Cultural Dimension of Language and Literature

[The following excerpt is taken from John H. Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2006), Chapter 1]

“When we study an ancient text, we cannot make words mean whatever we want them to, or assume that they meant the same to the ancient audience that they do to a modern audience. Language itself is a cultural convention, and since the Bible and other ancient documents use language to communicate, they are bound to a culture. As interpreters, then, we must adapt to the language/culture matrix of the ancient world as we study the Old Testament. But as P. Michalowski has pointed out, “It is one thing to state banalities about ‘the Other,’ or about the inapplicability of western concepts to non-western modes of thought; it is something quite different actually to step outside one’s frame of reference and attempt a proper analysis.”[9]

When comparative studies are done at the cognitive environment level, trying to understand how people thought about themselves and their world, a broader methodology can be used. For instance, when literary pieces are compared to consider the question of dependency, the burden of proof is appropriately on the researcher to consider the issues of propinquity and transmission—that is, would the peoples involved have come into contact with one another’s literature, and is there a mechanism to transmit said literature from one culture to the other? Literary questions of genre, structure, and context would all be investigated as well as geographical, chronological, and ethnic dimensions.[10] When considering larger cultural concepts or worldviews, however, such demands would not be as stringent, though they could not be ignored altogether. When we see evidence in the biblical text of a three-tiered cosmos, we have only to ask, Does the concept of a three-tiered cosmos exist in the ancient Near East? Once it is ascertained that it does, our task becomes to try to identify how Israel’s perception of the cosmos might have been the same or different from what we find elsewhere. We need not figure out how Israel would have gotten such a concept or from whom they would have “borrowed” it. Borrowing is not the issue, so methodology does not have to address that. Likewise this need not concern whose ideas are derivative. There is simply common ground across the cognitive environment of the cultures of the ancient world.[11]”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *