While posts on this site over the past five years have examined many different components of the workings of ‘point of view’ in the crafting of biblical stories, the present post represents a “first” in that it addresses the issue of cultural point of view. It is clear that the manipulation of narrative devices has the capacity to determine the point of view through which an audience is to experience a scene of a story, but attempts to discern the intended effects behind such point-of-view crafting can easily miss the mark if the interpreter fails to consider the make-up of the biblical storyteller’s cultural point of view.
It goes without saying that the culture of biblical times was vastly different than our culture today, but serious recognition of how this difference might impact biblical interpretation has only come to prominence relatively recently. Work in this area has demonstrated time and again how viewing biblical passages through the eyes of the people composing them—through their ‘point of view’—can yield understandings significantly different from the understandings emerging from viewing them through present-day Western eyes.
E. R. Richards and B. J. O’Brien have produced a helpful introductory book on this issue. What follows demonstrates how their attempts to adopt a point of view rooted in the culture of biblical times yields surprising insights into the story of the “Birth of Jesus”:
Our individualist assumptions affect our reading of Scripture in many ways, some of them more serious than others. Because individualism goes without being said in the West, we can often get the wrong idea of what an event described in the Bible might have looked like. This can lead to the more serious problem of misunderstanding what it meant.
My (Brandon’s) acting career peaked in my teen years, when I played Joseph in our church’s Christmas production. I sang a solo while I quieted our restless baby Jesus (a real live newborn) and looked lovingly at Mary, a girl I knew from youth group. We represented the holy couple as I’d always imagined them: serene and solitary, huddled with the infant Savior in a tidy barn. I don’t remember all the words to the song, but it had to do with being faithful in the face of the daunting and singular experience of fathering the Christ child.
This goes to show that pretty much the entire Christmas story has been Westernized, a product of Victorian English customs and practices. Since we know from prophecy that Jesus needed to be born in Bethlehem, we don’t ask the obvious question: why in the world would a guy drag his pregnant wife across the country? We assume the Romans must have required it (within the will of God, of course). Sure, the Romans required a census, but they allowed a large window of time for people to register. It wasn’t in Rome’s best interest to suddenly require everyone in the empire to travel to their ancestral homeland during one weekend. It seems clear in the text that Mary and Joseph were traveling during festival time—that’s why all the inns were full. Bethlehem was what we might call a bedroom community, or suburb, for Jerusalem. Joseph, unlike many Galileans, was apparently a regular attender of Judean festivals. This might explain why Joseph wanted to visit Jerusalem when he did. But why take Mary when she was “great with child”? It wasn’t ignorance; ancients knew how to count to nine. The reason is simple: if Joseph was of the lineage of David, then so were all his relatives. So were all of Mary’s relatives. Moreover, in antiquity one’s relatives were the birthing crew. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem when they did because everybody else was going. We imagine Joseph and Mary trudging alone up to Jerusalem, in the quiet of night. Nope. They were part of two large clans—his and hers. (This also explains how Mary and Joseph could “misplace” the twelve-year-old Jesus later. They assumed that he was with his perhaps hundred cousins as the extended family headed home. Only at evening did the boy Jesus go missing.) The birth of Jesus was no solitary event, witnessed only by the doting parents in the quiet of a cattle fold. It was likely a noisy, bustling event attended by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Richards, E. R., & O’Brien, B. J. (2012). Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (pp. 100–101). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.