Illuminating The World of Jesus
Through Cultural Anthropology*
John J. Pilch, Ph.D.

Prizzi's Honor is one of six films I use in my scripture courses to increase student sensitivity to honor and shame, the core values of Mediterranean culture. Last semester, one student reported: "...even with the work we have done [in class] the plot was a little difficult to take... I wish the [Prizzi] family would forget the honor and shame aspect of life. People need to live their lives without the rule of a guarding family. The control honor and shame has on the family should be lessened, people should not be forced to live under those kinds of restrictions." This American student would want all people to be just like Americans. In contrast, another American student observed: "As strange as these values may sound to us, people take them seriously and live by them as strongly as we live by ours."

If our contemporary, ever shrinking, global village poses increasing demands for developing cross-cultural sensitivity, literacy, and competency, imagine the challenge posed by the Bible. Lynch and Hanson (35) advise that

Achieving cross-cultural competency requires that we lower our defenses, take risks and practice behaviors that may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable. It requires a flexible mind, an open heart and a willingness to accept alternative perspectives. It may even mean setting aside some beliefs that are cherished to make room for others whose value is unknown; and it may mean changing what we think, what we say, and how we behave.
In this article, I draw upon the document recently published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission on The Interpretation of the Bible in The Church to highlight some of the "changes in thinking" that will help a modern, Western student of the Bible to read the text with appropriate cultural sensitivity. Specifically as a practitioner of the social scientific approach to interpreting Scripture, I offer in the first part of this article reflections on the document's statements about culture and cultural anthropology. In the second section, I present representative concepts of the cultural anthropological approach with illustrations from the New Testament. Finally, I point out the contribution this approach can make to the catechetical enterprise.

I. The Document

In May, 1991, The First International Congress on the Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation convened at the Castillo de la Mota in Medina del Campo, Spain. Approximately thirty five scholars and practitioners of the social scientific approach to interpreting Scripture came from North America, Spain, Germany, Austria, Norway and Australia to share and evaluate the results of their research. Father Domingo Muñoz, a distinguished biblical scholar and member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, attended the three day Congress and presented a paper on John's Gospel in the Mediterranean Social Psychology Group chaired by this author.

The Biblical Commission's document on The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church that reviewed interpretations which utilize the human sciences (see section I. D., pp. 57-63) indicates that Commission members had a good understanding of that approach and were familiar with its seasoned practitioners and the results it produces. Fr. Muñoz's insights from his first hand experience at the Conference in Spain undoubtedly helped shape these sections.

In addition to the specific section devoted to cultural anthropology (I. D. 2., pp. 60-51) other comments and observations about culture are sprinkled throughout the document. This is how I assess them.

Ancient, Middle Eastern Culture.

More than any other Roman document that has hitherto appeared, this one pays repeated, explicit attention to the need for learning and understanding the ancient, Middle Eastern culture, or the "socio-cultural world" (I. B. 3., p. 50) in which the Bible originated. It recognizes that this ancient culture presents "not a few difficulties" for interpreters (Papal Address, § 15, p. 19) who must respect the "historical, cultural context" of literary genres (Papal Address, § 8, p. 13).

Within the context of actualization (American social scientists prefer to speak of appropriation; pastoral ministers speak of pastoral application) of the text, all are advised to recognize that translation from one language (Hebrew or Aramaic) to another (Greek; and all three to English!) "necessarily involves a change of cultural context; concepts are not identical and symbols have a different meaning, for they come up against other traditions of thought and other ways of life" (IV. B., p. 118).

The reason why concepts and symbols have different meanings in different cultures is that meaning derives from comes from social system. To interpret the Bible respectfully requires a solid knowledge of the Mediterranean social system in which it originated. This is especially important, therefore, for those who read the Bible in English translation with hardly an awareness that every translation is an interpretation. Often the English language concept bears little or no relationship to the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek concept it translates. A new kind of dictionary is needed to make such an adequate cross-cultural translation (see Pilch and Malina).

In its conclusion (p. 128), the document fittingly insists that

The eternal Word became incarnate at a precise period of history, within a clearly defined cultural and social environment. Anyone who desires to understand the Word of God should humbly seek it out there where it has made itself visible and accept to this end the necessary help of human knowledge (author's comment: or as the document elsewhere proposes, the human sciences such as sociology, cultural anthropology, etc.).
Many who use cultural anthropology to interpret the Bible rely particularly upon its sub-discipline, Mediterranean anthropology. Fully appreciating differences that exist between modern and ancient times and even between individual countries in those ages, scholars believe insights from this discipline are extremely helpful in imagining in a disciplined and testable way the cultural and social environment in which Jesus lived. Any interpretation that ignores such insights distorts the scripture like a funhouse mirror.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Describing the tasks of biblical specialists (exegetes), the Commission recognizes that the age of the omnicompetent interpreter long past. It urges a division of labor and interdisciplinary collaboration especially in research (III. C. 2., p. 103).

The Context Group, whose leadership helped arrange and whose members delivered fifteen of the twenty-two papers at the Congress in Spain, was established in 1989 precisely to facilitate scholarly collaboration. The English language papers have been published in the Biblical Theology Bulletin (Bossman and White).

Collaborating on an informal basis for nearly two decades within the Catholic Biblical Association of America and the Society of Biblical Literature, Context Group scholars discovered a common interest in the social sciences as a valuable tool for interpreting the Middle Eastern cultural context in which the Bible and the people who populate its pages originated.

The scholars have been meeting annually in the spring in Portland, OR. They freely and generously pool their diverse research skills and data and act as mutually helpful editors for works in progress toward publication. Most importantly, they work on group projects and publications. (See the edited and joint publications in the select list at the end of this article).

Commission's Word of Caution

The Commission rightly concludes that many more of the human sciences than those it reviews (sociology; cultural anthropology; psychology; psychoanalysis) are useful for interpreting the Bible. Yet it adds a word of caution:

In all these areas, it is necessary to take good account of competence in the particular field and to recognize that only rarely will one and the same person be fully qualified in both exegesis and one or other of the human sciences (p. 63).
This is an oft-repeated but unfounded and puzzling objection. Exegesis itself is a hybrid discipline. Exegetes must master ancient Near Eastern and modern languages and history, the history of biblical interpretation, archaeology, and a variety of literary criticisms, to mention just the major tools and skills.

The Commission does not specify how competence in the human sciences should be judged but its opinion about the rarity of a scholar being qualified in more than one field suggests it believes additional advanced degrees and prestigious publications would carry special weight, something even exegetes don't possess in the many specialties that they juggle mentioned above.

Contemporary interdisciplinary specialists would disagree with the Commission. So too did the Oxford Classicist E.R. Dodd in his 1950 lectures on The Greeks and the Irrational, perhaps one of the first modern scholars to do so. Jahoda and Lewis (29) go still further. While acknowledging the value of interdisciplinary dialogue, they note that

sometimes the efforts of a mixed anthropological and psychological team may be less effective than those of single hybrid professionals... The existing record of team work here [in this book], in our opinion, tends to confirm the validity of Meyer Fortes' shrewd observation that the best interdisciplinary co-operation is often that carried out in the mind of a single researcher.
All Context Group members have been trained in the traditional methods of exegesis. The majority teach in American universities where team teaching is common, and where interdepartmental and cross-disciplinary exchanges and collaboration take place on a regular basis both formally and informally. Some Context Group scholars have held adjunct positions in other departments like preventive medicine, sociology, history, psychology, literature, and the like.

A number have lived for extended periods in foreign cultures, and all have travelled or led study (or "fam" = familiarization) tours to acquaint visitors with these cultures. In contrast to European Universities, American University professors do not teach or exist in isolation in their respective institutions. The experience and publications of Context Group scholars confirm the observation of Jahoda and Lewis which challenges the Commission's concern.

II. The Approach through Cultural Anthropology (I. D. 2.)

Sociology is the science most appropriate for studying one's own society; anthropology is the science best suited for comparing societies or cultures. The Biblical Commission's document speaks approvingly of utilizing methods and concepts from cultural anthropology in interpreting the Bible. It acknowledges the correctness of identifying the Mediterranean as a culture continent or a culture area. It also highlights key values that characterize this culture: honor and shame; secrecy, deception, and lying; keeping faith; tradition; distinguishing between formal social institutions; etc. It enumerates dyadic institutions, relationships, personalities, and contracts that differ so starkly from Western individualism. The Commission's list of key cultural values reflects precisely the topics and themes discussed at the Congress in Spain (see the articles in Bossman and White).

Perhaps most important, the Commission recognizes the validity of constructing and using existing models with suitable modification (pp. 59-60), a standard and acceptable practice in the social sciences. The construction and application of social science models in scripture studies has begun to bear rich fruit with significant implications for actualization and inculturation. The college undergraduate textbooks of Malina (1993a and b) and the workbooks by Pilch (1992 a and b) guide the interested Bible student through a step by step process to learn how to construct and use models when studying scripture.

At the Congress in Spain, one paper in the Mediterranean Social Psychology Groups addressed "The Messianic Secret and Mediterranean Culture: A Test Case for Honor, Secrecy, and Deceit." The author modified and refined a model proposed by Georg Simmel and developed by Stanton K. Tefft and colleagues.

At the Congress's conclusion, that group's moderator summarized and clustered the papers reviewed by noting that models play at least two roles. They can categorize data, or interpret data, or do both simultaneously. On the one hand, the model in the secrecy paper gathered, categorized, and offered a tentative interpretation of data seen in a new light. On the other hand, Father Muñoz's paper on John's gospel read in that same Group used an implicit model to interpret data.

Cross-cultural Competency

The Commission's document recognizes the need among all who read the Bible to develop cross-cultural competency, literacy and sensitivity. The following paragraphs draw upon insights from cross cultural and Mediterranean anthropology to illustrate how a contemporary Western reader should read the Bible in order to treat its authors and their compositions with appropriate respect, that is, with cross-cultural competency, literacy, and sensitivity.

A. Cultural Designation. De Arellano (26) insists on the necessity of reflecting upon the labels people use to identify themselves and to identify others (see also Malina and Neyrey). In the ancient Mediterranean world, people and animate beings were generally labeled according to their birth (geniture) or their geographic place of origin. Simon Bar Jonah and the sons of Zebedee were identified by their geniture. Jesus was sometimes labelled by geographic place of origin (Jesus of Nazareth) and sometime by geniture (carpenter's son; son of Mary). Clement of Alexandria spoke of Philo the Pythagoraean. Only later was he called Philo the Jew. Since space and time are created and determined by human beings, it is human beings who determine labels for specific spaces and times.

The "in-group" name or label of self-identity favored by our biblical ancestors in the Faith was "house of Israel" because Israel was the name of the people that lived in that land which was named after its inhabitants. Recall Jesus' charge to his missionaries: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 10:5-6).

The house of Israel included Judeans, Galileans, Pereans, and even others who had their origin in the land of Israel but emigrated beyond the borders of ancient Palestine. Insiders keep these distinctions, but outsiders blurred them all with a single word.

The "out-group" name or label preferred by outsiders to identify the people who referred to themselves as the "house of Israel" was Judean. Since the central place of the "house of Israel" was the Temple, which is in Jerusalem in Judea, this identification made good sense to outsiders. Pilate and other foreigners called all the people of Israel "Judeans." He identified Jesus the Galilean as "King of the Judeans," the inscription he had placed on the cross (John 19:19-22). To Pilate and other outsiders, all the natives of this country were "Judeans."

This in fact is the word used in Hebrew and Greek Bibles: Yehudim and Ioudaioi. English translations customarily and incorrectly render these words "Jews." The proper translation is "Judean," a term which embraces a wide variety of peoples, only some of whom became the modern Jews. The religion of the people who lived in that period should be referred to as the Judean religion and the people who practiced it should be referred to as Judeans, even if they lived beyond the boundaries of Judea. This is the approach taken in books recently published by biblical scholars (e.g., Ord and Coote iv-vi; Malina 1993b: xiii-xv).

If a reader of the New Testament were to replace the words "Jews" and "Gentiles" with "set apart" and "foreigners" that reader would appreciate the appropriate, ethnocentric "ingroup" and "outgroup" labels. Similarly. the terms "Jew" and "Greek" (or "Hellenist") would be suitably rendered "set apart" and "civilized." Thus the Matthean Jesus' injunction not to go to the Gentiles means to "avoid the foreigners."

Modern Jewish scholars like Shaye Cohen point out that to speak of the Jews today is not the same as to speak of the people of Judea during the centuries immediately before and after the time of Jesus. The religion of contemporary Jews is rooted in the formation of the Babylonian Talmud of the sixth century AD from which emerged "normative Judaism," the Pharisaic scribalism that is the matrix of today's Jewish religious beliefs and practices. Here lies the roots of Jews and the Jewish religion familiar to us today. It is anachronistic to retroject these beliefs and practices into the biblical period.

Conclusion. Diversity by reason of cultural designation is a consequence of who uses the word, the context in which it is used, and the time period spoken of. Cultural anthropology helps an investigator to maintain and respect the differences of interpretation of these simple Hebrew and Greek words.

B. Group-Orientation: The Judeans - a collectivistic or group-oriented society. In the United States, minority groups such as Hispanics/Latinos, Asians/Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and African/Black Americans share a collectivistic orientation that contrasts strongly with mainstream U.S. individualistic orientation.

Collectivistic societies promote interdependence and cooperation among members of the family and society, while individualistic societies urge members of family and society to stand on their own two feet. Collectivistic societies promote an authoritative structure with respect for elders and ancestors (definitely hierarchical). Individualistic societies promote autonomy and equality. In collectivistic society, harmony and saving face is maintained at all costs. Individualistic societies urge members to develop their own opinions, no matter what anybody else may think, say, or do.

In individualistic societies like the U.S.A., the individual strives for independence. There is a high regard for personal achievement, competition, hard work and materialism. These basic ideologies are reflected in the behaviors and attitudes of Anglo Americans.

To appreciate the collectivistic nature of our ancestors in first century Judean society, consider the people whom Jesus healed as reported in Mark's gospel. There is Peter's mother-in-law, a paralytic, a leper, a man with a withered hand, a man with an unclean spirit, a woman with a menstrual irregularity. The vast majority are stereotyped by their illness.

Only one name is reported, Bar Timaeus (10:46), but Timaeus is the father's name, not the blind man's name. The reader learns not an individual but rather a family relationship, a collective rather than an individualistic value.

Conclusion. The ancient Judeans are clearly a collectivistic society. Western or American Individualism is all but lacking in that society. And like all collectivistic societies, they tend to identify people by stereotype.

C. Honor and Shame: the core culture values of collectivistic Judeans. The core values of a culture are the preferred orientations and outcomes which drive the behaviors of its members. Honor is a public claim to worth affirmed by public acknowledgment of that claim. Shame is the public's denial of the claim to honor, or behavior deliberately contrary to social, that is, public expectations. In the Bible, "glory" words are perhaps the most familiar terms that belong to the value of honor, as in "give glory to God." Acknowledge God's rightful claim!

Genealogies in the Bible reflect Mediterranean cultural concern for honor but they are little concerned with lineal purity. Rather they are rather created during adulthood to establish and document one's claim to honor. Matthew and Luke created two very different genealogies for the adult (and by that time deceased) Jesus! Genealogies change as necessary because they are deduced from the subsequent behavior and character of an adult.

Mark doesn't have a genealogy for Jesus but opens the gospel with an honorary title: "The proclamation of Jesus Messiah, Son of God." This is Jesus' fundamental claim to honor both ascribed ("son" i.e., deriving from origin, who one is) and achieved or acquired ("messiah," derived from behavior, what one does). At his Baptism, Jesus' honor claim is validated: "You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased."

That the temptation immediately follows the baptism in the gospel story line is an obvious necessity in Mediterranean cultural perspective. Any claim to honor will be tested. People will try to trick the person into failure, into shame. Mark's simple report of Jesus' temptation is creatively expanded in Matthew and Luke to illustrate how effectively Jesus can protect his honor. The exchange between Jesus and the tempter is an example of a strategy the collectivistic Judeans used often and well in defense of honor, namely, challenge and riposte.

D. Challenge and Riposte. Because honor was the key value of our collectivistic Judean ancestors in the Faith, they were always involved in struggles over protecting, defending, and even extending it. They were an agonistic culture, prone to conflict.

A favorite strategy in these conflicts was challenge and riposte.

A challenge to another's honor can be behavioral or verbal. Shaking the dust off one's feet toward people who refuse to extend culturally expected hospitality toward strangers is a behavioral challenge (Mark 6:11). Questions invariably are verbal challenges. Though the evangelist sometimes specifies that someone asked Jesus a question to challenge his honor and shame him (Luke 10:25), every question can potentially shame another person because that person might now know the answer. In that case, the respondent will lie to preserve honor.

Riposte is a fencing term that describes the sharp, swift thrust following the successful parrying of an opponent's lunge.

Jesus is a master of riposte to every challenge hurled at him verbal or behavioral. When the Pharisees challenge him about his disciples' eating with unwashed hands (Mark 7:5), Jesus makes his riposte with an insult: "hypocrites," a scripture quote, and a counter challenge (7:6). In fact, Jesus almost always responds to challenges with an insult. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus uses the word hypocrite repeatedly and exclusively when referring to the Pharisees. The Greek word means actor, and Jesus' insult is that scripture may well be the lines his challengers quote but it is not the script by which they live. They are actors!

One of Jesus's sharpest insults was directed toward the Syrophoenician Gentile woman (Mark 7:24-38; different ethnic and gender group). She approaches Jesus in a house, therefore she has quite likely inappropriately entered male space in that house. She bows at his feet to soften the audacity of her intrusion and begs for a favor on behalf of her daughter. Jesus' insulting riposte to her challenge is: "it not fair to take children's food and throw it to the puppies!" Her counter-riposte is that even puppies under the table eat the children's crumbs.

This is a rare occasion when Jesus is bested in the cultural game of challenge and riposte. He acknowledges the woman's skill at riposte ("for saying that") and declares the favor granted. In Matthew's version, Jesus final comment ("let it be done for you as you wish" 15:28) is the Middle Eastern way of giving up in an argument one doesn't expect to win. The woman has proven a worthy match and bested Jesus in one of his favorite cultural games. Cultural anthropology supports and confirms the position of Mary Ann Beavis that the encounter hinges on the difference of ethnicity and not gender.

For the contemporary Western reader, the interpretation of this last pericope raises the question: "was Jesus 'prejudiced'?"

E. Group-centered Judeans: prejudiced?

Earlier we noted that our collectivistic Judean ancestors in the Faith had a tendency to stereotype. Recall that only one person Jesus healed in Mark's gospel had a name. The sick were stereotyped by their illness: leper, paralytic, etc. Moreover, the New Testament reflects other stereotypical assessments. The editorial comment "Judeans do not share things in common with Samaritans" (John 4:9) is one example. All of these are "neutral" stereotypes. They make no negative evaluation or judgment; they simply report a cultural generalization.

Westby (41) points out that a stereotype becomes a prejudice when a negative evaluation is part of the statement. Three elements make up a prejudice: (1) a negative evaluation (2) that is based on ethnicity (behavior) or race (biology) rather than on an individual's personal qualities (3) and is rooted in an organized predisposition to react negatively.

For instance, the letter to Titus is addressed to residents of the island of Crete. The author quotes one of their own prophets who observed that all residents of the Island of Crete are "always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons" (Titus 1:12). The author has an opportunity to disagree but instead concurs: "That testimony is true!" Generally the inability to recognize exceptions to a generalization is a sign of prejudice.

While Luke portrays Jesus as open toward Samaritans, Matthew's Jesus instructs his disciples: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no Samaritan Town, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:5-6). Traditional scholarship believes that traditions about Jesus were more likely "improved" than "demeaned." This suggests that Matthew's portrait carries stronger cultural plausibility regarding Jesus' attitudes.

Generally speaking, the New Testament bears out the impression that stereotype often spilled over into prejudice. It expects its readers will all draw the "right" conclusions from such blanket judgments as "from Nazareth," "from Jerusalem," "a Galilean," "a fisherman," "a Pharisee," etc. This is all one needs to know to make a judgment or act upon a prejudice.

Prejudice is a tendency to overgeneralize, to take one person as representative of the entire group (de Arellano 28). Taking into account idiosyncratic variables by class, geography, migration history, and the like, helps overcome prejudice. Jesus appears to make a breakthrough in prejudice by recognizing that the Syrophoenician Gentile woman's skill in insulting surpassed his! He saw past his generalization to the merits of this individual and granted her request.

Conclusion. These five select concepts drawn from cultural and specifically Mediterranean anthropology and applied toward the interpretation of New Testament texts help a modern Western reader to view the ancient Biblical text with appropriate cultural sensitivity, literacy, and competency. The ultimate goal of such interpretation is to discover the most culturally plausible sense of these ancient Mediterranean texts. When that occurs, there still remains one more challenge because no practitioner of this approach believes that cultural anthropology "simply by itself [can] determine what is specifically the content of Revelation" (I. D. 2., p. 63).

III. Cultural Anthropology and Catechetics

In its final section (IV. Interpretation of the Bible in the Life of the Church), the document includes a similar exhortation to those engaged in Pastoral Ministry (IV. C. 3., pp. 122-125) under which it includes catechetics. The main point is a reminder to stay close to the "historical context of divine revelation" but move beyond that to the "salvific meaning" of the texts. It is insufficient ("superficial") to stop with a chronological arrangement of persons and events in the Bible, a point at which historical critical interpretation often stopped.

Similar advice would extend to cultural anthropology. It is insufficient to rest content with presenting only the Mediterranean cultural perspective. This, however, is not the American problem. Generally speaking, Americans are very uncomfortable with cultural differences. They prefer to believe that "they" (people of other cultural groups) are really just like "us" (Americans/ democrats/egalitarians/etc.). Americans prefer unity to diversity as the motto on our coinage reminds us: E pluribus unum. Stewart and Bennett (11) explain why:

It is a bias of American thought to perceive similarities in others and to downgrade differences and variations, particularly when describing non-Western societies. Americans do not typically appreciate that each society incorporates a full range of cultural variations, and differences between two societies are found when patterns of the same cultural components are compared.

The commission then focuses on two ways to face these differences: actualization and inculturation.


The Commission uses this word to describe the traditional process already evident in the Bible, e.g., the Chronicler's re-interpretation of the story recounted by the Deuteronomistic Historian. The People of God have routinely re-read ancient texts in the light of new circumstances and applied them to their contemporary situation.

The Commission lists three steps in the process. (1) Attending to the Word within one's concrete situation. (2) Identifying the aspects of this situation highlighted or questioned by the biblical text. (3) Drawing from the text those elements that shed light from the saving will of God in Christ upon the present situation.

Pastoral Ministers and Catechists familiar with strategies for theological reflection will recognize that this is similar to approaches that focus on "life" (the present situation) and "lore" (the Scripture or other tradition). Preachers favor the "Lore-Life-Lore" approach. After reading and expounding a biblical text, they apply it to a life situation (see Jacobs-Malina for a variation on this approach).

Others prefer the "Life-Lore-Life" approach. Two volumes in the Paulist Press "Hear the Word" Series (Pilch 1991a and b) utilize the "Life-Lore-Approach." Each chapter has three moments. (1) Life. The Bible interpreter is urged to examine and probe life in the target culture, i.e., the one in which the interpreter lives. The reader reflects upon American perspective values and key ideas (parenting; secrecy; honor; etc.). (2) Lore. The interpreter is then guided through select biblical texts treating the same ideas and values within the Mediterranean cultural perspective. (3) Life. The concluding section challenges the interpreter to build a bridge between the two cultural worlds. The cultural anthropological approach makes a valuable contribution to both strategies.

For building bridges between contrasting cultures, Stewart and Bennett (16) propose a similar process. The first step is to learn and recognize the assumptions and values of one's own cultural behavior. The second step is to systematically contrast these assumptions and values with the "other culture" and highlight differences. Initially, one will empathize with different feelings but must be prepared to move beyond as indeed the Pontifical Biblical Commission urges. The final step is to work at creating the unique common ground required for successful intercultural communication. Only in this way can a believer from a culture different from that of Jesus understand and begin to draw insights and conclusions relative to the believers culture.


This process is as necessary in the United States as it is in any Third or Fourth World "missionary" country. Translation is the first step in inculturation. We still need translations that are as sensitive to the culture of the ancient world as they attempt to be to the modern, American world. When inclusive language translations please the listener's ear they invariably misrepresent the ancient Mediterranean world reflected in the Bible. The sage's advice in Proverbs to physically punish boys simply never applied to girls. To render the word "son" as "child" is unfair and incorrect. It is not the dictionary but the social system that gives language its meaning, and efforts at inclusive language translations have yet to take this fact seriously.

The second step is interpretation in which cultural anthropology can play a very significant part. Even when words seem to be the same (e.g., hospitality, or self-denial), the understanding of that concept is radically different in the modern Western world and the ancient Mediterranean world (Pilch and Malina).

Only when these first two steps are carefully and responsibly addressed is it possible to move on to other stages of inculturation heading toward the goal of forming a local Christian culture. The first Bishop of the United States, John Carroll, saw as his task to incarnate the church in a world that was distinctively new. America still awaits the fulfillment of his cultural vision.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission's document on The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church is a welcome set of guidelines. American Catholic biblical scholarship has outgrown the era of translating the research of French and German scholars and has blossomed in its own right. It is gratifying not only to see the positive approval of the approach of cultural anthropology largely initiated and developed by American scholars such as members of The Context Group, but also the influence of the American Bishops' Statement on Fundamentalism cautioning against seeking "ready answers to the problems of life" (see I. F.). This document encourages everyone including those in catechetical ministry to rely on the best of contemporary biblical scholarship in their ongoing efforts to discover and present "the honest truth about Jesus" and his cultural world (Vatican II On Revelation § 19).


Clark, Lynne W. and Dava E. Waltzman, Editors

1993 Faculty and Student Challenges in Facing Cultural and Linguistic Diversity. Springfield, IL.: Charles C. Thomas.

Cohen, Shaye J.D.

1990 "Religion, Ethnicity, and 'Hellenism' in the Emergence of Jewish Identity in Maccabean Palestine," pp. 204-223 in Per Bilde, Troels Engber-Pedersen, Lise Hannestad and Jan Zahle (eds.), Religion and Religious Practice In The Seleucid Kingdom. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

de Arellano, Annette B.

1991 "Addressing Cultural Diversity within the Academy" pp. 25-30 in Clark and Waltzman.

Jacobs-Malina, Diane

1993 Beyond Patriarchy: The Images of Family in Jesus. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Jahoda, Gustav and I.M. Lewis, editors

1988 Acquiring Culture: Cross Cultural Studies in Child Development. London and New York: Routledge, Kegan and Paul.

Lynch, E. and M. Hanson, Editors.

1991 Developing Cross-Cultural Competence. Baltimore: Brookes.

Ord, David Robert and Robert B. Coote

1994 Is the Bible True: Understanding the Bible Today. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Stewart, Edward C. and Milton J. Bennett

1991 American Cultural Patterns. 2nd edition. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission

1993 The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Also available in Origins 23 (#29, January 6, 1994).

Westby, Carol E.

1991 "Understanding Ethnic Identity and Prejudice" pp. 31-59 in Clark and Waltzman.

Select Context Group Publications

Bossman, David M. and Leland J. White, Editors

1992 Biblical Theology Bulletin 22 (#2 Summer; #3 Fall) Special Issues, Proceedings of the First International Congress on the Social Sciences and Second Testament Interpretation, at Medina del Campo, Spain.

1993 Biblical Theology Bulletin 23 (#1, Spring). Special Issue.

1993 Biblical Theology Bulletin 23 (#4, Winter). Articles from the International Congress by Johann Maier and Wolfgang Stegemann.

Elliott, John H.

1993 What is Social Scientific Criticism? Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Hanson, K.D. and Douglas E. Oakman

1998  Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts.  Minneapolis: Fortress.

Malina, Bruce J.

1993a The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.  (2001, Third Edition, Revised and Expanded)

1993b Windows on the World of Jesus. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Malina, Bruce J. and Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J.

1988 Calling Jesus Names: The Social Values of Labels in Matthew. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press.

Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch

2000 Social Science Commentary on Revelation.  Minneapolis: Fortress.

2006  Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul.  Minneapolis: Fortress.

2 006 Social Science Commentary on Acts of the Apostles.  Minneapolis: Fortress.

Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh

1992 Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress. (revised and updated edition,  2003).

1998 Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John.  Minneapolis: Fortress.

Neyrey, Jerome H., S.J., Editor

1991 The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Neyrey, Jerome H., S.J.

1998 Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.

2007 Give God the Golry: Ancient Prayer and Worship in Cultural Perspective.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Oakman, Douglas

1986 Jesus and the Economic Questions of His Day. Lewiston, NY/Queenston, ONT: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Osiek, Carolyn, R.S.C.J.

1992 What are they saying about the social setting of the New Testament? Newly Expanded and Fully Revised. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press.

Pilch, John J.

1999 The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

1995-1998 The Cultural World of Jesus Sunday by Sunday.  Three Volumes.  Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

1991a Introducing the Cultural Context of the Old Testament. Hear the Word, Vol. 1. New York, NY and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.  (2007 Revised and updated edition published by Wipf & Stock, Eugene Oregon).

1991b Introducing the Cultural Context of the New Testament. Hear the Word, Vol. 2. New York, NY and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. (2007 Revised and updated edition published by Wipf & Stock, Eugene Oregon).

Pilch, John J. and Bruce J. Malina, Editors

1998  A Handbook of  Biblical Social Values. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

*This article is a revision of a major address, "The Cultural World of Jesus," delivered at the Second Annual National Directors of Religious Education Convocation, April 6-9, 1994, in Anaheim, CA. It was published in The Living Light 31 (1994) 20-31. Updated for this web-site October 12, 2007