Lesson 4

The Key to Accuracy is
Learning About the Source’s Culture

A word consist of one or more symbols (letters) with an attached bundle of associations (the Source's meanings).  These are not mysteriously joined together by magic.  It is the results of  the intervention of a formal system which is known as culture.  

BHC's Eighth Bible Study Guideline
Words are the vehicles that transport the culture of a civilization.

In order to understand the Source’s message we must learn as much as possible about his or her civilization. The bundles of associations attached to the Sources’ words reflect his culture’s way of viewing the world.  The Source's language carries his culturally imposed sets of values and beliefs.  The Source's message must always be understood in light of those values and beliefs.

Culture = The whole behavior and technology of any people that is passed on from generation to generation.  Culture includes the knowledge, beliefs, morals, laws, religion, customs, concepts, habits, skills, institutions, and any other capabilities of a given people in a given period. 

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz provides additional information about culture:

A culture is more than a set of rules to guide behavior; it is a comprehensive worldview and way of relating to one's fellow human beings.  Like all complex cultures, Jewish culture does not spell everything out literally, but leaves much to inference.  A culture's strength lies not only in what it says, but also in what it chooses not to say, and this too must be learned.

We all think, act, and react in ways that have been primarily predetermined by our culture. It is impossible to completely understand the words of people from a different culture if we interpret them according to our culture.

In order to accurately understand a Source's message we must suspend our values and beliefs and view the Source's words through his value and belief systems.


What does the word breakfast mean to you?  Is it a light or heavy meal?  What time of day do you eat it?  In Jamaica we find the same word in common use.  It is also spelled b-r-e-a-k-f-a-s-t, but it has a different bundle of associations.  

Middle-class Jamaicans eat breakfast in the morning, but it is a much more substantial meal than in the United States.   Their lightest meal is called supper and is eaten in the late evening -- sometimes after 10 P.M.  

Poor Jamaican farmers eat their lightest meal early in the morning, but they call it teaThey eat breakfast, a medium-to-heavy meal, at midday.  

If a Jamaican invited you to eat breakfast,
would you show up at the right time?

BHC's Nineth Bible Study Guideline
Make sure the words of your Bible reflect the ancient author's culture
and not the English translator's culture. 


Matthew 12:1 (KJV)

At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.  At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.                                                                      

Words paint pictures in our minds. Based on the words of the above verse, answer the questions below.

  1. What kind of field was Jesus and his apostles walking through? 

  2. What did they eat?  

Did the mental image in your mind look something like the one below?

Source of picture.

This is the image that usually comes to American minds.  The only problem is that this type of "corn" wasn't known in the English speaking world until the discovery of America when the native Americans introduced the European settlers to it. The above picture won't work unless Jesus and his apostles were walking through a field in America. 

The same letters -- c-o-r-n -- have different bundles of associations attached in different cultures.  Below are the different bundles of associations of the three cultures:  

 (1) British -- wheat

 (2) Scots -- oats

 (3) Americans -- maize

In our American culture corn is the name of a type of maize that is described by the term corn-on-the-cob.  In England, however, the word corn means what American's would call grain or wheat.  Obviously, there is a very big difference as can be seen by an event that took place in WWII.  An American government agency received a request for corn from the British government. The American agency complied with the request and shipped the British tons of  corn-on-the-cob. The British were very surprised when they received corn-on-the-cob instead of wheat.  The British ordered wheat for the European famine relief and corn-on-the-cob wouldn’t work. Needless to say, neither government was very happy. 

Both groups had used the identical word -- corn.  But, each culture had a different bundle of associations attached to the same symbols.  As soon as the American government understood what the British wanted they shipped wheat.  This bit of linguistic ignorance cost taxpayers a few million dollars to repair and delayed the delivery of food that was urgently needed..

The King James Version is a product of the British culture of the 17th century.  Now that you know what the word "corn" meant in the British culture and you know the King James Version is the British culture -- answer the same questions about Matthew 12:1 again:

  1. What kind of field was Jesus and his apostles walking through? 

  2. What were they eating?

Did your mental picture change to this?  

Source of this picture.

Did you switch from an American maize field to a British wheat field?  When you check out Matthew 12:1 in other English translations you will find "wheat fields" and "grain fields."  Theologically, this isn’t very significant, but if our standard is that the only correct answer is the ancient author's understanding of his word, then the right answer is not American maize. It didn't exist in Israel during the time of Jesus.  The British were correct, because their translation accurately reflects the meaning of the ancient biblical manuscripts and what did exist in Jesus' world. 

Source of this picture.

More Familiar Words - Beware!

BHC's Tenth Bible Study Guideline
Pay special attention to words that are very familiar
otherwise your meanings will be projected into the ancient author's message.

As we have seen above, words that we use in our everyday lives can take on very different meanings when we view them through the eyes of people from other cultures. We have already discussed "breakfast" and "corn."  Now let's examine another word that is also very familiar to every American -- "marriage."  Let’s begin by considering the "bundles of association" we link to "marriage" in our culture.

  1. A man and a woman meet and usually date for a while.

  2. They fall in love.

  3. The man proposes to the woman.

  4. The woman accepts his proposal.

  5. They inform their parents and friends of their wedding plans.

  6. They have a ceremony and are married.

The old saying, "First comes love, then comes marriage," reflects the way our American culture views marriage. What would most American's think if someone suggested that they should just forget the ‘fall-in-love part’ - they would probably think you were crazy! Everybody, which means every American, knows that people are supposed to fall in love first.  

When we read the word marriage, we automatically attach our ‘bundle of associations’ (date, fall in love, etc.) -- and we don't realize we are doing it.  This can completely change the meaning of a message written by a Source from another culture. 

Let me share a personal experience of mine to help make the point.  A young woman who had been born and raised in Iran came to one of our meetings and at which we were discussing cultural differences.  I used the above information about the word "marriage."  She asked if she could share her culture's understanding of the word marriage.

When she was only fourteen years old, her father signed a contract that obligated her to marry a man who was thirty-six years of age at that time.  Her father and the groom finalized all of the details, and then, after the contract had been signed, was she told that she would be getting married.  This was the normal and correct way of getting married in her culture.  

A girl might meet her husband for the first time on the day of the ceremony.  Love was not a factor.  Below are the factors that are important.

  • The groom had sufficient financial provisions to support the marriage.

  • The groom could provide a place for the couple to live.

  • The groom could provide food for the bride.

  • The groom could provide clothing for the bride.

  • The groom could keep the bride living on the same or higher social level.

Their primary factors are much different from what most American's think when they hear the word "marriage."  Some of the women at the meeting pointed out that it was the lack of those things that are commonly listed as the reasons for many divorces in our culture. 

The Iranian woman's family came to America before the marriage took place.  Later, when they were ready to return, she refused to go back and marry the man.  She was able to stay in America with other family members.  She became a citizen and married a man that she loved.  

English translations of the Bible use the word "wife" many times.  The first time it appears is Genesis 2:24:

23And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. 24Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. 25And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

The English transliteration of the Hebrew word in the ancient text which the translators translated "woman" is ISHAH.  The transliteration is made by substituting an equivalent English letter for each Hebrew letter or vowel sign in the original word.  We will cover this in more detail in a future lesson.  ISHAH also appears two more times in the verses quoted above.  Take another look and see if you can figure out what the translators did.

23And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called ISHAH, because she was taken out of Man. 24Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his ISHAH: and they shall be one flesh. 25And they were both naked, the man and his ISHAH, and were not ashamed.

Now let's correct the work of the King James translators and read what the ancient author of the Hebrew text of Genesis wanted to convey to his audience.

23And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called "woman," because she was taken out of man. 24Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his woman; and they shall be one flesh. 25And they were both naked, the man and his woman, and were not ashamed.

By mistranslating the Hebrew word ISHAH as wife, instead of woman, the translators implied that a marriage had been involved.  The fact that these verses have been used in marriage ceremonies for centuries reflects how much they have been connected to this belief.  I have no proof as to why the King James translators chose to mistranslate such a common Hebrew word as ISHAH, but I have a good idea that they allowed their cultural beliefs to cloud their professional training.  It doesn't take much research into the culture of Britain during that period to conclude that one of their important beliefs was that "any naked man and woman that were found together had better be married to one another."  Therefore, when translating a Bible passage that has a naked man and woman together, it appears that the British translators wanted to make sure it sent the correct message (based on their beliefs).  Of course, one does wonder why they didn't say "husband and his wife," instead of "man and his wife?"   

The word ISHAH is used hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible.  It was translated "wife" beginning with Adam, followed by Cain, the giants, Noah, Abram, Moses, etc.  The bottom line is that most modern readers just assume that all of those people married their wives without taking time to consider what that would have meant in any of the ancient cultures involved.  Interestingly, in the ancient world of the biblical text, the cultures involved were probably much closer to that of the Iranian woman mentioned above, than our American culture. 

BHC's Eleventh Bible Study Guideline
New definitions for well known words requires special attention and many times more than a word-for-word translation is required.

As we now realize, every culture has its own highly specialized meanings and that a word-for-word translation will not transport the meaning of the Source's culture to the Receptor's.  In order to make sure the Source's meanings are accurately understood additional detailed information is needed.  This is very clear from the above examples of the words breakfast, corn and marriage above.  Below are some other English words that cause a great deal of trouble for those from another culture. Words of this type are called "technical terms."


What does the word overhead mean to you? The literal meaning that comes to mind is "something that is above the head;" since "over" means "above."  Let’s see how the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines it:

  1. above one’s head;

  2. operating, lying, or coming from above;

  3. business expenses not chargeable to a particular part of the work or product;

  4. a stroke in a racket game made above the head.

Don't you think that a person from another culture would have a difficult time connecting "overhead" to the bundle of associations "business expenses" without a full explanation?


"Order" is another very common word that can present a big problem for people from another culture.  Let’s see what it means to different people in our culture.

  1. waitress = a request for food or drink.

  2. soldier = a command.

  3. member of the Masonic Lodge = Masonic Order.

  4. lawyer = the rule of law.

  5. architect = a style of building.

Clearly, without a detailed explanation, the correct meaning of the word "order" might not be understood by someone from another culture.  If people living during the same time period could have problems communicating with one another, think about the challenges presented when we read the words of our Bible.  The ancient authors lived several thousand years ago and belonged to very different cultures.  

The Technical Terms of Jesus

Jesus also used technical terms that are also theologically loaded words which require much more than just a word-for-word translation.  In many cases, more than a few notes are required.  Many of the differences that divide denominations are due to the lack of understandings the culturally correct meaning of technical terms, e.g., saved, baptize, righteousness, repentance, believe, Christ, Messiah, Sabbath, etc.  Let's examine a technical term that played an important role in the teachings of Jesus -- righteousness. Before we continue, take time to write down your definition of righteousness below: 




Now let's begin our study by examining Matthew 5:20:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Torah, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven.

Since Jesus used this word repeatedly, and even taught that righteousness was a requirement for anyone who will be part of the kingdom of Heaven - shouldn’t righteousness be one word that is accurately understood by every Christian?  It is such an important word that Jesus even said the "righteous person will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 25:46). So, if you have an interest in inheriting eternal life, then knowing what it meant to Jesus should be a top priority.

The English Meaning of Righteousness

Let’s see what ‘righteousness’ means in English, then compare it to what it meant to Jesus almost 2000 years ago.

Right + (e)ous + ness

  • Right is defined as "being in accordance with what is good and proper." 
  • -(e)ous means "to abound in."
  • -ness means "the condition of." 

Therefore, righteousness in English means "The condition of abounding in being in accordance with what is good and proper." But, Jesus wasn't speaking English to an American audience when he taught.  The bottom line is that Jesus never said spoke the word "righteousness."  The word that you would have heard Jesus use sounded like this --TZEDAKAH.  If we want to know what it meant to Jesus we must go to sources of information about his culture and language.  A very good source is the Encyclopedia Judaica, it can be found in many libraries. It is the source of the following information.  Compare the following information about TZEDAKAH with your definition for righteousness.

TZEDAKAH is defined as "the fulfillment of all legal and moral obligations by doing what is right in all relationships. It is concrete acts, not abstract notions. Hebrew righteousness is a constant pursuit of justice and the performance of positive deeds, not merely abstention from evil. It is a learned trait resulting from the sustained performance of obligations. It is not an inherent human characteristic."

"In the Hebrew language, the righteous man is the innocent party, while the wicked man is the guilty one. The prophets conceived of the ideal society in terms of righteousness because righteous action results in social stability and, ultimately, in peace. Failure to perform obligations leads indirectly to the upsetting of social stability and, ultimately, to the deliberate undermining of the social structure."

"Righteous action within a righteous society will restore peace in the world.  The righteous are called living even after they die, whereas the wicked are called dead even while they are still alive. Any person who is sincerely sorry for the sins he/she has committed, turns from them, and lives according to God’s will can change his/her status from that of wicked to that of righteous. On the other hand, anyone who has been a perfectly righteous person all his/her life can choose to turn away from a righteous lifestyle to become wicked, thereby canceling all their good deeds. Our ‘free will’ allows us to choose which path we want to follow."

In the early rabbinic time period (Jesus’ time period), righteousness took on the additional meaning of "charity, almsgiving, or practical benevolence." It is understood that a righteous man is a good man, free from sin, one who carries out his obligation to God and to man by obeying the precepts of the Hebrew Bible. Righteousness does not necessarily suggest unusual piety; it simply means carrying out God's will.  Neither does it mean "perfect," it means that when a righteous man commits a sin he does what is required to restore himself to a state of purity.

The obligation to help the poor and needy is stated many times in the Hebrew Bible.  It was considered by the Jewish sages of all ages to be one of the cardinal commandments of Judaism. The importance they attached to the commandment of almsgiving can be understood by their statement that "almsgiving is as important as all the other commandments combined."

  • Righteousness is greater than all sacrifices;
  • Righteousness hastens the redemption;
  • Righteousness ensures wise, wealthy, and learned sons;
  • Righteousness atones for sins;
  • Righteousness is a way to imitate God;
  • Righteousness saves one from death.

There is a great difference between the Hebrew understand of TZEDAKAH, with its requirement of almsgiving, and the English word charity.  The Hebrew culture defines almsgiving as follows:

  • foundation of social justice;
  • the needy have a right to alms;
  • almsgiving is not doing a favor for the poor;
  • the recipient is not indebted or beholden to giver.

Everyone is obligated to give alms.  It is performed as a matter of obligation by those possessing the means of providing what is needed.

  • It is their duty to give it.
  • The poor man does more for the householder (in accepting alms) than the householder does for the poor man (by giving alms).
  • The poor man gives the householder the opportunity to do this commandment.
  • The one who receives alms is obligated to give it to those who are less fortunate.

There is a tremendous difference between the word Jesus used, TZEDAKAH, and the word righteousness that is found in most English translations. Using the new culturally correct information, read the following passage from Matthew (25:31-46). 

31When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory; 32and before him shall be gathered all nations. He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, "Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was an hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in; 36naked, and you clothed me.  I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me."

37Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you? Or thirsty, and give you a drink?  38When did we see you as a stranger, and took you in? Or naked, and clothed you?  39Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and came unto you?"

40And the King shall answer and say unto them, "Amen! I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me."

41Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, "Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry, and you gave me no food. I was thirsty, and you did not give me a drink. 43I was a stranger, and you did me not take me ;  naked, and you did not cloth me;: sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me."

44Then shall they also answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto you?"

45Then shall he answer them, saying, "Amen! I say unto you, inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."

46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

Discuss what this message originally meant to Jesus and his Jewish audience. How did the meaning change over the centuries? How does this message relate to the salvation doctrines of modern Christianity? 

BHC's Twelfth Bible Study Guideline
New definitions for well known words requires special attention.

Old definitions are like a road with deep ruts.  You normally don't think about the meaning of words as you use them.  As you discover new information that changes the meanings for many well known and very familiar words, unless you take steps to document them, in a very short time they will slip away.  Old meanings are like deep ruts in a dirt road, because you will find yourself reverting to them, even though you found that they were wrong.  I have literally realized that I was doing this while teaching.  I have stopped and said, "Forget what I just said because I just slipped into an old rut."  

As an Informed Believer you should consider the following suggestions:

  1. Keep a notebook to record new cultural information, definitions and notes.
  2. Make notes in your Bible by the verses where the new information must be used.
  3. From time to time review the new information in your notebook.
  4. Participate in Bible study groups with other Informed Believers so you can share information.

It takes time and discipline to incorporate the new cultural information into your Belief System.  You must apply the new information with relentless determination to fill in those old ruts.  As you use the BHC Guidelines and improve your newly acquired skills, the messages in your Bible will take on new meanings right before your eyes.

Congratulations -- you have completed Lesson 4!

The benefits of using the BHC linguistic approach to Bible study should be obvious by now.  You have already reached a level of expertise that will elevate the quality of your Bible studies far above those who do not understand how word work and are not working to view the wotds of their Bible through the eyes of the ancient authors.  

Continue to Lesson 5

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