Is the Bible a Product of Its Culture?

Have you ever heard a person or book described as a product of its culture or time? I’m hearing this sentiment more and more when looking at historical figures or classic books. “Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He was a product of his culture.” Now some use this as an explanation for the Bible. People are uncomfortable reading the more difficult passages, like rules about slavery, homosexuality, or the role of women in the church. Rather than wrestle with the passages to learn the full truth, many Christians and skeptics alike will throw their hands up and conclude that these passages, and possibly the entire Bible, are merely a product of those times. Should these “antiquated restrictions” apply to the modern world? This issue has potentially huge implications for Christians and the Bible as a whole. Is the Bible merely a product of its culture?

Cultural Context

I’ll tell you right from the beginning that the answer to this question is going to be a bit of yes and no. In one sense, it was written by men at a particular time in history, with a lot of references to that time and culture. It does involve a lot of context and information that was specific to them. That’s part of the reason I don’t assume every verse is speaking directly to me and how to live my 21st century life. A reader who understands the context is going to get a much more depth and understanding out of their Bible study.

The Bible Claims to Be More

However, that does not mean that the Bible is merely a product of its culture. If the Bible’s claims are true, there is a God, and these various books are his message to the world. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” Or 1 Corinthians 2:13, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.” God inspired these words, even if he did not dictate them. This would mean that nothing is in there that he did not intend or allow to be in there. At least we as Christians cannot simply shrug it off as cultural.

This takes a bit more thought. We need to do the heavy lifting to see if a teaching is universally applicable. It depends on who says it in scripture, in what context, and is it repeated? People still get very confused about why modern Christians are not bound by Old Testament ceremonial laws in large part due to not understanding these questions. Some teachings are explicitly temporary or only for a certain group. A passage might respond to an issue of the day, but also teach us how God wants us to respond. It may take time to figure out which is the case with a given verse.

Which Culture and Which Book?

This topic depends on which part of scripture we are referring to. Asking if the Bible is a product of its culture is like asking if the Bible is meant to be taken literally. Which part of the Bible? Obviously, many passages in Psalms, Revelation, or even Jesus’ parables in the gospels, are read differently than the history in Exodus or Acts. In the same way, of course many of the Old Testament books detailing the history of Israel are going to be a product of their culture. God does not approve of every action documented in scripture, like polygamy or slavery. The presence of those activities would only be problematic if the Bible was made-up stories to teach us lessons.

Wrestling with issues like homosexuality and the role of women in church leadership are more complicated. Those issues are brought up multiple times, and are explicitly taught in the Old and New Testaments. The culture originally reading this matters, but it would not be wise to toss the teachings out as merely cultural issues of the day.

What About Our Culture?

Are we being truly objective in our thinking? Why is the Bible merely a product of its culture, while we are simply right? We read these texts with our skewed 21st century lens and assume that we know what is right. Is it not possible that a message from a transcendent God would be less altered by time and culture than we are? Set aside for a moment the assumption that just because our progressive culture believes something that makes it right. If the Bible is the inspired word of God, that ought to weigh more than present cultural norms. Newer is not automatically better in this case.

If you are unsure what to do with a given passage, I would advise against jumping to this conclusion. Do the research, find out what it is about. Read a few different translations of it to make sure it is not the word choice that is confusing us. The problem may be our own stubbornness, and not God or the text itself.

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