Mediterranean Culture Needed for Catholic Bible Readers

Mediterranean Culture Needed for Catholic Bible Readers August 21, 2019
Scripture, Culture & Salt
Fellow Dying Inmate / All rights reserved


SALT, FIRE and EARTH in Jesus’ context demonstrates the need for a respectful reading of Scripture in light of Mediterranean culture.

Messy Inspirations

Hearing the Gospel this Sunday at Mass about “setting the earth on fire” (Luke 12:49-53), I couldn’t help but recalling other passages where Jesus spoke on “earth” and fire.” For instance, take Matthew 5:13–

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
(See Synoptic parallels: Mark 9:50 // Luke 14:34-35).

Why would I recall that passage? Do you see the “fire” there? If not, perhaps you need to check your reading glasses. They may be too Western. Assuredly fire is alluded. The problem is it’s invisible for 21st century Western eyes.

Getting Salty with Culture

Let’s consider salt and what it means. Does salt have anything to do with fire? Like all words, salt is a symbol carrying meaning. The meanings of words are not derived from dictionaries, concordances, interlinears, and lexica. The meanings of words come from social systems. “Salt” is multivalent. One and the same set of symbols can have multiple meanings.

Respectful Bible readers strive not to put their 21st century Western meanings into the ancient Mediterranean library called Bible. To prevent this insult, we must vigilantly check our cultural lenses as we read the Scriptures. Watch your reading glasses!

So, did Jesus mean that his audience was a seasoning for food when he called them “salt of the earth”? Did first century Galilean peasants use table salt?

We 21st century Westerners use salt as a preservative—could this be Jesus’ meaning? Salt preserves meat. For that reason was Jesus’ telling his followers to preserve the earth? Did Jesus and starving Galilean peasants like him enjoy bountiful meat supplies? Or was fifty percent of their dreadfully limited caloric intake limited to bread?

And by “earth,” did Jesus mean “the planet Earth”? Was Jesus a globalist? Did he mean anything ecological, or international, or planetary here? (It is here where many Christians escape into the “safe” closet of Docetism—“Why not?? Maybe! After all, He is GOD!!”)

Does salt ever lose its flavor? What does Jesus mean by that?

But Father said it means ______________!

The vast majority of Western homilies explain biblical “salt” as something that spices things up, makes food tastier, and preserves meat. So if the Church  is to truly be the “salt of the earth,” it must therefore (these homilists reason) spice up the world and preserve everything good within it.

That sure sounds nice to Western ears! But is this really what Jesus meant? Could this be what “Matthew” and “Luke” were saying?

Salt carries still other meanings. Imagine a creative homilist some years ago enduring with congregation a freezing winter in an ice-cold North American city. She or he preaches on the Matthean passage above about being “salt of the earth.” This homilist then compares Christian discipleship to how his or her city employs salt to break up ice on streets and gets things flowing.

Question: could such an association for “salt” have possibly have been in the mind of the first century MENA (Middle Eastern North African) personality Jesus, village peasant in Roman Syro-Palestine? Whether you answer “Yes!” or “No!”—how do you know for sure? Where would you go to find out?

Having read this passage, your mind starts generating ideas about what it means. What do you think it means?

Honest to Mediterranean Culture Jesus

Imagine the Matthean Jesus’ first century audience. Surely Jesus intended to communicate to them something when he proposed that they should be like “salt”! What would they have understood by this?

Perhaps a helpful direction would be to recognize that whatever it meant, it was definitely something remote from anything associated with 21st century American life!

Context Group Scripture scholar Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh reminds us that “Language only means what it means where and when you use it.” Move “salt” out of the Galilee of 2,000 years ago and watch what happens. “Salt” as symbol has multiple meanings.

Change the culture, change the meaning
Fellow Dying Inmate / All rights reserved

Our sacred and normative library called “Bible” is a collection of symbols and it has a multitude of multiple meanings. Move the Bible and see what happens. To really read it respectfully and get its original meaning we must remove our Western glasses of cultural meanings. This should be obvious.

Which of the meanings is correct? Which meaning of all the possible meanings is “the true meaning” of “salt”? And how do we know that?

Finding the Plausible Meaning in Culture

Perhaps we should ask it differently: of the various possible meanings, which is the most plausible meaning? Quite often the answers we jump to—e.g., salt as spice or seasoning, or as preservative, or as something that breaks up ice—tell us more about ourselves than about Biblical peoples.

So how do we pinpoint the most plausible meaning of biblical salt? Shouldn’t that meaning be found in biblical culture?—the ancient Mediterranean, ancient Middle Eastern world of Jesus, “Matthew,” and “Luke”? When reading Scripture, it seems, we Western people need a different pair of culturally-respectful glasses.

Perhaps depressingly, unlike the movies Avengers: Endgame and Hot Tub Time Machine, we cannot simply time-travel back 2,000 years and ask Jesus—or “Mark” or “Matthew” or “Luke”—what “salt” means. The world of Jesus and these men is gone…

… but maybe not forgotten! Thankfully we have access to traditional Middle Eastern life, the closest thing like a “living laboratory” to the ancient Mediterranean world and its cultural values. Experts in the social sciences can help the dead speak in ways honest to them.

While we should remove our Western 21st century glasses when reading Mediterranean Scripture, we should not throw them away! Western Christians ought to deepen their understanding of their own faith and culture. But doing that will inescapably reveal that our culture and its values would be considered alien and strange to our Biblical ancestors in the faith.

Bible Readings Insensitive to Culture

Failing to recognize these many cultural differences inevitably turns Biblical characters and communities into 21st century Westerners. Indeed, whenever American Christians of any stripe pick up a Bible and read it, it takes herculean effort for them not to make its characters behave, appear as, think like, and sound like Americans.

Evidence of this is the preponderance of U.S. Catholics and other Christians making statements like: “CLEARLY the Bible says…” or “OBVIOUSLY it means…” Despite popular and wrong notions, reading the Bible takes work, folks.

Some salty Christians may scoff, “Why make the Word of God so complicated? Everyone knows what salt means! Obviously Jesus means what we would mean by it!”

Simply put, the Bible was not written for, by, or about us Westerners, regardless of our religious aspirations and hopes. With great effort we might find INDIRECT and SACRAMENTAL relevance for our Western lives, but the literal sense—what the text meant to the sacred human authors—comes first. That sense is the basis for everything else (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 116).

Acquiring the literal sense of Scripture without the Mediterranean culture is impossible. The first interpretation of the Bible is Mediterranean culture, especially the Middle Eastern part, the closest thing we have to a “living laboratory” to the lost world of the Bible.

So What Did It Mean to Jesus?

Culturally-informed historical critics of the Bible inform us that the “earth” in these passages is not the planet earth. In contrast to that wrong notion, both in the Matthean passage and this past Sunday’s Gospel from “Luke,” “earth” can be appropriately translated as “earth-oven.” What is to be imagined is an earthen oven (cf. Job 28:5; Psalm 12:6) out back and adjacent to the Galilean peasant household complex.

Usually a peasant hamlet like Nazareth—with no more than 200 persons—would only have one of these ovens. Because of this, each household would get its bread from this sole oven.

The village earth-oven would have a double stove, a big pile of animal dung, with chickens and goats and sheep not too far away. Salt would be there too.

Village women would make patties of dung mixed with salt as fuel for the oven. That’s not really how you picture the Mother of God, is it?

Note—salt that has lost its catalytic ability is useless for the village earth-oven and useless for preparing fuel = dung. The “land” or “earth” ( = the earth oven) cannot use it; the dunghill (potential fuel) cannot use it. What do we do with this worthless ashen crap? Imagine a disciple who lost catalytic ability! What is he or she good for?

Once that salt-based dung fuel was chemically exhausted, burning obviously ceased. Therefore what remained was “fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” (Luke 14:34-35).

Fire-starters

This past Sunday’s Gospel was about starting fires, “getting things cooking,” as it were. Jesus was a catalyst, a fire-starter. This Middle Eastern master of the insult was not nice. What we call “nice” would be laughable to Roman occupiers. “Nice” did not get crucified.

Jesus’ followers were not called to be nice, either. They were also called to be troublesome fire-starters “getting things cooking.” Salt read in context shows this.

Starting fires was messy business, mixing salt plus dung! That’s where feeding starving peasants their “daily bread,” one-half of their calories, began, in that dung pile. And the ashes in that earth-oven, a sign on the foreheads of shamed sinners, wasn’t produced from last year’s palms, I can assure you!

Taking Inspiration (and Culture) Seriously

In+spiration and in+carnation are MESSY BUSINESS as well. We have to take the prefix “IN” seriously.

What would happen if we doubted our Western “infallibility” as to spuriously familiar Gospel passages concerning salt? Besides that, wouldn’t things be seen very differently if instead we read the Matthean Jesus meaning that his audience was to be fire-starters? Consequently, how would that impact our understanding of Christian life and discipleship?

Evangelists we call “Mark”, “Matthew”, and “Luke” wrote for their first century Mediterranean contemporaries, presuming that their audiences understood “salt” as they did. They were not writing for Americans or had American associations with salt in mind. How could they?

The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1994 document Interpretation of the Bible in the Church instructed Catholic Bible readers of three crucial steps involved in right interpretation—

1) You better know your own (Western) culture very well!
2) You better know the Biblical (Mediterranean) culture very well.
3) Finally, only with these working together can you start to construct a bridge between these two alien cultures.

The Messiness of this Blog

The business of this blog is growing this understanding and building bridges. Readers should become equipped to actually grasp what the inspired authors ACTUALLY wrote about and what their meaning ACTUALLY was. This will help us become respectful readers of the Scriptures and learn “the honest truth about Jesus” as the Second Vatican Council put it.

Everything is interpretation, folks. The late Context Group scholar John Pilch said, “You’ve heard it said that in the beginning was the Word? Don’t believe that. In the beginning was interpretation.” Pilch was right and in this blog we will explore thousands of ways why. And hopefully, along the way, we will actually start to respect the MENA personality Jesus. Can you love someone you don’t respect?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rigoberto Vega

    Basically, this article is saying the Gospel reading for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) is nothing more than camel dung? Cool. Interesting read.

  • Bonshika Jackson

    Child, please! If y’all wanna know where this fool is coming from, you gotta know he’s evidently a devotee of a fringe school of Biblical “scholarship” called “The Context Group.” These men are neo-Gnostics who believe that ancient literature is intrinsically inaccessible to modern readers — *except* to members of “The Context Group”: They secret key to reading the Bible is to subject modern Mediterranean cultures to Freudian psycho-analysis, construct a one-dimensional cartoon caricature of what “Mediterranean people” are, and then read this caricature back into Biblical antiquity. According to the Context Group scholars, Mediterranean people are a kind of collectivistic “noble savage,” each individual member of thousands of different cultures across thousands of years being essentially the same as everyone else and lacking individual moral agency. This notion that you can reduce all Mediterranean human beings to a single personality type, and then just assume that this Western-constructed and Western-interpreted personality type has remained essentially unchanged for the last several millennia, is just sloppy reasoning, and even sloppier Biblical scholarship.

    It is important that we do our best to situate people, including ancient authors and historical figures, within their distinct social and historical contexts, as best we can reconstruct them, but we also need to be very, very careful not to stereotype them and to go beyond what actual evidence we have. No two human beings are exactly the same, but all men must be *essentially* the same if such things as language and communication, even across time and cultures, are to be possible, and if it even be possible to have continuity between one epoch and another.

    Remember, folks, the Church Fathers were all ancient Mediterraneans too, and none of them read the Bible the way these “Context Group” scholars do.

  • John Purssey

    Sandra Schneiders has proposed the helpful metaphor of three biblical “worlds”—the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world before the text.

    Understanding the culture of particular texts, the cultures of the intended audience of a particular writing such as one of the gospels, your own culture and how it differs from the cultures of the narrative and its intended audience brings out a lot of meaning that is lost when they are thought to be containers of timeless truths and propositional theology.

  • Bonshika Jackson

    This is normally true, but the Christian believes that the Scriptures are qualitatively unique and living texts, not *simply* ancient documents from a bygone era. That is to say, they are divinely inspired and (in some sense) inerrant. (The Christian, of course, has good *reasons* to believe these things.) One does have to be on guard against reading anachronisms into them and against turning these texts into what they aren’t, e.g., catechisms, systematic presentations of theology, liturgical ordos, etc., but for the Christian considering these texts as simply one cultural approach to God among any which are, in principle, equally valid, is not an option.

  • RPlavo .
  • Kyllein MacKellerann “

    There is also the disturbing fact that the original Bible was a Political device to cement power into the hands of the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and his chosen council of Bishops.
    It hasn’t changed a great deal in the centuries since. How one can take an Anthology assembled for Political reasons and declare it the Word of God escapes me. Yes, it’s a decent record of Hebrew Folk tales and philosophy and a sanitized origin story for the Church, but really; the Word of God? Please, most Story Tellers are difficult to work with as-is. Promoting them does nobody any good.

  • John Purssey

    “The Christian” is not monolithic in its understanding of and use of the various Canons of different faith traditions. The New Testament is witness to multiple understandings from the earliest times of Christianity and so IMHO it begs the question of whether it is valid to talk about “The Christian believes”. There are now, and historically have been, many claiming that their particular interpretations are the only valid way of understanding the Bible. I grew up in such an exclusive tradition.

  • Bonshika Jackson

    By “Christians” I mean the overwhelming majority of Catholic, Orthodox, and traditional Protestant believers. This appears to be a Catholic blog, so I am also proceeding from the assumption that Catholicity *is* Christianity, and other Christians are such to the extent that they have retained something of the original Catholic core.

  • davidt

    “Experts in the social sciences can help the dead speak in ways honest to them.”

    I totally liked the thrust of the article I found the above statement completely out of alignment with it’s intent.

    Social scientists can only give us a 21th century view as lensed through through academics. History has repeatedly shown this to be fact and highly suspect conclusions. Calling it science is a great example of a kind of illusionary objectivity that academics creates for itself. As if we tack on the term science we really are in the know That’s totally False and deeply questionable if it’s actually science at all.

    So we have yet another bias Version of the text competing with many bias versions. I might suggest working on the root of the bias as opposed to simply replacing one bias with another that’s more “educated” and yet just as biased.

  • Chorbais Dichault

    All such articles as this that show the time-boundedness of the Bible raise the question how the book is relevant to us moderns. This is the same problem as with the creation story in Genesis: If you say God didn’t inspire writing something unambiguously predictive like the Earth being “a stone going around the Great Light” because it could have confused the ancients, it makes you wonder why He didn’t help us moderns with a cosmology that doesn’t so strongly suggest that the Earth is immobile ground and the Heaven a solid wall protecting us from the “waters above.”

    Why all the accommodations for the ancients and none for us moderns? From the believer’s point of view this shouldn’t seem reasonable at all. It’s the unbeliever who can brush it all off as an inevitable consequence of the Bible being a totally human text with no supernatural inspiration whatsoever.