How Cultural Shifts Affect Our Biblical Understanding

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I was reading through the New American Standard the other day and noticed that in some cases they had made a shift to more gender neutral verbiage when referring to groups of people that were male and female. The idea is that when the Bible says “men” or “he/him” in general instructions that it can get confusing. Why does it get confusing? People used to use the masculine generic – that mixed groups of people would be referred to in male terms in the English language. At some point in the last 30 years this shifted in the English language to use more gender neutral language when referring to groups of both genders.

The question came up in our conversation on this on Facebook of whether or not we would even be having this discussion without a broader cultural shift. I don’t believe we would. That if things hadn’t shifted in English that we wouldn’t have shifted our translation because people would understand and use the masculine generic. And that’s a good thing in this instance – a place where cultural changes led us to more accurately and actually more literally translate the Bible. Translating the Greek anthropos (where we get anthropology) to be solely masculine is not the primary definition of the word. The word is primarily about humanity at large, which is male and female. Which means older translations that used masculine generic did so because our culture did that and people understood it – not because it was a literal translation!

Cultural shifts can (not always but can) open our eyes up to see things we never noticed before. It took WWII and the Nazi persecution of the Jews before biblical scholars really started diving into second temple/first century Judaism. Instead of just reading the Old Testament through Luther and others (who missed the point on many things in Judaism because they read the OT through their lens of conflict and dispute with the Catholic church) they started reading what the Jews around the first century actually said about themselves and it was hugely helpful! This means that our understanding of parts of the Old Testament and first century Judaism was a culturally influenced view from the 1500s until the 1970s! It took a cultural shift and world war for us to begin to look at it fresh. So that’s one example of where cultural shifts created deeper biblical insights.

There are other instances where cultural shifts can lead us into places that get us further from what the Bible teaches and in my opinion this has been especially true since the 1960s on sexual ethics.

It is very important we tune ourselves into historical theological interpretations to see the flow of thinking over time so we can assess where we have landed and what has been thought in the past. This can open our eyes to either appreciate how our view has developed (or not) or to cause us to question where we have landed based on the saints of old and how they saw things. They didn’t get everything right but they should be considered. If your view has never been brought up in 2000 years it doesn’t make it automatically wrong but it should cause you to question it a bit more!

3 Responses

  1. Over 4,500 times the gender change was made throughout the Bible. But sometimes, it truly referred to a male audience.
    A bigger issue when the text of 1 Timothy 3 is changed into a “whoever” and “spouse.” That is an unwarranted change.

  2. Re: “Cultural shifts.” The discipleship of many is being threatened because leaders and teachers are either ignoring, or are unaware of, cultural shifts which are hostile to the gospel.

  3. I have been studying the Book of Revelation in terms of the different interpretations and the reasoning for why we believe what we do and it is eye opening how much the culture changes have affected the reasons for these changes in just the different interpretations that were believed in history.

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