toleration.

Now put two thousand years between you and distant culture with an ancient and highly developed social system. You'd have to navigate a radically different language, strange geography and convoluted political history. One can barely imagine the ensuing chaos resulting from trying to interact with the natives of this time and place. How do you greet someone older than you? Younger than you? Why does your family name and home village matter so much? Why do city-dwellers detest the countryside? How does the economy work- how do you buy, sell or barter? What is the relationship between religious and civil authority?

We stand at an immense distance from the world of the original writings of the Bible and it seems reasonable that there are some large gaps in our understanding of the social rules that appear in the texts we have reconstructed and placed in our Bibles. A social scientific hermeneutic, like all other approaches, attempts to narrow down the array of possible original meanings by unlocking the unwritten social assumptions behind the text.

For example, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke can be understood as a successful evangelistic effort by Jesus to convert a despised tax collector OR a demonstration of Jesus' sense of honor as he handles a typical first century honor-shame conflict. If you aren't aware of the dynamics of the competition for maintaining or increasing one's social status in first century Palestine, you won't catch Luke's more likely intent: portraying Jesus as a true and honorable Israelite. All those arguments with the Pharisees and other religious officials are other examples of the unending battle for a finite amount of honor and social standing. Bruce Malina, a leading pioneer of the social-scientific hermeneutic, says,

"We must also recognize, as indeed recent social-scientific studies of the New Testament have begun to do, that the distance between ourselves and the Bible is social as well as temporal and conceptual. Such social distance includes radical differences in social structures, social roles, values, and general cultural features. In fact it may be that such social distance is the most fundamental mental distance of all. It may have had a greater impact on our ability to read and understand the Bible than most of what has preoccupied scholarly attention to date."*

From Santa Clara University's Dr. Catherine Murphy

"Social-scientific criticism is an exegetical method which attempts to explore the original social and cultural setting of a text through clues in the text’s content and rhetoric and through the analysis of other ancient evidence. The critic assumes that the world in which these texts were written is very different from our contemporary world; therefore, a modern interpreter cannot simply make claims about the text’s meaning without first understanding the social conventions and assumptions of the author’s world. Emphasis in this method is less on the individual author, as it would be in Narrative Criticism, and more on the social community within which s/he lived and communicated, because meaning is understood as a socially-constructed phenomenon." **

A social-scientific hermeneutic stands in a very different region on the hermeneutical spectrum than a literal / allegorical view. It tends to move against the idea that "when the Bible speaks, God speaks," or that the a biblical text can be read for meaning on a personal level without some grasp of the social-political-rhetorical contexts that produced the text. For example, when the New Testament speaks of "grace," "love," and "faith," we usually define these terms according to our own linguistic and cultural formation. Grace, to modern folks, means unexpected or undeserved favor, love means a deep affection or fondness for someone or something and faith indicates belief or trust in a person or concept. All three are rooted in a chosen personal relationship. When an acquaintance is "gracious," he or she is kind and thoughtful in an unselfish manner.

Here's where we're in danger of misinterpreting. In the first century social world, all three of these words described the elements of an elaborate patronage system which included benefactors or patrons, brokers and clients. One always knew which one of the three he or she was. Grace or charis meant any assistance given by a benefactor, whether it was financial or social, such as a recommendation or legal assistance. Unlike our concept of grace, the original concept was not one-sided. There was always an expectation that the client receiving the gift was then obligated to join with other clients in backing their benefactor by "glorifying" him or her to the general public. A large and appreciative clientele raised your honor and social standing. This loyalty response owed to one's patron was referred to as "faith" (pistis), which isn't quite the same as the way we use the word to describe an attitude of assent, confidence or hope toward a person or institution.***

When we read the English word "love" in our Bibles, without thinking we move to an individualistic, introspective construct; and internal state that includes emotional affection, attachment, something deeper and more intense than friendship. We also use it as hyperbole to describe our attitude toward almost anything, like pizza, skydiving and reading blog articles. A social scientific hermeneutic takes a moment to consider what love meant to a Galilean villager in first century Israel. A strong group orientation worked to protect the members of a village, of whom many were blood-related, from outside threat. It's more likely that the Greek agapao was used to translate an Aramaic or Hebrew word for something closer to attachment to the group, or family loyalty with connotations of adhering to group norms and unwritten rules for behavior. Reading texts like these make a bit more sense when understood this way:

John 15:10- If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

Matthew 5:42- You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…

Luke 16:13 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (note how the synonyms here are "be devoted to" and "serve")

According to the social-scientific approach, one really can't gain much meaning from a text without extensive knowledge of the customs and unwritten rules of the original culture of the communities that preserved the material that has come down to us. The Bible, then, is not an immediately accessible book with spiritual meaning for anyone in any place and time to derive special meaning. Can children understand the Bible? At a simple level, maybe, but a social-science standpoint would argue that they will probably have to unlearn what they think they know when old enough to consider the text as it is. This hermeneutic also argues for the idea that the meanings we have long attributed to the texts we have are far less certain than we suppose, since we can't precisely reconstruct all the unwritten rules of any long-lost culture.

Next time, we'll enumerate a few more general thoughts about interpreting the Bible, then we will survey four more major hermeneutic approaches to the Bible in rapid-fire fashion to fill in our spectrum.

To Think About…

What is an example of an unwritten cultural rule that befuddles visitors to your culture? Or vice-versa?

Does God have a "favorite culture?" Why or why not?

What does western or American culture bring to the table in the history of peoples' attempts to follow Jesus?


A good book to start with on this view is Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by Richards and O'Brien. See below for citation.

*Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Kindle Locations 55-59).


***Richards, E. Randolph; O'Brien, Brandon J.. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (p. 77). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

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