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Bible Understanding:Text and Cultural Context

Author: Harriet Hill
Date: 06.06.2010
Category: Scripture Engagement

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Originally Posted in English

1. Bible Availability 2. Bible Awareness 3. Bible Use 4. Bible Understanding 5. Bible Engagement

"Does Christ protect Christians from witchcraft? Can a Christian become a witch or do witchcraft without even meaning to?" This discussion at a Scripture Engagement workshop in Côte d’Ivoire. Rural church leaders from a dozen ethnic groups were gaining skills in helping their people engage with the Scriptures newly translated into their languages. Some said, "Yes!" Others said, "No!" It was a hot debate.

It appears Ephesians answers these questions dramatically and convincingly—in ways I didn’t realize. I have read the text as if it was addressed to me directly, without being aware enough of the socio-cultural context of the Ephesian Christians.

The Bible is like any communication: the authors say just enough to bring to mind things they think their audience already knows, and between what is written and what the audience already knows, the audience infers the intended meaning. That meaning isn’t in the text alone but in the dynamic interaction of text and the audience’s cognitive context. So, while I have always enjoyed Ephesians, without knowing the context of the Ephesians, I was missing a lot of what the author was communicating

What was the Ephesian’s context like? Ephesus was a center of magic. Mystery religions, magical recipes, incantations to a plethora of gods (particularly Artemis), curses, magical cures, protective amulets –all these were part of daily life in Ephesus. The new believers had questions like, "Where does Christ stand in relation to the hostile ’powers’? Is Christ alone sufficient, or do we need additional protection from the attacks and influence of these ’powers? How can we gain access to Christ’ power for protection from the ’powers’? How does a Christian resist the attacks of the ’powers’ without the help of the former methods?"[1] These are not questions my culture asks, so I didn’t realize the letter was answering them.

In some ways, the rural church leaders in Côte d’Ivoire were at a disadvantage in understanding Ephesians. Most of them had not had the opportunity to attend formal Bible training. But in other ways, they had a huge advantage. Their traditional worldview is so much more similar to the original audience. Attacks by spirit beings, sacrifices to divinities, curses, amulets, objects protecting homes and fields—all these are all part of daily life. Their debate was heated because these were life and death questions. They have experienced what I can only imagine.

To understand the Bible, we need to understand both the text and the original socio-cultural context it was addressed to. Where that context is similar to our own, we not only understand it easily, we find it directly relevant: it is answering the very questions we are asking. Without knowing the context, we only have half of the original communication.


  1. What examples can you share of cultures helping people understand Bible passages because of similarities with the original audience?
  2. What examples can you share of cultures hindering people understand Scripture? That is, where an audience supplies a different context and consequently understands something quite different than the author intended?
  3. If it is important for ordinary Christians to understand the socio-cultural context of the original audience, how can this happen? What have you found to be effective? Our current Study Bibles are often as helpful as one might expect.

Keywords: Understanding, Bible, Context, Communication, magic, power, Ephesians

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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Antonin_Azoti (0)  

Harriett’s post reminds me of an experience I had 6 years ago. I was serving with my wife as Bible institute director in a rural area. On a certain occasion some church leaders came from the main town to speak at a churches’ yearly get together in the region and asked me to come with them to the event. There were choir presentations from several churches (20-30) in various languages most of them foreign to the region. One particular presentation was in the language of wider communication of the country. The choir was made up of young boys and girls, church members, led by a more aged girl who had lived in one of the cities in the country before. As they sang and danced displaying a well practice presentation, I ended up listening carefully to the words of the song. I was shocked to discover how unethical they were. At the end of the presentation I friendly called the ‘choir’ master, appreciated her and asked if she knew the meaning of the words in the song. No, she responded!  I asked where she had learnt it from. She said it was from a ballet group in the town she lived before. I explained them to her to her own surprise. This illustrates the language issue in how we ‘do church’ un-contextualized in some areas. However, I wanted to show at the background of the story what ignorance was pervading in churches in that area. Then the time for preaching came.

The preacher, definitely, showed a lot of experience in speaking to this audience. He was going to preach on redemption through the blood of Jesus and call people to receive Christ. He read a text in the epistles and started. You could see how the people were bored! Then he took a long passage in Leviticus to elaborate on the concept of the sacrifice. I really told myself “he has killed the message” and thought the people were then going to sleep altogether. Leviticus is one of the most difficult Scripture for the modern reader. The details about, which goat, how to bring it to the priest, how it has to be slain, how the priest is to use the blood, how he has to wash his hands etc. are so boring to us but…, not in to the tradition village person there! All of a sudden you could realize how the audience attention was totally captured. The details of the sacrifice rituals related directly to their daily context as traditional religion people. It was so relevant and practical in their understanding of the message. This was something they could understand better. There was only a tiny distance between the rituals of Leviticus and their daily context while it might take commentaries and encyclopedias for the modern western man to ever understand the relevance of all those details. Such a distance might be a piece of cake compared to the distance in how different cultures organize their thoughts. This is one reason why oral bible storying is making wonderful impact in linking the gospel with the people in places (India) where decades of expository preaching of sound doctrine never brought anyone to Christ. In the same way, it seems to me that, sometimes, when we introduce Bible schools with a curriculum totally constructed on the western mindset to such context we create a subculture that, instead of helping people to related better to the Scripture make it actually more difficult than it would have been otherwise. 

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Jim_Harries (-3)
@ Antonin_Azoti:

Thanks. You have hit the nail on the head.

This is related to Harriet’s critique of dynamic equivalence methodology (de). De only works if the context is the same in both languages. That is, it tries to translate meaning, but meaning arises from a combination of word plus context. So using de interculturally is, I am afraid, illegitimate.

Antonin may want to have a look at for a proposed ‘solution’ to the dilemma he presents to us. 

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Antonin_Azoti (0)  
@ Jim_Harries:

Thank you Jim for directing me to your blog. I love the challenge set by Vulnerable Mission. I would like to know more about this and hope we keep into touch on that. Thanks.

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Jim_Harries (-3)
@ Antonin_Azoti:

Hi Antonin,

For the benefit of others also - go to to join the pearl discussion list on vulnerable mission. Welcome! If you want to receive also the monthly Bulletin (free by email), send an email to If you have an article to contribute etc., let me know!

Jim (Chairman of Alliance for Vulnerable Mission)

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Jacques_N (0)

Thank you for this contribution. I will comment it from my French – urban – middle-class context. I apologize for the size of my comment: certainly be too long, and to short for an accurate development of the arguments in my poor English!

Reading it from a western culture, I found an important issue for fairly educated young people trying to read the Bible: a growing poverty in the use of people’s primary language. The « SMS-Facebook-Twitter society » (cf discussions on media and technology) is using a poorer vocabulary (and syntax) to express the -same or increased- richness and variety of life. In France, some sociologists have warned about the possible consequences of this poverty on urban deprived population, in terms of violence, which can be analysed as an uncontrolled expression of what people could not express though appropriate words. In our media, advertising and communication strategies use limited keywords that mirror the common ideology, where -putting it too shortly - existential questions tend to be reduced to the capacity of delivering and consuming goods and services (included some ways of ’translating’ the gospel in terms of well-being and personal fulfilment). Even political debates suffer from the collapse of public discourse that can hardly get beyond individual or sectoral demands. This is an important issue concerning the way Scripture can efficiently transform the mind.

My point is this: although in the original text, the vocabulary of the Bible is rather limited, its richness concerning inner life, relationship with God, covenantal understanding of humanity is not always as accessible to (even fairly educated) citizens as we think it is. Whereas the reformation promoted education in order to enable people to read the Bible, whereas enlightenment promoted education in order to give access to a richer material AND intellectual/spiritual life, the process of modern secular education, in my own country at least, tends to promote pragmatic knowledge aiming at efficiency and satisfaction in basic professional and ordinary life. The purpose of basic education has shifted from (sometimes too) high expectations to (often too) basic requirements. There is little awareness that the extent of vocabulary is an important element for putting words on and making sense of experience, relationship, and life. If the core of the gospel needs little knowledge to be accepted, discipleship that transform lives needs more. I feel there is a cultural ’spiritual warfare’ on that side as well.

In this context, we must remember that the Bible can definitely not be read without danger as an instruction booklet like those people find with there mobile phone set. The spiritual content of the Bible is connected to the culture in which it is embedded. Understanding its transforming power on the people it first reached requires to learn the words and the concepts that explain this transformation. There must be a « bathing » in the biblical narratives, discourses, wording that nourishes the transformation of intelligence (Rm 12,1-2). Authors like Newbigin and Hauerwas, after Frei, have shown the relevance of narrative theology for understanding this culture and the vocabulary that has to be learned. Therefore, I consider an important task to encourage young Christians to ’bath’ in the Bible narrative in order to develop sensitivity to its culture, and to learn to ’speak the language of the Bible’. But it requires an interactive, collective and guided reading. And I think that contemporary Bible teaching is too often characterised by a methodology based on hypotheses some of which should be explained :

  • Bible teaching is often seen as efficient when it gives up-to-date instructions that can be applied immediately. Exegetical and homiletical tasks, I think, include the necessity of teaching also the methodology of application of scripture. In this sense, it must offer the ability to raise the relevant questions and the methodology to process them in biblical terms, rather than giving ready-to-use recipes. It is a long process that requires permanent learning of biblical language, even for people who have the Bible in their own language.

  • Bible is for everybody: it certainly is true, but the mission of the doctors (given from above Eph 4) in unfolding the power of the Word of God should be mentioned. We cannot expect translators to do the job for which God has appointed other people.

In conclusion, we should not forget that words and idioms are the material for building up discourses and ideology. The development of environmental awareness in western countries is brilliant as an example of that fact. For us, the use of the Scripture in mission should not aim at melting biblical words in local ideologies, but at helping disciples to learn and understand biblical words to resist to common discourse and defend the ideology of the Bible. Therefore we must be careful about the way the text seems to reach people at the first reading.


Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Harriet_Hill (0)  
United States
@ Jacques_N:

Thanks, Jacques, for your very helpful response. Yes, dwelling in the narrative, letting it transform us/our cultures rather than a ’how-to’ manual of instructions to navigate life’s problems. I find lots of people are very responsive to this approach. 

For Bible translation, the idea Dynamic Equivalence proposed was that audiences should be able to understand a biblical text on a first reading. if not, there was something wrong with the translation--it needed to be made more clear--usually more explicit. With developments in our understanding of communication (especially Relevance Theory), this idea is challenged. Not only do audiences need to learn the intended background information to understand the text (which is a long-term process), the Bible is intended for a life-time of reading and rereading. We never finish contemplating it. And God has given people gifts to help us do so. There’s a lot more that’s needed beyond a translation. 

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Jim_Harries (-3)

 I very much appreciate this contribution by Harriet. She is bringing a very pertinent debate to the attention of Lausanne - especially as it is to be on this occasion in Africa. I hope there will be many comments.

 I would also like to critique this approach. One critique, is that the language in use appears to be English. One difference in people’s (Cote D’Evoirians) responses to the kinds of questions in Ephesians, will be different implicit translations from their own languages into English terms like ’witchcraft’. The latter is a very English term. I know for example, from East African contexts, that the impact of the word often translated into witchcraft from Kiswahili is very different from that of Dholuo (Pres. Obama’s father’s mother tongue).

 Two linguistic feats are here needed. One, to go back to the original

 Greek. Two, to discuss with CoteDevorians in their own languages. If

 we take translated Scriptures as ’authoritative’ (which in essence I

 do), then we can take the Bible in whatever Cotedevorian language as

 authority. But to use an English language text for non-native English

 speakers is asking for trouble.

 Harriet also encourages us to look at the original context of the

 Scriptures. I suggest that this ’original context’, as discovered by

 recent Biblical scholarship etc., is ’tied to’ Western cultures. That

 is, when historians (Bible scholars) try to discern the ’then’ to bring it to the ’now’, they do so in a way that is relative to the now. That is, such research is of limited value to non-Western contexts, whose researchers (should they engage in such exploits) would frankly begin with very different presuppositions, which would majorly alter the slant of their findings.

Harriet states that the Cote-Devorian worldview is much more similar to that of the Bible than that of the ’West’. Yes, fair enough, from the Western point of view. But, it also appears that when many Africans read the Bible they can find things in it that appear Western, and if they were the ones initiating the research, they would probably run aground on those issues that would highlight where Western cultures are more ’Biblical’ than theirs.

I suggest that a key step required is to take this debate out of English. As long as it is in English, it will produce interesting speculation ... Unfortunately, keeping it in English will not be empowering to the CoteDevorian people, for various reasons. It will result in participants in the debate ’thinking’ that they have acquired understandings, which will be a deterrent to their learning African languages from within African cultures, etc.


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