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Community and Testimony

Cultural Influence in Biblical Studies

Dennis Bratcher

For people who live in the Western world, especially in the United States, it is sometimes difficult to come to terms with just how thoroughly that context affects how we view everything, from how to raise children to the nature of God and ultimate reality. While we can easily admit that culture has a bearing on social attitudes such as racial prejudice or social mores, we have a harder time coming to terms with how that simple fact affects us in more subtle but at the same time more influential ways.

As a result while we might take some interest or delight in different ways of viewing the world in a sort of tourist mode, we still tend to view the world and life as if everyone sees it the same way that we do. And yet that tendency all too easily can represent a cultural imperialism that hinders understanding and relationship across very real if unknown cultural divides.

For instance, Americans take a great deal of pride in their personal freedom and individualism, a belief in the primary importance of the individual so that the rights and interests of the individual take precedence over the rights or interest of a wider social group or government. In a well known line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, after taking a lethal dose of radiation to save the ship and the crew of the Enterprise Spock explains his actions to Captain Kirk: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." "Or of the one," Kirk adds. The fact that the line is so memorable is due largely to the fact that this sentiment, lofty though it may be, runs counter to our basic western, and especially American, cultural values. We would aspire to be so self-sacrificing for the sake of others, but the reality is that most western culture is permeated with a concern with self-interest. This is not inherently good or bad. It is just the way we view the world.

Yet, in many places in the world today, such as most areas in Africa or Latin American where tribal culture still flourishes, or in most of the Far East, the primary concern is not the individual but the family or the wider community. In such cultures an individual is not defined by who they are or what they have achieved as an individual but in terms of what they contribute to the group, to which family they belong, and how well they have fulfilled obligations to other family, tribal, or community members. Often the competitive spirit that we value so highly in American thinking, or in the western world in general, is almost totally lacking, replaced by a sense of community and social obligation.

For example, I have been in several contexts around the world, most notably in Korea but also in Russia and Kazakhstan, where "cheating" among college students in classes taught by westerners is rampant. Assignment papers are shared with one another, students copy from each other on tests, often quite openly, even to the point of asking students around them for the answers. If a student is asked a question in class and does not know the answer, immediately several students nearby will whisper the answer or try to slip the student a note. Cheating! Needless to say, it is quite frustrating to western teachers.

Yet if we consider more carefully, to label this cheating is to impose a very western cultural value. The academic structure usually employed in such contexts was imposed by westerners, often originally missionaries, who assumed a competitive and individualistic approach to learning. Yet these students do not think in such terms. They are used to thinking communally and are used to doing things and solving problems in a communal context. To them, it is not cheating to share work or to collaborate on answers. That is simply how they view their place in a larger social structure. They have a responsibility to fellow students that transcends academic structure. The wise western teacher will develop teaching strategies and assignments that will take advantage of this communal way of viewing the world and use it to facilitate learning rather than trying to duplicate a western educational system based on values that are totally alien in that context.

I grew up in Oklahoma, the area of the United States that was set aside to corral the last of the five great Native American nations, as well as the vanishing remnants of numerous other smaller tribes. As a child I was privileged to listen to some of the "old timers" talk about the waning days of the Old West as white settlers began moving into the Native American tribal lands around the turn of the 20th century (Oklahoma became a state in 1907). Invariably, there were stories about the "thieving Indians" as the old timers recounted countless stories of the treachery of Native Americans in stealing horses, blankets, food, and supplies from settlers who had befriended them. And there were other stories passed down from an earlier generation that lingered in the settlers’ memory of Indian raids and massacres of whites who were trying to fence in ranches and farms throughout the area.

Later as I tried to understand some of this history, it slowly dawned on me why there was such a high incidence of "theft" among Native Americans and why they did not want fences on the land. In their tribal and communal way of viewing the world, there was no such thing as ownership of private property (unless it was a warrior’s horse or something captured from an enemy). Most things that we would count as personal and private property they viewed as belonging to the tribe or clan to be shared by its members. If someone needed something, it was given to them or they could take it. Along with all those settlers’ stories of theft were also stories of Native Americans abruptly giving the settlers beadwork, hides, or horses. Often when things were taken, something would be left in its place. Of course, the white settlers most often did not like the "trade" because they were thinking in terms of monetary value. After all, a pair of hide moccasins did not equal a new Remington carbine! But that was not the basis for the trade in Native American thinking. Rather, it was on the basis of need.

The same thinking applied to the land. In Native American thinking, land could not be owned; it could only be used, given by the Great Spirit to provide for the needs of those in his care. They could not understand the settlers’ idea that land could be owned and restricted for only one person to use. To them, that was a violation of the sacredness of the land.

This conflict between individualistic values and communal ways of thinking is compounded when we try to view ancient Eastern cultures through the lens of modern western ways of thinking. Sometime we forget that most of the Bible is grounded, not in western culture, but in Eastern modes of thought and tribal social culture. Even the New Testament, which appears to be very western since it is written in Greek in a Roman historical context telling of the early church in Eastern Europe, has its conceptual roots deep in the Hebrew Bible and the thought world of the Middle East. As a result, in many cases even though the words are Greek spoken by a Roman, the thought world in still Eastern.

While this insight can be applied to many contexts in biblical study, here I want to consider how this would affect our understanding of the development of the Bible and the nature of the Bible as Scripture. While we can immediately respond with stock answers about inspiration and revelation, we need to remember that those are theological doctrines, not answers to questions that arise from a close examination of the biblical text itself. And whatever else biblical studies is about, it should be about closely examining the biblical text for what it actually contains, says, and teaches, all in terms of understanding its communication for application to the life of the church today.

Our understanding of the development of the Bible is most often shaped by a model that is thoroughly grounded in the individualism that permeates our western culture. So, we tend to focus on an "author" of Scripture. In fact, much of early "Biblical Introduction" as a technical historical discipline focused on determining the author of specific biblical books. Much of the hostility to modern biblical studies revolved around sometimes acrimonious battles over who wrote which books of the Bible. It became such a hot topic that some could declare whether or not a person was even a Christian based on whether they believed a certain person wrote a certain biblical book (unfortunately, that is still the case in some circles; see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah). And all of this was most often done without much consideration of what the biblical text itself had to say.

If we think about this a moment, we can begin to realize that "author" means a specific thing in our culture. We have the somewhat odd notion that ideas can be owned by individuals. With our penchant for profit, we sell ideas as property. So we develop copyright laws that protect ideas as "intellectual property," which can cause litigation over who really owns the idea. Ideas and how we communicate them are a commodity to be bought and sold, and protected. This is not inherently good or bad. It is just the way it is in our world.

Yet in a communal culture, the ownership of ideas is a totally alien concept. Ideas, insight, the accumulated wisdom of the community, is not something to be owned but is to be shared, to be used in the instruction of the young and the guidance of the community as a whole. Certainly, there can be outstanding individuals who are gifted with wisdom and insight. But their ideas become the common property of the community, not just at one point in time but for succeeding generations. Those ideas become part of the traditions that are passed down though the community across the generations.

These accumulated traditions are not about who wrote them. The modern concept of "author" simply does not apply. The traditions may carry the name of the originator of the idea. But they also carry the added and accumulated interpretation from the community as the traditions are used and reused in the community across generations.

A good example of this from Eastern culture is the teachings of Confucius. A Chinese philosopher of the sixth century BC, Confucius was determined to reform the oppressive feudal society of ancient China. He began teaching and soon had assembled a group of student disciples whom he educated in philosophy and politics, as well as social skills, familial and social responsibility, and ethics. The two major writings of Confucius, The Five Classics and The Four Books (the I Ching sometimes attributed to Confucius is much older), are well known and provide the basis for a great deal of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture, as well as throughout Asia.

Yet, we do not know how much of this material comes from Confucius. The Four Books was actually compiled by Confucius’ disciples who edited the material and added their own interpretations many years after his death. While we would consider this dishonest in modern western contexts, in eastern thinking this is the best way to honor a master. A disciple cannot be greater than the master, so the disciple understands himself (in Chinese culture, it would be "he") to be carrying on the teachings of the master, even though it is his own "spin" placed on the teachings.

Yet, the work carries the name of Confucius. That is not a statement about authorship, as we moderns assume, but is a statement about community tradition. It is the Confucius traditions, not the author Confucius.

Some will want to contend that the Bible is different. After all, the Bible is inspired and the writings of Confucius are not. Of course, that is true. And yet if we place the Bible too far above the human hands that wrote it and preserved it, if we take it too far away from the ancient Hebrew and Greek in which it was written, we risk making it a magical book. It is most certainly God’s word. But it is God’s word written in human words by humans and for a human community. That is an important part of a Wesleyan theological perspective, that God really does work with human beings to accomplish his purposes in the world.

If there is any validity to all of this, it has some implications for how we view Scripture. It suggests that we cannot really speak of an author for very many biblical books, at least not in terms of what modern "author" means, with the exception of some of the Pauline epistles.  And even some of those books are most likely not 100% from the hand of Paul as they themselves suggest (cf. 2 Thess 3:17). If we take seriously the eastern and tribal/communal context of most of the Bible, and consider that for the Old Testament the traditions span 1,500 years, it becomes easier to understand that we are not dealing with a modern "author" model of writing. Of course, someone at some point had to physically write the material. But that does not necessarily imply an author, in terms of what we mean by that today.

More likely we are dealing with the testimony of a community over a long period of time. That is, the encounters with God were remembered within the community and passed down for the instruction of later generations. For example, the confession that occurs throughout the Old Testament, "Once we were slaves in Egypt . . ." bears the marks of such a communal testimony. This testimony to the great acts of God, as well as later reflections on the meaning of those revelations of God for later communities and the working out of laws and patterns of worship over hundreds of years, all combine to produce the traditions that become a part of Scripture.

So where is the place for inspiration in this process? This is more than we can address at this point (see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture). But it might be helpful to note that most of our ideas of inspiration are also determined by our individualistic models of authorship. We assume that inspiration is the inspiration of a single author at a single time, who then sits down and writes as God tells him.

But perhaps we need to realize that we have developed models of inspiration from our culture that are no more truth than other cultural models might be. If the context in which the Bible developed was communal, would it not be more congruent with what the Bible actually is to develop a model of inspiration that takes that communal dimension seriously? Perhaps the community and communities of Faith that had a hand in canonizing Scripture, deciding with the leadership of God which books to include in the canon, also had a hand in collecting and arranging the traditions that become the books. And if we recall that the process of canonization took several hundred years for the New Testament, it is easier to understand how God could work with a community of faith over centuries to produce a faithful testimony to his self-revelation.

After all, that is really what we believe about Scripture, that God has faithfully worked with human beings to provide for succeeding generations who have not witness God’s self-revelation first-hand (that would be us!) a faithful testimony to that revelation. In other words, inspiration can be conceptualized as much a process at work within the community of faith as it can be seen as a one-time act for one person that we call "author." After all, that is a primary biblical confession about God, that he has chosen to work in the world though a redeemed people, a community of Faith who would bear testimony to who He is.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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