Cultural Diversity in the New Testament World

Not too long ago I heard a pastor whom I respect greatly on the radio preaching from Ephesians and mentioning the role of the pater familias in Ephesus. The classical historian within me cringed, because the pater familias was a Roman custom, already archaic in Rome in the time of the New Testament, and not generally emulated in the provincial cities such as Ephesus.

This highlights something that I’ve seen too often neglected in the interpretation of the New Testament in its historical background: the precise national and cultural background of the people involved. In general, there are four different cultural spheres in the New Testament world.

  • The Palestinian Jewish culture: this would be the primary cultural sphere of the gospels. The language would primarily be Aramaic, though it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus could also speak Greek (and the Palestinian disciples certainly could), since they were in close contact with Greek speaking Gentiles. This world would be dominated by the religious hierarchy – the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes – and the common people of artisans, merchants, fishermen and farmers.
  • The Jewish Diaspora (Greek for “Dispersion”): the Jews who lived outside Palestine in the cities and towns of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. They would primarily speak Greek, be more influenced by Greek philosophy and religious practices than Palestinian Jews, and be employed as artisans and merchants. These would be the Jews to whom Paul preached in the synagogues outside Palestine. They often intermarried with Gentiles – Timothy was the product of one of these intermarriages. In the past century Greek papyri have shown much more about their lives. They often rubbed elbows with Gentiles who were interested in Judaism – the proselytes and God fearers such as Cornelius (Acts 10-11).
  • The Hellenistic Gentiles: these would be the Gentiles who lived in Palestine, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece and Egypt. They were part of the empire of Alexander the Great, and had taken on Greek customs, literature, philosophy and language. This was why the term Greek in the New Testament may refer to a Greek speaking Gentile rather than someone who lived in Greece. These would be the Gentiles to whom Paul was sent, and to whom of the New Testament epistles were generally addressed with the Jewish Christians in their cities. Each of these cities, though, had their own customs and history which may have some relevance for the New Testament books which mention them.
  • The Roman and Latinized Gentiles: these would be the Gentiles who lived in Rome, Italy and the western Roman empire. Roman customs and the Latin language would become more prevalent here than in the eastern Roman empire, though in the time of the New Testament some of these lands (Gaul and Britain) had not been conquered long, and were still taking on Roman culture and the Latin language. This cultural sphere was actually the least relevant for the New Testament; the Romans ruled the Mediterranean but had not greatly influenced (and would not) the eastern half of the empire in a linguistic and cultural sense as compared with the influence of the Greek culture. There is some slight relevance for the background of the letter to the Romans but generally the Palestinian Jewish, the Jewish Diaspora and the Hellenistic Gentile cultures are more relevant for the background of the New Testament.

Generally, the key for the interpreter is to know which culture is dominant when reading the New Testament. For instance, Roman marriage and family customs are generally culturally irrelevant when reading I and II Corinthians and Ephesians, but a knowledge of Hellenistic Gentile customs along with knowing that there was some Jew-Gentile intermarriage may aid understanding what Paul was writing. Just as much, that Paul worked primarily among the Jewish Diaspora and Hellenistic Gentiles and Jesus among Palestinian Jews accounts for much of the differences of situations that they addressed and emphasis. Jesus did not address specifically some situations that the Old Testament and Paul addressed simply because they were not issues among the Palestinian Jews – and likewise Paul addressed situations that Jesus did not specifically address because they were issues among the Jewish Diaspora and the Hellenistic Gentiles, and probably also among the Roman and Latinized Gentiles of the western empire.

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