The Problem with Bible Translations: Your Culture

Anyone who reads the Bible today faces an unavoidable fact—Scripture was originally written in and for a culture different than our own culture. This makes the Bible difficult to understand.

Consider the meaning of these words: He whistled at her, and she winked back. This sentence probably brought to mind an image of two people flirting. Your mind intuitively used cultural assumptions to interpret the facial gestures as innuendos. But depending on your cultural context, winking could mean something entirely different: in Asia, it is an offensive gesture; in West Africa, parents wink at children as a signal for them to leave the room. Interpretation is based on cultural assumptions, so we must recognize that the cultural gap between the biblical world and us may cause different interpretations.

Different Assumptions

You’ve heard this statistic: 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. This suggests that most meaning is implicit. Every writer assumes the reader can “read between the lines,” so there is no need to state the obvious. As the example about winking illustrates, the sender and receiver of a message must share common cultural assumptions for communication to be effective. But when people from two different cultures try to communicate, meaning gets lost in translation. This explains why readers today might misinterpret aspects of the Bible—we don’t share a common culture.

Biblical Social Values

Biblical writers assumed their readers understood the implicit social values of honor-shame cultures, such as: patronage, hospitality, purity, ethnicity, family, reciprocity, etc. But modern readers don’t intuitively know the assumed cultural nuances of ancient societies. So we misunderstand (or simply miss) aspects of the Bible because of cultural blindness. This problem is acute for Westerners because their guilt-innocence culture differs significantly from biblical cultures. Modern Western values such as legality, individualism, egalitarianism, and rationalism influence how we read the Bible, but they were not prominent in ancient cultures. (Christians in the Majority World do live in honor-shame cultures that are similar to biblical cultures. But, unfortunately, the traditions of Western Christianity unduly influence their theology.)

Example: The Meaning of “Faith”

Cultural assumptions even affect the meaning of individual words. For example, the English word “faith” refers to someone’s personal belief about something. This meaning reflects the rationalistic and individualistic values of Western culture. However, the biblical notion of “faith” reflects relational and collectivistic cultural values. In the Old Testament, an Israelite’s “faith” is a commitment to their covenant obligation to honor Yahweh. Likewise, the New Testament word translated “faith” (Greek: pistis) suggests loyalty and fidelity to a relationship. Biblical faith is not merely “belief about God,” but “allegiance to God.” Western cultural values give the word “faith” a cognitive, individualistic meaning that distracts readers from the relational connotations of the biblical concept.

The next post will suggest how we might bridge the cultural gap—an Honor-Shame Paraphrase of the Bible.


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Posted in Bible, Communication, Culture, NT, OT, Theology, Wesetern
9 comments on “The Problem with Bible Translations: Your Culture
  1. Rick Bovey says:

    As a Biblical exegete, this is a challenge that has always been faced in translating Scripture into various languages. When every jot and tittle are part of the inspired text, literal translations have great value. But getting the idea across into various cultures also has great value. It should not be an either/or but a both/and. 1st translations into one of the 2000 plus world languages always struggle with this challenge. Often it is necessary for the modern cultures to sincerely seek to understand the culture of the OT and NT because there are perversions in the current cultures that violate Biblical values. Culture is but it is not always correct. Culture is part of the “world”. I love these posts as they really challenge my traditional Western culture.

    • HonorShame says:

      Thanks Rick, great point. Yes, we hear the stories and challenges of Wycliffe/SIL Bible translators in remote parts of the world, but we forget that those same cultural issues affect our own English translations.

  2. John T. Webb says:

    Most churches/denominations don’t realize how antisemitic they are when teaching things “Jewish” without knowing how ancient Jews thought. “Esau he hated” is considered by our society to mean something vastly different from what the writers of the Bible knew it to mean.

    “The authors of God’s Word–virtually every one of them a Jew–have a profoundly Hebraic perspective on life and the world. If we are to interpret the Bible correctly, we must become attuned to this Hebraic setting in the ancient Near East.”
    — Dr. Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham, pg. 9

    • Nancy Parlette says:

      You make your statement about “Esau he hated”, but then don’t tell us what it DOES mean in the “Hebraic” perspective?? Please fill me in!
      Thank you. 🙂

  3. David Wiebe says:

    Appreciate this very important observation. One could mention western hegemony which adds another layer to the problem. We assume we know ‘best’ ways of thinking and producing knowledge. Therefore we think our way of interpretation or translation is automatically ‘right’ and miss the richness in the text through awareness of the original culture.

  4. Ann White says:

    And it further gets complicated when theology is taught with the western guilt/innocence perspective, ignoring the honor/shame perspective. Many majority world Christians and Christian leaders have learned their theology from the guilt/innocence perspective. This further complicates the task of translation.

  5. Duke Dillard says:

    I recommend (Mis)Reading Scripture Through Western Eyes to help shine more light on this concept/difficulty. I found it very helpful. They have a chapter on Honor-Shame as well.

  6. June Sparks says:

    I totally agree with everything you’ve said. I have been thinking alot about allegiance to God when we talk about Lordship. It also helps with the Kingdom of God concept. It harks back to history and legend of knights who swore oaths, pledging allegiance to their king. Even as I write I see the number of I’s in each sentence individualism is strong.

  7. HonorShame says:

    Thanks all for the encouraging feedback. The forthcoming Honor-Shame Paraphrase series addresses these very issues.

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