St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

"Like" us on Facebook


Cultural Background to the New Testament


People often read the New Testament (and the Old, as well) anachronistically, i.e. reading backward from contemporary experience and cultural values into a time frame that will not bear such a reading. Of chief importance is the framework of understanding about people themselves. While we tend to read from a sin/guilt/forgiveness framework, the people of that region and that era understood humanity from an honor/shame/restitution of honor (forgiveness) framework. The word for sin, e.g., hamartia, means “missing the mark,” as if one were aiming at a target with an arrow and missed the target board. If you put this into an honor/shame framework, hamartia means “losing your honor over a debt incurred in some way,” be it moral or interpersonal. This makes the actual wording of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew more sensible, where the text reads “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The forgiveness of debts returned honor to both the debtor and the lender. It made for benefaction, a cultural value particularly among the tribes of that region. The Gospel of Luke, in fact, may be read from a viewpoint of Jesus Christ as benefactor to his followers. An infraction against one’s honor could be avenged, but Jesus in the Gospels cautions against vengeance; there is more honor in forgiveness than in avenging a wrong.

Another dichotomy in early understandings was between holiness and compassion. This dichotomy has been carried down through the ages in the concepts, among others, of venial/mortal sin, of separation from/alliance with “the other” who has profaned against God, and of reading scriptural injunctions to behavior through the lens of either strictness or economy. The Gospel of Luke, again, particularly stresses that Jesus’s ministry was grounded more in the concept of compassion (forgiveness, economy, alliance) than that of holiness (separation, strictness).

We might also momentarily consider the idea of shalom. While the fully developed meaning of this word is “wholeness, completeness,” even “the attainment of inner peace” (see John 20), it often means something as simple as “hello.” Context must determine the meaning.

ANE culture was conflict-prone and given to bursts of anger which would be instantly gone when the infraction was past. If you live in an honor-based culture you spend much of your life maintaining that honor against shaming. Individuals would challenge a person’s honor and a response had to be made in this conflictual situation. In the honor-based culture of Israel at the time, you bore the honor of where you came from – or the lack thereof (of Jesus in John’s Gospel: “can anything good come from Nazareth?” Of Peter: “this man is a Galilean, for he speaks like a Galilean” [i.e. has the accent of a non-Judean]). This has been called by scholars “corporate personality.” A certain tinge of this remains today in our interpersonal relations.


CLOTHING was simple; men and women wore mostly the same garments: a head covering (usually belted among men but not women), a tunic which covered the body from neck to ground; an over-cloak (himation) which was loose and fit over the tunic. Underwear was limited to the perizoma, a loin-cloth like a diaper. A belt completed the outfit and was worn either around the tunic or around the himation, in which case the himation could be pulled up to make pocket-like carrying chambers for goods. These clothes were woven either of camel or sheep wool. The feet were shod in sandals. Dyeing was a complicated process and hence only the aristocracy wore scarlet or purple garments; hence, the notion of “royal purple.” Blue was considered a protective color against demons.

FOOD was simple: people rarely ate meat, generally only at feasts, and for the most part consumed bread (flat breads like pita) made of wheat or barley, grapes, wine, goat cheese, honey, olive oil (not as a drink but smeared on bread), and dried fish (when you could afford or find it; the Sea of Galilee produced minimal amounts of fish for the local market).

SALT was a major part of ANE life, but not as we imagine it, i.e. as a food enhancer. For the ANE, salt was a preservative to extend the shelf life of dried foods like fish, and as a base for the hearth upon which fire was laid. This helps us to understand the passage at Matthew Matthew 5:13 (see also Mark 9:48-50; Like 14:43-45) about the salt becoming worthless. Normally salt does not lose its “saltness,” but in this case Jesus is referring to the cake of salt that lay at the bottom of an oven and served as a catalyst for the fire, until it became burnt out – literally. He is saying that we must be catalysts in our relationships with others.

HOUSING was very small for most Israelites. After the period when people lived either in caves or nomadically in tents, stone house began to be constructed. Archaeologists have put the normal house size in Israel at 277 square feet – about the size of a room 12 x 18 feet. In this two adults and two children might live. There would be a center door in the long side of the house; walls would divide the two portions leaving a small central hall. Men would sleep on one side, women and children on the other. Cooking was done outside, often in a communal oven – as water was drawn from a communal well (recall the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at John 4, or the story of Jacob and Rachel at Genesis 29). The rooves of houses were flat, constructed much like an abobe house, and were places where the women would gather; often ladders connected one house to another for easy access to conversation.

DEATH was observed by immediate burial, often in a shroud rather than a casket. The body would be anointed with herbs, if the family had some coin, and prayers would be said. The body was laid either in a cave (recall the story of Abraham buying the cave at Machpelah from the Hittites to bury Sarah at Genesis 23) or outside the walls of the city. After five years the bones would be dug up and put into a small box called an ossuary and entombed in a family plot. There was no embalming. The funeral would be accompanied by wailing and crying as a primitive psychological purgation for the loss.

Would you like to be notified the next time we post a blog?

Sign up to receive our blog updates via email >

Leave a Response